Memorandum submitted by Professor Peter
Lansley, Department of Construction Management and Engineering,
University of Reading
Professor Peter Lansley has chaired the EPSRC
EQUAL research grants committee on the two occasions on which
it has met. He has been particularly involved with encouraging
EPSRC and universities to embrace the mission of EQUAL. He holds
a chair in Construction Management at the University of Reading.
The comments which follow largely concern the
encouragement given by the EPSRC EQUAL initiative to those with
an interest in improving the built environment for older people
and for those with physical and mental impairments.
EPSRC's response to the OST EQUAL initiative
has been robust and positive. The rather modest level of funding
devoted to its EQUAL initiative has been well matched to the initial
small size of the relevant research community. EQUAL is contributing
to a significant change in the culture of EPSRC and in those parts
of universities with an interest in the built environment. There
are, however, concerns about the impact of RAE2001 on the confidence
of some of the research teams supported by EQUAL funding.
Evidence of a worthwhile programme is accumulating.
This is underpinning a variety of other important developments
relating to quality of life. The EPSRC EQUAL initiative should
be encouraged although not necessarily greatly expanded.
1. EPSRC has taken a pragmatic approach
to setting up its initiative. Although more funding would have
been welcome, given its other commitments the funding available
has been at about the right level and rather better than might
have been expected.
2. The initiative has had high level support
from within the Council.
3. The staff appointed to manage the initiative
have been excellent, both in the way they have related to the
research community and in representing the needs of that community
to senior staff in EPSRC. The ensuing rapport and associated enthusiasm
for the initiative have been exemplary.
4. As the initiative has become better known
so the staff have provided an important sign-posting role for
enquiries from outside of the science and engineering community,
for example, from users and clinicians. Frequently they have offered
advice on potential collaborators from within the research community.
5. Academics, researchers, collaborating
organisations and users who have had their first contact with
EPRSC through the EQUAL initiative have drawn very favourable
comparisons between EPSRC and other Research Councils and funding
bodies. They have applauded the approachability of staff and their
pragmatic approach to finding ways around potential problems.
6. The EQUAL initiative has required a dramatic
shift in the culture of at least part of EPSRC, from funding projects
where the rationale has been almost exclusively based on the traditions
of science and engineering, to accepting interdisciplinary approaches
which, although incorporating a strong element of science and
engineering, have drawn heavily on the traditions of the health,
medical and social sciences. This rapid change should be applauded.
7. Apart from a meeting in late 1996 when
the Research Councils were urged to take EQUAL seriously, and
some activity shortly afterwards when the slow progress of the
EQUAL initiative was publicly criticised, OST has been rather
invisible. This is despite a profusion of significant public policy
influencing meetings and debates concerned with older people.
8. There appears to have been a lack of
co-ordination and communication at the level above the Research
Councils. As a result a useful rapport between those who are closely
involved with the range of EQUAL and related initiatives supported
by the Research Councils has yet to develop.
9. The EPSRC initiative has successfully
accessed high-quality researchers with a strong interest in built
environment quality of life issues, especially design. In the
past, the research interests of many of these have been outside
of the remit of EPSRC and the other Research Councils. Thus, EQUAL
has been able to build on "new" skills and engage "new"
members who previously it has not supported. Hence, EQUAL has
contributed to expanding and developing the UK research base.
10. Within that community is a rich spread
of skills and interests, and a strong commitment to the ideals
of EQUAL. Such a high level of commitment and dedication is rarely
found within those programmes which are concerned with, say, the
competitiveness of industry.
11. The insistence of EPSRC on a multidisciplinary
approach has ensured the development of valuable linkages across
disciplines, especially between the sub-disciplines of the built
environment and those to be found in the medical, health and social
sciences. Novel partnerships have been formed, which hopefully
will be strengthened and will become permanent.
12. The insistence of EPSRC on sound linkages
with user communities has also encouraged a clear focus on problems
and outcomes without sacrificing scientific quality. Rather, this
has been fostered.
13. User communities and their representatives,
health service professionals, charitable bodies and the like have
been particularly supportive and involved with the initiative.
