By Lucy Gavens
Earlier this year a group of intrepid researchers launched SIPHER – a new research Consortium that hopes to improve health and wellbeing and reduce inequalities. We have found that policy makers often struggle to articulate and defend the case for upstream action to address downstream health crises. This is particularly acute in current times as we see ever greater investment in NHS services to treat illness at the same time as funding for preventive action to improve health and wellbeing is squeezed year on year.
Our vision is a shift from health policy to whole-systems healthy public policy driven by new evidence we develop with policy makers. We are working with 3 policy partners to test out our ideas and develop models and tools that can be used by decision-makers across the UK (and further afield!) to design policies to improve health and wellbeing and reduce inequalities.
What is different about SIPHER?
A number of different research groups and organisations have been taking great and positive steps to progress a healthy public policy agenda for many years (e.g. The Health Foundation, The Institute for Health Equity). SIPHER seeks to join these ambitious groups with a few key features that we feel set us apart.
Firstly, as you can imagine, most areas of public policy are complex systems where policy choices in one sector (e.g. housing) can have a large unintended consequence in another (e.g. poverty). There is often no right solution because choosing between different outcomes require us to make compromises that are influenced by judgements of how we see the world. This means that to assess the true health benefits (and costs) of any policy we need to better understand what impact that policy might have on other domains. For example, will an education policy later impact on employment outcomes, or how might an environmental policy influence health. As no one policymaker has knowledge of the whole system and future economic and political developments are uncertain, SIPHER hopes to create models to predict some of these interdependencies to support healthy public policy development.
SIPHER will use complex systems modelling underpinned by the best available data and prior research in four different policy areas (see below). Our new evidence about likely policy effects across a wide range of outcomes will help decision-makers to pick between alternative policies depending on how important different outcomes are to them (e.g. do they want to improve health or boost economic growth?). We will develop support tools that can visualise these forecasts, identify policies that achieve the desired balance between competing outcomes and update recommendations when new information emerges. This approach is new to public health policy-making.
Whilst new to public health policy, these methods are well-established in engineering and climate science and therein lies the second feature that makes SIPHER different. In our team we have a large number of experts from different disciplines, such as Automatic Control and Systems Engineering where the kinds of methods we will use are regularly employed to understand, for example, how to make a car engine run more efficiently. In fact, among our team we have researchers from more than 10 disciplinary backgrounds who will be collaborating with our engineers to develop new public health models. The interdisciplinary nature of SIPHER will help us to develop the interplay between our detailed qualitative understanding of policy systems and the models that we will develop to quantify that understanding using existing data and the best scientific evidence available to us.
Thirdly, SIPHER is co-producing our research with policy organisations. Each step of our SIPHER process, from research design to policy implementation has been developed with our policy partners. And very little in SIPHER would be possible without our embedded researchers who are dedicated to SIPHER but employed by our Policy Partners. This means that we are truly embedded in the policy process and can use our SIPHER models and tools in real time to inform decision-making.
Combined, we believe these features of SIPHER make it a really exciting space to watch (and perhaps just a little daunting to be a part of!).
What is our policy focus?
Across our Policy Partners – Sheffield City Council, Greater Manchester Combined Authority (GMCA) and the Scottish Government – we are looking at four policy areas that are important to our Partners:
- Inclusive Economy (All 3)
- Housing (GMCA)
- Public Mental Health (Scottish Government)
- Adverse Childhood Experiences (Sheffield)
Our work initially is on Inclusive Economy and over the past 3 months our team has been busy generating baseline data and working to understand the Inclusive Economy landscape with key informants from each Policy Partner and the literature. This work provides a vital understanding of the policy system that will underpin the work of all of our other research strands. Expect some early results in summer 2020!
How can you learn more?
There are lots of ways to find out more about SIPHER. For a high level summary see our briefing paper or for a more detailed delve into our 8 work streams and our ambitions for the 5 years of the project see our Wellcome Open Research Letter. You can also explore our website or follow us on Twitter (@SipherC) or LinkedIn.