Select Committee on Science and Technology First Report



8.1.  In this chapter we consider first the relationship between the learned societies, and the problem of the recruitment and retention of researchers. Next we look at public funding of research by government departments, by the European Union, by the research councils, and by the private sector. We then attempt to see what can be learned from the United States. Lastly and most importantly we consider what lessons can be drawn from this for the strategic direction and coordination of research in this country.

8.2.  Different people and bodies have very differing views about what is covered by the umbrella word "ageing" in the context of research. The Wellcome Trust told us that they have no research programme for "ageing" as such, but "using a broad range of keywords to define ageing related research" they estimated that between 1994 and 2004 they spent 16% of their research budget funding £547m of research into ageing-related matters. However they had also made substantial investments in medical imaging technology and infrastructure support. If these were included, the total came to £877m, or 26% of their budget. This, they told us, was research directly or indirectly related to ageing, "using our broadest definition of ageing-related research".[138]

8.3.  This illustrates the problem. If research can be broken down into the following categories:

  • projects which have ageing as their primary focus;
  • projects in which ageing is a secondary but nevertheless important factor; and
  • projects which have only an incidental connection with ageing,

then in this chapter we are concerned with the first two of these categories, but not the third. These are only broad indications. We recognise that in the case of a number of projects there will be genuine differences as to which category they fall into, and this will be particularly true of the boundary between categories (b) and (c). Nevertheless we hope this illustrates what we have in mind. On this basis, we think it likely that most of the resources invested by the Wellcome Trust on research into medical imaging technology and infrastructure support would not have been spent on what we would call ageing research, though we have no means of knowing what proportion of the remainder would have fallen into category (a) and what into category (b).

8.4.  Research into ageing is of course multidisciplinary, "ranging from the molecular and cellular changes associated with basic biological processes of cell death, senescence and physiological ageing, to technologies and design to help older people maintain their independence and autonomy."[139]

8.5.  In the UK, public finance for this research comes mainly from four of the research councils, though some comes directly from government departments. A substantial proportion comes from private foundations such as the Wellcome Trust and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. Charities, many of them single-issue charities, are also large funders. The European Union has its own research programmes for ageing. Finally, a little funding comes from foreign countries (almost exclusively the United States); we have already mentioned the contribution made by the NIA to the funding of ELSA.[140]

8.6.  In an ideal world, coordination would ensure the following:

  • every worthwhile ageing-related research project would receive funding from at least one of these sources;
  • no project would fail to receive funding solely because two funding organisations each thought that the project fell more closely within the responsibilities of the other;
  • liaison within the UK between all the funding bodies, public and private, and with the European Union, would maximise the cost-effectiveness of funding by avoiding unnecessary duplication;
  • liaison between UK and EU funders and funding bodies in other major countries would ensure that each was aware of the major projects being funded elsewhere in the world, and take account of this when deciding on the allocation of resources;
  • major projects such as longitudinal studies would be compatible across different nations and cultures.

8.7.  This of course is a counsel of perfection. But the picture we have received from the evidence falls so far short of the ideal that we believe radical measures must be taken to improve the current arrangements.

The learned societies

8.8.  The first oral evidence we took was from representatives of three specialist learned societies. The British Geriatrics Society (BGS) is the UK learned society for doctors practising geriatric medicine. Most of its 2000 members are consultants and registrars practising geriatric medicine in the NHS. The 500 members of the British Society of Gerontology (BSG) are social scientists, sociologists and behavioural scientists. The British Society for Research on Ageing (BSRA) has 120 members, the majority of whom are academic scientists. It is concerned with the scientific study of biological ageing, and includes scientists from abroad who are interested in the causes and effects of the ageing process.

8.9.  These societies therefore have different memberships and different aims, and the chairs of each of them told us that they regarded it as essential to continue to have three different societies representing the different disciplines. The societies nevertheless have a common interest in the ageing process, so that we were surprised to learn that they had not met together since 1996. We felt that, if three separate societies are to be retained, there should at least be close and frequent contact between them, and not just occasional informal contacts between some of the members (QQ 4-5). We were therefore delighted to learn that, following their meeting at the House of Lords to give evidence to us, the chairs of these three societies met on 15 March 2005 and agreed to set up a forum of the three societies to act as a point of contact; to improve communication between them; to set up a small workshop to improve the impact of the learned societies upon policy making in the UK; and to collaborate to promote interdisciplinary training in gerontology, helping to meet the current gap in researchers able to work at the interface of social science, medical science and basic science in the field of ageing.[141] We commend this development.


8.10.  The "current gap in researchers" is a matter to which the three societies referred in their written and oral evidence. Professor Phillipson, the President of the BSG, told us: "… the problem with research capacity … is a great concern, the fact that we do not have a clear ladder for researchers to go through and that people are lost, having been trained on particular projects. This is a waste of human capital which we really cannot afford to go on with … I think that the Government does have a role in raising questions about where is the next generation of researchers going to come from …"(Q 23). Professor Crome, President-elect of the BGS, thought that one reason was the paucity of suitably qualified academics. "We have gone in recent years from a situation where most medical schools had chairs or senior lecturers in geriatric medicine to a situation where there are an awful lot of vacant chairs. We do not have a large group of senior lecturers ready to take over the leadership roles, nor do we have a large number of people currently undertaking research training so they would be ready to take on roles in ten or 15 years' time … For example, in the five London medical schools very soon there will only be two professors." (QQ 13-15)

8.11.  A number of other witnesses expressed similar anxiety about the number of researchers beginning work on ageing, and about the associated lack of status accorded to them, and the poor financial rewards. Dr Goodwin, the head of research at Help the Aged, explained that very few researchers enter gerontology directly; most train in other disciplines and come to ageing after that. He felt that the absence of a sound career structure for scientists who wished to go into ageing research was a big impediment to maintaining quality and quantity. In geriatric medicine consultants had had their training reduced, and no longer had to do any research. We would be in very difficult circumstances in 15 to 20 years' time when the current tranche of researchers reached the ends of their careers (Q 489, Q 492, Q 508). For the Alzheimer's Society, Professor Clive Ballard was equally pessimistic: "… most promising PhD students are either moving to take up posts in industry or they are moving to the United States or other European countries, because there are more secure patterns of funding and there are better ways of helping people to develop their careers." (Q 317)

8.12.  On our visit to the National Institute on Aging in Washington DC we were told by Dr John Hardy, Chief of the Laboratory of Neurogenics, who had himself moved from the UK to the United States in the 1990s, that he had recruited several researchers from research groups in the UK. Conditions for research in the United States were distinctly more attractive.[142] Plainly this constitutes another reason why young researchers may be reluctant to stay in the UK.

