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
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.
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.