Cycling, research and writing better letters


Dr. Tammy Boyce explores making the most of natural allies – academics and charities.

In last week’s Telegraph, a coalition of organisations wrote a letter calling on the UK government to offer compulsory cycling lessons in school, making them equivalent to swimming lessons.  I have nothing contrary to say about this. Why? It’s based on evidence – cycling will make for fitter, healthier children.

How do we know this? Research.

Who’s doing the research?  Academics. 

How many signatories were academics?  None. 

Instead, the list consisted of a politician, a journalist, and representatives from associations and charities including British Cycling, the Institute of Advanced Motorists, Sustrans and Cyclenation. All important – but why not engage with the academics making the evidence, draw them in and make the argument stronger? 

                         There’s no lack of evidence of the benefits of cycling to children and young people

Use the evidence

The evidence that cycling improves health is plentiful and not hard to find – a simple search turns up this systematic review and this easy-to-digest Cycling England report, for a start.  

CEDAR, the Centre for Diet and Activity Research (a UKCRC Public Health Research Centres of Excellence), has an excellent webpage outlining the evidence of the benefits to health, environment and economy of walking and cycling for transport. A quick peek at DECIPHer’s website finds reference to research monitoring the change in teenagers’ health when they cycled to school, which found that those who cycled ‘had better cholesterol/HDL ratio, better glucose metabolism, and a lower composite CVD risk factor score’.  The evidence produced by these researchers is targeted and accessible – publications are increasingly open access, and CEDAR, DECIPHer and many research centres now supplement their publications and websites with regular tweets.

Undervaluing intelligence?

Attempts to influence policy, such as the Telegraph letter, should logically include academics. So why doesn’t it happen? 

It may simply reflect that we live in a society that fails to value intelligence and reflection.  Time magazine’s 100 most influential people only includes two researchers – the scientists responsible for ’functionally curing’ a baby of HIV, and an individual researching breast cancer.  At least Prospect magazine’s World Thinkers list avoids putting the likes of Justin Timberlake (an ‘icon’, apparently) alongside those researching a cure for cancer.    

Modern society may be indifferent to fervent and earnest discussion, but attempts to influence policy are better when we speak with one voice, one which draws consistently on the wealth of evidence available. 

So, charities, associations and alliances, a call to you all – when you make your recommendations (whether by writing to a newspaper editor or responding to a relevant policy consultation), contact the academics, and engage with them consistently when trying to influence policy.  Use these natural allies.

And academics, please remember it’s a two way street – you need to share your evidence with relevant organisations and, of course, answer their emails.

Dr. Tammy Boyce (@TamBoyce) works with DECIPHer as a Knowledge Exchange consultant.

Image of Two Tunnels Greenway – source: Sustrans
Image of boys cycling in wood – source: Bike Club


  1. Graham Moore

    Is it true to say that providing compulsory cycling lessons in school is an evidence based idea? It might be, but nothing presented in this blog provides support for this. Evidence that a behaviour (in this case cycling) is linked to health is presented as justifying uncritical support for an intuitively sensible idea which may (or may not) influence that behaviour. In order to recommend a policy such as this, we would want evidence that providing cycling lessons in schools leads to the intended behaviour change (i.e. more children taking up cycling), preferably without a substantial escalation in cycling related accidents arising from added confidence and risk taking.

    • Tammy Boyce

      Interesting points Graham – but I wonder what you think about my wider point that no academics signed the letter and why they are often left off of letters/campaigns like this? The blog is more concerned with the point that charities and academics often do not often regard each other as natural allies.

      • Graham Moore

        There are valid arguments to be made that researchers and non-academic organisations such as charities should do more to work together. Progress has been made in this area, and there are a growing number of examples of academics working with such organisations to conduct and apply research (see for example my blog post on alcohol research conducted in partnership with Drinkaware). There is of course still room for further progress.
        But before we criticise academics for non-involvement in public health campaigns (or charities for not involving academics), we do need to consider whether their involvement would have been appropriate. Campaigns such as the one you highlight involve trying to persuade influential stakeholders of the merits of a course of action, regardless of the status of the evidence base. As academics, we would be more inclined to say that if it sounds in theory like a good idea, but there is not yet sufficient evidence (and of course, a risk of unintended harm), why not try it out on a smaller scale and rigorously evaluate it. This evidence production agenda is premised on an acceptance of ‘equipoise’ (uncertainty over whether a course of action will be beneficial); a position which we risk significantly compromising if we lend support to campaigns which are not as yet well grounded in evidence.
        I should concede here that I don’t have the specific knowledge of the literature on cycle education programmes to make a judgment on whether or not they can be considered evidence based. But the argument that academics should have been involved falls flat if not presented alongside data which demonstrates that the campaign is evidence based.

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