8.13.  We are aware that this is not a problem unique to ageing research. Other subject areas also suffer from shortages of researchers. But we believe that in the case of ageing the problem is particularly acute. Research in this field does not yet have the same attraction as some other topics; it is more difficult to recruit researchers with qualifications in a number of disciplines; and the multidisciplinary nature of the research seems to make it more difficult to obtain funding.

8.14.  It was suggested to us that the problems occasioned by the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) might have contributed to the difficulty in attracting good quality researchers, in ageing and in other fields. The Academy of Medical Sciences said that it was "clear that the implementation of the Research Assessment Exercise has had some unfortunate side-effects, particularly the discouragement of the collaborative, inter-disciplinary and translational approaches upon which ageing research depends."[143] Another witness described the RAE as "particularly disastrous for scientific research into ageing".[144]

8.15.  Multidisciplinary and translational clinical research, which is particularly important for ageing, has been hampered by the Universities Research Assessment Exercise. The Higher Education Funding Councils should, as a matter of urgency, consider how this problem can best be addressed in the forthcoming Research Assessment Exercise.

8.16.  In written evidence, the BSG suggested that a solution to the shortage of researchers of the right quality might be post-doctoral fellowships promoted by the research councils and targeted at junior researchers. These offered an opportunity for expanding the number of researchers and promoting greater security in the profession. The BSG encouraged the expansion of this route as a relatively low-cost option for maintaining research capacity.[145]

8.17.  Another possible way forward was suggested by Professor Robert Souhami, the director of policy and communication at Cancer Research UK. He explained that at the time Cancer Research UK was formed from the two previous charities, it had been decided to set up a training and career development board to make sure that there were no gaps in the training programmes of young laboratory and clinical scientists. That gave the charity strength in dealing with both the universities and the Royal Colleges, making sure that they regarded clinical career structures in the same way (Q 509).

8.18.  Professor Souhami added that the focus on training and career development was an essential part of a funding agency's remit. We agree with this entirely. We believe that the diversity of disciplines represented in ageing research means that matters are not so straightforward as in the case of cancer research, which makes it all the more important that the issue of training should be a major responsibility of those in charge of coordinating funding. Who should be responsible for that coordination is the issue to which we now turn.

Funding of research: government departments

8.19.  The Department with the main responsibility for those aspects of ageing which concern us is the Department of Health. Its written evidence summarises the manner in which it supports research into ageing, and lists areas where research has been commissioned under the Policy Research Programme (PRP), the Health Technology Assessment Programme (HTA), and other research programmes. The PRP has promoted research into diseases specifically affecting older people, the influence of inequalities on morbidity and mortality, ways to prevent or reduce dependency, and research to increase understanding of the changing nature and needs of the ageing population. The HTA portfolio of work includes 67 studies related to the health and well-being of older people. In addition, research into ageing-related diseases is carried out under NHS Trusts, some of which have grouped together with local universities to form collaborative research groups. As at December 2002, DoH and the NHS together were committed to spending a total of £20.45m on 98 ageing-related research projects. Of this £4.8m was spent in 2002-03. However, according to Help the Aged this amounts to less than 1% of the NHS R&D budget.[146]

8.20.  Not surprisingly for so broad a subject, a number of other government departments also finance research into ageing-related matters. We have already mentioned in Chapter 5 some of the research carried out by DfT, including the inquiry by the DVLA into age limits for driving licences. In 2002 DWP was committed to spending £3.57m on 18 projects, and in
2002-03 spent £1.23m.

Funding of research: the research councils

8.21.  By far the greater part of funding for ageing-related research comes not directly from government departments but from the research councils. They are the responsibility of the Office of Science and Technology (OST), part of DTI. Research Councils UK (RCUK), the "strategic partnership which champions the research supported by the seven UK Research Councils"[147] explained that the following four research councils are involved:

      Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC);

      Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC);

      Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC);

      Medical Research Council (MRC).

They "are key public sector funders in basic and applied research relevant to ageing (as a natural process), covering a broad remit, ranging from the molecular biology of ageing processes to the built and local environment, transport and the social and economic aspects of growing old. The Research Councils not only fund research specific to ageing, but also a considerable amount of relevant research into individual diseases, physiological systems, and technology."[148]

8.22.  In their original evidence, RCUK summarised the spend by the research councils on ageing-related research programmes live on 31 July 2002. The figures for 2002 were subsequently updated with equivalent figures for 31 July 2004.[149] The annualised spend on each programme was calculated as the total cost divided by the duration. If a project was relevant to ageing it was included as 100% of its costs "even if the research was diverse, and ageing was only one aspect of it".[150] Inevitably this definition gives a generous estimate of the amount spent on ageing research.

