New HEAL Network helping to heal climate and chronic disease concerns



TYPE Prevention Centre News

The recent awarding of a $10million NHMRC Special Initiative in Human Health and Environmental Change was an exciting and inspiring antidote to the loggerheads and politics of the recent COP26.

While there has much been progress in recognising the importance of health and health voices in global climate negotiations, it has clearly not been enough. Many of us share the frustrations of national and international action lagging way behind the science. Yet there is hope in how the Australian health sector is articulating what needs to happen to avert the most catastrophic scenarios of climate related impacts on our population’s health, livelihoods and lives.

While the Prevention Centre is focused on the prevention of chronic disease, we recognise the public health co-benefits of the systemic transformations required for climate change mitigation and adaptation. There are also important opportunities to address the common drivers of climate change and chronic disease. This includes transparency of the commercial influences on public policy, and the implementation of targeted regulation and strategic legal frameworks across portfolios. Australia has led the world on tobacco control, less so in obesity prevention, and has a long way to go on mitigating the impacts of climate change.

The announcement of the $10million grant for the Healthy Environment and Lives (HEAL) Network is a new initiative that heralds exciting opportunities for collaboration on Australian environmental and preventive health research. HEAL is a national network led by ANU’s Professor Sotiris Vardoulakis, with over 100 investigators from across research, policy and practice partner organisations, including government, non-government and community groups. HEAL aims to build and strengthen collaborations and create new opportunities for further funding, research and action on the complex relationships between our environment and population health.

HEAL’s priority action areas include: a national environmental risk assessment (health, economics, equity); a knowledge-action hub; improving and tracking healthcare’s environmental performance; and integrating Indigenous &Western knowledge systems. The Prevention Centre includes numerous co-investigators and collaborators of HEAL and will be an enthusiastic partner in HEAL’s research and knowledge mobilisation activities.  

The HEAL funding announcement also came on the eve of their inaugural conference #HEAL2021 held on 17-18 November. This inspiring event had nearly 900 registered participants, 134 speakers, 22 panels and 21 posters for a hybrid meeting that brought together some of Australia’s leading climate change, Aboriginal health, environmental health, public health and health services researchers, practitioners, policy makers and community leaders.

The sense of vibrant energy that was shared by many at the meeting conveyed how much this NHMRC special initiative offers renewed hope, opportunities and purpose for the next five years.  One of its core strengths will come from how HEAL seeks to embed into its scientific program the expertise and wisdom of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander knowledges, particularly in relation to caring for Country. #HEAL2021 highlighted the goal of demonstrating the value-add of embracing and integrating these millennia of wisdom with Western scientific methods and tools. 

#HEAL2021 also highlighted the importance of partnerships between researchers and governments, NGOs, policy makers, practitioners, and community. The purpose of the HEAL network is to share and integrate all forms of knowledge from such collaborations and translate that knowledge into action. With almost nine years focused on research-policy-practice partnerships and systems thinking under our belt, the Prevention Centre is well placed to contribute to this work.