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Seminar- Policymaking: why it matters to us, how it works, what to do

July 19, 2021 @ 12:00 pm - 1:15 pm

All are invited to the MRC Epidemiology Seminar:

Policymaking: why it matters to us, how it works, what to do

Dolly Theis (MRC Epidemiology Unit), Dr Kelly Parsons (University Of Hertfordshire) & Dame Una O’Brien (Independent advisor and expert on health policy).

Watch a recording of this panel discussion online.

About this talk

Why is it so difficult for UK governments to make progress on tackling obesity and food systems? In this seminar, three experts will present their research and insights of policy and practice in England. The seminar will then provide discussion about how the current government could make change in policies and systems to be more sustainable manner.

Dolly Theis

It was in 1991 that the UK government first formally recognised its role in tackling obesity and set the first obesity reduction targets. Since then, our analysis found that the UK government has published 14 obesity strategies in England containing almost 700 policies and yet these have largely been unfit for purpose. Despite there being a wide range of policy types proposed from information campaigns and school policies to stronger levers such as the soft drinks industry levy and more recent policies on unhealthy advertising and promotions, the government policies have largely been proposed in a way that means they’re unlikely to be implemented. There has also been little to no policy learning and government has focused on getting people to change their own behaviour without making that easy by shaping the environment and other wider determinants.

Dr Kelly Parsons

Policies have been described as the ‘control knobs’ that can be adjusted to achieve system change, so understanding how policy does, or could, influence food systems is an important part of catalysing their transformation. Gaining this understanding requires breaking down sectoral and disciplinary silos to consider food-related policies as a whole, and interrogating the policymaking processes and governance structures which shape those policies.

This presentation will share insights from my research into how different policies, policy processes and governance structures enable and constrain food systems change. I will discuss how common frameworks for understanding and acting on food systems – such as mapping who makes policy, or detailing the range of possible policy levers – can support collaboration across government, between disciplines, and between research and policy. I will also propose a research agenda to address current evidence gaps around food policymaking.

Dame Una O’Brien

Dame Una O’Brien will give a response to the latest research presented by Dolly Thesis and Dr Kelly Parsons, and share insights from her own experience of policy and practice in England. The aim will be to contribute to the debate about practical steps the current government could take to put change on a more sustainable basis.

About the speakers

Dolly Theis

Dolly Theis is completing her PhD at the MRC Epidemiology Unit in the University of Cambridge supervised by Professor Martin White and Dr Dennis Grube. Her research examines what influences government policymaking, how governments use and understand scientific research, and understanding the particular role of policy entrepreneurs.

Dr Kelly Parsons

Dr Kelly Parsons is a food policy and governance research fellow at the University of Hertfordshire. Her research focus is food systems policies, policymaking processes and governance structures, at global, EU, national and local levels. Kelly has a particular interest in exploring connections in the food system, and efforts to create more integrated and coherent food policy. She produced the first mapping of government food policy, and is author of a series of accessible briefs on food systems, integrated food policy, policy coherence, and food governance, and ‘Connecting Food Systems for Co-Benefits’. She is a European Commission-appointed expert, and has acted as advisor on several food systems research projects. She has a PhD in food policy and a Masters in food and nutrition policy, from the Centre for Food Policy at City, University of London. Before becoming a researcher Kelly worked in food civil society delivering ground-level urban food systems change, and as a journalist.

Dame Una O’Brien

Dame Una O’Brien is a former public servant in the UK Department of Health and NHS. From 2010-2016 she was the department’s Permanent Secretary and previously held a wide variety of senior strategy, policy and delivery roles in health and healthcare. Currently she is on the Council of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and she serves on an advisory board for the Obesity Health Alliance’s forthcoming Healthy Weight Strategy.


July 19, 2021
12:00 pm - 1:15 pm


United Kingdom


MRC Epidemiology Unit
01223 330315
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