8.23.  In the table below we give the amount spent by each of the four research councils on ageing-related research in 2002 and 2004; the budget allocation of each of them for 2004-05; and the percentage of that allocation spent on ageing-related research:


Research Council Spend on Ageing Research

Figures in £m
Total RC
July 2002 spend
July 2004 spend
Allocation 2004-05
% on ageing research
5.3 %
1.3 %
1.2 %
28.1 %
11.23 %

8.24.  Each research programme is assigned to one of ten following categories:

    (1)  The economics, psychology and sociology of ageing and the life-course;
    (2)  The economic, social and policy implications of an ageing population;
    (3)  Technologies and design to help people maintain their independence and autonomy; (and the effects of those technologies);
    (4)  Technologies for the detection, prediction diagnosis and treatment of age related diseases (and the effects of those technologies);
    (5)  The molecular and cellular changes associated with basic biological processes of cell death, senescence and physiological ageing;
    (6)  The causes of, and influences on age related diseases and disability;
    (7)  Prevention of breakdown in health and loss of independence in old age and of specific diseases and conditions which cause these;
    (8)  Treatments for disease and the breakdown in health in older people;
    (9)  Rehabilitation strategies to improve and maintain function and   restore independence;
    (10)  The delivery of effective and efficient health and social care for old and frail people.

8.25.  Over half the spend of the MRC is in category 6, with most of the rest divided between categories 5 and 8. Most of the BBSRC spend is in category 5; the EPSRC spend is divided between categories 4 and 8, and the ESRC spend goes mainly on work in category 1, with a lesser proportion to category 2.

8.26.  RCUK provided us with extensive written evidence, and also with supplementary written evidence, for which we are most grateful.[152] We also had the benefit of oral evidence on behalf of each of these four research councils.[153] Our impression from this evidence is of considerable diversity in their approaches to the topic. The EPSRC have the EQUAL initiative (Extending the Quality of Life) which was praised by Professor Peter Lansley at our Seminar for its work in creating better home and hospital environments, and in supporting assistive technology.[154] Likewise the two initiatives of the BBSRC—SAGE (Science of Ageing) and ERA (Experimental Research on Ageing)—have helped to stimulate growth and to draw researchers from other branches of science to develop interests in ageing.

8.27.  It is more difficult to evaluate the work of the MRC. On the face of it, the MRC appears to devote large sums to ageing-related research. We believe that these figures considerably over-estimate the importance which the MRC actually attaches to ageing research. The fact that a project is classed as relevant to ageing, and that 100% of its costs are included "even if the research was diverse, and ageing was only one aspect of it", seems to us to produce figures which are considerably inflated. We are supported in this view by looking at the lengthy list of projects sent to us in February 2005 by RCUK.[155] Although no conclusion can be drawn from the title of an individual project, the titles of the full list of 338 projects leave us with the distinct impression that many have only a minor or even marginal connection with ageing.

8.28.  We have no similar problems in evaluating the work of the ESRC. At a time when the psychology and sociology of ageing, and their associated policy implications, are of increasing importance, we find it astonishing that the ESRC should spend scarcely 1% of its allocation, amounting to £1.3m, on scientific research on these important topics. This point was specifically put to Professor Ian Diamond, the chief executive of the ESRC, when he gave oral evidence (QQ 443-444). We were not persuaded by his reply, and can see no possible justification for this very low level of spending.

8.29.  We recommend that the Economic and Social Research Council should urgently and significantly increase the proportion of its funding available for ageing-related research. The Director-General of Research Councils should supervise this.

8.30.  The research councils make grants for the funding of research projects on the basis of assessments by grant-awarding panels. The effectiveness of the peer review process depends on these panels being composed of scientific experts knowledgeable in the relevant field. In the case of both the MRC and the BBSRC, only a handful of the members of the councils and their scientific committees have expertise at all closely connected with ageing. This lack of expertise extends to the Strategy Boards and training awards committees as well as to the response-mode funding mechanisms. This is in sharp contrast to the position in the United States, where funding applications to the National Institute on Aging are invariably reviewed by experts selected for their knowledge of the scientific aspects of ageing.

8.31.  Professor Linda Partridge conceded that this lack of expertise caused problems with groups trying to obtain follow-on funding through the responsive mode committees in the BBSRC. In the case of ageing there had been a very low success rate. It was possible that the multidisciplinary nature of the ageing proposals did not appeal to committees that had specific expertise in biochemistry, structural biology or genetics because ageing was not confined to any one of those topics. She thought that this was something the Council needed to address (Q 403). We agree.

8.32.  The research councils should ensure that when their scientific committees are considering applications for funding for ageing-related research, they include a majority of members with specific experience in these fields.

Funding of research: the European Union

8.33.  Some funding of research, and coordination within the member states, is done through the EU. The Fourth Framework Programme for Research (FP4) ran from 1994 to 1998. Of the total of €13.25 billion spent on research, €157m went on biomedicine and health, though it is hard to estimate how much of this might be classed as ageing-related research. In the Fifth Framework Programme (FP5), from 1998 to 2002, out of €14.96 billion spent on research, €190m was spent on Key Action 1 (Quality of Life) and Key Action 6 (Ageing and Disability). The current Framework Programme, FP6, runs from 2002 to 2006, and does not have a specific heading for ageing and disability research. Out of a total of €17.5 billion, €1,155m is being spent on combating major diseases, but again it is not clear what proportion of this is spent on ageing research.

8.34.  On 6 April 2005 the EU Commission announced the proposal for a Seventh Framework Programme (FP7) to run for seven years from 2007 to 2013. Under the first main theme, Health appears this sub-heading:

Research on the brain and related diseases, human development and ageing: to explore the process of healthy ageing and the way genes and environment interact with brain activity, under normal conditions as well as in brain diseases.

There is as yet no means of knowing how much of the €8.3 billion proposed for Health research may be spent on this sub-head, but there have already been calls[156] for research on ageing to be made a priority.

8.35.  In the context of FP7, the Commission has proposed the setting up of a European Research Council, with the power to awards grants totalling €2 billion annually. At this stage a five-person committee, chaired by Lord Patten of Barnes, is in the process of identifying possible members of the governing body of the Research Council who would guarantee its autonomy and its focus on excellence in research.

