'My 30 years of big fat no's'

October 20, 2006

Obesity researcher reveals rejections to highlight establishment 'prejudice'. Phil Baty reports

A professor at a leading university this week risked public embarrassment by releasing details of failed research funding applications over many years to highlight his concerns that the academic community is reluctant to embrace unorthodox ideas.

David Booth, professor of psychology at Birmingham University, told The Times Higher that in the course of 30 years he failed to gain any significant funding for research that he believes could hold the key to tackling Britain's growing obesity crisis.

His bitter experience reveals a general "prejudice" against new ideas that truly crossed traditional academic disciplines, he said.

One specific proposal rejected by the Medical Research Council was published this week, along with his commentary, in the refereed journal of behavioural nutrition research, Appetite .

Professor Booth, who has scores of refereed journal articles to his name, told The Times Higher that his work on obesity and eating habits includes "no new amazing theoretical discovery" or any highly unorthodox ideas. But it did challenge the orthodox view on weight and obesity held by the "medical nutrition establishment", he said.

It involves a combination of biological, sociological and psychological research for which he has coined the term "biosocial psychology". In simple terms, he combines biological and social research on weight control, which leads to a better understanding of people's eating and exercise habits and "customs".

Professor Booth has looked at the language used to describe habits such as "snacking", which can be ambiguous in official advice and can confuse people as to what is and is not good practice.

"What a GP says to an overweight patient is generic and based on professed wisdom," he said. "But it often works only in the medium term. I'm gathering evidence on what people do in their own personal circumstances and in their own terms and looking for what actually works."

As well as his rejected proposal for funding from the MRC, Professor Booth revealed a rejection letter from the Food Standards Agency. The agency said the proposal was "very interesting and potentially very useful" but rejected it on the grounds that the research team did not include a nutritionist.

Professor Booth claimed the team included two nutritionists. The FSA also said the work was so "complex" that there could be a problem delivering it on time.

"There is a failure of joined-up thinking," he said. "In the 21st century, we need to get human knowledge together across the sciences and between science and humanities. We need the Government and the research councils to get their act together if they really want to tackle the rise of obesity."

phil.baty@thes.co.uk

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