Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence

Memorandum by Mr Frederic Stansfield


  1.1  This response is submitted on an individual basis. I am interested in ageing policy because I am a 52 year old man currently not working, but living with an elderly relative. My last position, some years ago, was as a Research Fellow in a new university, where my role included duties seeking to generate interdisciplinary research into aspects of the built environment. My own undergraduate degree is in Psychology and I have an MSc in Occupational Psychology, as a result of which I am specifically concerned about ageing related work issues, over and above the concern with issues relating to older people that arises from my personal situation. In between obtaining these degrees I worked as a systems analyst for a variety of public and private sector organisations. I also have interests relating to the History and Philosophy of Psychology, as well as in philosophy itself through participating in the activities of learned societies and other events relating to philosophy.

  1.2  Your enquiry is specific to the scientific aspects of ageing, but the issues on this topic are highly interdisciplinary. Negative attitudes towards ageing are amongst the largest problems in the United Kingdom today, particularly in relation to employment, at a time when the proportion of older people in the population is greatly increasing. This is an issue that needs to be addressed by social scientific research, but new evidence from the biological and engineering sciences can help demonstrate the inappropriateness of current beliefs.

  1.3  In this response I am taking ageing as a general issue without being very specific about particular age ranges. The age range of scientific interest will vary between research areas. In relation to the biological bases of ageing, it is important to have an understanding of human development over the whole duration of life. In relation to technology and design, many of the issues affecting the quality of life only seriously affect the very old. The age group between 50 and 65 has pressing needs in relation to economic and social science issues, but from the point of view of much science research the needs of this demographic group are not qualitatively different from those of younger adults.


  2.1  It is clear that major advances are being made in relation to the biological processes of ageing, in particular because of the decoding of DNA and related advances in genetics. This is an area of research that is already very active in the United Kingdom and it is obvious that continued effort is justifiable in it.

  2.2  In psychology, there was extensive behavioural research on ageing in the years following the Second World War. In relation to work issues, the Nuffield Foundation funded a long-term project at Cambridge University between 1946 and 1956 (Welford, 1958) and the Medical Research Council followed this by funding further work at Bristol and Liverpool Universities and University College London. More recently, this area of research has shared in the general expansion of university research.

  2.3  A current need in psychology (leaving aside an important need for more research in the social psychology of ageing that perhaps falls outside the remit of the your committee) is to relate behavioural research and its application more closely to biological processes. I suspect that there is a lack of dissemination of advances in our knowledge of biological processes to applied psychology. One reason is that, as a rough approximation, the older universities in the United Kingdom (including Oxford and Cambridge) are the leaders in relation to biological psychology, but the main centres for applied psychology are in what were once known as "redbrick" universities and in universities with technological origins. Pressure for cheap research in small projects spread across institutions tends to favour further expansion of behavioural and observational research as opposed to innovative work requiring more laboratory facilities. Adoption of new techniques from biological psychology would be a major change of direction for psychology consultancies such as those involved in the recruitment and selection of workers.

  2.4  From experience in my everyday life, more needs to be done in particular to research and/or disseminate knowledge relating to the effects of nutrition on the ageing process. In particular, my observation is that good food is crucial to maintaining an active life for the very elderly (eg those over approximately 85). There is not enough information to guide those concerned with shopping and catering for these senior citizens, not to speak of the need to change the priorities of those who provide woefully inadequate catering in hospitals and nursing homes. Not least, research is needed as to how to motivate the independent elderly to eat properly.

  2.5  The scale and nature of current and likely discoveries in relation to the biological processes of ageing have major ethical implications, not least in relation to ethnicity. There is a need to invest in research on the philosophy of science in relation to biological processes and ageing, concerning methodological as well as ethical issues.


  3.1  In responding to your request for evidence relating to technology and design I am concentrating on issues relating to the built environment and transportation. This is not only because of my own career experience, but also reflects my opinion after being involved in the development of knowledge in several disciplines that the built environment should be a priority area for additional research.