8.36.  The Government must ensure that a very significant proportion of the resources allocated to the EU Seventh Framework Programme is set aside for ageing-related research. Members of the European Parliament should also press for this.

Funding of research: the private sector

8.37.  The Wellcome Trust is by far the largest medical charity in the UK. As we said at the start of this chapter, it does not break down its research spend into ageing-related research, but the figures cited there show that something of the order of £50m of its annual research budget is spent on this. From figures available in December 2002, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation was then funding projects worth £1.25m, and the Nuffield Foundation £0.29m.

8.38.  Help the Aged is the only charity concerned solely with older people which sponsors an appreciable volume of scientific research. Through its research arm Research into Ageing, in 2002 it was spending £2.45m per annum sponsoring projects worth a total of £5.04m. Expenditure on projects current in 2002 sponsored by single-issue charities concerned with diseases prevalent in old age was:

      Stroke Association    £5.98m

      Alzheimer's Society    £ 2.3m

      British Heart Foundation  £ 1.4m.

Cancer Research UK has a very much larger research budget, but this of course covers a variety of cancers spread over all ages, so that the figures are not directly comparable.[157]

8.39.  During the visit to Washington DC which we describe below we had the opportunity to visit the Ellison Medical Foundation, one of the major private funders in the United States of research into ageing.[158] The distinguishing feature of the Foundation is that it is funded by a philanthropist who takes a great personal interest in what it does. The Foundation is therefore accountable only to him, and can afford to fund projects which bear a high level of risk or are likely to bring results only in the long term. Funding can be awarded on the basis of applications only a few pages long, and this leads to exceptionally low administrative costs. We were most impressed by the Foundation's work, but we doubt whether parallels can be drawn with funding by charities in this country.

Coordination and collaboration: the current position in the UK

8.40.  It hardly needs to be said that there must be coordination between all these manifold publicly-funded sources of research funding. And although the taxpayer (as opposed to individual taxpayers) plays no part in the funding spent by private foundations and by charities,[159] it is also in everyone's interest that there should be collaboration between those responsible for publicly and privately funded research. We therefore looked to see what arrangements for such coordination were in place. We found that there were or had recently been in place a number of bodies responsible for various aspects of coordination.

8.41.  The Cross-Council Coordinating Committee on Ageing Research (XCAR) was established in May 2000, the key aims being to encourage the development of research activities across the research council boundaries, and to ensure that consideration of multidisciplinary research proposals are coordinated across the councils. If one of its purposes is to give prominence to ageing among multidisciplinary programmes supported by the research councils, we fear that it has not been successful. RCUK sent us a copy of a lengthy memorandum on Interdisciplinary Research which it submitted on behalf of the research councils to the Council on Science and Technology in 2004. Annex 1 contains a seven-page summary of cross-Research Council multidisciplinary activities with not a single reference to ageing, even in the section on genomics.

8.42.  XCAR has been instrumental in establishing both the National Collaboration on Ageing Research and the New Dynamics of Ageing cross-Council research programme. We now consider these.

8.43.  The National Collaboration on Ageing Research (NCAR) was an initiative launched with a major conference in November 2001 and funded via XCAR. It was initially funded for three years, up to 31 January 2005. The key aim of NCAR was to stimulate interdisciplinary research in the field of ageing through workshops in key areas, networking and dissemination. The effectiveness of NCAR was evaluated by an independent panel (the Cross Research Council Evaluation Panel for the National Collaboration on Ageing Research), which reported in critical terms in the autumn of 2004. The panel concluded that there was no longer a need for NCAR, and this recommendation was accepted by the research councils at a meeting on 25 October 2004. The funding of NCAR was accordingly not continued beyond 28 February 2005.

8.44.  It did not come as a surprise to us to hear this, since the evidence we received on NCAR was less than enthusiastic. The Biosciences Federation told us that "national coordination to date has been largely ineffective at the research level, despite the creation of NCAR".[160] In the opinion of the BSRA executive, NCAR was "largely unsuccessful".[161] The Centre for Ageing and Public Health of the London School for Hygiene and Tropical Medicine said: "The Collaboration seems to have had too little resource to make a significant difference."[162] The view of Dr S Brownsell and Professor M.S.Hawley (Barnsley General Hospital) was that NCAR and the Funders' Forum to date "appear to have had little impact on coordination in the field of assistive technology".[163]

8.45.  Oral evidence was to the same effect. Dr Diana Dunstan, Director of the Medical Research Group of the MRC and chair of XCAR said: "They [the National Collaboration for Ageing Research] have not achieved as much, as we have all said, in directing or encouraging the community to send to the research councils really good multi-disciplinary applications, which was what we were looking for. The way they had approached it had not been as successful as we hoped." (Q 428) Lord Sainsbury of Turville, the Minister for Science, when asked whether NCAR had not been found to be ineffective, replied: "I think the general feeling was that it had not been totally ineffective ... it is not correct to say that it had totally failed. It had done some good work". (QQ 528-9) This was hardly a ringing endorsement.

