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Are you in a healthy place?

by Guest Author on 19 Jul 2016

The places where we live, study and work shape our behaviours and health. To give members of the public a new perspective on their surroundings, MRC Epidemiology Unit researchers shared their science for the MRC Festival of Medical Research. Oliver Francis and Paul Browne tell us how they organised their event ‘Are you in a healthy place? Travel, food and our neighbourhoods’ and what made it a success.


Bikes, takeaways and conversations

When you say ‘medical research’, the first things that spring to mind probably aren’t cycling and takeaway food. But we do all know that doing a bit more of one and eating a little bit less of the other could be good for our health.

What we don’t always realise is that these health-related decisions aren’t always individual or personal and that the world around us has a huge influence on many of our choices. We also have to remember that much of the world around us is shaped by decisions made in Westminster and our local councils.

We saw the MRC Festival of Medical Research as an opportunity to bring together two important areas of our work at the MRC Epidemiology Unit. We have a long history of public engagement, which has usually focused on family-friendly activities. We’ve also been successful in bringing our evidence to bear on wider public policy questions. Our MRC Festival event meant we could bring the public voice into existing policy and research conversations about how our neighbourhoods affect our health.

Dr David Ogilvie talks to a full house

Dr David Ogilvie talks to a full house

From sugar cubes to smartphones

Our interactive evening focused on what our research is suggesting for broader policy decisions. To keep the discussions on track – and avoid arguments about a particular cycle lane or fast food chain – we felt that a good facilitator was vital and were delighted that writer and broadcaster Dr Kat Arney agreed to chair the event.

We kicked off the evening with a ‘Meet the Scientists’ session immediately before the presentations. Visitors chatted with researchers over a glass of wine and tried out some fun activities. These included ‘the sugar cube challenge’ to see who would be the quickest at burning off the 10 calories of energy you get from a single sugar cube using an exercise bike. We were impressed with the fastest time of 39 seconds.

We needed to make the evening interactive as well as informative, and we discussed various social media ideas. However, we also wanted people to be present in the room and feared we might lose them to their notifications and feeds. So in the end we opted for sli.do, a programme that allows audience members to answer questions on their smartphones. It also meant we could gauge in real time how the audience responded to our presenters, with the results projected for all to see and discuss.

The most popular responses were: small, traffic, pressure, routes, parking and infrastructure

Wordcloud generated by attendees using the Sli.do online polling tool in response to the question: “Why do you think more far more people cycle in Cambridge than in most other towns?”

We could also use sli.do to see how people were responding to our presentations. At the start of the evening over half the audience was already convinced that your neighbourhood influences your health and by the end of the evening we had convinced quite a few more:

healthy-place-slido-quiz (1)

Old-fashioned measures of feedback were also revealing, with quite a few audible reactions to our findings. All in all, it was a good reminder that even a well-informed audience can be surprised by what they learn from the evidence about a topic that they already feel familiar with.

The feeling’s mutual

After the presentations, many audience members stayed around to ask follow-up questions and an A-level teacher told us we had provided her with helpful insights for teaching the geography of health.

The event was also a positive experience for the researchers involved; they were able to discuss their work with members of the public in more depth than is usually possible in large talks or family-orientated events, and they gained a first-hand insight into how people perceive the role of scientific evidence in guiding public policy.

Strength in numbers

MRC festival advertised at a bus stop in Cambridge

MRC festival advertised at a bus stop in Cambridge

As this was the first annual MRC Festival of Medical Research, the organisation and promotion of our event was challenging. But pooling resources with the seven other MRC units, institutes and laboratories in Cambridge participating in the MRC Festival was a big help. The University of Cambridge Public Engagement team was a key partner in achieving publicity, helping bring in over one third of our event bookings.

We displayed posters on boards at Cambridge Rail and Guided Busway stations, distributed 1,500 advertising leaflets around Cambridge and issued a joint press pack to local media. As a result we got publicity in the Cambridge News, on BBC Radio Cambridgeshire, as well as an interview with Paul Browne on Cambridge TV.

Overall, the MRC Festival was a big undertaking. But, despite a few fraught moments as deadlines loomed and last minute technical hitches threatened, it was all a valuable experience. It has enabled us to develop a new facet of our public engagement work and has given us the chance to experiment with new formats and technologies that we will doubtless return to.

Read more about the MRC Festival event: Are you in a healthy place: Travel, food and our neighbourhoods

The second annual MRC Festival of Medical Research will take place from 17 – 25 June 2017.

Read Martin’s event tips in his blog: Smugging


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