Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness (Questions 20 - 39)



Mr Beard

  20. The Office of Science and Technology, in the scheme of things, was the co-ordinator of the EQUAL programme. How active has it been in co-ordinating, or has it looked at what is going on and given its blessing?
  (Dr Metz) I am outside the system. I am not a civil servant. I am looking from outside. I have to say I have seen little external manifestation of activity by the Office of Science and Technology. What one sees is the Research Council programme. No doubt there has been going on in the background appropriate discussions but it has not manifested itself publicly. I am not aware of any ministerial interventions since that Mr Taylor has mentioned.

  21. Correct me if I am wrong, but is that not the central policy of EQUAL? It did not have funds of its own but it was trying to redirect the spending in the Research Councils so that it dealt with topics which were relevant to ageing. If it has not been active about this, then what we see as an ostensible programme is a set of random events by the look of it.
  (Dr Metz) No. I am sure the initiative on the part of the OST did result in a change of behaviour by the Research Councils—at least the EPSRC, the BBSRC and the ESRC. What the MRC have done in response is less clear, it seems to me. So I am sure the three funding programmes of these three Research Councils stem from the initiative. But beyond that, as an outside observer, it is not clear to me that anything further has been instigated by the Office of Science and Technology.

Mr Taylor

  22. I take the fact that you think there is no vision or leadership as a criticism of Lord Sainsbury, my successor, but not a personal criticism. However, the whole purpose of EQUAL was to show the relationship between the science base and the research which was necessary in a wider public interest to tackle the problems of ageing. The purpose was to increase the ability of people to be "not dependent", in other words, active during this period of extended life. So it was multi-disciplinary by its very nature. It did not say, "You must now start doing a particular narrow area of medical research," because that was subject to peer review and was probably happening anyway. It was showing the wider context. So if there is no vision and leadership, you are effectively attacking the Government's lack of drive from the OST.
  (Dr Metz) When I commented there was a lack of vision and leadership I did not particularly have Ministers in mind, although I am conscious that while there is a ministerial group on older people, to my knowledge that ministerial group has not addressed the question of research needed to generate the knowledge that we will need to develop policies in that area. It might do so. When I spoke about lack of vision and leadership, I was really directing the comment more to the administrators of research funding and the scientific community. It is a difficult field to operate in because of the range of disciplines involved.

  23. To interrupt you—the very need for multi-disciplinary approach is often something which is not fully appreciated. Therefore, a Minister's job is to stimulate that and sometimes provide funding, which may not be massively increased but actually is linked across different Research Councils. At least in the Research Councils there has to be some co-operation between them, which might not otherwise have occurred. I think those are the real achievements. My point about lack of vision is that it is clearly something which has to be given really high public profile, to show the need to bring people together, and to show that science can be relevant, (whether it be basic science or applied science), to some of the problems that we know society is going to face over the next decade or two. That, I sense, from the evidence you have given, you have not noticed happening recently.
  (Dr Metz) That is right. I would certainly welcome any ministerial leadership in this area but I think it is not just for Ministers, it is more for other kinds of leaders to emerge in this area. Again, to make the contrast with other countries, one does detect in the United States that they have a National Institute on Aging which does allow some leadership to emerge in that context. The Director of that Institute will give evidence to Congress each year to bid for his budget. He produces a very coherent statement of priorities. He is the accountable person. We do not have anyone in this country.

  24. That was really my next question. Should we have somebody like that in this country?
  (Dr Metz) I believe it would be of value.

Mr Beard

  25. Surely the prime question is: why has the Office of Science and Technology not operated in this way during the EQUAL programme? How would you expect it to have operated? I would have expected the Office of Science and Technology to do an appraisal of what were the issues involved in ageing, and what were the likely approaches that might come together to tackle them, and then periodically review the progress on them. At the moment it just looks as if it has gone to a football match to watch the game.
  (Dr Metz) I have enquired about any statements or documentation issued by the Office of Science and Technology in connection with EQUAL after the original launch. I do not think I have heard there is any.

  Mr Beard: I must just defend my officials when I was there. They were doing quite a lot of work and they heard me speak many times, both publicly and privately, about it.

  Dr Gibson: It's a shame about the Government change really, isn't it!

Mr Beard

  26. It is an increasingly-wide constituency point of view—particularly related to science, of course! But the serious point is—forget ministerial roles and criticism at the moment—you are on the outside looking in. I go back to the rather key point you raised. I just want to understand what it was you were concluding from it. Should there be a non-ministerial supremo, either within, inside the Government, or on the outside but with a clearly defined role, almost trying to lead the crusade for extending the quality of active life?
  (Dr Metz) In terms of research and development programmes relevant to that end, maybe I could offer this comment. For nearly all areas of research and development relevant to Government policy, you will find within Whitehall someone like David Fisk who will be responsible for one chunk of it. That responsibility will not only cover his own Department's work but relevant work of other Departments. Now, in the case of ageing research, as far as I know there is no-one at Chief Scientist or similar level within Whitehall who will say, "Yes, I am responsible for the overall position, overall strategy." I think it would be valuable if there was such a person. Now, whether it should be one of the existing Chief Scientists or whether it should be Sir Robert May, for example, one could debate.

