The Not-Pennington Profiles – Issue Six of an occasional series

By stewartb

A better awareness of our country’s ‘assets’ in scientific research and innovation is important for its own sake. It also helps counter patterns of corporate media and BBC reporting in Scotland on the Coronavirus emergency: (a) recently an over-emphasis on the ‘expertise’ of one retired professor; and too commonly (b) bias by omission in favour of profiling research happening somewhere else.

Academics and public policy development

Many senior academics are aware of roles and responsibilities in both public engagement broadly and contributing to public policy development.  For the individual the latter can be professionally fulfilling but challenging. Before highlighting the notable, current contributions of one particular group of academics in Scotland to the Coronavirus emergency, it’s worth firstly noting this, published by the Australian National University. Seems interesting and relevant for context.


For the individual academic: “Making a positive contribution to policy making involves much more than the presentation of research findings to policy makers.  …..five further thoughts may be worth considering in working out where your individual value lies.”  In summary:

  1. ‘expert understanding and ideas are valuable assets in the policy making process. Without expertise, policy making becomes a simple matter of competing opinions’
  • ‘no single person is an expert about everything that needs to be considered .…’ Moreover: ‘… the policy makers they seek to engage often have significant knowledge and expertise’
  • ‘academic experts can look at the same facts and circumstances and come up with very different views about what problems exist and what policy should do in response’
  • ‘academic expertise can play an important role in informing public opinion. … A well-informed population is often key in creating the understanding and space needed by policy makers to take decisions that may be uncomfortable or unpopular. The flip side … is that academic debate – especially when it relates to the meaning of the evidence base – can serve to confuse rather than inform’
  • ‘governments are constantly choosing between competing priorities and claims.’ However: ’….generally speaking, academic advice on the overall priorities of government has less value as it generally reflects an expression of personal views and values – something all citizens are entitled to.’

The contributions of the Usher Institute, University of Edinburgh

The Usher Institute was home to the first Chair of Public Health in the United Kingdom, in 1898. Today the Institute has four main research themes: ‘Biomedicine’, ‘Self and Society’, ‘Global Health’, ‘Medical Informatics’ and ‘Population Health Sciences’. The Edinburgh Clinical Trials Unit is located within the Centre for Population Health Sciences.

From amongst the c. 300 academic staff and other professionals in the Institute, there are a number of senior staff making a major contribution to Scotland’s response to the Coronavirus pandemic as members of the Scottish Government’s  Covid-19 Advisory Group:

  • Professor Andrew Morris – Professor of Medicine and Director of Health Data Research UK – chairing the Scottish Covid-19 advisory group.
  • Professor Aziz Sheikh – researcher in primary care and epidemiology; Director of the Usher Institute; Director of the Scottish Allergy and Respiratory Academy and Director of the NIHR Global Respiratory Health Unit.
  • Professor Devi Sridhar – Professor of Global Public Health; Founding Director of the Global Health Governance Programme; currently advising the WHO on policy and governance.
  • Professor Mark Woolhouse – Professor of Infectious Disease Epidemiology; member of the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling; carrying out policy-relevant analyses of the possible effects and timing of social distancing measures.

For an overview of the Institute’s research see: Respiratory viral epidemiology is an especially important area of expertise in present circumstances.

The Usher Institute is recognised as a World Health Organisation Collaborating Centre (WHOCC) on Population Health Research and Training. In this role it aims amongst other things to assist WHO in:

  • the development and appropriate application of methodology and tools to assess impact of health interventions
    • the development of estimates of health burden and disease epidemiology.

Also within the Institute, led by Professor Aileen Keel, is the Innovative Healthcare Delivery Programme (IHDP). The IHDP aims to “harness the power of informatics to link NHS Scotland’s rich data assets and deliver value rapidly to patients, healthcare professionals, and the wider NHS.” The programme’s early focus has been to design, develop and oversee the implementation of a cancer intelligence framework for Scotland and also to link data on ‘rare diseases’ but it has a remit to apply its methodologies over time to other clinical areas.


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