Examination of Witness (Questions 20 -
WEDNESDAY 1 MARCH 2000
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
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
Councilsat 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.
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 youthe 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.
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!
26. It is an increasingly-wide constituency
point of viewparticularly related to science, of course!
But the serious point isforget ministerial roles and criticism
at the momentyou 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.
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.
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
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
(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
(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.
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
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
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.