Cambridge Festival of Ideas puts health under the microscope

stack of Cambridge Festival of Ideas prgrammes

Why is the level of ‘burnout’ higher in some professions than others? What level of influence does industry have over what we know about our food and drink? And how should we deliver babies? These questions and more are asked as health is put under the microscope at this year’s Cambridge Festival of Ideas, which runs from 14th – 27th October. 

The festival hosts over 270 events focussed on many of the critical challenges faced by individuals and society. The theme this year is ‘change’.

Where we work impacts our mental fitness and wellbeing, with repercussions for other areas of our lives. The RAND Europe event at the Festival, How does work play a role in mental health? (14 Oct) explores how the different types of work environments affect our mental health, and what could be done to provide support for those with mental health problems in the workplace.

The event reveals fascinating perspectives on work and mental health and it is fitting that it follows World Mental Health Day on 10th October. The Panel includes Sir Norman Lamb, who is the Liberal Democrat MP for North Norfolk. Sir Norman has campaigned extensively on mental health issues. He examines an initiative in the West Midlands to help people suffering from mental ill health. The Chief Executive of the Centre for Mental Health, Sarah Hughes, discusses her work at the centre, which aims to understand mental illness and promote mental health and wellbeing. Also speaking is Catherine Lichten, a Senior Analyst at RAND Europe. Lichten discusses a RAND Europe study – Understanding Mental Health in the Research Environment – which explored how stress can be a challenge for higher education research staff.

The study found that higher education staff report worse wellbeing than those in other types of employment. Lichten said: “The available evidence suggests that the wellbeing of academic staff is worse than for individuals in other types of employment. In fact, the levels of burnout among university staff are comparable to ‘high-risk’ groups, such as healthcare workers.

“However, identifying the problems and working out how to address them remains a significant challenge for the higher education sector. This is not helped by the limited evidence available about the mental health of this group, which means that the mental health needs of higher education staff are still not properly understood.”

One of the key findings from the RAND Europe study is that ‘job insecurity (real and perceived) appears to be an important issue for those working in the research environment, particularly for early-career researchers who are often employed on successive short-term contracts.’

Another event at the Festival reveals the network of industry influence that controls what the public comes to know about our food and drink.  In Behind the ring-pull: understanding industry influence on what we know about health and nutrition (15 Oct), Professor David Stuckler and Sarah Steele explore the levels of influence industry exercises over what we know about health and nutrition.

Recently well-publicised research and investigative reporting have upended many long-held nutritional beliefs. We now know that the wisdom that breakfast is the most important meal of the day was funded by the cereal industry. Meanwhile, it’s been revealed that beverage companies have been working to thwart regulation of artificial sweeteners. Industry sponsorship of public health and nutrition research is therefore receiving more scrutiny. During this event, Professor Stuckler and Sarah Steele work through their recent study that considered over 100,000 pages of emails between academics at public institutions, food and beverage executives and policy makers.

Two further events examine reproduction and birth:

From abortion to climate crisis, intimate experiences to planetary policy, reproduction presents urgent challenges today.  In When was reproduction invented? (17 Oct) a panel of experts take the long view and asks when, how and for what purposes reproduction as we know it was made. University of Cambridge panellists include Dr Rebecca Flemming, Senior Lecturer in Classics; Professor Susan Golombok, Director of the Centre for Family Research; Professors of History of Science and Medicine Nick Hopwood and Lauren Kassell. The event is chaired by Professor of History and Philosophy of Science, Jim Secord.

In How should we deliver babies? (21 Oct) the highly politicised questions around how we should give birth, who should be present and what role they should play are examined. Pregnant women are encouraged to make choices about who is present at their birth -- obstetricians, midwives, doulas and/or birth partners – and to define their expected role. Yet fulfilling these standards of midwifery practice is made increasingly difficult in a chronically underfunded NHS. Bringing together a panel of experts, this debate considers the ways in which individuals have defined medical intervention and the role of birth workers in the past and today. With Dr Samantha Williams, a senior lecturer in Local and Regional History, University of Cambridge; Dr Salim Al-Gailani from the Department of History and Philosophy of Science, University of Cambridge;  Dr Françoise Barbira Freedman from the Department of Social Anthropology, University of Cambridge, and founder of Birthlight Trust; Mars Lord, a birth activist and doula;  Suzanne Thompson, senior lecturer, midwife and PhD candidate, University of Cambridge. The debate is chaired by Lauren Kassell, Professor of History of Science and Medicine History at the University of Cambridge.

The panel asks, how do we define a ‘good’ birth? What kinds of transformations in medical thought and social frameworks lead people to change their minds about appropriate birth practitioners? How have past and present societies defined intervention in birth and when it is appropriate? What kinds of manipulations or instruments are deemed acceptable? What does ‘collaboration’ between birth practitioners, hospitals, gynaecologists and families mean?

Further health-related events include:

  • Is health more important than wealth? (25 Oct) Leading economist Professor Diane Coyle and happiness expert Professor Richard Layard explore whether New Zealand is right to prioritise wellbeing over GDP as a marker of national success and whether others should follow its example. Chaired by Jaideep Prabhu, Professor of Marketing at Cambridge Judge Business School.
  • Life after brain cancer: living or surviving (16 Oct). A discussion with experts about some of the possible side effects of brain cancer treatment, the risks patients are prepared and the cost they are willing to pay to survive the disease.
  • A silent killer: the under-recognised role of environmental factors in noncommunicable diseases (16 Oct). Experts from the Department of Public Health and Primary Care discuss how environmental pollutants can impact non-communicable diseases such as heart disease, cancer, asthma and diabetes.
  • From location to genes: is it time we changed the way we talk about cancer? (24 Oct) Cancer Research UK scientists discuss the shift in how cancers are being classified by where they first appear – breast, prostate, skin, etc. They discuss why this form of classification is not always the most important factor for treatment and how this shift in the way cancer is being studied is causing obstacles to implementing that change in the clinic.
  • Supergrains: as super as they could be? (26 Oct). An expert panel explores the knotty issue of food sustainability, looking at how changes in what we eat affect our health, economies, and the natural world. With Dr Shailaja Fennell – Senior Lecturer in Development Studies, Department of Land Economy; Dr Sarah Dalzell – Nutritional Scientist, MRC Nutrition and Bone Health; Dr Richard Sidebottom – Researcher, Department of Land Economy; and chaired by Professor K Narayanan – Professor of Economics, Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay.

 *The programme is available in hard copy and online here.

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