As part of the University of Exeter Medical School’s research programme, the Centre is exploring the complexity of environment and human health issues in a truly interdisciplinary fashion. Our academics incorporate both qualitative and quantitative research methods and are using science, the arts and the humanities to improve our understanding of the health risks and opportunities presented by the environment. Collaborations with business, government and the third sector are at the heart of our work, ensuring tangible outcomes that will enhance the economy of Cornwall.
Health and Climate Change
Weather and climate can directly influence human health. We are investigating the complex links between climate and a range of illnesses, and assessing how climate change might affect disease risk factors. Multi-institutional and international collaboration are at the heart of this work, which is also exploring pioneering big data techniques.
Life Course Wellbeing
As populations age worldwide, our views of older people, and how we navigate the entire life course, will need to evolve. Our research is shedding light on how health and wellbeing in later life can be improved through interactions with the natural environment, and also focusses on how novel eHealth interventions can use technology to improve healthcare.
Microbial systems underpin life on earth, yet antibiotic resistance is one of the biggest threats to health for a generation. Using molecular approaches in our laboratories, we are analysing the ecology and evolution of microorganisms to help us understand how antibiotic resistance can develop and spread through the natural environment.
Oceans and Human Health
Human health and wellbeing is closely connected to that of our seas and oceans - a relationship which is under mounting strain as rapidly growing populations and climatic change increase pressure on coastal resources and locations. In efforts to deliver a better understanding of marine environment and human health interaction, we are helping to lead a coordinated, transnational and interdisciplinary research approach in this emerging field.
Wellbeing and the Environment
A growing body of evidence suggests that time spent in natural environments can improve physical and mental health. Using a number of quantitative and qualitative research techniques, we are unpicking the possible therapeutic properties of both ‘blue’ and ‘green’ environments, and quantifying these effects to aid their inclusion in planning and policy.
Environmental and public health economics
Values of the environment and health impacts of pollution are increasingly being used in “getting the prices right” by business, government and the European Commission. Valuation methods from the field of economics are applied in arriving at values in money terms – and these can then be included in decision making tools such as cost-benefit analysis. Research at the Centre attempts to extend this application by valuing both positive and negative impacts of the environment. Our on-going research includes the valuation of ecosystem services in the Isles of Scilly, valuation of atmospheric services in the UK and valuing the impact of climate change.
This interdisciplinary skill focuses on the interplay between individuals and their surroundings. We are shedding light on the psychological mechanisms that allow natural environments to provide therapeutic benefits, and attempting to understand how we can use some of these elements in controlled settings.
Research on the effects of the environment on disease and wellbeing in populations is a key tool to understanding how we can gain benefits (and avoid negative effects) from exposure to environmental factors. By examining trends in a cross-section of a community, we can tease out subtle health effects that are not visible at a smaller scale. Our epidemiological research includes assessing the health outcomes from chronic low level exposure to man-made chemicals, exposure to naturally occurring chemical such as radon gas and algal toxins, and the effects of chronic weather or climatic events.
Geographic Information Systems
Geographic Information Systems (GIS) help us to visualise and analyse geographically referenced data over a range of scales, from the very small to the very large. We use GIS to map exposures to environmental conditions (the distance from a home to the nearest green space or pollution source, for example) and combine this with other population characteristics to tease out relationships between health and the environment. Our studies use data that may come from large national and international surveys, or involve using data gathered from individuals using GPS and other data logging devices.
Researchers at the Centre are investigating the relationships between humans and the microorganisms that survive and thrive in the human body. We are considering both the agents that can cause disease, and organisms that form an essential part of healthy immunity and digestion. We are also investigating the impact that microorganisms in the environment can have on human health.
Policy analysis and communication
The Centre is involved in policy research in the areas linking the environment and human health. A key area of expertise is policy research on adaptation to climate change from a health perspective. A broad approach is taken to include all relevant policy areas even where at first glance they might appear of limited relevance. Choices made in different policy areas will often have indirect and contradictory effects on human health and wellbeing. A key aim of our policy research is to identify and minimise or remove contradictions between policies with the ultimate aim of facilitating efficient adaptation to climate change and maximising health and wellbeing outcomes.
Qualitative research methods
Part of the Centre’s research programme explores how and why people give meaning to their experiences in the ways that they do, and what the social influences are that inform this process. To capture this information we use a host of qualitative research methods. These methods enable us to focus on the way people interpret and make sense of their experiences and the world in which they live. They involve ‘being’ with the person and the data that is collected tends to be non-numerical symbols, such as words and pictures. We’re applying these methods to find out how we can create the conditions for employees to engage in healthy workplace programmes, to learn more about how active ageing is perceived and experienced across the life course; and to gain an insight into older people's experiences of a changing climate.
Systematic review and evidence synthesis
Conducting a systematic review allows a research group to identify all evidence that exists about a particular research question. This evidence is then synthesised using a range of techniques to help identify, amongst other factors, gaps and limitations in current knowledge. This approach is important because it minimises bias in, and maximizes transparency about, the identification, selection and analysis of research evidence. The review may be used to help define a research question (targeting areas that have not yet been explored) or to collate and re-analyse conclusions from other studies. Systematic reviews and evidence synthesis are applied across the full range of research themes and studies at the Centre.
The Centre employs experts from diverse disciplines: epidemiology, communication, policy analysis, systematic reviews, horizon scanning, health economics, biostatistics, qualitative methods, chemistry and microbiology. Each researcher specialises in a range of quantitative and qualitative research methods and together, forms a team that is encouraged to break from traditional silos.
We have two major research areas: emerging threats to health and wellbeing posed by the environment, and the health and wellbeing benefits the natural environment can provide. Within these overarching themes our researchers work on projects across several themes that deliberately cross disciplinary boundaries.