Understanding obesity: the $1.2 million dollar man

Jonathon Parker meets Charles Perkins Obesity Centre academic Paul Griffiths.


Professor Paul Griffiths is a philosopher of science and an administrative head in a scientific research centre. The conjunction of such roles reads either as an oxymoron, or as an entry in the CV of a Platonic philosopher king.  Griffiths is, however, both real and the Associate Academic Director for Humanities and Social Sciences at the Charles Perkins Centre, the University of Sydney’s newest and most innovative research Centre.

“I study scientific method. So I’m interested in what scientists do and how their doing of those things succeeds in generating knowledge. I’m actually studying what people do in the Charles Perkins Centre, rather than contributing [to the scientific research itself].”

Though the centre does not officially open till June, Griffiths has already begun using his previous experience as a philosopher of science to assist in the early stages of its development.

When you think about the objectives of the centre, understanding the philosophy of science seems a rather logical ambition. The Charles Perkins Centre aims to alleviate the health and social burdens of obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Rather than merely perceiving these diseases as medical conditions, the centre will incorporate research from a myriad of faculties to gain a holistic understanding of their causes and effects. The Centre intends to understand the complexities of obesity-related diseases by investigating the role of human psychology, education and agriculture in expediting obesity.

Griffiths had been writing about evolutionary genetics and human nature prior to assuming a role at the Charles Perkins Centre, yet his role in the Centre is predominantly administrative.

“I’m convening a big conference later in the semester called ‘Who’s Afraid of the Nanny State?’, which will involve political theorists, lawyers, public health researchers and politicians arguing about whether there is anything wrong with the government interfering in our lives to make us healthier; when is it wrong, and when is it justifiable. This isn’t part of my research; it’s part of my administrative role.”

Griffiths is a humble, yet knowledgeable, figure. He views his personal role, as opposed to his administrative role, in the Centre as “really quite marginal”. In spite of this, he is well acquainted with the specifics of the research projects to be conducted by the Charles Perkins Centre, as he is overseeing the research performed by individual faculties.

He is no stranger to the biology of non-communicable disease. Griffiths recently received a $1.2 million grant from the Templeton World Charity Foundation to be put towards personal research, based on the core concepts of biology and the study of information-processing in gene regulatory networks.

In relation to the Centre itself, Griffiths has emphasized the importance of research into the biology of diabetes and cardiovascular disease amongst insects and animals. He strongly believes in the need to study biological and nutritional trends in animal eating habits before studying them in humans.

“One of the things that is really central to research going on here is noticing, right across a range of experimental animals from insects to mice to ultimately volunteer humans, that animals are not trying to control the number of calories they consume. The molecular biology inside them contains a bunch of mechanisms that are [only] trying to control what kinds of food they eat, in particular it’s trying to control how much protein, fat and so forth enters.”

However, in keeping with the Centre’s aim to ascertain a “massive, multi-component, systems-level understanding of the whole nutritional environment” in Australia, Griffiths stresses the importance of non-biological factors in contributing to obesity.

Obesity in Australia continues to rise. Over five million Australians are currently obese; indeed, obesity is overtaking smoking as the leading cause of preventable death. Consequently, Griffiths believes that responsibility for redressing burgeoning obesity lies in multiple areas of society – from agriculture and the food production system, to the government, and beyond.

“Obviously the government has a large role to play in the issue of food labelling, but so does the Australian Food and Grocery Council. So do Coles and Woolworths. There’s the Federal and State Governments, and the State Government is very active in this area, but then there is also the private sector, and things like Diabetes Australia, who will be working with the Charles Perkins Centre.”

In the US and Australia, rates of obesity continue to rise in poorer communities far more quickly than in wealthy areas. In Australia, for example, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians have the fourth highest rate of Type 2 diabetes in the world, and nearly twice as likely as non-indigenous Australians to be obese. In light of this, the centre’s name feels suddenly more apt. Charles Perkins, an Indigenous Australian rights activist, international athlete, and the first Indigenous Australian to graduate from Sydney University, fought for an end to discrimination against Indigenous Australians. Perhaps a centre operating in his name will help to better understand why Indigenous Australians are so disproportionally affected by obesity-related illness.

“There’s an argument to be made that one very effective way to deal with the obesity crisis is to reduce inequality, and ensure people have enough control over their own lives to be able to make healthy choices. If you’re over-worked and highly-stressed, you have very little capacity to make healthy choices.”

These are the issues which  the Centre is trying to investigate. What are the widespread causes of obesity? What are the best means to combat it? This is where a ‘philosopher of science’ can crystallise the best approach to a comprehensive examination of the causes and effects of obesity-related diseases. Griffiths noted that groups from the School of Business and the School of Media and Communications are preparing to take on projects alongside the Centre. However, he confirmed that “nobody actually works for the CPC apart from the administrative staff”.

Despite the range of faculties involved in the Charles Perkins Centre, many of its research projects remain unconfirmed. For example, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health is one of the five research themes at the Centre, but Griffiths said “we are still trying to appoint a Senior Researcher” to lead research in that area.

Paul Griffiths and his scientifically philosophising companions are not about to lead Plato’s utopia. Their multi-disciplinary approach may, however, help to alleviate the enormous healthcare, economic and social burdens of one of Australia’s leading causes of preventable illness. If, as Marty Rubin suggested, “Philosophers console themselves with explanations,” let us hope that they can find some consolation.