Select Committee on Science and Technology First Report


The focus of EQUAL

16. EQUAL is a research-focused initiative which attempts to raise the profile of the issue of extending the quality of active and healthy life, and enhance recognition of its importance. The MRC in written evidence talked of it raising the visibility of the area.[17] Professor Radda, the Chief Executive of the MRC, told us that "it was something that brought to everyone's attention the importance of the [issue]".[18]

17. Activity related to EQUAL has been largely confined to the Research Councils; it was designed to encourage them to fund research on EQUAL issues and to ensure co-ordination between them, so that research gaps could be identified.[19] The OST stated that EQUAL "brings together a range of programmes and activities across all seven of the Research Councils".[20] Indeed, it was argued that EQUAL was never intended to develop a comprehensive framework or strategy for research on ageing.[21]

18. No specific ear-marked funds were made available for the EQUAL programme, or for research taking place under its banner, either when it was launched or since. The OST told us that "There is no ring fenced budget or central pot of money within the OST for funding or co-ordinating this initiative.", and pointed out that, within the broad advice issued with the Research Council allocations, it was up to Research Councils to determine how best to allocate their resources across research programmes.[22] It did, however, argue that as EQUAL continued to be identified as a priority area for all the Research Councils, it would "inevitably benefit" from the recent increases in Government investment in the science base.[23] It is, in our view, a fundamental weakness of EQUAL that there was no specific funding given to encourage the programme.

19. Linked to, but not part of, EQUAL, was AgeNet, a Foresight Challenge Project, sponsored by the MRC, BUPA, Research Into Ageing, SmithKline Beecham and Westminister Health Care. AgeNet was a small and short-term organisation designed to identify research topics and stimulate multi-disciplinary and multi-sector research partnerships on ageing, which would feed into Research Council programmes.[24]

Co-ordination and management of the programme

20. As the OST told us, EQUAL is "co-ordinated through an OST/Research Council Working Group which meets annually" and sometimes more often, which, initially at least, concentrated on sharing information between participants about relevant Research Council activities.[25] There is also an EQUAL co-ordinator within the OST to keep in touch with the Research Councils.[26] The MRC and the OST's Foresight Challenge both provided funding for AgeNet. The BBSRC told us that this was the most visible part of OST's co-ordination for EQUAL. It said that EQUAL "has been operated by the OST on a lightly coordinated basis", largely made visible to the BBSRC through OST's part-funding of AgeNet. It had found "this level of coordination adequate".[27]

21. Although EQUAL was announced in 1995, the first of the research programmes did not start until late 1997. According to Professor Peter Lansley, chair of the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council's (EPSRC) EQUAL committee, the OST attempted to stimulate activity on the part of the Research Councils by holding a meeting in late 1996, when it urged them to take EQUAL seriously. Apart from this, he argued that the "OST has been rather invisible".[28]

22. We regret the limited co-ordinating role that the OST has played in EQUAL since its establishment. In our view, the lack of commitment and leadership on the part of OST has significantly weakened the drive to enhance ageing-related research.

The Research Council participants

23. All the Research Councils (apart from the Council of the Central Laboratories of the Research Councils) have been involved to some extent in EQUAL; indeed Lord Sainsbury, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at the Department of Trade and Industry and Minister for Science, said that they took up the EQUAL initiative enthusiastically.[29] We recognise that it is difficult for the Research Councils either to quantify their involvement either in terms of identifying the total amount of their budgets which is spent on research on extending the quality of active life or to say to what extent EQUAL made a difference to the way they allocated funds (that is, how much of the research funded under EQUAL would not have been funded without it), but all were able to give some indications.


24. The BBSRC established a 'Science of Ageing' (SAGE) Programme. This initiative was planned and developed independently of EQUAL, although the BBSRC told us that "the renewed promotion of EQUAL by the incoming Government in 1997 provided an incentive for the Council to prioritise the area".[30] The programme has funded 32 research projects related to aspects of the biological basis of normal ageing, at a total cost of £5.4 million, commencing in late 1998. SAGE has attracted many scientists not previously working in this area to ageing research. The BBSRC has supported them through various additional means including workshops and networking.[31]


25. To date the EPSRC's encouragement of research relevant to EQUAL has centred around two themes with research programmes developed to support both —

26. For these programmes the EPSRC stipulated a multi-disciplinary approach, and links with user communities and their representatives. These representatives "provided advice, resources, contacts and considerable moral support".[34] The EPSRC has also worked with the ESRC in its EQUAL initiatives, for example in identifying referees and Panel members.