8.46.  One of the reasons the panel which evaluated NCAR was not unhappy about recommending that its funding should be discontinued was that it believed another body was well placed to take on NCAR's activities. This body was the Funders' Forum for Research on Ageing and Older People (FFRAOP, or, when there is no possibility of confusion with other Funders' Fora, simply the Funders' Forum) which was also set up in 2001. Its aim was to extend the existing collaboration between the four research councils (BBSRC, EPSRC, ESRC and MRC), bringing them together with six major charities and the Department of Health. In theory it meets once a year to receive reports from its members and to make recommendations for research and development. In practice it has not met since June 2003.[164] It has advisory powers only. In a research strategy document issued in October 2003, Dr James Goodwin, the head of research of Help the Aged, said that the Funders' Forum "has been perceived as lacking leadership, coherence and unified and purposeful effort." In written evidence to us, Help the Aged said that the Forum "lacks the authority to direct a national agenda".[165]

8.47.  If the Funders' Forum is also to assume some of the responsibilities of NCAR, plainly it must have the confidence of the research community. The evidence does not show this. Professor Peter Fentem, speaking for the Stroke Association, told us that he had been a member of the Funders' Forum, but that it had been "particularly disappointing" (Q 287). The Centre for Ageing and Public Health of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine believes that "the Forum has had a modest effect at best".[166] The view of RCUK is: "The Funders' Forum is a large and somewhat unwieldy body due to the nature of the field it covers. Despite their common focus on ageing, the principal funders constitute a very wide spectrum with different missions, which has inevitably created challenges. To date, it has mainly been a forum for discussion and exchange of views. The diversity of the FFRAOP distinguishes it from other Funders' Fora, such as those in the cancer and cardiovascular fields, which are able to make more of an impact because they are smaller and more tightly focussed."[167]

8.48.  RCUK also told us that the Funders' Forum "is currently reviewing its role". They subsequently explained that a sub-group, the Business Planning Group, had met six times between October 2002 and January 2004, and agreed on the need for a dedicated programme manager to take the work forward. Ideally this would be a full-time post, initially for three years. Despite pledges from the research councils and the health departments for contributions towards the cost, by April 2005 there was still insufficient money to support the post. RCUK hoped that this would be resolved when the Funders' Forum reconvened.

8.49.  The view of RCUK as to the successful coordination of cancer research was borne out by Professor Souhami of Cancer Research UK: "There is within the UK a very successful forum where the funding partners get together. That is the National Cancer Research Institute. In the National Cancer Research Institute, the major funders of cancer are sitting and discussing the questions of research priorities in cancer. Cancer Research UK is there, the Department of Health is there, the Medical Research Council, the Leukaemia Research Fund, Wellcome and so on. There is now a national forum for considering issues which relate to research priorities as they affect cancer." (Q 489) This shows that, given the right organisation, successful coordination is perfectly feasible.

8.50.  The New Dynamics of Ageing Programme (NDA) is not a coordinating body, but aspires to be a cross-council programme to coordinate ageing research. It was announced in 2004 as a £12m initiative of the ESRC, with the support of the EPSRC, BBSRC and MRC. The former director of NCAR was appointed as director of the NDA. We asked RCUK how the NDA would overcome the factors that led to NCAR falling below expectations. They pointed out that NCAR was a networking activity and not a research programme like the NDA. The research councils were "planning a number of steps to ensure that the performance of NDA [would] fully meet expectations in every area of its remit". It would have management mechanisms for assessing progress, none of which were in place for NCAR. Thus, to support the director there would be an advisory committee made up of academics from across the range of disciplines. Key performance indicators would be developed against which the programme could be monitored through annual reports and twice-yearly meetings with the programme case officer and a nominated liaison member from the ESRC Strategic Research Board.[168]

8.51.  RCUK told us that a central objective of the NDA would be "to encourage and support the development of innovative interdisciplinary research groups and methods with the aim of helping to create a new generation of interdisciplinary researchers", and "to provide a sound evidence base for policy and practice (including the development of prototype systems, procedures and devices) so that research contributes to well-being and quality of life".[169]

8.52.  In evidence to us on 8 February 2005 Professor Ian Diamond told us: "… we are all extremely excited about the New Dynamics of Ageing Programme that we are just about to start commissioning ..." (Q 388). Age Concern England welcomed the NDA, believing that it would give "a real collaboration between the research councils"(Q 489). But this view, and the excitement of Professor Diamond, are not yet shared by the research community. At that date, 9 months after it had been announced, the NDA had yet to issue a call for research proposals. The first such call was published on the ESRC website on 12 April, but this was for short expressions of interest only. Programme grants are to be commissioned only from early 2006. This will be 18 months after the launch of the NDA was announced.

8.53.  We asked the research councils to explain the reasons for the delay. Their response was:

"The commissioning of a research programme runs through several stages the first of which is the publication of the call. Whilst the intention to commission the New Dynamics of Ageing Programme (NDA) has been public on the ESRC website this has been for the prime purpose of generating interest within the scientific and user community in advance of the programme actually being commissioned. Since then we have been working to ensure the most effective commissioning of this multi-disciplinary programme. In order to ensure a transparent, fair and robust process, with opportunities for cross-council working, the commissioning of a programme of this scale is carefully worked out and staged. It is for this reason that phase I funding decisions will be taken early next year."

We do not understand why transparency, fairness and robustness require such a very long delay before the first funding decisions can be taken.

8.54.  The consequence however is that, for the present, only two of these four bodies are in any way active. Of these two, XCAR coordinates only the work of the research councils. Only the Funders' Forum has a remit to coordinate ageing-related research more widely but, as we have said, it last met in June 2003, and it does not appear to command the confidence of the research community.

