THEO MURPHY (AUSTRALIA) HIGH FLYERS THINK TANK
Preventative health: Science and technology in the prevention and early detection of disease
University of Sydney (Eastern Avenue Complex), Thursday 6 November 2008
The purpose of the Academy's High Flyers Think Tank series is to bring together early and mid-career researchers from a broad range of disciplines to engage in thinking about novel applications of existing science and technology, and identify gaps in knowledge that might be addressed when applying science (including social science) and technology to a particular issue.
It is well recognised that interdisciplinary and trans-disciplinary approaches to problem-solving enable more diverse and lateral thinking, and therefore more comprehensive outcomes. The High Flyers Think Tanks are also seen by the Academy as unique opportunities for career development and network creation in an independent setting. This is to be particularly encouraged amongst the nation's next generation of researchers and their institutions.
Previous Think Tanks have culminated in reports to government that have been timely, well received and instrumental in influencing policy development. Past Think Tank topics (available from www.science.org.au/events/thinktanks.html) were:
2002 – Australia's national research priorities
2003 – Safeguarding the nation
2004 – Emerging diseases – ready and waiting?
2005 – Biotechnology and the future of Australian agriculture
2006 – Innovative technical solutions for water management in Australia
2007 – Extreme natural hazards in Australia
This year's topic
The purpose of these proceedings from the 2008 High Flyers Think Tank held at the University of Sydney on 6 November 2008, is to add to our understanding of how science and technology applications can contribute to improving the health of Australians through disease prevention, by identifying gaps in knowledge and potential solutions. The Think Tank not only recognised that preventative health is emerging as a key issue internationally, but it was also about being strategic and forward looking with respect to Australia's role in this important field.
There are many diseases, illnesses and injuries that can be prevented by awareness of risk factors, early detection, lifestyle changes and other measures. Preventative health aims to improve health and wellbeing through early implementation of health measures to tackle health challenges caused by things such as tobacco, alcohol, obesity, genetic predisposition and inaccessibility of health services. Efforts are usually aimed at addressing the factors that determine health and the causes of illness, rather than their consequences, with the aim of protecting or promoting health, or preventing illness.
The outcomes are expected to contribute to a range of government initiatives aimed at increasing the role of prevention in health care. These include the National Preventative Health Taskforce which was established in April 2008 to provide evidence-based advice on programs and strategies for chronic disease, rural health workforce reforms and the new Australian Health Care Agreement.
In this climate of review and reform, the Academy of Science aims to contribute to the welfare of Australians through a strong statement regarding future directions for the country's science and technology in preventative health. By involving early- and mid-career researchers from a range of research backgrounds relevant to preventative health, the Think Tank's outcomes will provide a fresh and relevant approach informed by Australia's future leaders and policy makers.
Preventative health matrix
Think Tanks employ an outcomes matrix as a useful method to structure the discussion in breakout groups. The Preventative Health Matrix (see below) was intended to assist the examination of how research in basic biological sciences (including genomics, proteomics, metabolomics and bioinformatics), genetic susceptibility to disease and its interactions with environmental exposure and human behaviour, disease screening and early diagnosis methodologies, and specific interventions that may protect against disease currently applies, or could be applied to, the prevention of cancer, mental health, metabolic syndrome or infectious diseases or their consequences.
The themes for Preventative health: Science and technology in prevention and early detection of disease
|'Omics and bioinformatics genomics, proteomics, metabolomics||Genes and the environment genomics/phenomics, epidemiology, predisposition, risk factors||Screening and early diagnosis||Protection
lifestyle (nutrition, exercise and smoking), vaccination, chemo prevention (eg statins and aspirin)
|A – Cancer|
|B – Mental health|
|C – Metabolic syndrome
heart disease, diabetes
|D – Infectious diseases
water-borne, vector-borne, hepatitis, AIDS/HIV, rheumatic heart disease
|Cross-topic issues: childhood, indigenous, rural and regional|
The Think Tank process established four breakout groups focussed on four broad areas of disease (cancer, mental health, metabolic syndrome and infectious diseases). The breakout sessions provided an opportunity for detailed discussion of important scientific directions and developments in each, and the exploration of their possible applications in disease prevention.
Each breakout group discussed their health area in the context of each of the four types of research ('omics and bioinformatics; genes and the environment; screening and early diagnosis; and protection). Groups examined how the research types currently applied to their health area, or identified future research that relates to the area. It was also useful to record any further related issues that were considered by the group to be relevant or any problems, gaps, strengths, past lessons and priorities.
Each health area breakout group was chaired by an eminent researcher in that area and included a representative selection of early- to mid-career researchers from across the research types. Participants were encouraged to think broadly across the spectrum of science for ideas to contribute to the discussion based on the introductory address by the chair on the current status and potentials of the different research types, and their individual experience and expertise.
At the conclusion of the group session, the rapporteurs provided a short presentation and each prepared a report on behalf of their group.
This report summarises the major outcomes of the Think Tank and provides some additional contextual information. Generally, major issues and gaps in knowledge were identified, and recommendations or a 'way forward' provided. These outcomes form vital and current information that can be used to underpin policy development and research prioritisation processes.