27. The ESRC established, as "a direct result of the EQUAL initiative", its 'Growing Older' Programme, commissioning 24 projects in 1998/99 at a total cost of £3.76 million.[35] It also funds a programme entitled 'Beyond 2020 Vision' (£0.74 million), which involves researchers at the London School of Economics and King's College London, and aims to model the implications for social policy of changes in the population over the next twenty years (though this programme is not directly associated with EQUAL). The current EQUAL-related programme investments by ESRC, including expenditure on the Growing Older Programme, will cost £4.5 million over five years.


28. The MRC did not establish a specific EQUAL programme, though it did commit funds to AgeNet, the Foresight Challenge project. As the MRC told us "most areas of medical research are relevant to the health of elderly people, and, indeed, are more important for elderly people than for any other age group" and we accept that it is therefore difficult to "categorise research according to whether it is especially relevant to illness, disability or death in old age".[36] However, the MRC estimated that it spent approximately £16.5 million in 1998-99 on research programmes wholly or partly relevant to ageing.[37] This total excludes funds spent on research into cancer and cardiovascular disease except aspects specifically associated with old age and the MRC LINK Programme on integrated approaches to healthy ageing. Since then the MRC has committed another £12.5 million over 5 years.[38]


29. The Natural Environment Research Council's (NERC) rôle in EQUAL has, by its own admission, been limited, but its memorandum stated that it makes a "strong and growing" contribution to human health through collaboration with the medical research community and through research which influences the quality of the environment.[39] EQUAL has not resulted in new areas of NERC-funded research, although there is potential for NERC's Urban Regeneration Programme, in particular, to have an impact on the quality of people's lives at all ages, for example through its research into urban air pollution and airborne particles. NERC officers have been members of the OST/EQUAL Working Group.


30. The Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council (PPARC) told us that its "research community has something to offer the EQUAL initiative" although it has seen itself as only a minor player.[40] PPARC is represented on OST's EQUAL Working Group (EQ7). Particle physics and astronomy are not directly relevant to EQUAL, though their science does underpin relevant technologies.

31. We recognise that some of this research might have taken place without the stimulus of EQUAL. It is not clear precisely how much additional ageing-related research has been funded as a direct result of EQUAL. We welcome the steps taken by the ESRC, the BBSRC and the EPSRC, in establishing explicit EQUAL programmes, as well as the continuing funding of research on ageing by the MRC. However, it must be said that progress has been disappointingly slow. We urge the Research Councils to demonstrate their commitment to EQUAL with greater vigour.

Links between EQUAL and other organisations or groups

32. EQUAL had the potential to encourage and foster collaborations between a number of related organisations. Inevitably some such collaborations have been fairly rudimentary as the organisations in question are also still relatively new.


33. Age Concern England (ACE) is a charitable voluntary organisation, which is at the centre of a federation of over 1,000 autonomous Age Concern bodies providing direct services to older people and their families. ACE's rôle is to campaign to improve the lives of older people; to provide information (both directly and through publications) for and about older people; to establish innovatory services; to train service providers; to raise funds through retailing; and occasionally to commission relevant research. Its turnover is around £30 million per annum. ACE has had some minor influence on EQUAL, largely through its 'Debate of the Age' (a national campaign designed to stimulate debate on the ageing of the UK's population at all levels of society). This, for example, influenced the EPSRC's programme of 'EQUAL in the Built Environment'.[41]


34. AgeNet was established in 1997 "in part to coordinate research into ageing" with a total budget of £426,000 over three years.[42] That funding came to an end in March 2000. It had a staff of one Director Dr David Metz, together with administrative assistance. Its purpose was to stimulate multi-disciplinary and multi-sectoral research collaborations which would result in benefits for the health and quality of life of older people. AgeNet liaised closely with the four Research Councils most active in research relating to ageing and age-associated conditions and issues. It has undertaken joint activities with them, in the form of several workshops specific to EQUAL.[43] AgeNet was particularly involved in helping to formulate the EPSRC EQUAL programme on 'Design for All': AgeNet, together with the Design Council, organised a workshop on the subject.[44] AgeNet also advised MRC on research training needs.[45] Had EQUAL been more vigorously pursued by the OST, there would have been greater potential for AgeNet to influence Research Council priorities and the profile of research proposals they received.


35. Ageing remains a priority for the Department of Health and the Department has undertaken a review of its research portfolio relating to ageing. However, aside from the close relationship between MRC and the Department, there is no evidence of much involvement of the Department of Health in EQUAL.[46] We see this as a significant weakness.


