Select Committee on Science and Technology First Report


66. What is or could be the future of EQUAL? To some extent this has already been determined by the Government since some plans from the original phase are continuing and some new decisions have recently been taken.

67. The EPSRC told us that it plans further calls on rehabilitation and design for all;[118] Professor Baker said that the BBSRC will probably have a second call for proposals under SAGE either in 2001 or 2002 if the quality research is there. The ESRC told us that there is a possibility of another programme of work in the EQUAL area, though no firm decision had yet been taken.[119] Lord Sainsbury stated, in line with these plans, that EQUAL would continue for at least another three years (though he would not commit himself to predict its life expectancy).[120] We note that the report of the Foresight Ageing Population Panel calls for EQUAL to be repeated on an expanded basis across the Research Councils and other research funders.[121] It is important that the disappointing performance of EQUAL to date be taken into account in planning for the future.

68. Earlier this year a new National Forum to co-ordinate UK Ageing Research was established. This involves the MRC, the EPSRC, the ESRC, the BBSRC and the Department of Health. Its aims are to stimulate and facilitate multi-disciplinary working, and to develop research activities, particularly across Research Councils' boundaries. Professor Alan Walker, currently co-ordinating the ESRC's Growing Older programme, has been appointed to develop the strategy for the new co-ordinated approach and the establishment of an Ageing Research Funders' Forum. It should be noted, however, that the press release which announced these developments made no mention of EQUAL. These plans certainly go some way towards addressing a number of the problems identified with EQUAL and the suggestions made to improve it. We welcome the plans "to develop a co-ordinated approach to ageing research following the termination of the AgeNet initiative" and the establishment of the Ageing Research Funders' Forum.

69. Nevertheless, we do not consider that these plans go far enough. We recommend —

      (a)  better co-ordination of activities across Government;

      (b)  the development of a considered strategy with specific objectives;

      (c)  transfer of lead responsibility for EQUAL to the Government Department with the main responsibility for ageing, probably the Department of Health;

      (d)  appropriate research funding for EQUAL, co-ordinated by the OST;

      (e)  greater encouragement for the Research Councils to work together, particularly to prevent undesirable overlap in research effort;

      (f)  identification and reduction of research gaps. This should include an examination of overseas research as well as that taking place in the UK;

      (g)  better assessment of the balance of research between different topics;

      (h)  identification of research priorities within the EQUAL programme;

      (i)  increased efforts to stimulate research in priority areas;

      (j)  the development of a means of evaluating the effectiveness and value of EQUAL.

70. The Foresight Ageing Population Panel told us that a more structured EQUAL programme "could be exactly the vehicle to further research objectives and take forward concepts identified through the Foresight process".[122] It would also be crucial to increasing the effectiveness of the EQUAL programme itself. We recommend wider networking beyond the Research Councils in order to input ideas from the user communities (including business, Government departments, older people and their representative organisations), and the research community.

71. As the DGRC told us "we probably need to work just as hard [at] developing the customer community for some of the outputs of this research".[123] Similarly Lord Sainsbury stated that greater emphasis was needed on making certain that other Government departments and other users picked up the research findings and fed them into their policies and actions,[124] and that this should in part come from the Inter-Ministerial Group on Older People and Foresight. We agree. We recommend that a greater emphasis be placed on dissemination of ageing-related research findings to relevant user communities and on the translation of findings into policy and practice.

72. We have considered the option of creating an institution concerned exclusively with funding research into ageing and age-related issues. The concept of such topic-specific research funding bodies is not new; they are a feature of the research funding system in the United States for example, where there is a National Institute on Aging, which exists under the auspices of the National Institutes of Health. We have recommended a National Cancer Research Institute in a previous Report.[125] However the problems associated with old age and an ageing population are of a different nature; they span an extremely broad spectrum of issues of which health is just one, and many branches of science, engineering and technology must become engaged. Moreover, there are many aspects of research which offer the potential to improve quality of life for older people but which are also beneficial to other sections of society. The Ageing Research Funders' Forum should ensure greater co-ordination of research. Therefore, we do not consider that it would be appropriate to create a specific ageing-relating research funding body.

73. The plans announced earlier this year will go some way to meeting our concerns but they do not constitute the forceful and committed determination required to make a significant impact on one of the most important issues facing this country. Professor Lansley also told us that, without a genuine commitment to the future of EQUAL, there was a risk of "the closing of ranks by the science community against ageing research".[126] We recommend that specific plans be drawn up for the future of EQUAL, with agreed objectives and clear bench marking and dedicated funding for the co-ordination of the programme.

118   Q 10. Back

119   Q 16. Back

120   Qq 161and 162. Back

121   Report of the Foresight Ageing Population Panel, The Age Shift - Priorities for Action, December 2000. Back

122   Evidence, p 88. Back

123   Q 121. Back

124   Q 146. Back

125   Sixth Report from the Science and Technology Committee, Cancer Research - A Fresh Look, Session 1999-2000, HC332. Back

126   Evidence, p 88. Back

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