Top level navigation

Breadcrumb to current page

Main content

Rapporteur report

Professor Mike Kelly

30 January 2017

Quick! Think slow, and wear out shoe leather to improve health outcomes with research.

Watch Professor Kelly's presentation on You Tube at the link below

Quick summary:

  • Public health issues are complex but people often want simple answers
  • Health researchers need to ‘think slow’ about how their research moves to influence policy and practice
  • Health researchers need to get out and talk to policy makers, journalists and end users to translate their research.

You’ve carried out a decent piece of health research. It gets peer-reviewed and published in a decent journal, where lots of influential people could find it when they are drawing up guidelines.

Job done? Hardly, according to Professor Mike Kelly, who issued a wake-up call to researchers about the need to engage with policy makers and journalists to help research have impact.

‘If you are a successful academic in the world of policy it is actually about shoe leather', he told the HRB 30 Conference in Dublin Castle.
A former Director the Centre of Public Health Excellence at NICE (the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence) in the UK, Professor Kelly was involved in developing guidelines on the promotion of good health and the prevention of disease.
Working across a range of topics including tobacco, alcohol, obesity, mental health and a range of communicable diseases, Professor Kelly could see a big issue. ‘The problem is that in each of areas the answers are far from simple, and yet the politicians and policy makers want simple answers to these complicated problems', he said.

Need for slow thinking

As humans, we tend to have cognitive short-cuts that allow us to ‘think fast’ about some topics or tasks, noted Professor Kelly, whereas we go back to first principles and ‘think slow’ about others.  

‘We can’t do that first-principle thinking with everything we do, because if we did we would never make a decision. But some things in life do require us to slip into that slow-thinking mode', said Professor Kelly, who is a Senior Visiting Fellow at the University of Cambridge.
 ‘The trouble with many public health and policy problems is this draw to think fast all the time about causes, [as if] there is a simple cause of the effect let’s act on the cause’.

For non-communicable diseases, this often gets reduced down to the very simple idea of getting people to change their behaviours.

‘If we can get people to change their behaviour, they will stop smoking, they will take more exercise, they will eat more healthily and Bob’s your uncle, gone is obesity epidemic and the epidemic of heart disease and the rest of it', said Professor Kelly.

But despite public health messages for decades telling people to avoid what is bad for their health and to get more active, change has been elusive: ‘If it was so easy to change behaviour we would have done it long ago’.

Academic researchers also need to change their ‘fast’ thinking about how their work can have an impact – publishing findings and sitting back to let them move on and have an effect is generally not enough.

Research into policy – turn up the volume

Professor Kelly outlined a number of ways in which research can change policy and practice. One of the easiest to recognise is the ‘momentum’ model, where the volume of findings keeps building – though it can be a long journey, as in the case of tobacco control, and it often requires political will and someone to ‘grab the nettle’ as Barbara Castle did to clamp down on drink-driving in the UK in the 1960s, or as Norman Fowler did through campaigns to promote safer sex and clean-needle exchanges in order to minimise the spread of HIV in the 1980s.

Another model is the ‘trade in ideas’, where researchers exchange ideas with policy makers and become credible sources of information.

‘You have get out and talk to people, walk the corridors of power, wherever they are get yourself trusted as a researcher', he said. ‘It is not a waste of time, it is not something that other people can do not you and it is worth every hour of investment’.

Tailor your communication

And, given the time-scales over which scientific advances happen, it is important to define the problem and solution in a meaningful way to relevant parties, be those Ministers (with a limited time in power) or clinicians or patients.  

‘Policy questions are seldom the same as scientific questions...', he said. ‘Perhaps most importantly if you are a researcher, you should have an account of why what you are doing will work for the policy maker and the end user…what you shouldn’t try to demonstrate, because this puts people off, is why you are a brilliant researcher and just how clever you are’.

Rounding off, Professor Kelly said he believes that the engagement between researchers and policy makers will pay off:

‘The knowledge systems for producing evidence and producing policy are different, they operate in different universes, but I don’t believe that in the end they are irreconcilable or incommensurate, so long as you make the effort to bring them together’.

Search the HRB website

Other information and links