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

Memorandum submitted by the Economic and Social Research Council


  1.   The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) is the largest independent funding agency for social science research and training in the UK. It is one of the seven UK Research Councils and receives most of its funds from the Office of Science and Technology as part of the Science Vote. From a current budget of just under £72 million (1999-2000), approximately 65 per cent is allocated to research in universities and independent research institutes, and 30 per cent to postgraduate training (PhDs and Masters). Further information is available on the ESRC website (


  2.  This Memorandum briefly describes the ESRC activities relevant to the Office of Science and Technology initiative on Extending Quality of Life (EQUAL). This input has been structured as a response to specific questions asked by the Select Committee in a letter from Dr Rickett dated 19 November 1999. The key points are:

    —  Two major investments are of direct relevance to the EQUAL initiative, the Growing Older Programme, and a Research Group on Beyond 2020 Vision: Formulating Policy in an Ageing Society.

    —  There is a possibility of further programme work in this area, although no firm decisions have yet been taken.

    —  Current programme investments total £4.5 million over five years, commencing in the current financial year.

    —  ESRC has collaborated with various agencies and bodies in both the formulation of its research agenda in this area and also in the implementation of its investments.

To what extent has the ESRC been involved in the EQUAL initiative?

  3.  The ESRC was represented on the EQUAL Inter-Council Working Group. The ESRC contributed to the activities of this group by commissioning a review on Demographic Aspects of Ageing by Professor Richard Disney. In response to the EQUAL initiative, the ESRC agreed funding for a "New Opportunities Research Programme". The EQUAL New Opportunities Programme Panel supported scoping studies for a World Wide Web Site for researchers and practitioners working within the ageing field, and a user survey. In addition, the Panel advised the office on plans for an international conference and topic reviews of the area. This work laid the foundations for the development of the ESRC's Growing Older Research Programme.

To what extent has EQUAL brought about new areas of ESRC funded research?

  4.  The activities carried out under the EQUAL New Opportunities Research Programme clearly emphasised the need for large-scale research investment in the area of EQUAL. The ESRC's Research Priorities Board agreed to fund the Growing Older Research Programme in March 1998. At this meeting, the Board also approved funding for a Research Group entitled "Beyond 2020 Vision: Formulating Social Policy within an Ageing Society" based at the London School of Economics. Whilst this group was not directly associated with EQUAL initiative it has contributed to the ESRC's response to the demographic shift towards an ageing society; further details can be found at Annex 1.

How does EQUAL relate to the ESRC Growing Older Programme?

  5.  As indicated above, the Programme arose from the recognition of the need for large-scale research investment in the area of EQUAL by the Research Priorities Board. The Growing Older Programme, therefore, is a direct result of the EQUAL initiative. The Programme's central question is "How can the quality of people's lives be extended?" One of the main objectives of the Programme is to contribute to the development of policies and practice in the field, and thereby to extend quality life. Projects under the Programme were commissioned in the period October 1998-June 1999. Twenty-four projects were funded under the Programme, all addressing the central question and objectives of the Programme. The projects under the Programme fall under the following key areas:

    —  Defining and Measuring Quality of Life;
    —  Inequalities in Quality of Life;
    —  The Role of Technology and the Built Environment;
    —  Healthy and Productive Ageing;
    —  Family and Support Networks;
    —  Participation and Activity in Later Life.

  Further details of the projects can be found at Annex 2.

Has the initiative identified and supported the most appropriate research areas for confronting the challenges of an ageing population?

  6.  The EQUAL initiative has focussed attention on the question—how can quality life be extended? This is a key research question and one that has been relatively neglected by UK social scientists. Therefore, the initiative has been helpful in encouraging an expansion of research activity in this area. With regard to the Growing Older Programme, an extensive consultation exercise was carried out with experts in order to help to identify the most appropriate research areas. The results of this exercise are reflected in the areas listed in paragraph 5 above. However, the challenges of an ageing population cover a broader range of issues than the extension of the quality of people's lives, as explained in section 8 below.

