Programme Leads – Jean Adams, David Ogilvie, Martin White
Senior Staff – Jenna Panter
More active lifestyles and healthier diets reduce the risk of diabetes and other chronic diseases. However, the environments we have created to live in — our cities, food and transport systems and workplaces, for example — are not always conducive to healthier lifestyles. It is possible to change people’s economic, physical and social conditions in order to support healthier behaviours, but we need more scientific evidence on how best to do this to guide policy and practice.
Our research programme investigates the potential to improve the health of whole populations – irrespective of individual disease risk – by altering fiscal, physical or social environments to shift activity and diet patterns. In particular, we use a combination of epidemiological, public health and social science methods to study what happens when people’s circumstances change – for example when new public transport, cycling or walking routes are provided in a locality, or when a national levy on soft drinks is introduced. This enables us to understand which environmental or policy changes are more or less beneficial to health, who is likely to benefit most from them and which are likely to offer the best value for money.
Our research entails:
- Systematic reviews of existing intervention studies
- Evaluation of environmental and policy interventions, particularly using natural experimental methods
- Understanding policy processes of intervention development and implementation
- Observational studies of target behaviours, potential interventions and their relationships with physical and social contexts
- Developing theory and methods for future research.
Our research is supported by:
- Core MRC programme funding
- Other national research infrastructure funding: notably, we lead the Mandala Consortium and are co-investigators in the NIHR Public Health Policy Research Unit and the NIHR School for Public Health Research
- A variety of other project, fellowship and studentship funding.
Here we give a few examples of our current research to illustrate our overall approach, while the content of this page remains under development. Further information can be found by following the links to particular projects, or to the individual researchers listed at the bottom of the page.
We have argued for a more thoughtful approach to cumulating evidence from intervention studies in public health research, and we are gradually developing and demonstrating new ways of doing this. Our current projects include a systematic review comparing ‘carrot’ and ‘stick’ approaches to changing travel behaviour, and a complexity-informed synthesis of how sugar-sweetened beverage taxes work to guide best-practice development.
The prevention of childhood obesity has become a significant focus for some of our work, particularly in evaluation where much of our current effort is focused on key policies in the UK government’s childhood obesity plan (2016 and later iterations) including:
- Soft Drinks Industry Levy (SDIL). We lead a systems-based evaluation of whether, how and for whom the levy has an effect on health, the process by which the levy came about, and wider changes in public, political, societal and industry attitudes
- Planning policy to regulate takeaway food outlets. We lead an evaluation of the acceptability and impacts of takeaway exclusion zones around schools on retail, health and economic outcomes.
We also lead the Mandala Consortium, which aims to transform the urban food system and its relationship with the regional economy in the West Midlands. This entails mapping the local food system, prioritising and optimising the most powerful interventions, and evaluating and modelling their impacts.
We are currently focused on fieldwork and analysis for two smaller-scale evaluation studies:
- Promoting alternatives to the car in Healthy New Towns. We lead this project which aims to advance our understanding of individual and environmental approaches to promoting active travel and how these interact. It comprises the ICAN feasibility and pilot randomised controlled trial of financial incentives in Northstowe, the STEP study of how families make decisions about how children travel to school, and a third study of the experiences of policy makers and practitioners in developing guidance for, designing and implementing interventions
- School Streets and No Car Zones. We lead this feasibility study of the acceptability, potential effectiveness, mechanisms and unintended consequences of the School Streets programme in Cambridgeshire and the No Car Zones established outside two schools in Cambridge.
We are also evaluating the impact of the expansion of cycle lane networks in Paris and Lyon using routinely collected data.
We are examining government policy processes and the use of evidence for childhood obesity and how ‘the public’ is framed in policymaking for public health through PhD projects in our programme. We are also examining the public health implications of the business relationship between grocery manufacturers and retailers through a visiting fellowship with the Bennett Institute for Public Policy.
We are UK leads for the International Food Policy Study of food-related attitudes and behaviours. We are investigating new ways of purchasing takeaway food using online delivery services in the UK, and exploring the potential of extending this research to other countries. We are also investigating influences on takeaway use in the Fenland Study.
We are developing new ways of thinking about the topics we research, and new methods, resources and tools to enable us to better study the links between environment, behaviour and health. Examples of our current work include:
- Agency in population health interventions. We have argued that population health interventions that make fewer demands on individuals may be more effective and equitable, but this remains to be definitively tested. We lead a project to theorise and categorise ‘who has to do what’ for interventions to achieve their effects, with a view to applying this in systematic reviews of intervention effectiveness, equity and acceptability
- Built environment context and change atlas (BECCA). We lead this multicentre MRC project to produce an online interactive atlas of environmental conditions, and change in those conditions, for Great Britain
- MenuTracker. We have established a database of nutritional information derived from online UK restaurant menus and used this to develop a takeaway ‘healthiness’ score.