  3.2  Knowledge into specific equipment and aids for older people can often be gained from projects of manageable size. There tends to be support for such investigations because relevant charities provide resources and because business people who wish to be associated with a socially useful enterprise are glad to develop products. Substantial advances have been made: the equipment available today for the elderly and disabled is incomparably better than that a generation ago. Perhaps, however, one might mention hearing aids as a particular case where there is scope for advances based on new research.

  3.3  In the behavioural sciences, research by applied psychologists into technology and design, whilst they would see it as within their remit, has been largely overtaken by ergonomists who concentrate more closely on experimental investigation, including behavioural and physiological issues. It is possible in relation to technology and design relating to equipment for the aged and for any other purpose that this leads to a concentration by researchers on physical equipment design rather than on wider issues as to its acceptability and use.

  3.4  Given the widespread use of information technology in society today, there is an on-going need to commit resources for research on human-computer interaction involving people of different ages. For older people, attitudes towards computers are still often as much an issue as the actual usability of the hardware and software. However, United Kingdom research in this area needs to take into account the international scale on which the computing industry operates: the need is largely to attract major overseas companies in the industry to bring research on use of computers by older people to Britain.

  3.5  In relation to the built environment, I would like to highlight four areas where additional large scale research is needed that would improve life in Britain for everybody, but in particular for older people. In each of these areas psychological issues are at least as important as narrow engineering and design ones if successful change is to be achieved. The areas are:

  3.5.1  Accessible and available public transport. The United Kingdom has built up a transport system in which car use is essential outside major cities and highly desirable anywhere outside Central London. For the elderly this is a problem, not least because cars place cognitive demands upon their drivers for rapid responses, which is the type of skill that declines most with age. Replacement of motor car use is of course going to be needed for other reasons too including needs to avoid pollution and the depletion of oil reserves. Such replacement appears to be technically possible, but it is fiercely resisted largely for psychological reasons. People are by nature active, but in modern Britain they are largely, and inevitably, constrained to a largely passive role. People do not have access to cultivate the land outside their own gardens (where they have them). Manufacturing work has been largely overtaken by passive processing of information in service industries. This leaves driving a car as the main way many people have of controlling what happens in their physical environment, and they are not prepared to lose this power even if it results from technology that causes major problems for the elderly and other disadvantaged sections of the population. Research is needed not only to identify how to develop a transport system that will give older people freedom and mobility, but how to provide such a system that is also acceptable and preferable to those in the prime of life.

  3.5.2  Britain has seen a revolution in retailing whereby small shops in local neighbourhoods or high-streets have been replaced by larger stores out-of-town or in shopping malls. The trouble is that many of the elderly cannot get to these new shops and even if they can these stores are too big to walk round (and the displays are at the wrong height if they are in wheelchairs). This problem is particularly serious for clothes where help with shopping or use of the Internet cannot compensate for visiting the shop. Exclusion of the elderly from shops has been made worse by the closure of post offices following changed pensions administration arrangements: for many old people a regular visit to the post office was a vital social activity. The research need is to identify shop arrangements that will maintain or increase the advantage of the new types of shops whilst making them usable and attractive to older people. (Incidentally, I was specifically asked by a relative to include this suggestion).

  3.5.3  There is need for more research into housing design in relation to an ageing population, both in relation to the usability of ordinary dwellings by people as they age and to specialist housing provision for the elderly with special needs.

  3.5.4  Good hospital provision is essential for an ageing population to have a healthy life, but there are inadequate arrangements in the United Kingdom for research into health care buildings. After the Second World War, when Britain's stock of hospitals was in a parlous condition, the Nuffield Foundation sponsored research into hospital design. This led to the development of professional expertise into hospital building needs retained largely within the NHS by dedicated professional staff. This knowledge resource has been adversely affected by the introduction of private competition into the provision of hospital buildings, which I witnessed in a small way whilst as a university researcher submitting unsuccessful bids for collaborative research in this field. All too often private designers are unaware of special hospital needs, often in details such as doorway design as much as the major functions to be provided by the building. External research facilities are in consequence needed to supplement and replace NHS resources in this area.

  For the above list I have drawn on a mix everyday observation and career experience. Needless to say, study of the likely costs and benefits would be needed before commitments to major new research.

