The path to equality

Professor Rich Mitchell is a social scientist in the MRC/CSO-funded Social & Public Health Sciences Unit. A geographer by background he is a Clarivate Analytics Global Highly Cited Researcher for 2018, one of ten Glasgow researchers recognised as being in the top 1% for citations in their academic field.

Tell us a bit about your career this far.

I've been very lucky, my first postdoc happened completely randomly. I think, like many people, when I finished my PhD I wanted to leave academia, but as soon as I did I realised I had made a mistake and after a year I returned to academia. I was lucky enough to get a postdoc with a fantastic team, joining a big Economic & Social Research Council-funded grant. All the key people in the field, at that time, were part of it and it was a very exciting time. I remember the first big project meeting I went to, the room was just full of all these stellar people, and they taught me lots in terms of how they work.

I did a whole series of short-term contract post-doc jobs. Later, I moved to the University of Edinburgh before coming to Glasgow in 2007 as a Senior Lecturer in Public Health.

What is the focus of your research, and what inspires you?

At the heart of my research is trying to understand how physical and social environments affect our health, and how environments could be used to protect and improve health, and reduce the health gaps between rich and poor people.

In terms of inspiration I'm just really interested in how the world works: how people behave, why they do what they do, how the environment shapes what they do and how unaware we all are of that relationship. I've always been really interested in the physical environment and nature. So being able to bring that together with my curiosity about what makes people healthy or not healthy is fantastic.

What drives you to do this research?

I'm interested in new things, combining new ideas and applying new techniques. I’m incredibly interested in trying to understand why interventions fail and how we can approach things differently. For example, we’ve just finished an interesting study with the Forestry Commission, looking at what happened when they improved woodlands in deprived communities, and what's interesting is just how few people in the areas changed their behaviour. One of the key features of Glasgow, for me, is having fantastic role models, people like Professor Jill Pell and Professor Sally-Ann Cooper.

How do you feel about being featured in the Highly Cited list?

It’s given me a chance to talk about the importance of social science, the importance of science as a team game and the importance of inequalities. It's my name on the list this year but almost all the papers that I have which are highly cited are big team productions. What's important is that it is the work of the teams and the funders that has been recognised.

Tell us about the research you have been highly cited for.

Most of the things I've been highly cited around are in the area of nature and health. These are studies which look at trying to detect and understand the health benefits of contact with natural environments. There is also work around monitoring and measuring health inequalities from earlier in my career.

What keeps you at Glasgow?

One of the key features of Glasgow, for me, is having fantastic role models, people like Professor Jill Pell and Professor Sally-Ann Cooper. They combine being stellar scientists with being good managers and approachable, lovely people. I am incredibly lucky to work in an environment which supports flexible working. I have been supported by senior management to work part-time, enabling me to spend time with my young family.

Scotland is an incredibly rich environment for this type of research. There are strong connections between science, policy and practice. We can go into meetings with senior civil servants and MSPS, people who actually have the power to change stuff, and talk to them and they are interested in what we have to say.

What’s next?

We are really interested in trying to change how we think about how environment influences health and to do that we need to develop some new methods. We want to understand how the environments we live in (neighbourhoods, towns and cities), change and evolve over time. So, for example if you create a new housing development and get it wrong, it will be wrong for a long time, a lot of families will experience that adverse environment over generations. It is vital to get it right, but we don’t really know how to do that. Advances in data and in computing power mean that we might be able to simulate how different places develop over time. That’s really exciting.

I also want to continue working on nature and health. It's well established now that having contact with nature can be a good thing and that having nature available is associated with better population health. But we don’t understand how to introduce people for whom nature is a bit of an alien thing and sustain their use of it. So, if you look at the statistics, large swathes of the population basically have zero interest in going to a park or a wood and never do it. Trying to understand that behaviour and to think about what we could do to try and change it is interesting.