They have provided advice, resources, contacts and considerable
moral support. There is little doubt that the willingness of both
small and large voluntary organisations to engage with EQUAL projects
is much higher than industry's willingness to engage with competitiveness
related research projects.
14. Several organisations have been particularly
encouraging, for example, AgeNet, Research into Ageing and the
Anchor Trust. But many others, national and local, have played
an important role.
EQUAL AS A
15. One of the most satisfactory aspects
of EQUAL is that it has created opportunities for the development
of a new generation of researchers, one which will blossom in
the interdisciplinary environment. The expectations which these
researchers have to fulfil are high, as the integrity of science,
social science and medical/health science cannot be compromised.
Such high standards will contribute to a very sound research training
and highly effective researchers.
16. In addition, the level of job satisfaction
of researchers appears higher than in conventional areas. This
is matched by the level of enthusiasm for the work of these researchers
and for their personal development which has been expressed by
collaborators, users and other organisations.
17. There is, however, one major concern
which has been expressed by many members of the research community.
This is the ambiguous position of the Higher Education Funding
Councils towards interdisciplinary research, especially that which
engages directly with users, and the resulting uncertainties relating
to the Research Assessment Exercise in 2001. Some members are
not at all confident that panels will recognise the value of work
undertaken within the EQUAL initiative and believe that panels
will not know how to assess that work. The perceived gate-keeping
role of the Funding Councils contrasts markedly with the facilitating
role of EPSRC.
18. The initiative is at an early stage
and few of the projects supported by EPSRC have been completed,
although several will be completed by mid 2000. However, even
at this stage there are some useful, albeit rather ad hoc
indicators of success. For example, work on telecare in the home
has led to one research team being identified by DTI as a key
resource in relation to health care-related overseas trade. A
team working on rural public transport for older people has been
approached by overseas governments for advice on their transport
systems. Several teams working on access for the disabled have
become regional and national nodes for advice. A team working
on navigation devices has filed patent applications.
19. Drawing on the confidence derived from
their research, some teams have been able to secure special funding
for the development of educational courses for health service
and related professionals. In some cases this funding has been
provided by ERSRC, further underlining its commitment to the mission
of EQUAL. This will enable the teams to short circuit the often
long and arduous path between research and application by incorporating
their research findings into these courses. Other teams have been
able to incorporate their work into the mainstream of existing
courses, typically at undergraduate level, leading to further
20. In short, there are important leverage
effects. Support to a research team from EPSRC to an EQUAL project
can lead to the development of skills which become recognised
and are then valued by users and representatives of users as well
as by industry.
21. The number of researchers capable of
working in the area covered by EQUAL is small but is growing.
It is at an early and critical stage of development. It can meet
only a small part of the overall challenge and at present is over-stretched.
There are almost too many issues to be researched. Possibly there
are too many opportunities requiring a response. There are not
enough skilled academics and researchers.
22. So, the development of EQUAL has to
be managed carefully and the existing research community nurtured
rather than swamped. There is also a danger of overtaxing the
enthusiasm of those user communities with which EQUAL-funded researchers
23. Already there is some evidence, albeit
largely circumstantial, that research groups with little real
interest in the EQUAL area are being attracted towards the initiative
because it could be a useful source of funding. The entry of such
free-wheeling groups would be unfortunate.
24. Whilst eventually EQUAL should become
part of the mainstream of EPSRC funding, there is a strong argument
for retaining a special programme for the time being. This would
help nurture interdisciplinary working and the strong user focus.
Moreover it would provide the scientific base and resource on
which other non-EPSRC initiatives could build, especially work
with the voluntary sector and user communities.
25. Also, until the culture of EQUAL is
well established, even within EPSRC there is a danger that with
changes in staff and in priorities there will be a reversion to
a traditional culture.
26. Although other countries lead the UK
in the extent of built environment research for the benefit of
older people and for those with physical and mental impairment
and in its application, if sustained, EQUAL should provide a vehicle
for catching up. Several teams funded by the EPSRC EQUAL initiative
are to be found at the centre of international developments, both
academic and applied. Some are in the lead. As projects come to
an end other teams will also establish significant positions.
21 December 1999