  3.6  Built environment research relating to older people, and to people in general, would benefit by provision at a national level of a facility at which buildings could be prototyped indoors within a laboratory space for behavioural research.

  3.7  Lack of able researchers is likely to be a problem for a research programme into buildings for older people. It might be addressed in part by recruiting researchers from the social sciences, where by contrast with built environment disciplines; surpluses of good graduates are being produced by the universities and where competing professional opportunities in private industry are fewer. In addition, I suggest later in this response (paragraph 4.7) that older people currently not working could be redeployed, after suitable training, into research.


  4.1  Research issues including the identification of priority areas and the allocation of funding is in my observation well co-ordinated between representatives of the civil service, universities and other research providers, public organisations and private organisations. The trouble is that they tend to talk to each other rather than the ordinary citizens who should ultimately benefit from applied research, particularly in relation to ageing issues. This is an issue notably for the age group between 50 and 65, many of whom, since they now longer work and are not yet of pensionable age, have little contact with the state or charities. In relation to those above 65, problems in identifying policy derive from a harsh class divide. On the one hand many senior citizens depend upon state benefits, and often receive services distributed by charities (who thereby acquire vested interests) using public money. On the other, old people on good pensions feel that distancing themselves from the state and charities (except as funders and organisers) is a way of maintaining their independence and status.

  4.2  The large involvement of researchers themselves in the strategic management of United Kingdom research is amongst the reasons why funding tends to go to existing areas of research strength, and to be spread amongst many small projects. This is not so great an issue for research on the biological processes of ageing which falls within an existing area of research strength, but it is a problem that needs to be overcome for research in technology and design for older people, particularly in relation to the built environment issues indicated above in paragraph 3.5.

  4.3  The United Kingdom spends approximately two per cent of its Gross National Income on research (I am basing this paragraph on data from the Office of National Statistics, 2004), which is substantially less than other developed countries. The answer to any question as to whether there is sufficient research capacity in the United Kingdom is therefore likely to be a resounding "No". However, the United Kingdom's research effort is skewed still further because of its concentration on certain areas, including defence, space research and health research. The Annual Abstract of Statistics (Table 20.4, page 320) shows that intramural expenditure by industry on civil research in 2001 was £3,562 million for the chemicals industry (which will include pharmaceutical research) and £30 million for the construction industry. These figures are astonishing given the importance of the construction industry for the United Kingdom economy, even if they are not strictly comparable, for instance because research undertaken by property owners into buildings may be recorded for their own industry sector rather than construction. The imbalance is not compensated for by central government funds. I have highlighted in this response the importance of construction related research for the ageing population. It has recently been reported to the House of Commons that United Kingdom output could be increased by £3 billion per year by employing ten per cent of those over 50 not in work who would like to work (National Audit Office, 2004). As a researcher over 50 and not working I cannot therefore believe that several £100 millions extra money per year (possibly even £1 billion) for research on ageing could not be found within the United Kingdom economy. This is the scale of investment needed to bring the construction industry up to the quality of our world-leading pharmaceuticals industry, and it could be targeted around built environment and transportation projects specifically benefiting older people, although not necessarily exclusively this age group.

  4.4  I have made various suggestions for research within major research disciplines in this response. However, I do not think that one should worry too much about gaps in research. It would be better to address sufficient funds to research that will result in major improvements for specific large issues affecting the quality of life of older people than to spread money across many projects too small to be effectively applied.

  4.5  The quality of the research capability in relation to the scientific aspects of ageing is as much a concern as the lack of such capability in relation to technology and design. In particular, the current suitability of universities for research in this area should be questioned. Universities cannot compete for the best staff in the areas of technology and design not only because of inadequate resources but also because of needs to maintain parity of pay and conditions between researchers and teachers in different disciplines. Many existing staff are "burned-out" through excessive workloads and lack of career development, setting aside issues relating to the great variations between the ability of university staff in different disciplines. Despite improvements in recent years, research management within higher education is often poor. Attempts to address these issues within universities are seriously hampered by resistance to change and by deeply in-grained organisational culture. If substantial additional funds are to be invested into scientific aspects of ageing, serious consideration should be given to using this money to set up a completely new research institution unencumbered by past history and commitments.

