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Why researchers have a duty to try and influence policy

24 February 2017
Using media to affect public policy

Researchers should break from tradition and look to use the media to influence public policy, writes Professor Simon Chapman.

Very early in my career, I was invited to afternoon tea with the head of the Commonwealth Institute of Health at Sydney University, where I worked. The best bone china was produced and pleasantries exchanged. The agenda soon became clear.

He laboured into a parable about the difference between young and old bulls when locked in a small yard. He told me young bulls run hard at the gate, exhausting and sometimes harming themselves.

But old bulls are generally patient and placid. They always know the farmer will open the gate and they’ll walk out and soon get among the pasture and the cows.

Young bulls should learn from old bulls, he told me.

There has never been a more important time for researchers all over the world to speak up about their work
Professor Simon Chapman, University of Sydney

I knew exactly why he’d called me. For some months, I’d been in the forefront of a small group of public health people who were confronting the advertising industry’s self-regulation body with data about the appeal of Paul Hogan, who fronted the massively successful Winfield cigarette advertising campaign. Hogan’s own TV program had huge appeal to children. The advertising campaign was, therefore, in flagrant breach of the industry’s own guidelines and so needed to be stopped.

After 18 months of trying to ignore us, we won. We quickly discovered while the advertising industry could ignore our letters, going public turned 10,000 watt arc lights on the self-regulation farce. Over that time the media often interviewed us. A headline after we won said our slingshot had cut down the advertising ogre. Hogan said he’d been sent from the field for kicking too many goals. That was in fact our argument.

My “young and old bulls” mentor later told me he’d been tapped by the Vice Chancellor to tighten the reins, after receiving complaints from connections with the tobacco industry.

Then, and even today, there still remain large remnants of the attitude in universities that scientists and researchers should avoid talking to the media. News media are frequently disdained by academics as trivialising and superficial, something from which those with ambitions of gravitas should keep well away.

Knowing someone, but never meeting

Early in Nicola Roxon’s tenure as Australian health minister I approached her after a talk she gave at a conference. “I don’t think we’ve ever met,” I said. “No, but I feel I’ve known you all my adult life,” she replied.

This could have only meant she knew me through the media.

There is an abundance of research showing people get a huge amount of their information and understanding of health issues from the news media. Equally, most politicians and their advisors rarely read scholarly papers in research journals. They form their understandings of the issues in their portfolio in a variety of ways. But like us all, they are daily exposed to information and discussion about health and medicine through the media they consume voraciously every day.

Don’t just ‘stick to the facts’

Some critics of researchers with media profiles argue researchers should just “stick to the facts” in media interviews. Our study participants saw this as naïve because “people always want to know what the policy implications are”.

A total of 94% of those we interviewed disagreed with the view it was inappropriate to express opinions in the media about public health policy. Journalists might begin with a research finding or an expert clarification of a new report. But they invariably then asked what needed to be “done” about the problem, typically by government.

Journalists and audiences would meet with incredulity any researcher who tried to end an interview when there were questions about policy reform “oughts”, or claimed to have no opinion on what should be done. We expect those who know most about health problems to have views about what should be done to solve them and the courage to put these forward, even if they imply criticism of governments or powerful interest groups.

Speak up, speak up

Trump’s recent gagging of all government environmental agency staff is surely the start of a process that will spread to government funded universities in the USA. There has never been a more important time for researchers all over the world to speak up about their work, it’s implications and how societies and governments should act on it.

I’ve just published a collection of 71 of my essays and op eds across a large variety of public health issues. Like this column, the book is called Smoke Signals, and is published by the Sydney University Press imprint, Darlington Press. It’s available in paperback or as an ebook.

Simon Chapman is an Emeritus Professor in the School of Public Health. The full opinion piece can be read on The Conversation

Elliott Richardson

Assistant Media Advisor (Medicine, Dentistry, Nursing and Pharmacy)