8.55.  We are not alone in believing that coordination of ageing research in this country is singularly lacking. Even from within the research councils, there was criticism. Professor Linda Partridge, the Weldon Professor of Biometry at University College London, speaking on behalf of the BBSRC, gave us these examples. "There are various small rules which turn out to be major obstacles if one is trying to put together an interdisciplinary team, which is often what is needed for a research programme in ageing. For instance, the BBSRC are not allowed to fund work on disease… There can also be collaboration issues, so people, for instance, in MRC units cannot easily obtain joint funding with people trying to get money through the EPSRC or the BBSRC through a responsive mode. There are a number of such barriers which are a problem specifically for ageing research, I think, because of the need for interdisciplinarity." (Q 418)

8.56.  No evidence that we have received, written or oral, has been enthusiastic about the current arrangements for coordination. By contrast, some of the views we have received are less than enthusiastic:

  • Academy of Medical Sciences: "Research into ageing is poorly coordinated in the UK."[170]
  • Royal Academy of Engineering: "…the UK has not generally been good at cross-Research Council funding."[171]
  • Biosciences Federation: "National coordination to date has been largely ineffective at the research level, despite the creation of [NCAR]. There are two types of deficiencies: translating research discoveries made under the remit of one Research Council to clinical research sponsored by a second Research Council; and securing funding for work that currently falls between the remits of two Councils."[172]
  • Pocklington Trust: "From our perspective, there appears to be a lack of leadership at national level on dissemination of research into policy and practice."[173]

8.57.  Views on coordination between the public and private sectors were mixed:

  • Professor Cyrus Cooper: "The research councils do not, to our knowledge, have a particularly coordinated approach to musculoskeletal disease between, say, the BBSRC, MRC let alone bringing in the Wellcome Trust and the charities." (Q 54)
  • Royal Academy of Engineering: "Private and public research has been reasonably co-ordinated and the charitable sector has been closely involved in the human factors aspects."[174]
  • Biosciences Federation: "BBSRC and EPSRC have had some success in integrating their research programmes with those of the major charities funding ageing research. The BBSRC's Experimental Research on Ageing programme, for instance, includes observers from the charity Research into Ageing." [175]
  • Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh: "We also suggest that there should be an attempt to facilitate greater of co-ordination of research than hitherto between the public, private and charitable sectors."[176]

8.58.  Our conclusion is that the attempts at coordination so far made under the aegis of the research councils are woefully inadequate. The image we have is of a series of ill-thought-out initiatives which have long titles, short lives, vague terms of reference, little infrastructure, and no sense of purpose. A radical reorganisation is essential.

8.59.  This reorganisation of research coordination is the problem to which we now turn.

Coordination of research in the United States

8.60.  A number of the witnesses who, like us, came to the conclusion that a radical change was needed to provide proper coordination of research in this country drew comparisons with the organisation of research into ageing in the United States. They suggested the setting up in this country of an organisation modelled on the National Institute on Aging (NIA). We therefore visited the NIA on 18 and 19 January 2005. A full report of our visit is attached as Appendix 5.

8.61.  The National Institute on Aging is one of the 27 institutes making up the National Institutes of Health (NIH), based in Bethesda, a suburb of Washington DC. Congress granted the authority for the setting up of the institute in 1974. The purpose is to provide leadership in ageing research, training, health information dissemination, and other programmes relevant to ageing and older people. Subsequent amendments designated the NIA as the primary federal agency for Alzheimer's disease research.

8.62.  For the financial year 2005 the NIA has an appropriation of $1.05 billion, an increase of 3% over the previous financial year. One tenth of this is spent on the NIA's own intramural programme, conducting basic and clinical research on the NIH campus in Bethesda, and in Baltimore, but the NIA's primary task is to finance extramural research in the United States and, to a very limited extent, elsewhere.[177] There are four extramural programmes funding research and training at universities, hospitals, medical centres, and other public and private organisations nationwide. They are the Biology of Aging Program, the Behavioral and Social Research Program, the Neuroscience and Neuropsychology Program, and the Geriatrics and Clinical Gerontology Program.

8.63.  The NIA is accountable to Congress for the use of the funds voted for it. Its mission is very broad, and the appropriation comes with little specificity as to the use to be made of it. For the quality of its research, the NIA is accountable to a National Advisory Council on Aging, which advises the Secretary of the Department for Health and Human Services, the Assistant Secretary for Health, and the Directors of the NIH and the NIA. The Council meets three times a year to consider applications for research and training, and to recommend funding for those applications that show promise of making valuable contributions. The Council also makes recommendations to the Director of the NIA regarding research conducted at the Institute.

8.64.  The Centre for Ageing and Public Health made the following comparison of funding methods in the UK and the United States:


Funding of Research in the United Kingdom and the United States

The UK arrangements for funding research relevant to an ageing population remain fragmented and arguably unfocused. This may be contrasted with the US National Institute of Aging: The point is not so much the size of its annual budget of one billon dollars. Rather, the NIA conducts and supports an extensive program of research on all aspects of aging, from the basic cellular and molecular changes, through the prevention and treatment of common age-related conditions, to the behavioural and social aspects of growing older, including the demographic and economic implications of an aging society. Thus the NIA covers the research agenda that is the responsibility in the UK of all the Research Councils and the Department of Health (excepting the design and technology research of the EPSRC). In consequence, the US has a far more coherent effort in the field than does the UK.[178]

8.65.  Three points seem to us to be especially relevant to any consideration of modelling coordination of research on this country on the NIA. The first is that the NIA is only one of 27 institutes within the NIH. All other research in any way connected to health matters is organised in the same way. The NIH is in a position to oversee any differences between these institutes, any difficulties over the allocation of funds, and any overlap of or gaps in funding. We doubt whether it would be possible to set up a body with the same features as the NIA without making comparable changes to the organisation of research in many other fields. This may be thought to be desirable, but it is not a matter within our remit; we have received no evidence on it, and it would plainly have far-reaching consequences which we have not considered. In the absence of a body with the overarching responsibilities of the NIH, the setting up of an institute governing only one aspect of health research seems to us to be fraught with difficulty.

8.66.  Another major problem would be the funding of research. As we have said, the main responsibility of the NIA is the funding of extramural research, which in this country is primarily the responsibility of the research councils. A recommendation for the setting up of an NIA-type body would be tantamount to recommending the establishment of an additional Ageing Sciences Research Council which, using funds at present administered by four of the research councils (and primarily the MRC), would be exclusively responsible for grants for ageing-related research (however defined), to the exclusion of the other research councils. This might have advantages, but we doubt whether it could be done without a wholesale reorganisation of all the work of the research councils. At present they are based on scientific disciplines. This has its own logic, but inevitably causes difficulties for all research topics (not just ageing) which straddle more than one discipline. If all research councils allocated funds on the basis of subjects rather than discipline, this too would be logical, though it would have inevitable concomitant difficulties in the case of research in one discipline covering more than one subject. What would, it seems to us, cause the most difficulty would be to have, in addition to the present discipline-based research councils, one council responsible for all the research in one multidisciplinary subject.

