Select Committee on Science and Technology Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum submitted by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council


  1.  The aim of EQUAL (Extend Quality Life), initiated by the Government's Office of Science and Technology (OST) in 1995, is to draw together disparate research activities that bear on the extension of the active period of people's lives, thereby helping individuals to achieve a better lifestyle, participate more fully and actively, and avoid or alleviate the effects of disability.

  2.  The potential benefits are seen as in part for the individual: better health, more active life, better quality of life, greater continuing participation in society; and in part for the wider community a lighter burden on society, and the generation of considerable business opportunities for UK firms to exploit in global markets. Although benefits will accrue to all, the main drivers for the initiative are the needs of an ageing population, and the needs of people with disabilities.

  3.  The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) response to these challenges has been the identification of research agendas, at the interface of both intra- and inter-Research Council boundaries that can meet user requirements and complement existing activities.


Research Areas

  4.  The EPSRC modus operandii for EQUAL has been to identify research areas and ways of delivery which can add value to the research, education and training which is already supported through existing responsive and managed mode activities. The goal has been to complement other EPSRC activities such as those in medical engineering (biomaterials, tissue engineering, instrumentation), healthcare informatics, the Medical Devices LINK programme, and Physics for Healthcare.

  5.  To date, research has been encouraged in two themes—first EQUAL in the Built Environment and secondly Design for All.

EQUAL in the Built Environment

  6.  This activity is targeted at the delivery of improvements to the quality of the built environment through changes in the design of the home, in the design of public access to buildings and public spaces and in the design and operation of transport systems. The objective is that older people and disabled people should be able to live comfortably in their homes and in surroundings of their choice, with the family and friends who mean most to them. They should be able to access the range of essential facilities available to the population as a whole.

  7.  The content of the theme was informed by the outputs of the Millennium Debate of the Age in 1997, an Age Concern initiative to promote discussion and action around issues of an ageing society in the next century; it was further endorsed by the discussions of the Continuing Care Conference study group on the prevention of dependency in later life, chaired by Elizabeth Mills, Director of Research into Ageing, in June 1998. The technical scope was broad, encompassing architecture, building design, technology performance and management, structural engineering and assessment, construction materials, city and transport infrastructure. Calls for research proposals were issued in November 1997 and November 1998.

Design for All

  8.  This programme has sought to extend equipment, services and systems, which have been designed for the general population, to people with disabilities through the development of the "Design for All" approaches. The programme aims to identify the needs of designers for data sets and information relating to the capabilities of older and disabled people; it then becomes possible to define generic methodologies and guidance for the many designers for whom "Design for All" will represent a radical shift in design practice.

  9.  The programme priorities for the theme were identified at a workshop organised by EPSRC in collaboration with AgeNET and the Design Council, involving researchers, industrial designers and users. A call for proposals was issued in November 1998.

Current Support

  10.  The two calls issued to date have delivered a highly multidisciplinary response and have secured widespread user collaboration.

to date
Built Environment
£6.1M (61)
£1.1M (11)
£6.1M (44)
£1.4M (9)
£2.5M (20)
Design for All
£1.9M (13)
£0.7M (4)
£0.7M (4)

  The values in brackets indicate the number of proposals.

Management and Delivery

  11.  EPRSC's EQUAL activities have been delivered as managed programmes through calls for research proposals.

  12.  The scope and priorities of the EQUAL research themes have been defined at user-led workshops and informed by the outputs of national initiatives such as the Continuing Care Conference and the Age Concern Millennium Debate. Additional input has been gained through EPSRC's membership of AgeNET—a three year, £426,000 Foresight Challenge project funded by MRC, BUPA, Research into Ageing, Smithkline Beecham, Westminster Health Care and the OST. AgeNET's objectives are to encourage debate on the challenges of an ageing population and to foster research partnerships between academia, industry, the NHS, relevant charities and voluntary sector organisations.

  13.  Collaboration with organisations able to provide a user perspective, eg, charities, voluntary/non-profit making organisations and local authorities, has been mandatory; multidisciplinary partnerships involving social scientists, clinicians, designers, ergonomists or construction professionals have been particularly encouraged.

  14.  The peer review process has involved the Economic and Social Science Research Council (ESRC) in the identification of referees and Panel members. The social science dimension has been covered on the Panel through the services of Professor Anthea Tinker, Institute of Gerontology at King's College (a member of the ESRC EQUAL Panel) and Mrs Elizabeth Mills, Director—Research into Ageing, (a recent member of ESRC Council).

