The Lancet Presents New Models for Obesity Research

RWJF's Senior Scientist Instrumental in Development of the Childhood Obesity Modeling Network

Tracy Orleans

The Lancet presents four landmark papers and commentaries (see Browse Contents) that reflect promising new models for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation's (RWJF) research funding in obesity.

The results of these studies are the brainchild of RWJF's C. Tracy Orleans, Ph.D., senior scientist in RWJF's Research & Evaluation unit, who worked closely with Dr. Steve Gortmaker (Principal Investigator) to develop the idea for the Childhood Obesity Modeling Network (COMNet). Their close collaboration resulted in the development of a proposal to link modeling groups in several developing nations: Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States. Once COMNet was established, Orleans continued to work to transition ongoing support for this innovative international modeling network to the National Collaborative on Childhood Obesity Research (NCCOR), with joint support from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Institutes of Health, RWJF and USDA. The story of this collaborative work is presented in The Lancet papers and highlighted here:

First, the investigators formed and sustained an effective four-year collaboration, known as the Childhood Obesity Research Network ( COMNet), working creatively across national boundaries to explore the drivers of the childhood obesity epidemics in four disciplinary and developed countries—the U.S., U.K., Australia and Canada—and to identify the varied interventions needed to halt and reverse them. Their findings have captured broad media attention both in the U.S. and across the globe.

Second, they reflect on what Joseph Rodgers (see: The epistemology of mathematical and statistical modeling: a quiet methodological revolution), has called a “quiet methodological revolution”—away from reliance on traditional "null hypothesis" significance testing to evaluate individual interventions and toward the use of mathematical and statistical modeling to help solve complex public health problems at a national or global level. These approaches give researchers, public health leaders and policy-makers new tools for projecting the effects and cost-effectiveness of coordinated, multi-component population-level interventions, (e.g., improving food and built environments, introducing policy actions and obesity prevention programming at the local, state and national levels). RWJF has funded similar productive modeling efforts to advance national and international tobacco control efforts, (e.g., Sim-Smoke, see: Reaching Healthy People 2010 by 2013: a SimSmoke simulation). Modeling also generates hypotheses that can be tested using other means.

Third, they demonstrate the benefits of braiding funding streams for large-scale innovative research initiatives. Initially funded by RWJF in 2010, COMNet was incorporated into a larger $15 million computational modeling initiative organized by the NCCOR with joint funding from the NIH National Institute of Child Health and Development, the NIH Office of Social and Behavioral Sciences Research, and RWJF. This expanded network, called Envision, has brought together an even larger number of international modeling teams using statistical and computational simulations to identify the drivers of childhood obesity and the leverage points and policies with greatest potential to reverse the tide. This kind of collaborative funding can greatly enhance the sustainability of the Foundation’s research investments.