8.67.  The last consideration is the question of intramural research. We were told on our visit to the NIA that one of its strengths is that, because it undertakes itself a considerable volume of research, those allocating funds for extramural research have a better idea of what projects are likely to be worth funding. This does indeed appear to be a considerable asset, but the essential feature is surely that those responsible for funding should have current or recent first-hand experience of undertaking research, wherever that research is undertaken. That should be the position of the research councils in this country.[179] The fact that they undertake only a little intramural research on ageing does not seem to us to cause any insuperable difficulties.

8.68.  We are moreover conscious that any recommendation for the setting up at this stage of a new intramural research facility would involve very great expenditure, and that the recruitment of the necessary researchers would inevitably impact unfavourably on existing research facilities. The choice of projects to be undertaken at the new facility would also affect extramural projects on similar topics and might well be seen, rightly or wrongly, to favour the intramural facility.

8.69.  The NIA has a universally acknowledged exceptional and enviable reputation for the organisation and coordination of ageing research in the United States. For the reasons given in the previous paragraphs it does not seem to us to be essential or even practicable to set up a similar body in this country. The challenge is to find a method of coordinating research in this country which, without fully reflecting the position in the United States, can nevertheless achieve the same ends, and in time earn the same reputation.

Coordination and collaboration: the future for the United Kingdom

8.70.  In this country the research councils alone spend £150m a year of taxpayers' money on ageing research, broadly defined. Ultimate responsibility for the effective use of these resources, and hence for the coordination of this research, must lie with a government department and with a senior Minister responsible to Parliament for the use of these funds. That department can take a strategic view of the whole topic.

8.71.  Which government department should be responsible? There seem to us to be three possibilities. The first is DWP. As we explained in the previous chapter,[180] it is the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions who has been chosen by the Government as the Government's Champion for Older People. Whatever the qualifications for that title of the holder of that office, it seems to us that DWP has no serious role to play in the coordination of scientific research, and we mention that department here only for completeness.

8.72.  A second possibility is the Department of Health, which is of course responsible for the NHS, for the health of the population, and specifically for the health of older people. It also has its own research programmes which need to be coordinated with the rest. Many, probably most, of the relevant research programmes are directly related to the health of older people. Plainly DoH has strong claims for the role of coordinating department.

8.73.  Nevertheless, although the choice is not an easy one, we believe that it is the Department of Trade and Industry, and under it the Office of Science and Technology, which should be responsible for the coordination of ageing related research. In this we agree with Help the Aged, which favours "the appointment of a 'champion for ageing research' in a central government department such as the Office of Science and Technology, to lead and direct a national research agenda on ageing."[181] OST already has responsibility for the research councils, and will therefore be aware of their virtues, and perhaps also of some of the failings which we have pinpointed. But a more important consideration is that the head of OST is the Government Chief Scientific Adviser (CSA). As such he is not, like other CSAs (or the Chief Medical Officer on DoH), responsible for only one department; he reports directly to the Prime Minister, and in that capacity can be regarded as being attached to the Cabinet Office.[182]

8.74.  The ultimate responsibility must remain with the department, and its Ministers. OST will however need to set up a coordinating body to supply the necessary strategic direction. It should be possible for such a body to include representatives of all the major funders, public and private, without becoming "large and unwieldy".[183] This body should, unlike the Funders' Forum, meet several times a year at regular intervals; it should consult those involved in research on what they see as the most fruitful areas of research, and on what they regard as the gaps needing to be filled; it should take account of research being undertaken in other European countries and further afield (in particular in the United States and in Japan); and on this basis it should formulate and publish guidelines determining the direction to be taken by research. Thereafter it will monitor developments, review the activities of the research councils, call them to account for their activities, ensure that they are following the guidelines, review these periodically, and if necessary amend them. It will also be well placed to monitor research capacity for such an important topic, and to ensure that it is built up until it is adequate for the purpose.

8.75.  We are not suggesting the setting up of a new non-departmental public body. The responsibility must remain that of DTI and OST, and of the CSA as head of OST. Moreover the scale of the problem does not warrant this. But the work of coordination will require allocation of sufficient funds for the infrastructure to enable this work to be carried out efficiently and in a manner which commands the confidence of the research community.

8.76.  We mentioned earlier the creation of the National Cancer Research Institute (NCRI) as being a successful forum for collaboration between funders.[184] Professor Souhami said that "the creation of the National Cancer Research Institute has been one of the best things that the UK has done in terms of pulling together funding agencies around a common cause. What was really important there was that the Department of Health and the Government injected a small but sufficient amount of cash into the National Cancer Research Network and the National Translation Cancer Research Network to lubricate the research process and its translation into therapeutics. It was not a huge amount of money, £20 million or so a year, but it was incredibly important in terms of getting the whole structure going."(Q 500) It is moreover not a vastly greater sum than the £12 million already committed to be invested in the NDA.