  15.  Feasibility studies and "standard" research projects have been encouraged to provide mechanisms for the investigation of more speculative issues.

  16.  The additional EQUAL activities at EPSRC have been supported from the existing funding baseline of the EIEH (Engineering for Infrastructure, Environment and Healthcare) Programme.

  17.  Complementarity to the EQUAL activities of the other Research Councils has been maintained during the Initiative by way of the annual meetings of an OST/Research Council Working Group, also attended by the Secretariat of the recently established Foresight Ageing Population Panel.


  18.  EPSRC plans to issue a further call for proposals in the Design for All theme and to scope a new activity in Rehabilitation; the latter will cover both rehabilitation informatics (jointly with EPSRC's Information Technology & Computing Science Programme) and assistive technologies (beyond those covered by existing medical engineering activities). A scoping workshop, organised in partnership with AgeNET and the Department of Health will be held in April 2000, and a call for proposals issued in May 2000. Funding for the next call is likely to be at a similar level to that for Call 2.

  19.  The EQUAL in the Built Environment theme will continue in part as a strand within a new programme being developed in "sustainable development—engineering solutions to a healthy built environment" and in part as projects supported within the responsive mode.


  20.  The EPSRC activity is at an early stage and few of the supported projects will reach completion before mid-2000. However, some successful outputs can already be identified both at the Initiative and individual project level.

Initiative Level

    21.(a)  The EPSRC EQUAL activity has provided a framework for a broad spectrum of relevant projects in collaboration with a wide range of user groups, delivered via multidisciplinary partnerships both within and across the remits of the EPSRC and ESRC. Details are presented in the tables which follow;

    (b)  Published papers (nine published or in preparation), conference presentations (ten) and reports (twelve) have to date originated from the EQUAL in the Built Environment projects announced under the first call;

    (c)  The services of the Design Council were secured in defining the scope of the call for Design for All. Following a scoping workshop, the Design Council joined a collaborative partnership established through networking between participants at the workshop. The formal launch of this project was held during the Design Councils "Design in Business" week, and the subject area now forms a key strategic area represented on the Design Horizons website at;

    (d)  Support has been provided by EPSRC for the organisation of two meetings of the EPSRC EQUAL project community to facilitate networking and the sharing of better practice in the securing of effective user participation, and in accessing user data and social science methodologies;

Project Level

    22.(a)  The definition of the scope of a DTI OSTEMS mission to Japan to study telecare has been defined and help given to the Department of Health in preparing a funding submission on new forms of telecare assistive devices and systems following a recently completed 12 month feasibility study on technologies for telecare in the home;

    (b)  Partnership for the Public Understanding (PPU) of Science Awards have been made to two projects announced under the first call in EQUAL in the Built Environment.

        The first PPU award involves the computer modelling in a virtual reality environment of residential settings for older people. Demonstration residential settings will be drawn from a catalogue of several hundred house plans ranging in size from individual bed-sitting rooms to group residential homes.

        The second award involves a beacon-based auditory location finder (ALF) for older, blind and visually impaired people in the built environment. The programme of activities under PPU includes: a video film on the development of the ALF; action days for school children, both sighted and visually impaired; a series of public lectures; and an event at the Edinburgh Science festival in April 2000. The project involves collaboration with the Joint Mobility Unit of RNIB/Guide Dogs for the Blind, the Royal Blind School in Edinburgh, and the City of Edinburgh Council.

    (c)  A project is investigating the impact of fully accessible transport in remote rural areas; the team is operating a local bus service which is routed and scheduled on the basis of users' needs. The vehicle is large enough to carry 13 passengers including 2 in wheelchairs, while being able to operate on narrow country lanes. The bus has an induction loop installed to help those with hearing aids to communicate with the driver. The service is intensive for Cumbria, villages being served with four services per direction per day six days a week

        Use is monitored and community involvement is being developed in the operation and management of the scheme. The service is carrying 250 passengers a week, many of whom are elderly people. Some evidence already exists that people are adapting their travel habits: elderly people are making 3-4 trips per week rather than one, and the trips are made independently rather than with a family or neighbours. The project is making an impact on local policy: the Countryside Agency is looking at the costs and benefits with a view to developing initiatives in rural public transport. The vehicle design represents a standard to which all small public transport vehicles can aspire in terms of accessibility and user-friendliness.

10 January 2000

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