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


Memorandum submitted by Professor Peter Lansley, Department of Construction Management and Engineering, University of Reading


  Professor Peter Lansley has chaired the EPSRC EQUAL research grants committee on the two occasions on which it has met. He has been particularly involved with encouraging EPSRC and universities to embrace the mission of EQUAL. He holds a chair in Construction Management at the University of Reading.

  The comments which follow largely concern the encouragement given by the EPSRC EQUAL initiative to those with an interest in improving the built environment for older people and for those with physical and mental impairments.


  EPSRC's response to the OST EQUAL initiative has been robust and positive. The rather modest level of funding devoted to its EQUAL initiative has been well matched to the initial small size of the relevant research community. EQUAL is contributing to a significant change in the culture of EPSRC and in those parts of universities with an interest in the built environment. There are, however, concerns about the impact of RAE2001 on the confidence of some of the research teams supported by EQUAL funding.

  Evidence of a worthwhile programme is accumulating. This is underpinning a variety of other important developments relating to quality of life. The EPSRC EQUAL initiative should be encouraged although not necessarily greatly expanded.


  1.  EPSRC has taken a pragmatic approach to setting up its initiative. Although more funding would have been welcome, given its other commitments the funding available has been at about the right level and rather better than might have been expected.

  2.  The initiative has had high level support from within the Council.

  3.  The staff appointed to manage the initiative have been excellent, both in the way they have related to the research community and in representing the needs of that community to senior staff in EPSRC. The ensuing rapport and associated enthusiasm for the initiative have been exemplary.

  4.  As the initiative has become better known so the staff have provided an important sign-posting role for enquiries from outside of the science and engineering community, for example, from users and clinicians. Frequently they have offered advice on potential collaborators from within the research community.

  5.  Academics, researchers, collaborating organisations and users who have had their first contact with EPRSC through the EQUAL initiative have drawn very favourable comparisons between EPSRC and other Research Councils and funding bodies. They have applauded the approachability of staff and their pragmatic approach to finding ways around potential problems.

  6.  The EQUAL initiative has required a dramatic shift in the culture of at least part of EPSRC, from funding projects where the rationale has been almost exclusively based on the traditions of science and engineering, to accepting interdisciplinary approaches which, although incorporating a strong element of science and engineering, have drawn heavily on the traditions of the health, medical and social sciences. This rapid change should be applauded.


  7.  Apart from a meeting in late 1996 when the Research Councils were urged to take EQUAL seriously, and some activity shortly afterwards when the slow progress of the EQUAL initiative was publicly criticised, OST has been rather invisible. This is despite a profusion of significant public policy influencing meetings and debates concerned with older people.

  8.  There appears to have been a lack of co-ordination and communication at the level above the Research Councils. As a result a useful rapport between those who are closely involved with the range of EQUAL and related initiatives supported by the Research Councils has yet to develop.


  9.  The EPSRC initiative has successfully accessed high-quality researchers with a strong interest in built environment quality of life issues, especially design. In the past, the research interests of many of these have been outside of the remit of EPSRC and the other Research Councils. Thus, EQUAL has been able to build on "new" skills and engage "new" members who previously it has not supported. Hence, EQUAL has contributed to expanding and developing the UK research base.

  10.  Within that community is a rich spread of skills and interests, and a strong commitment to the ideals of EQUAL. Such a high level of commitment and dedication is rarely found within those programmes which are concerned with, say, the competitiveness of industry.

  11.  The insistence of EPSRC on a multidisciplinary approach has ensured the development of valuable linkages across disciplines, especially between the sub-disciplines of the built environment and those to be found in the medical, health and social sciences. Novel partnerships have been formed, which hopefully will be strengthened and will become permanent.


  12.  The insistence of EPSRC on sound linkages with user communities has also encouraged a clear focus on problems and outcomes without sacrificing scientific quality. Rather, this has been fostered.

