Public health faces many challenges, not least finding cost-effective approaches and getting evidence into policy and practice.
These situation is clear when you compare public health with clinical medicine. Clinical medicine researchers and practitioners are often co-located. In fact, they are usually the same person.
This is seldom the case in public health, where we work across a range of policy areas and stakeholders and deal with a lack of data infrastructure. Policies are often shaped by political beliefs, media discourse and the need to be seen to make a difference quickly. There is a desire to avoid association with a policy that has been shown not to work, which can result in policies of unknown value and potential harm.
I lead the Public Health Improvement Research Network in Wales, which is helping to tackle these issues. The first network of its kind in the UK, it brings together policymakers, practitioners, researchers and the public to increase the quantity and quality of public health improvement research, also promoting its translation.
It has successfully run much-needed national policy trials and identified effective interventions. We provided the evidence for the introduction of smoking restrictions in cars, identified the benefits of a national exercise referral scheme, and demonstrated that the primary school free breakfast scheme was one of few UK policies that was not only improving population health but reducing health inequalities.
The Network has brought in over £32m in research income for Wales and has supported the establishment of sister networks in Australia and Northern Ireland. It also laid the foundations for DECIPHer, which I also lead. It is one of only five UK Clinical Research Collaboration (UKCRC) centres of Public Health Research Excellence. A partnership with Bristol and Swansea Universities, it is focussed on improving the health of children and young people.
I have also established the world's first national School Health Research Network with partners in schools across Wales, as well as Welsh Government, Public Health Wales, and Cancer Research UK. We have developed a particularly exciting and unique data infrastructure, which measures school activities and pupil health outcomes biannually. It can be used for school, local authority and regional government planning, and provides a cost-effective framework for evaluation studies and policy roll-outs.
We have established strategic partnerships, promoted trust and mutual benefits through successful projects, built multidisciplinary capacity and encouraged cross-disciplinary working through secondments and co-location.
We are also committed to a constant cycle of engagement that identifies evidence gaps and relevant research questions, as well as co-producing research studies and interventions, and partnerships for implementing sustainable interventions.
The success of these networks means Wales has a unique innovation system with significant potential to address the health needs of the nation and provide evidence-based polices for the UK and beyond.
SPARK updates the science park model, allowing researchers to work creatively with partners on societal challenges.