Dr Jones

  27. What about the Department of Health? What role should they have?
  (Dr Metz) Well, they might be willing to take it on but they might say there are many aspects of ageing research which are not particularly health-related. They might not want to get into those aspects. This is one of the problems of the nature of ageing research. It is so wide.

  28. Should they take a more prominent role? What have you noticed about their role?
  (Dr Metz) I understand that within the National Health Service R&D programme they have been reviewing the work on ageing, which is a welcome innovation. The last time the NHS published a research strategy under the previous Government there was a chapter on child health but there was no chapter on health in old age, so it would be very welcome if in the future the problems of an ageing population and implications for the health service were recognised in their research programme. The outcome of that review has not been announced and it will be important, even for the work of this Committee, to understand what is going to happen.

Mr Taylor

  29. A final supplementary. There are two obvious areas where the Department of Health has not been doing enough work, one is rehabilitation and the other is something that is not a subject that is talked about very much but is actually a serious problem, which is incontinence. If that is a problem for an individual, that problem transfers itself to a home, you have to go into cared accommodation.
  (Dr Metz) Yes.

  30. Now these are research areas which EQUAL was designed to bring up and then allocate back into various Government Departments. I think what I have been hearing from you is that there is nobody driving us forward, either in Government or alongside Government, in a quasi unofficial way and I think that is one of the reasons for this inquiry, to find out where there are weaknesses.
  (Dr Metz) Yes.

  Dr Jones: Could I just bring in Mr Beard because I think what he has to say will deal with this question at the same time.

Mr Beard

  31. Essentially you are saying that the EQUAL Programme, which was meant in a way to be a Foresight Programme, to inform people of what the areas are that are relevant to ageing so that they could gear their research programmes towards it but nobody has heard of it, has had a very low profile in the research community, that is essentially what you are saying?
  (Dr Metz) Yes.

  32. Who is responsible for that? Is it because the research community are old fashioned and do not take to these initiatives or is it because nobody has promoted it very vigorously?
  (Dr Metz) I would say that the three research council programmes that responded to the EQUAL initiative were well appreciated by their research communities but they were seen as research programmes of those particular Research Councils, not so much as part of this wider EQUAL initiative.

  33. They could have been taken up by submissions from universities and other institutions without any reference to EQUAL?
  (Dr Metz) I think to some extent this is what happened. To give an example, the Economic and Social Research Council have a very sensible and worthwhile programme called Growing Older which spans health care and technology as well as the social sciences. I have to say I was disappointed in that the time interval between the announcement of the programme and the date for outline applications was only about six weeks and that seemed to me very short in terms of the time we would need to create new multi-disciplinary partnerships to bid for such work. I had hoped to run an AgeNet workshop to actually attract people to that programme, particularly bringing in people from the technology background, from the health care sector, but there was not time to do it.

  34. What would you say should have been done, in this case, to have given this a higher profile so the research community knew what was there?
  (Dr Metz) I think rather more money would have helped.

  35. That would always help, but leaving that aside.
  (Dr Metz) I think a branding would have helped. To give an example, the Link Programmes which promote research collaboration between universities and industries have had a strong brand image going for 15 years. It is overseen by a board of outside people and that gives a strong brand image. That could have been done, and could in the future be done, for EQUAL, that would be well worthwhile. That would fit in as part of a more strategic view which would, coming back to incontinence, decide what we are going to do about the research on incontinence. It is a very unattractive topic but, yes, it is a very important topic. Scientifically it is hard to get a handle on, there are not many people doing it. If proposals for research on this topic are put in for normal responsive mode funding, they are quite likely not to get funded for obvious reasons. You need to protect an area like this, you need to attract new people in, you need to create new partnerships between cellular physiologists and medical technologists. In principle this could be done within an EQUAL context but, in fact, incontinence has been one of the topics that has fallen outside it.

  36. What is the view in the research community? Has nobody commented in this way and said: "This is all a bit glib, nothing is coming out of this EQUAL. We are ploughing our own furrow". Has AgeNet not commented on this? Has nobody commented on this?
  (Dr Metz) There has been very little comment. The one I remember was an editorial in one of the research bulletins written by Mrs Elizabeth Mills, who was Director of Research into Ageing, at an early stage commenting on the lack of impact EQUAL was making, which I gather caused some discomfort to the then Director General. I think one has to say EQUAL has had no real profile in the scientific community other than through the three research council programmes.

  Mr Taylor: I must just declare a non-financial interest. I am a Governor of the Age Research Community.

Dr Gibson

  37. There might have been a lot of research proposals for alpha-rated, but not funded; would you know about them, in incontinence or whatever?
  (Dr Metz) I sat on one panel that the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council ran in connection with EQUAL. We were not overwhelmed by alpha-rated applications but that may not be true in other areas, so I cannot really comment on that.

  38. How much money do you need?
  (Dr Metz) It is not a sum of money, it is the kind of profile of expenditure over time that would be judged appropriate to make an impact in terms of outputs and drawing people at a sensible rate.

Mr Beard

  39. Are you not really saying, it is not really the money and it is not really a lack of alpha projects, it is a lack of context in which to judge these projects, which was what EQUAL was supposed to give?
  (Dr Metz) I think there is a lack of good projects that would involve people from different disciplines who would not normally work together that would tackle difficult but important problems like incontinence, that would allow people the time to make the scientific progress that will yield the outcomes we need.

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