We are also members of the core writing group revising national guidance on using natural experiments to evaluate population health interventions, and of the NIHR SPHR network for the use of natural experiments.
This programme serves the following Unit Objectives as a main focus:
- To develop understanding of mechanisms identified by population-based studies
- To inform, develop and evaluate population-based approaches to improving health
- To develop new methods, resources and tools for epidemiological and public health research
It serves the following Unit Objectives as an element of the programme:
- To investigate the causes of obesity, diabetes and related metabolic disorders
- To develop and evaluate individual level approaches to the prevention of diabetes, obesity and related metabolic disorders in children and adults
- To investigate approaches to improving global health, particularly in low and middle income countries
- To build capacity for conducting, understanding and using local, national, and international epidemiology and public health research
- To contribute to the translation of research evidence into policy and practice.
See all Population Health Interventions publications on the MRC Epidemiology Unit Publications Database.
Evidence for policy and practice
Other scientific resources
This research programme was formed by merging the Dietary Public Health and Physical Activity and Public Health programmes. Their scientific content underpins our current research and is archived here:
- Dietary Public Health
- Physical Activity and Public Health
- Selected reading list on natural experimental methods
- Jean Adams – Professor of Dietary Public Health
- Olivia Alliott – Research Associate
- Miriam Alvarado – Wellcome Trust Postdoctoral Fellow
- Roxanne Armstrong-Moore – Visiting Scientist
- Anna Brugulat Panés – PhD Student
- Thomas Burgoine – Senior Research Associate
- Natalie Egan – PhD Student
- Mike Essman – Postdoctoral Research Associate
- Louise Foley – Senior Research Associate
- Hannah Forde – Visiting Scientist
- Kate Garrott – Postdoctoral Research Associate
- Benjamin Hawkins – Senior Research Associate in Social Sciences
- Jody Hoenink – Research Associate
- Yuru Huang – PhD Student
- Catrin Pedder Jones – Postdoctoral Research Associate
- Nancy Karreman – PhD Student
- Matthew Keeble – PhD Student
- Caroline Kienast-von Einem – PhD Student
- Bochu Liu – Research Associate
- Oliver Mytton – Honorary Senior Visiting Fellow
- David Ogilvie – Professor of Public Health Research
- Jenna Panter – Senior Research Associate
- Richard Patterson – Postdoctoral Research Fellow
- John Rahilly – Postdoctoral Research Associate
- Nina Rogers – Postdoctoral Research Associate
- Alexia Sawyer – Research Associate
- Dolly Theis – Visiting Scientist
- Martin White – Professor of Population Health Research & Programme Leader
- Christina Xiao – PhD student
- Emily Aguirre – Fulbright and Knox Scholar
- Lena Alexander – Data Analyst
- Inka Barnett – PhD Student
- Adam Bostanci – Scientific Editor
- Nick Bundle – Specialty Registrar in Public Health
- Chloe Clifford Astbury – PhD Student
- Annalijn Conklin – PhD Student
- Silvia Costa – Research Associate
- Caroline Croxson (née Jones) – Research Associate
- Katherine Cullerton – Research Associate
- Katrine Ejlerskov – Research Associate
- Alex Faria – Research Assistant (Secondment)
- Anna Goodman – Postdoctoral Research Fellow
- Cornelia Guell – Career Development Fellow
- Samantha Hajna – Research Associate
- Amelia Harshfield – Data Analyst
- Eva Heinen – Investigator Scientist
- Vivien Hendry – Career Development Fellow
- David Humphreys – Career Development Fellow
- Nick Jones – PhD Student
- Jo Kesten – Research Associate
- Craig Knott – Research Associate
- Emma Lawlor – Postdoctoral Research Associate
- Anna Le Gouais – PhD Student
- Eva Maguire – PhD Student
- Calum Mattocks – Career Development Fellow
- David Pell – Research Associate
- Tarra Penney – Research Associate
- Rick Prins – Career Development Fellow
- Shannon Sahlqvist – Career Development Fellow
- Kai Schulze – PhD Student
- James Smith – Specialty Registrar in Public Health
- Lindsey Smith – PhD Student
- Lee Smith – PhD Student
- Alexandra Williams – Research Assistant
- Eleanor Winpenny – Career Development Fellow
- Wing Wong – Data Analyst
- Amy Yau – PhD Student