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New funding scheme launched: Sustaining Health

11 Jul, 2013

Today the Trust launches its newest funding scheme, ‘Sustaining health’. The scheme aims to support pilot projects that address the interplay between environment, nutrition and health, with a key focus on health. Steve Connor, one of the scheme’s experts in residence tells us why the scheme is relevant now. 

Environment; global change

Illustration based on a satellite-derived map (Aaron van Donkelaar/Dalhousie University) showing fine particulate concentrations in the air

There are over seven billion people on Earth. It is estimated that by 2050 that number will have reached 9 billion. In launching the Sustaining Health scheme, we are looking for people to tackle some of the many health problems that we as a global community are facing. With such a mammoth task, we are particularly interested in research that will ultimately have a significant impact on health through its interaction with nutrition and/or the environment.

By challenging ourselves to connect the environment, nutrition and health, we take on the many associated complex and competing demands. We need to grow enough food to sustain our growing population, but already we have conflicting health problems associated with those that have an excess of food and those lacking access to enough food (let alone healthy foods). To think of the human population in isolation is too limited – in order to develop and maintain a stable environment we need to conserve our flora and fauna too. This raises questions of social values, economic threats and political choices many of which cross national borders or are global in reach. In recognition of this fact, applicants to the scheme can be based anywhere in the world.

Our world is changing and many processes of change are faster now than ever before. With a global population exceeding seven billion, there are more of us than ever and this brings its own set of problems. Beyond the obvious challenges of space and housing we must consider how can we live sustainably and healthily in cities. The most fundamental of needs are undoubtedly clean air, clean water, and good food. Yet in many of the newly emerging mega-cities of the developing world atmospheric pollution is unbearable – respiratory disease is endemic and preliminary evidence suggests air pollution reduces both quantity and quality of food crops grown in their environs – and damages water quality too. We hope that our latest funding scheme might help to address these types of issues.

Cast-iron plan

Spanning environment, nutrition and health, Sustaining health embraces a broad range of research themes and questions. This in in turn opens the door to broad solutions. A simple example of the interplay between nutrition and health is cooking with cast iron; using a cast-iron pan can increase the iron content of the food cooked in it and contribute to better health. A lack of iron may seem relatively minor but anaemia can result in impaired physical and cognitive development in children and reduced work productivity in adults. This is a clear example of how nutrition has a vital role to play in health and we want to find more.

How to define the boundaries of our challenge is a tricky question; we are very open to suggestion. Is the environment our immediate surroundings or the whole planet? Is nutrition what and how much we eat or is it the whole process from farm to plate? And health? Are we interested just in individuals or whole communities?

We are looking for proposals that cross disciplines, cross sectors, perhaps even cross countries in our aim to achieve extraordinary improvements in human and animal health. We believe that collaborations are key to the production of high-quality research. Our early research has highlighted the rapid growth in data in the public and private domains and the important role it could play in society. Recognising this, we would like to see proposals with the power to tap into the potential of such data sets, perhaps by making it more relevant, available or accessible. We are also interested in other relevant projects that fall outside of this big data theme.

Connecting Environment, Nutrition and Health is a challenge indeed but one that is vital to gain and sustain health. With this newest call for proposals to elucidate some of these issues and with the thematic of “unlocking the power of data”, hopefully we will highlight important areas for concerted investment and raise awareness.

For information on the Sustaining Health funding call and for application details, please visit www.wellcome.ac.uk/sustaininghealth.

Examples of previous projects connecting environment, nutrition and health can also be found on our website

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