Select Committee on Science and Technology First Report


61. It is clearly too early to point to any significant outcomes from the research stimulated by EQUAL. Most of the programmes did not start until 1998/99, and the first projects will not be completed until mid-2000 or later.[103] EQUAL's achievements which were highlighted by witnesses include —

      (a)  placing "the whole subject onto the agenda" and helping researchers to focus on the seriousness of the issue;[104]

      (b)  attracting some new researchers into the field whose interests would formerly have been outside the existing scope of the Research Council's remits. "Hence, EQUAL has contributed to expanding and developing the UK research base" and has created opportunities for development of a new generation of researchers, more used to working in a multi-disciplinary way;[105]

      (c)  one or two interim outcomes, such as involvement in overseas trade and governmental links, or in advice giving at a national level;[106]

Topics on which research is still needed

62. Given the OST's failure properly to evaluate EQUAL, it remains difficult to establish with confidence those areas for ageing-related research which most urgently require further investment or which offer the best prospects of improving the quality of life for those in later years. Such a task should be properly carried out by an EQUAL co-ordinating committee or group.

63. One of the issues which we are particularly concerned about is whether chronic disabling conditions (often the less popular topics for research) are receiving enough attention compared with the major causes of mortality or serious disability. Lord Sainsbury asserted that there was no evidence that the funded projects are ignoring the less popular topics.[107] Dr Taylor agreed, stating that the MRC is very good at stimulating the scientific community. It is suggested that the more chronic diseases of later life are still under-researched compared with the major killers like cancer (though Professor Radda of MRC says that they do fund unfashionable areas like incontinence).[108] AgeNet told us that less attention is given to subjects such as osteoarthritis and macular degeneration than to Alzheimer's; and that "there seems to have been no attempt systematically to consider the balance of effort".[109] Without a systematic evaluation, where evidence can be set against some agreed criteria, the kind of confusion evident in the above comments will remain.

64. Future developments of EQUAL could usefully be informed by the opinions of researchers, users, policy makers, etc. about the continuing gaps in research in the area. For example, the following points were mentioned by those giving evidence:

      (a)  that there is insufficient emphasis on research on health promotion;[110]

      (b)  that normal ageing processes—why and how body cells and systems function less well and deteriorate with age—are relatively poorly understood;[111]

      (c)   that UK research on the biology of ageing is lagging behind that of the USA;[112]

      (d)  that the ESRC Growing Older programme cannot address all the questions posed by EQUAL, for example, the relationship between age and employment, inter-generational solidarity, paying for long-term care;[113]

      (e)  that medical advances may bring the possibility of extending life very considerably—and that there is a need to encourage research on long-term (especially ethical) issues;

      (f)  that there is a need to widen the scope of research in the area of communication and information technology;[114] and

      (g)  that more research is needed on the impact of new media on attitudes, on the impact of the internet on older people's lives, and on how smart products could help older people.

Types of research project still needed

65. Although it is clear that EQUAL has encouraged some innovative types of approach, such as multi-disciplinary research, the scale of funding is such that most of its projects have been relatively modest in scope and there is still a need for more effort in areas such as:

103   Evidence, p 69, paragraph 20. Back

104   Qq 117 and 137. Back

105   Evidence, p 50, paragraph 9. Back

106   Evidence, p 50, paragraph 18. Back

107   Q 125. Back

108   Q 48. Back

109   Q 3. Back

110   Evidence, p 2, paragraph 11. Back

111   Evidence, p 12, paragraph ; p 17, paragraph 5. Back

112   Evidence, p 18, paragraph 12. Back

113   Evidence, p 81, paragraph 8. Back

114   Evidence, p 66, paragraph 3. Back

115   Q 183; Evidence, p 3, paragraphs 17-19. Back

116   Q 174. Back

117   Evidence, p 66, paragraph 5. Back

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