36. The OST told us that "the UK successfully promoted the inclusion of a Key Action on the Ageing Population" within the Quality of Life Programme under the EU's Fifth Framework Programme.[47] We have not, however, seen any evidence which indicates that the UK's stance was influenced by the EQUAL programme directly, nor indeed that it would not have happened without the UK promoting it. Lord Sainsbury said he hoped UK researchers would win 20% of the budget and later figures provided by OST supported this estimate.[48]


37. The Foresight Ageing Population Panel was set up in November 1999 to raise awareness about population ageing and its potential impact on markets and economic and social structures over the next 20-30 years, to identify potential market opportunities, and to lay out the scope for technology to improve the quality of life for older people. It included representatives from the commercial, academic and voluntary sectors and its Chairman joined the OST/Research Councils EQUAL Co-ordinating Working Group. The OST stated that the links between EQUAL and Foresight would provide more opportunities for knowledge transfer and development of future research.[49] Baroness Greengross told us that it was too early to say what the impact of the Foresight Ageing Population Panel would be on EQUAL, or vice-versa.[50] We note that the Foresight Ageing Population Panel has now concluded its work and published a report on its conclusions, 'The Age Shift - Priorities for Action'.[51] We recommend that the Government make a substantive response to the report of the Foresight Ageing Population Panel, as soon as is practicable.


38. The Inter-Ministerial Group on Older People, chaired by the Minister of State for Social Security, was established in June 1998, with the aim of ensuring that the needs of older people are better understood, and taken into account in the formation and development of policy across Government. It has identified three key areas for action: active ageing, care issues, consultation and involvement.[52] It does not appear to have influenced the EQUAL agenda as yet. There appears to be a way to go before Government in this area is fully joined-up. We urge Ministers to demonstrate, in their response to this Report and to the Foresight Ageing Population Panel, that the Government is fully committed to exploiting the research base to address the needs of older people.


39. Research into Ageing is a national charity dedicated to improving the health and quality of life of elderly people through the provision of funding and support for medical research.[53] It has been involved with EQUAL from its early stages and has advised three of the Research Councils on the EQUAL initiatives. The EPSRC's 'EQUAL in the Built Environment' was endorsed by a Conference on 'Continuing Care' organised by Research into Ageing,[54] and the Director of Research into Ageing has also been an EPSRC Panel member. Research into Ageing has also advised BBSRC and ESRC on the development of their EQUAL initiatives.

40. All in all, we believe that EQUAL has not been sufficiently successful in encouraging interaction and collaboration between Government Departments, Research Councils and others engaged in ageing research. We suspect that part of the problem is that EQUAL has been the responsibility of OST rather than one of the big-spending departments responsible for the health and welfare of the older sections of the population. EQUAL has been a marginalised research initiative while it should have been central to the Government's policy on ageing. We recommend that the Government transfer lead responsibility for EQUAL either to the Department of Health or to whichever Government Department is given lead responsibility for ageing. However, should any additional funds be made available for the EQUAL programme, they should be administered by OST.

17   Evidence, p 15. Back

18   Q 47. Back

19   Evidence, pp 13-14. Back

20   Evidence, p 28, paragraph 7. Back

21   Evidence, p 15. Back

22   Evidence, p 28, paragraphs 4 and 5. Back

23   Evidence, p 28, paragraph 4. Back

24   See Evidence, p 1, paragraph 1. Back

25   Evidence, p 28, paragraph 8. Back

26   Q 91. Back

27   Evidence, p 18, paragraph 10. Back

28   Evidence, p 49, paragraph 7. Back

29   Q 123. Back

30   Evidence, p 18, paragraph 9. Back

31   Evidence, p 17, paragraph 6. Back

32   Evidence, pp 68 and 69, paragraphs 6-10. Back

33   Evidence, pp 68 and 69, paragraphs 8-10. Back

34   Evidence, p 50, paragraph 13. Back

35   Evidence, p 81, paragraph 5. Back

36   Evidence, p 12, paragraph 1. Back

37   Evidence, p 90, paragraph 3. Back

38   Evidence, p 90, paragraph 2. Back

39   Evidence, p 73, paragraph 3. Back

40   Evidence, p 59. Back

41   Evidence, p 68, paragraph 7. Back

42   Q 97. Back

43   Evidence, p 1, paragraph 4, and p 4, Annex 1. Back

44   Evidence, p 50, paragraph 14; p 68, paragraph 9. Back

45   Evidence, p 14. Back

46   Qq 93-4. Back

47   Evidence, p 29, paragraph 10. The EU's framework programmes are intended to support research in priority areas across the EU. The Fifth Framework covers the period 1999 to 2002. Back

48   Q 134; Evidence, p 91. Back

49   Evidence, p 28, paragraph 8.  Back

50   Q 175. Back

51   Department of Trade and Industry, December 2000. Back

52   Evidence, p 91. Back

53   Evidence, pp 85-86. Back

54   Evidence, p 68, paragraph 7. Back

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