The Charles Perkins Centre Writer in Residence Fellowship represents a new way of doing things in academia and could be a vital tool in the fight against chronic diseases, argues Professor Stephen Simpson.
The benefits of creative writing to a pervasive problem like obesity are clear. No matter the magnitude of the finding, a scientist writing in an academic journal will never strike the same emotional chord as the best creative writing.
Albert Einstein's definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results. It's been 100 years since hepublished his theory of general relativity, and his wisdom is as relevant as ever.
For as long as obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease have been threatening human health, they have been treated as a medical problem by clinicians and scientists. And while significant inroads have been made in understanding the causes, in treatment and in prevention we are still far from solving the obesity crisis. For all our hard work, Australia's obesity rates have increased rapidly in the last 20 years with a slew of associated health and social consequences. A recent Obesity Australia and PwC report found that obesity cost Australia $8.6 billion in 2011-2012, and the indirect costs are far higher. If we take no action to reduce obesity rates, an additional 2.4 million people will become obese at a cost of $87.7 billion over 10 years.
Doing things differently isn't a catchphrase, it's an urgent necessity. In this spirit, the University of Sydney's Charles Perkins Centre has announced a $100,000 fellowship for a writer in residence. We're seeking an established creative writer to interpret the modern epidemics of chronic disease beyond the purview of scientists and clinicians. Rather than a technical health assessment, our writer in residence will be given complete freedom to interpret the issues and their inherent complexity through creative writing – not just health, but also wellbeing, food, ageing, social disadvantage and cultural identity. To articulate this human heart of modern chronic disease would be a powerful force for awareness and change.
At one level the drivers of the obesity crisis are simple: we are eating too much of the wrong things and expending too little energy. However, the reasons behind this are unbelievably complex. Contrary to popular opinion, the obesity epidemic is not just the greatest mass failure of willpower in the history of humanity. The public health message to eat less and better and move more has had little effect because our world is designed in every respect to stymie our efforts to be healthier: our environment is "obesogenic".
Like all animals, humans have evolved to minimise energy expenditure and maximise accessibility to safe and palatable food. These powerful adaptive traits have had unintended consequences. Our most notable trait – the human brain – has enabled us to design a world in which we have achieved our ancestral hearts' desires. We have selected our food and designed our food production and supply systems to maximise what was missing in our ancient environments: foods that are rich in energy, fat and sugar.
Our towns, homes and workplaces are designed to reduce energy expenditure. Our economic and political systems value wealth over health. In the Darwinian marketplace of the modern economy, companies that sell us the foods we want prosper; even if that means selling foods that will eventually kill us.
The breadth of the causes and effects of modern chronic disease mean these are more than exclusively medical problems, with solutions beyond the medical. There will be no silver bullet solution to the obesity crisis.
Multidisciplinary research is increasingly becoming the future of academia, with myriad breakthroughs emerging from the junctions between disciplines rather than from within them. For instance, at the Charles Perkins Centre, doctors, nutritionists and health scientists work with philosophers, marketers, physicists, roboticists, agriculturalists, architects, economists and many others.
However, even with universities worldwide increasingly turning towards interdisciplinary research, the creative arts are all too often ignored.
We could be overlooking an important missing piece of the puzzle. The benefits of creative writing to a pervasive problem like obesity are clear. No matter the magnitude of the finding, a scientist writing in an academic journal will never strike the same emotional chord as the best creative writing.
Prose has the power to improve understanding, spark interest and evoke a passionate response in ways unparalleled by hard science. Ironically, those "writerly" traits – a limitless imagination, curiosity and a thirst for knowledge – are shared by scientists of all disciplines. The possibilities ahead in bringing them together are endlessly exciting.
The Charles Perkins Centre Writer in Residence Fellowship represents a new way of doing things in academia. It represents a larger change to the way insidious problems are tackled, and could be the difference in how they are solved. It's time to start doing things differently to create a new outcome for obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease.