Select Committee on Science and Technology First Report


Raising the visibility of the issues

41. If increasing visibility means encouraging the relevant Research Councils to fund programmes of work on EQUAL issues, which attract members of the appropriate research communities, then one can argue that EQUAL has adequately raised visibility. Thus Professor (now Sir George) Radda believes that it does not matter if some critics say EQUAL has a low profile, because what matters is that research in the area is being carried out.[55]

42. There can, however, be little doubt that EQUAL is not well known among the wider research community: the Foresight Panel on Ageing Population for instance, told us that its "overall perception is that the initiative is not well known or understood beyond its immediate research community, yet the initiative covers issues and challenges which have a wider impact".[56] Nor is it widely recognised among user groups such as policy makers, commercial organisations or their representatives,[57] or among older people or organisations representing them. [58] It has been suggested that this was partly because most of the programmes established by the Research Councils did not identify them as part of EQUAL.[59] Only the EPSRC and ESRC programmes were directly linked to EQUAL. We believe that the harnessing of interest of these wider groups could have encouraged the growth of relevant research and development on extending the length of people's active lives on a wider scale. It is short-sighted to take the narrow view of visibility. We regret that little attempt has been made to foster interest in, and knowledge of, EQUAL outside the Research Councils.

Co-ordinating EQUAL and fostering collaboration between the Research Councils

43. It could be argued that EQUAL did not need to be co-ordinated, and that by merely encouraging the Research Councils to take action, the aim of EQUAL was achieved. The BBSRC stated, for example, that the level of co-ordination, which was light, was adequate for its purposes.[60] Professor Baker, the Chief Executive of the BBSRC, later added that the OST did not drive research or the Research Councils, and that the latter's role in EQUAL had been quite appropriate.[61] One of the aims of EQUAL was, however, to identify research gaps and stimulate multi-disciplinary and cross-council activity, and perhaps also (although unwritten) attempt to evaluate its own success in so doing. It therefore appears that co-ordination has been inadequate. The OST has played a very limited—too limited—rôle. Professor Lansley stated that the OST has been rather invisible apart from one or two early interventions;[62] and Dr Metz of AgeNet said that he had seen little manifestation of activity by OST on behalf of EQUAL.[63] Indeed, Lord Sainsbury admitted that, although workshops and the circulation of information between Research Councils had stimulated the research projects needed, it has been difficult to co-ordinate. He admitted that they might not have got the co-ordination right yet, and suggested that this might be inevitable in the early stages of such a scheme.[64] He also accepted that it might become necessary to look at other mechanisms of co-ordination, even though there is no need for close co-ordination, just for stimulating cross-cutting research.[65]

44. Although the MRC's memorandum states that EQUAL has "clearly strengthened co-ordination between researchers and between funders", we found little evidence to support this statement.[66] And more evidence suggested the opposite. For example, Baroness Greengross and the Royal Academy of Engineering both regretted the absence of co-ordination between the Research Councils.[67] Professor Lansley stated that there had been a lack of co-ordination and communication at the highest levels.[68] This has meant, for example, that researchers working on EQUAL projects across Research Councils have not met to talk issues over. Dr Metz said that the fragmentation of the Research Councils tended to create barriers to multi-disciplinary research[69] and the Foresight Ageing Population Panel Chair told us that there was no strong focus or clear sense of direction, and no strong integration of activities across the Research Councils.[70]

45. Some witnesses thought that the problem was the result of a lack of clear leadership. Witnesses were divided, however, over whether such leadership was required, or even appropriate. Leadership does not necessarily mean enforced direction, but we believe that it would have helped to raise the public profile, facilitate more joint working and networking with other organisations, and have led to the setting of specific objectives. For example, the memorandum from Research into Ageing expressed disappointment about the fact that its recommendation of appointing a high level EQUAL co-ordinator had not been followed up "since such an appointment would have helped the OST to evaluate the impact and effectiveness of EQUAL".[71] The lack of such a leader was also regretted by Baroness Greengross and by Dr Metz, who considered it a pity that there was no "source of vision and leadership".[72] We share the view that the effectiveness of EQUAL has been reduced by a lack of leadership from OST.

The funding of EQUAL

46. There were no specific funds made available either to support the EQUAL programme or to commission research under its aegis. EQUAL was more an exhortation to action by the OST than anything else. It can be argued, as Lord Sainsbury said, that it would have been difficult to ring-fence funds because ageing research spans so many fields and it is hard to draw the line between what is and is not ageing research. He told us that "It is much more a question of putting it onto the Agenda and influencing people across a wide range of subjects".[73] There was much support for this view among our witnesses: for example, NERC would not have favoured any ring-fencing of budgets which would have resulted in diverting funds away from more broadly based research areas.[74] Professor Radda also would not favour ring-fencing research funds for ageing topics; he stressed that it was important just to get the balance right.

47. Dr Taylor, the Director-General of the Research Councils (DGRC), thought it was undesirable to have different research topics competing against each other for specifically allocated funds; nor did he favour putting all research for ageing in one budget.[75] Even without specific funding, according to Dr Taylor's calculations, rough figures indicate that "as a percentage of GDP the UK is investing at a similar level to the US in this area of research".[76] Finally, the opponents of a ring-fenced budget argued that although some would say that ring-fencing was necessary in order to prevent money being diverted to more popular topics, this has been shown not to be the case because even 'unglamorous' projects have been funded under EQUAL.[77]

48. Other witnesses argued that a dedicated and an increased budget would have helped EQUAL to fulfil its objectives. As the Royal Academy of Engineering told us "it is extremely difficult for a peer-reviewed grants committee of a research council or other body to positively discriminate in favour of technology for the elderly disabled".[78] And some thought that more overall funding was needed, or else the UK would not be able to support its growing older population and UK industry would not be in a position to respond to this growing market.[79]

49. While we understand the reasons why the OST did not direct a specific portion of its budget to the Research Councils to be used for research on ageing, some increase and/or allocation for that purpose would have indicated how seriously the OST treated the issue and would have sent a clear message to the Research Councils, and perhaps other funders, to accord research relevant to an ageing population a higher priority. This can be argued even more convincingly in the light of the proportion of their budgets which the Research Councils did in fact spend on EQUAL projects (see below). We believe that the lack of dedicated funding has undermined the effectiveness of the EQUAL programme.

Did the Research Councils respond adequately?

50. It is certainly the case that the relevant Research Councils responded to the EQUAL initiative. As Lord Sainsbury said, inevitably some have done more than others, and, even with the best intentions, it is hard to imagine PPARC playing much of a rôle.[80] We have already noted the EQUAL-related programmes which were established by the BBSRC, the EPSRC and the ESRC. It is disappointing that the MRC did not do likewise (especially as health is such a crucial part of the EQUAL issue). Professor Radda told us that the MRC did not see the need to put out a specific call for applications under EQUAL because it already had the mechanisms to attract the kind of research needed.[81] However, it is hard to see how a specific programme, focusing on multi-disciplinary projects, could not have helped medical and health services researchers to respond more specifically to the EQUAL aims. Moreover, the sheer fact of the existence of a call for proposals under the EQUAL banner from the MRC would have said much about that organisation's commitment to EQUAL's objectives.

51. The tardiness of activity on the part of those Research Councils which did respond to the EQUAL initiative is also disappointing. Yet, having delayed the start they perhaps moved too precipitously thereafter: AgeNet stated that the EPSRC's EQUAL programme was the most efficient, in that the others, by having single calls with fairly short time scales, did not allow time for new research collaborations crossing disciplinary boundaries to become formulated.[82] The ESRC only allowed six weeks for proposals. This was too short a time for AgeNet to be able to run a workshop or for researchers to assemble partnerships, although we accept that there had been considerable consultation within the research community before this.[83] The call for applications under the BBSRC's SAGE programme also allowed a very short time for response, even though Professor Baker said that it had been well-flagged beforehand.[84] In the main, most of the Research Councils have responded to EQUAL with a marked lack of enthusiasm. Given the absence of additional funding, this is perhaps not surprising.

Did AgeNet stimulate multi-disciplinary research?

52. AgeNet was very successful at running workshops and thus assisting in the process whereby some of the Research Councils formulated their EQUAL programmes and in the development of cross-disciplinary networks. It was criticised for not stimulating research through its own agency[85] and for not leading to "many new partnerships".[86] This seems a little harsh, as such partnerships can take some time to build up, and are often best fostered by injections of pump-priming funds (which were not available to AgeNet). Further, the small budget available to AgeNet placed severe limits on what it could achieve. It might have helped if AgeNet had been more closely linked to EQUAL and if EQUAL itself had been more closely co-ordinated. It may well be sensible to consider a different form of AgeNet for the future. However, decisions about its future seem to have been taken already without widespread consultation or evaluation of AgeNet. This is especially odd in the light of the fact that Dr Taylor specifically stated that a future AgeNet could not be planned until the Ageing Foresight Panel consultation had been completed (which took place some six months later). Overall—and largely for reasons beyond its control—the performance of AgeNet has been disappointing.

Has EQUAL led to more research on ageing and have the Research Councils diverted funds towards ageing research?

53. It is difficult to determine whether or not EQUAL has made a significant difference to the Research Councils' funding of ageing-related research. Much research may be indirectly relevant to ageing and it is not possible to determine how much money would have been committed to ageing-related research in the absence of EQUAL.[87] Lord Sainsbury agreed that it is difficult to say whether the research would have happened without EQUAL, but he thought it "pretty clear" that the EPSRC work on the built environment would not have taken place.[88]

54. The OST's memorandum stated that "EQUAL has been very successful in raising the profile of this important research area within the Research Councils.".[89] In support of this statement it said:

"In the Comprehensive Spending Review, the Science Budget received the largest percentage increase compared with all Departmental Budgets. At least half this money is for the life sciences, including some £150 million to BBSRC and MRC. As EQUAL continues to be identified as a priority area for the Research Councils, it will inevitably benefit from this increased investment in the science base".[90]

This is more a statement of hope than of fact. The proportion of their budgets which the Research Councils have actually committed to EQUAL has been relatively small (this view being supported by, for example, Dr Metz who said that in his opinion the scale of funding had been quite modest).[91]

55. The funds committed to EQUAL-related research by the four Research Councils involved, and their total budgets are as follows:

  Funds committed to EQUAL Total Allocation (2001-2002)
BBSRC£5.4 million over 3 years £213 million
EPSRC£3.27 million over 3 years £436 million
ESRC£4.5 million over 5 years £74 million
MRC[92] £16.5 million in 1998/99 with an additional £12.5 million this year (this excludes £42 million spent on research on heart disease & cancer, and £2 million on LINK projects). £349 million

56. Most of our witnesses considered that EQUAL had encouraged more ageing-related research, but only by a small degree.[93] Professor Radda told us that in his opinion the correct balance had been struck, because research on ageing was on the increase.[94] Research into Ageing said that EQUAL had certainly stimulated research, although there was a risk that it might have raised expectations and stimulated new research communities which it would not be able to continue funding.[95] It is impossible to find universally acceptable benchmarks against which to justify the expenditure on ageing research of a certain proportion of research council budgets; nonetheless the argument made by some Research Council witnesses—that all good research proposals had been funded,[96] and therefore the budgets allocated had been sufficient—remains open to question; nor does it account for the fact that many researchers may be dissuaded from submitting 'good' research proposals, a lengthy and resource-consuming activity in itself, by a recognition of the limited funding available. Moreover, if adequate time had been made available for the formation of new research partnerships, the Research Councils might have received more high-quality proposals.

57. Another potential difficulty highlighted to us lies in the availability of the best scientists who will engage in research related to ageing. We were told by BBSRC that of the 140 applications they received as a result of their call for research proposals under their SAGE initiative, a surprising number of bids were "very poor indeed". Mr Game, of the BBSRC told us that this "Reflects the fact that this is very much a trendy area. It is a bandwagon area where.... people who are less successful than some of their colleagues thought: "Oh well, I might as well go for this. It is something new"" .[97]

Has EQUAL led Research Councils to target particular new areas of research?

58. There was some confidence that EQUAL had stimulated research in several new areas;[98] and Lord Sainsbury said he did not know of any essential research topics on ageing which were being ignored[99] (but see below for other views about continuing research gaps). Others argued that there was little evidence that EQUAL had led to new areas of research—but rather to re-packaging of projects under an EQUAL banner or to work that would have been funded anyway under responsive mode.

59. Among specific aspects mentioned as having been stimulated by EQUAL were —

      (a)  The culture of the EPSRC was shifted away from an almost exclusive focus on science and engineering towards the traditions of health, medical and social sciences.[100] Similarly Dr Metz said that the EPSRC's two programmes were clearly due to EQUAL: he told us that it "would have been difficult to get funded through their normal grant mechanisms".[101]

      (b)  The MRC has introduced some new programmes of work such as research on early origins for adult disease, a centre for the study of cognitive decline and ageing, a centre for clinical brain ageing, and research on osteoporosis.[102]

      (c)  The BBSRC and the ESRC are also clearly addressing EQUAL issues through their 'Science of Ageing' and 'Growing Older' Programmes (though the SAGE programme was devised before EQUAL, and it remains to be seen how distinctive a contribution the'Growing Older' programme makes to the EQUAL themes).

60. The kind of evaluation needed in order to determine the success of the EQUAL programme is one that could have been carried out by a more involved co-ordinating committee. It is a weakness of the programme that none was set up to do this.

55   Q 80. Back

56   Evidence, p 88. See also Evidence, pp 52 - 54, paragraphs 4 and 6; p 55; p 78, paragraph 3; and Q 31. Back

57   Evidence, pp 52-54; p 56. Back

58   Evidence, pp 92-93. Back

59   Q 32. Back

60   Evidence, p 18, paragraph 10. Back

61   Q 82. Back

62   Evidence, p 49, paragraph 7. Back

63   Q 20. Back

64   Q 124. Back

65   Qq 150 and 151. Back

66   Evidence, p 15. Back

67   Q 176; Evidence, p 52, paragraph 4. Back

68   Evidence, p 49, paragraph 8. Back

69   Q 7. Back

70   Evidence, p 88. Back

71   Evidence, p 86. Back

72   Q 191; Evidence, p 3, paragraph 20. Back

73   Q 118. Back

74   Evidence, p 74, paragraph 5. Back

75   Q 130. Back

76   Evidence, p 91. Back

77   See Q 48. Back

78   Evidence, p 54, paragraph 7. Back

79   Evidence, p 66, paragraph 2. Back

80   Q 119. Back

81   Q 60. Back

82   Evidence, p 2, paragraph 8. Back

83   Q 33. Back

84   Q 72. Back

85   Q 104. Back

86   Q 153. Back

87   Q 52. Back

88   Q 118. Back

89   Evidence, p 28, paragraph 4. Back

90   IbidBack

91   Q 12. Back

92   MRC have not committed any funding to EQUAL. What is shown is its spending on areas of research broadly related to the problems of ageing. Back

93   See, for instance, Q 179. Back

94   Q 61. Back

95   Evidence, p 87. Back

96   See, for instance, Q 71. Back

97   Q 42. Back

98   Evidence, p 87. Back

99   Q 120. Back

100   Evidence, p 49, paragraph 6; p 79. Back

101   Q 11. Back

102   Q 51. Back

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