Sax Institute recognises public health research that makes a difference

Two public health researchers whose inspiring work has had a major impact in areas as diverse as HIV prevention and early learning were honoured yesterday at the Sax Institute’s 2021 Research Action Awards, held this year as an online event due to COVID social distancing restrictions.

Over 150 senior policy makers and research leaders registered to attend the awards ceremony and celebrate the achievements of two early- to mid-career researchers whose work has demonstrated the importance of research evidence in public health policy and practice. They were:

  • Dr Benjamin Bavinton, Senior Research Fellow at the Kirby Institute, UNSW Sydney, for world-leading research that for the first time proved HIV drug treatment effectively prevents sexual transmission of the disease between men.
  • Dr Claire Blewitt, Research Fellow at the School of Public Health and Preventive Medicine, Monash University, for a ground-breaking intervention to address social and emotional difficulties in early childhood.

Dr Bavinton and Dr Blewitt were presented with their Awards by the Chair of the Sax Institute’s Board, Professor Ian Olver AM.

Established in 2015, the Institute’s annual Research Action Awards recognise researchers whose work has made a significant impact on health policy, programs or service delivery.

In a video address for the event, which included a panel discussion focusing on how research could help Australia recover from COVID-19, NSW Health Secretary Elizabeth Koff said the Research Action Awards event “continues a fine tradition seen right across the health system of acknowledging our talented researchers whose work makes a real difference”.

“From the beginning of the pandemic, NSW Health recognised the role that research could play in helping to guide the NSW Government’s pandemic response,” Ms Koff said. “It is clear the role of research continues to be vital as the pandemic’s course shifts into a recovery phase, we all hope.

“The public health infrastructure in NSW is rightly seen as a great strength of our state, and I pay tribute to the many leaders and stewards of the system whose decisions over the years have allowed this depth of expertise to develop and grow into the nationally significant asset it is today.”

In accepting his award, Dr Bavinton said that understanding and dismantling barriers to HIV testing was now a key priority in HIV research, along with reducing stigma for at-risk populations, while another large research agenda was focused on researching the effectiveness and implementation of a range of new antiviral treatments now becoming available.

“It’s a really exciting space to be in, and especially so because we’re getting really serious about possibility of eliminating HIV transmission in Australia,” Dr Bavinton said.

Watch interview with Dr Ben Bavinton.

Dr Blewitt, in her acceptance remarks, said taking a public health approach in the education and particularly early education “can play an important role in preventing and tackling some of the complex and pervasive challenges that impact children and their families”. Challenges included mental health, bullying, family violence, nutrition and food insecurity, and educational attainment, she said.

“We know that high quality early education and care can strengthen the social and emotional competencies that promote wellbeing and prevent chronic health problems,” Dr Blewitt said.

“It also offers a pathway to reach nearly all children at a critical stage in their development, including those who may be at risk due to socioeconomic disadvantage or other risk factors.”

Watch interview with Dr Claire Blewitt.

This year’s ceremony also included a lively panel discussion around the theme of research and policy priorities in a time of recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. The panel comprised Dr Teresa Anderson AM, Chief Executive of the Sydney Local Health District; Professor Catherine Bennett, Chair in Epidemiology at Deakin University; and Professor Andrew Wilson, Director of the Menzies Centre for Health Policy at the University of Sydney.

Dr Anderson said a significant and unexpected development had been the pandemic-induced rise in health literacy and the public’s interest in and preparedness to engage with epidemiological and other health information, which had the potential to influence public health for the better in powerful new ways.

“Don’t we all just love the fact that the community loves data now? I actually think that’s a really huge innovation, that the community loves data that makes sense, and helps to inform it to change behaviour.

“And I think from a public health perspective, understanding how we can change behaviour to answer those really big questions and health issues that we’ve really struggled with – the impact of tobacco, the impact of obesity and overweight – if we can do it with COVID, we can take those learnings and tackle those other health issues.”

This year’s winners join an illustrious list of public health researchers who have been recipients of a Research Action Award. They include Professor Julie Leask, who in 2019 was named by the Australian Financial Review as Australia’s most influential woman; and Associate Professor Melissa Kang, who has been a tireless advocate for young people’s mental and sexual health.

  • Read more about the winners’ research here
  • Read more about the Research Action Awards here