19 January 2018

Elevating the literature review to the status of a science has won PhD student Paul Whaley Lancaster University's ‘Impactful Researcher’ Enterprise Award

When Paul Whaley worked in science communications for an environmental NGO he was frustrated that experts often contradicted each other, and it could be hard to know whose opinion – if anyone’s – should be believed.

A possible solution to this frustration came in 2010, when Paul set up his own research consultancy business. One of his first clients was involved with systematic reviews in medicine, which have revolutionised how medical researchers evaluate effectiveness of medical treatments, ensuring no relevant evidence is missed and that each bit of evidence is given appropriate weight. Paul became fascinated.

“The approach captured my attention as a potential solution to the increasingly polarised and fractured debates we are seeing in environmental policy,” he says.

Paul wondered if the systematic review process could help overcome the inevitable biases which individual experts bring to reviewing evidence and so produce better answers to important questions, such as identifying chemicals which can harm people’s health, or determining what level of pesticide residues in crops are safe for human consumption?

He discovered that other people were also starting to look at how systematic reviews could help in chemical risk assessments, and realised he was on to something. But he was an untrained outsider: he decided to invest time and money in acquiring expertise.

His first breakthrough was in 2012, when he gained funding to critique the methods the European Food Safety Authority was using to assess health risks posed by chemicals used in food packaging materials, and compare them to best practices in the conduct of medical systematic reviews.

In 2014 he realised that he needed to step-change his expertise if he wanted to make a real difference to how evidence is evaluated in environmental policy, so he decided to fund himself to do a part-time PhD at Lancaster Environment Centre at Lancaster University, while continuing his consultancy business.

With help from colleagues at the University, Paul started talking to a wide range of international health organisations about their processes for reviewing the literature on the safety of chemicals. It soon became clear that there was a need for tools, such as best practice frameworks and quality control measures, to help chemical risk assessment practitioners incorporate high-quality systematic review techniques into chemical safety assessment. One particularly promising area was improving the peer-review process, for deciding if an assessment is fit for purpose.

As a first stage Paul and his collaborators produced a Literature Review Appraisal Tool : they have recently developed the “EPSTER” tool for systematic appraisal and enhanced peer-review of Systematic Reviews (Whaley et al. to be published in 2018). Paul has also become the first specialist editor for systematic reviews in the field of environmental health research, at the journal Environment International.

Alongside his academic research, Paul has successfully developed his business, offering training to help clients conduct high-quality systematic reviews and evaluate the quality of research, as well as providing them with the tools they need to do this.

“Our work is steered towards minimising research waste, helping our clients and stakeholders avoid conducting unnecessary research: ensuring that what they do invest in is valid and optimally useful, and helping them avoid policy errors by over-emphasising poor-quality research.

Collaborators and clients over the past three years have included the World Health Organisation, the US National Toxicology Program, the US Environmental Protection Agency, the International Labour Office, and the European Food Safety Authority. 

“With the influence of these groups on international chemicals regulation and research standards, we feel that a beneficiary of our work genuinely is the global population, who will benefit from safer, evidence-based chemical regulation and risk management.”

Paul feels that his decision to come to Lancaster University has been key to his success.

“I wouldn’t have been able to achieve half of what I have if I hadn’t come to Lancaster; it is a very dynamic institution and has helped open up lots of doors to organisations such as the WHO.”

As well as winning the Impactful Researcher Enterprise Award, Paul has been recognised as the best 3rd year PhD researcher in the inaugural Dean’s Awards for the University’s Faculty of Science and Technology.


Find out more about doing a PhD at Lancaster Environment Centre