  4.6  Research on ageing often benefits from complex statistical analysis because of the need to compare age groups either through by repeated observations or by comparisons of otherwise comparable sample populations. In addition, the ageing process results from many interacting causes, which have to be disentangled in the analysis of experiments. Lack of available researchers with the necessary mathematical and statistical skills is likely to be a problem that will need to be addressed, for instance in relation to research in the built environment.

  4.7  The Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) is a disaster in general: I have pointed out in the Times Higher Education Supplement (Stansfield, 2004) that it is ageist as well as methodologically flawed. My complaint is but one amongst many. But the RAE is particularly disastrous for scientific research into ageing. Longitudinal research studying people over an extended period is essential for much research into ageing. The deadlines of the Research Assessment Exercise discourage such long-term studies. This periodic assessment of research also discourages large-scale research, both because this inevitably requires a longer-term commitment and because many universities press for a share of any available funds. In suggesting that a new institution should be created for research on ageing, I hope that this would enable the funds involved to be separated from those allocated and assessed by means of the RAE. The success of cognitive research on ageing financed over ten year periods in psychology in the early years after the Second World War shows from past experience the advantages of long-term funding.

  4.8  More could and should be done to enable older people to carry out research into ageing themselves, not just be subjects for investigation. In making this observation I am thinking of people who could have previously carried out other work and who could be retrained to bring in fresh experience, not just existing academics. Given that a million people between 50 and 65 need to be found work (National Audit Office, 2004), research activity should at least employ its fair share of them. If 2 per cent of Gross National Income is spent on research, that implies 20,000 such new researchers, and productive use could be found for more.

  4.9  Past research into scientific aspects of ageing has already had huge effects on the quality of life for elderly people. As just one example, the invention and improvement of artificial hips has enabled many thousands of old people who in the past would have been bed-ridden (and would soon have died) to live an active life. However, there are two major policy obstacles to the application of scientific research about ageing:

  4.9.1  The attitudes of civil servants and others who define old age for policy making purposes in relation to retirement ages of 60 or 65, implicitly because of their financial interests. These dates were set roughly a century ago in relation to then expectations of life and the affordability of pension provisions. The psychological and biological evidence provides little if any justification for considering the mid-sixties as a major milestone in the ageing process: except in cases of illness declines in performance due to old age become significant at a considerably greater age. Yet retirement age is used as a dividing line for policy making in many areas across government, not just for matters specifically relating to pay and pensions.

  4.9.2  Emphasis on short-term returns on investment in both public and private sectors of the economy. The financial returns on capital implied by prevailing interest rates, even at the comparatively low level of recent years, simply do not match the human life span. Decisions in relation to the scientific aspects of ageing need to be made in relation to needs predicted by demographic statistics and the time needed to carry out research ready for the time when there will be many more very old people. This should impose deadlines.


  5.1  As a partial summary to this submission, the following is a selected list of suggestions made that would taken together form a programme of action:

    (a)  Substantial additional resources should be allocated to research on scientific aspects of ageing.

    (b)  Because of massive disparities in existing research effort, extra resources allocated should be concentrated particularly on investigation relating ageing to issues in the built environment and transportation.

    (c)  If built environment and transportation research receives additional funding; it should be concentrated on a small number of major topics, encompassing behavioural as well as technological research.

    (d)  If new large-scale research is instigated concerning the built environment, it should be carried out by a new institution with long-term funding.

    (e)  Investigators for research into scientific aspects of ageing should be found in part from the one million people aged between 50 and 65 who are not working and who would like to work.


  National Audit Office (2004) Welfare to Work: Tackling the Barriers to the Employment of Older People. Report by the Comptroller and Auditor General. HC 1026. Session 2003-04: 15 September 2004. Ordered to be printed by the House of Commons.

  Office of National Statistics (1994) Annual Abstract of Statistics. 2004 edition. Number 140.

  Stansfield. F. R. (2004) "RAE for the vain but not the old", Letter to the Times Higher Education Supplement, 28 May 2004, p 19.

  Welford, A. T. (1958) Ageing and Human Skill. London: Oxford University Press for the Trustees of the Nuffield Foundation

September 2004

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