Is research in this area receiving sufficient funding?

  7.  The ESRC was a pioneer in this area of research, having funded an Ageing initiative in the early 1980s. However, despite this early initiative, UK social science has under-invested in research on ageing compared with the United States and some of its EU partners. For instance, there are several well-established gerontology research centres in France and Germany, and the new research programme on ageing in Finland has around £2 million over two years.

  8.  Whilst the Growing Older Programme is a substantial investment of research in the EQUAL area, it cannot answer all of the questions posed by the EQUAL initiative, let alone the wider issues facing population ageing. For instance, the long term relationship between age and employment, intergenerational solidarity, pensions policy, paying for long term care and the politics of old age are examples of other challenges associated with population ageing. These are not being considered directly by the Growing Older Programme, though some of the issues are covered by the research agenda of the Beyond 2020 Vision Research Group.

  9.  The response of the social science research community to the commissioning of the Growing Older Programme demonstrated a high demand and keen interest in this important area.

What are the key areas of research in this initiative? What does the ESRC plan for EQUAL for the future?

  10.  The ESRC is keen to increase its contribution to coordination activities in the domain of the EQUAL initiative. Accordingly, ESRC is currently involved in discussions with MRC and other Councils over the potential nature of such a contribution.

  11.  The ESRC will also consider the possibility of funding a second phase of the Growing Older Research Programme.

Are there any highlights from the intiative so far?

  12.  As both the research projects of the Growing Older Programme and also the 2020 Visions Group have only commenced work in the autumn of 1999, it is too soon to report research output highlights. However, there are several significant highlights to report in terms of networking, agenda formation and awareness raising, for which ESRC initiatives have provided a national foundation for informed contributions. These include the following:

    —  The Programme is a designated partner in the United Nations' research programme on ageing for the 21st century.

    —  Close relationships have been established with the Nuffield and Joseph Rowntree Foundations, both of whom have recently started initiatives on ageing.

    —  The background discussions in the UK provided a solid and well-informed UK approach during the discussions on the EU Fifth Framwork Programme Key Action on the Ageing Population.

    —  Links have been established with policymakers and the Foresight panel to develop the concept of active ageing.

    —  An extensive programme of networking in the international social scientific community in the EU, USA and Japan (for example, the European Congress of Gerontology; the G8 meeting in Japan, and the Gerontological Society of America Annual Scientific meeting).

How is the intitiative managed and delivered?

  13.  The ESRC investments detailed above and in the two annexes are managed through two directed mode streams of its Research Priorities Board. The Board will receive regular reports from both researchers, the Programme Director and the designated ESRC programme officer. Delivery results and outputs is the responsibility of both the individual researchers and, in the case of the Growing Older programme, the Programme Director. ESRC will also highlight key findings as they arise, and these will be targeted as appropriate through the ESRC corporate structures.

  14.  The Growing Older Programme is a directed Programme consisting of a number of discrete projects coordinated and managed at the scientific level by a Programme Director—Professor Alan Walker, based at the University of Sheffield. See Annex 2 for a list of projects.

  15.  The 2020 Visions investments is an ESRC Group project coordinated by Ms J Falkingham at the London School of Economics and Political Science. The investment arose as a result of success in the 1998 Centres and group competition, which called for proposals in an important area of Social Policy. The contract commenced on 1 October 1999.

Further information and future contacts

  16.  This memorandum has been prepared by Mr Steve Morgan, Senior Policy Officer, ESRC with substantive input from Professor Alan Walker, University of Sheffield, and Ms Faye Auty, ESRC.

  17.  For further information on the Growing Older Programme, please contact Professor Walker or Ms Auty. For further information on the Beyond 2020 Visions Research group, please contact Dr Catrin Roberts at ESRC.

11 January 2000

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