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Thursday, 31 July 2014

Obesity: is it all in the genes?

by Tim Caulfield
Note: A version of this piece originally appeared in Policy Options. For the full link, visit
We have been subjected to years of obesity-related headlines, and the news almost always seems to be discouraging. Obesity has become a public health crisis that gets worse all the time, seemingly immune to public policy fixes. It is no surprise, then, that there is an intensifying search for a technological, pharmaceutical or, at least, biomedically oriented answer. The search for an “obesity gene” is a big part of the -cutting-edge, science-will-save-us ethos. Articles like the Globe and Mail’s 2008 “Now you can blame those extra pounds on the ‘ice age’ gene” reinforce the emerging message that we should be look to genetic-based solutions to fix our public health crisis. This is a mistake, for many reasons.

Three things you need to know about obesity and genes:

1.  The predictive power of genetics, at least to date, has not been terribly impressive.

2.  The relationship between genes and weight gain is tremendously complex, and studies have shown there is little evidence to suggest genes “could have a beneficial effect on behavior”.

3.  Few Canadians eat a balanced diet, exercise enough or are even aware of how many calories they do or should consume.

Three myths about obesity and genes:

Myth #1:  Our genes have changed over the past few decades; our environment has.

Reality:  The list of possible contributors to weight gain include our sleep habits, the microbes living in our gut, whether our parents smoked, our birth weight, the amount of TV we watch, the type of food we eat and have access to, our socio-economic conditions, and so on.

Myth #2:  Exciting new research will save us from this epidemic.

Reality:  We should not let the excitement surrounding genetic research and personalized medicine distract us from the significant and wide-ranging social change that is required to make a real difference.

Myth #3:  Well then, isn’t research on the genetics of obesity useless?

Reality:  Not at all. In addition to simply allowing us to gain a greater understanding the biology behind weight gain (a worthy goal on its own), it may help to inform future interventions. But we are looking at a public health problem across a broad swath of the population. It is absurd to concentrate on our genes to reverse an obesity epidemic.

Timothy Caulfield is a Canada Research Chair in Health Law and Policy and a Professor in the Faculty of Law and the School of Public Health at the University of Alberta. He has been the  Research Director of the Health Law Institute at the University of Alberta since 1993. Over the past several years he has been involved in a variety of interdisciplinary research endeavours that have allowed him to publish over 250 articles and book chapters. He is a Fellow of the Trudeau Foundation, a Health Senior Scholar with the Alberta Heritage Foundation for Medical Research and the Principal Investigator for a number of large interdisciplinary projects that explore the ethical, legal and health policy issues associated with a range of topics, including stem cell research, genetics, patient safety, the prevention of chronic disease, obesity policy, the commercialization of research, complementary and alternative medicine and access to health care. Professor Caulfield is and has been involved with a number of national and international policy and research ethics committees, including: Canadian Biotechnology Advisory Committee; Genome Canada’s Science Advisory Committee; the Ethics and Public Policy Committee for International Society for Stem Cell Research; and the Federal Panel on Research Ethics. He has won numerous academic awards and is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada and the Canadian Academy of Health Sciences.  He writes frequently for the popular press on a range of health and science policy issues and is the author of The Cure for Everything: Untangling the Twisted Messages about Health, Fitness and Happiness (Penguin 2012).  

Thursday, 17 July 2014

Which digital dilemmas confront the public service?

By Ken Kernaghan

My June CPA article, entitled Digital Dilemmas: Values, Ethics and Information Technology in Public Organizations, builds on the recently published second edition of the Kernaghan-Langford book on The Responsible Public Servant where the impact of information technology (IT) is a recurring theme. 

Three things to know about values, ethics and information technology:

  1.  Developments in IT can have a major impact on public service values, including privacy, honesty, openness, service, accountability, and responsiveness.

  2. Value conflicts and dilemmas arising from developmentsin digital technologies argue for vigorous measures to alert pracademics to the technologies’ impact.

  3. An analytical framework based on the four-foldclassification of values into democratic, ethical, professional, and people values could provide a manageable framework for examining issues in values, ethics and IT.

Three myths about values, ethics and information technology:

Myth #1: The impact of IT developments, including its values and ethics implications, is adequately covered in textbooks on Canadian public administration.  

The Reality:  The accelerated pace of change in IT and its implications for values and ethics has not been reflected in contemporary textbooks and scholarly writings.

Myth #2:  Any significant impact of robotics on public organizations, including its values and ethics implications, lies far down the road.

The Reality: Robots have become a significant presence in industrialized states and are already raising difficult ethical issues in such policy fields as health care and the military.

Myth #3: Current values statements and ethics codes are sufficient to deal with emerging issues arising from advances in IT.

The Reality: These statements and codes need to be revised to take account of IT issues and to be accompanied by increased attention to ethics leadership and training.

Ken Kernaghan is professor emeritus of public administration at Brock University.

Wednesday, 9 July 2014

Does maternity leave work?

By Reva Seth

Three things everyone should know about career success and maternity leave:

    1.    Fewer and fewer women have access to the conventional form of maternity leave.  In 2001, when the Canadian government increased parental leave from 10 to 35 weeks it was a significant step toward creating a workplace that was more amenable to families. However, this benefit will be available to fewer families as research suggests that by 2020 over half the workforce will be working in non-institutional careers (without access to benefits).

      2.   Fewer and fewer women can afford a full year long maternity leave.  The number of women who are the sole breadwinners in their family and/or who earn an equal income to that of their partner has been steadily growing.  A full departure from work, then, has a significant impact on finances.

3.  Entrepreneurship is changing the framework of maternity leave.  Small to mid-size businesses have become a key source of job creation in the Canadian economy– and increasingly these are owned and operated by women. For this group, stepping away from their business for maternity leave is not an option and similarly, having their employees do so, is also very difficult.  

Three myths about career success and maternity leave:

Myth #1: Re-thinking maternity leave will be set back working mothers.
Reality:  The current frame on maternity leave is increasingly irrelevant to the growing number of mothers who are freelancers, self-employed, part-time or consultants. Failing to discuss options that would support this group is detrimental to families.

Myth #2: A “successful” maternity leave requires an extended seclusion from work.

Reality: As a result of technology, women engaged in the knowledge economy, have an expectation that they will continue to stay connected to work.

Myth #3: Changing maternity leave will negatively impact families.

Reality:  Maternity leave is just one component in a larger discussion that needs to happen regarding finding new ways to support families as they care for aging parents as well as children. A new conversation that reflects both the changing landscape of work and families is what is needed.

Reva Seth’s book, The Mom Shift: Women Share Their Stories of Career Success After Children is based on interviews with over 500 women who shared the variety of ways they are structuring their family and careers. One of the unexpected findings was with regards to the changing views on maternity leave.