  13.  User communities and their representatives, health service professionals, charitable bodies and the like have been particularly supportive and involved with the initiative. They have provided advice, resources, contacts and considerable moral support. There is little doubt that the willingness of both small and large voluntary organisations to engage with EQUAL projects is much higher than industry's willingness to engage with competitiveness related research projects.

  14.  Several organisations have been particularly encouraging, for example, AgeNet, Research into Ageing and the Anchor Trust. But many others, national and local, have played an important role.


  15.  One of the most satisfactory aspects of EQUAL is that it has created opportunities for the development of a new generation of researchers, one which will blossom in the interdisciplinary environment. The expectations which these researchers have to fulfil are high, as the integrity of science, social science and medical/health science cannot be compromised. Such high standards will contribute to a very sound research training and highly effective researchers.

  16.  In addition, the level of job satisfaction of researchers appears higher than in conventional areas. This is matched by the level of enthusiasm for the work of these researchers and for their personal development which has been expressed by collaborators, users and other organisations.

  17.  There is, however, one major concern which has been expressed by many members of the research community. This is the ambiguous position of the Higher Education Funding Councils towards interdisciplinary research, especially that which engages directly with users, and the resulting uncertainties relating to the Research Assessment Exercise in 2001. Some members are not at all confident that panels will recognise the value of work undertaken within the EQUAL initiative and believe that panels will not know how to assess that work. The perceived gate-keeping role of the Funding Councils contrasts markedly with the facilitating role of EPSRC.


  18.  The initiative is at an early stage and few of the projects supported by EPSRC have been completed, although several will be completed by mid 2000. However, even at this stage there are some useful, albeit rather ad hoc indicators of success. For example, work on telecare in the home has led to one research team being identified by DTI as a key resource in relation to health care-related overseas trade. A team working on rural public transport for older people has been approached by overseas governments for advice on their transport systems. Several teams working on access for the disabled have become regional and national nodes for advice. A team working on navigation devices has filed patent applications.

  19.  Drawing on the confidence derived from their research, some teams have been able to secure special funding for the development of educational courses for health service and related professionals. In some cases this funding has been provided by ERSRC, further underlining its commitment to the mission of EQUAL. This will enable the teams to short circuit the often long and arduous path between research and application by incorporating their research findings into these courses. Other teams have been able to incorporate their work into the mainstream of existing courses, typically at undergraduate level, leading to further useful spin-offs.

  20.  In short, there are important leverage effects. Support to a research team from EPSRC to an EQUAL project can lead to the development of skills which become recognised and are then valued by users and representatives of users as well as by industry.


  21.  The number of researchers capable of working in the area covered by EQUAL is small but is growing. It is at an early and critical stage of development. It can meet only a small part of the overall challenge and at present is over-stretched. There are almost too many issues to be researched. Possibly there are too many opportunities requiring a response. There are not enough skilled academics and researchers.

  22.  So, the development of EQUAL has to be managed carefully and the existing research community nurtured rather than swamped. There is also a danger of overtaxing the enthusiasm of those user communities with which EQUAL-funded researchers work.

  23.  Already there is some evidence, albeit largely circumstantial, that research groups with little real interest in the EQUAL area are being attracted towards the initiative because it could be a useful source of funding. The entry of such free-wheeling groups would be unfortunate.

  24.  Whilst eventually EQUAL should become part of the mainstream of EPSRC funding, there is a strong argument for retaining a special programme for the time being. This would help nurture interdisciplinary working and the strong user focus. Moreover it would provide the scientific base and resource on which other non-EPSRC initiatives could build, especially work with the voluntary sector and user communities.

  25.  Also, until the culture of EQUAL is well established, even within EPSRC there is a danger that with changes in staff and in priorities there will be a reversion to a traditional culture.

  26.  Although other countries lead the UK in the extent of built environment research for the benefit of older people and for those with physical and mental impairment and in its application, if sustained, EQUAL should provide a vehicle for catching up. Several teams funded by the EPSRC EQUAL initiative are to be found at the centre of international developments, both academic and applied. Some are in the lead. As projects come to an end other teams will also establish significant positions.

21 December 1999

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