16 April 2022.

The Sax Forum is an initiative that brings together our membership with the aim of sharing knowledge and working out what we can do better together. It involves regular meetings with people from our member organisations to explore a particular issue in public health. 

At our latest Sax Forum on March 30, more than 70 people from universities, local health districts and NSW Health met online to discuss how cohort datasets, such as our 45 and Up Study, can be used for environmental health research.

Dr Richard Broome, executive director at Health Protection NSW, said cohort datasets provide a high level of evidence to support environmental health decision making. “Cohort data shows that health effects occur in humans at the levels we see in the environment,” he said.

A big win for cohort data influencing policy was Australia’s adoption of the world’s most stringent air-quality standards for fine particulate matter. “There was a plethora of evidence from cohort studies around the world,” Dr Broome said. “It was powerful and made the government act.”

Associate Professor Melody Ding, an epidemiologist and population behavioural scientist at the University of Sydney, spoke about how cohort data has deepened our understanding of what shapes healthy behaviour beyond individual motivations.

She had this advice for researchers looking to make their mark: “It’s tempting to see an exposure and an outcome in cohort data that no-one’s looked at, and do a paper on it,” she said. “But first, ask yourself: ‘What kind of research do policy makers want to hear, and what kind of research is really pushing the field forward?’”

Dr Joe Van Buskirk, a biostatistician at the University of Sydney and senior epidemiologist at Sydney Local Health District, explained that a good researcher needs to consider the weaknesses of whatever data they’re using.

“Different sources of data all have different formats and precision tolerances,” Dr Buskirk said. “You’ve got to understand the methods involved, as well as the bias and error that might be present.” He noted that linking other sources of information, such as administrative data, to cohort data can be time-consuming because of confidentiality concerns and ethics processes.

Collaboration was a key theme of the forum, with panellist Associate Professor Geoffrey Morgan from the University of Sydney saying it was essential for getting funding and improving access to data.

“If you look around and see someone who has good data, it can be helpful to talk to them, see if you can work together, that can save a lot of short-term pain,” he said, adding that early- and mid-career researchers should look at non-traditional funding sources, like smaller contracts with government agencies.

Professor Sotiris Vardoulakis, director of the recently formed Healthy Environment and Lives [HEAL] National Research Network, spoke of the importance of data providers to the network, which includes the Sax Institute’s Secure Unified Research Environment [SURE]. He also said that around 30 new post-doctoral and 20 PhD positions would be funded by HEAL in the future.

At the end of the forum, Dr Lucy Gunn, Senior Research Fellow with RMIT University, gave a tour of Australian Urban Observatory, an exciting new digital platform that maps liveability across 21 Australian cities and contains longitudinal data.

The forum was chaired by Dr Elly Howse, Senior Research Fellow from The Australian Prevention Partnership Centre at the Sax Institute and Dr Michael Frommer, Senior Advisor at the Sax Institute.

Find out more

  • A recording of the workshop can be viewed here
  • Find out more about upcoming Sax Forums here
  • Find out more about the 45 and Up study here.