8.77.  Dr Goodwin agreed that the creation of a similar body would be the single best thing that could be done in the ageing research area. It seems to us that the NCRI is a model which should be carefully studied. It cannot be followed slavishly: ageing is a broader topic embracing a wider range of disciplines. But, with appropriate modification and adaptation, the NCRI represents the sort of body we have in mind. Professor Sally Davies seemed to agree: " … we are taking the opportunity to try to make all of the funders' for a—and this is no exception, the one for ageing—more effective ... the model that has worked [is] the National Cancer Research Institute. That really has shown that, by bringing together the charities, the research councils, the Department of Health and everyone, they can map what the gaps are and be strategic."(Q 141)

8.78.  We emphasise the limits of the responsibilities of DTI and OST. First, they will of course (like the Department for Health and Human Services and the NIA in the United States) have no control over how charities and other private funders allocate their funds; but they can and should have considerable influence. It must be in the interest of all concerned for there to be close collaboration between the work of the public and private sectors. Secondly, strategic direction and coordination does not involve the assessment of individual projects or of applications for research grants. Within the parameters of the strategic direction, these are matters which must remain the responsibility of the research councils, which are best qualified to undertake such assessments. And lastly, this is work which can and must be carried out without putting on researchers any additional bureaucratic burden. Consultation must not involve imposing any routine requirement for the provision of information. Those who wish to submit their views will of course be free to do so, but the inclusion on this body of a few senior and trusted members of the research community should be enough to ensure that it is kept informed of the main developments in the field.

8.79.  Much of the success of such a body will depend on its being directed by a person who, while having the necessary authority for the purpose and commanding the confidence of the research community, has the time to devote to this task. The right person will be attracted to this post only if he or she believes that the direction of this body will have a major influence for good on ageing-related research in this country. Initially at least, this may need to be a full-time post. We do not believe that this can be an additional responsibility of the Director-General of Research Councils. His task is limited to the supervision of the research councils. He has responsibilities for their coordination with each other, but this might well conflict with the responsibility for coordinating their work with other departments, and with other public and private funders.

8.80.  In formulating its strategic objectives, this body will need to bear in mind that the long-term goals of all research into ageing include the improvement of the health and well-being of people in this country and overseas, and support for the scientific community in this country and the economy of the country. We in no way wish to minimise the importance of "pure" scientific research, but even this cannot be conducted in a vacuum.

8.81.  Among the first tasks of this body will be to carry out an audit of what is currently being undertaken in the field of ageing research, concentrating on projects which have ageing as their primary focus, or in which ageing is a secondary but nevertheless important factor. This should include projects financed by government departments, by the research councils and by the private sector. Without this basic information there can be no effective coordination.

8.82.  Lastly and most importantly, among the main responsibilities of this body will be to supervise the training and career development of researchers in this field. Research into the scientific aspects of ageing in the UK can only thrive if the conditions are right for the best young researchers to be attracted to the subject, and to remain in this country to undertake the research.

8.83.  We conclude that the bodies currently responsible for the coordination of ageing-related research in the UK are not doing the job. The situation needs to be transformed. We believe however that this can be done without setting up a body modelled on the United States National Institute on Aging.

8.84.  The responsibility for coordination must lie with the Department of Trade and Industry and the Office of Science and Technology. The Government's Chief Scientific Adviser will have an important part to play.

8.85.  DTI and OST should set up a body with the membership, constitution, powers and funding necessary to provide the strategic oversight and direction of ageing-related research.

8.86.  When deciding on the structure of this body, DTI and OST should learn from the successful structure of the National Cancer Research Institute.

8.87.  Close collaboration with charities and private funders must be ensured by allowing them suitable representation.

8.88.  There must be liaison with similar bodies in other countries, and developments in those countries must be taken into account.

8.89.  Among the most important responsibilities of this body will be to promote research into ageing as a career for the best young researchers, and to supervise career development.

138   p 422. Back

139   Research Councils UK, p 204. Back

140   Paragraph 7.41. Back

141   Supplementary evidence submitted jointly by the BSRA, BGS and BSG, p 335. Back

142   Appendix 5, paragraph 21. Back

143   p 194. Back

144   Mr Frederic Stansfield, p 406. Back

145   p 6. Back

146   p 283. Back

147   p 196. Back

148   p 196. Back

149   p 217. Back

150   p 205. Back

151   The figures for the MRC spend in 2002-and hence also for the total spend-have with the agreement of RCUK been adjusted from those originally given in evidence (see p 203) to include spend on Units/Institutes and on stand-alone fellowships. This makes the figures directly comparable with those for 2004. Back

152   p 196 , p 234. Back

153   p 219. Back

154   See Appendix 4, paragraphs 28-32. Back

155   This is not printed in the evidence volume. Back

156   For example from Mr Lambert van Nistelrooij MEP, co-President of the European Parliament's Intergroup on Ageing. Back

157   Help the Aged, p 298. Back

158   A full report of the visit is at Appendix 5, paragraphs 3-18. See also paragraph 3.53 above. Back

159   If one excepts that, in the case of charities, 22/78ths or 28% of money donated by Gift Aid has since 2000 accrued to the charity rather than to the Revenue. Back

160   p 330. Back

161   p 9. Back

162   p 347. Back

163   p 341. Back

164   Supplementary written evidence from Dr Stephen Ladyman MP, a former Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the Department of Health, p 325. Back

165   p 284. Back

166   p 347. Back

167   p 201. Back

168   p 245. Back

169   p 203. Back

170   p 194. Back

171   p 125. Back

172   p 330. Back

173   p 409. Back

174   p 125. Back

175   p 330. Back

176   p 392. Back

177   We refer in paragraph 7.41 to the fact that ELSA is in part funded by the NIA. Back

178   p 347. Back

179   See our recommendation at paragraph 8.26. Back

180   Paragraph 7.17. Back

181   p 284. Back

182   Until 1995 OST was itself part of the Cabinet Office. The arguments for and against it remaining part of DTI or reverting to the Cabinet Office were considered by the House of Commons Select Committee on Science and Technology (Fifth report, session 1999-2000, HC Paper 307-I, paragraph 127), and also by this Committee (Science and Treaties, Third Report, session 2003-04, HL Paper 110-I, paragraphs

183   RCUK's description of the Funders' Forum. Back

184   Paragraph 8.49. Back

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