Has Age UK lost the research mojo?

An article by Anjana Ahuja in The Observer the weekend before last, examined the dispute that has arisen over the new funding guidelines that Age UK has issued for its scientific grants programme.

A range of leading scientist in the field of ageing including Professor Richard Faragher, Chair of the British Society for Research on Ageing but also a member of Age UK’s research advisory committee, have voiced disquiet that the charity is focusing its future grants programme on projects that will have a return within the next five years.   This is at the expense of basic research ito the biology of ageing it is said. 

The article has surprisingly prompted little wider comment although there are lots of views expressed by Observer readers as you will see if you click on the article link above.

I actually think that this is more than a simple battle between the basic and translational research camps if I can crudely describe it as such.  Personally, I think it says something more deep-seated and worrying about how Age UK views biomedical research and its attitude towards the rich inheritance in ageing research it fairly recently acquired.

Let me explain.

Age UK is the $160 million charity formed by the merger of Age Concern and Help the Aged two years ago.  Help the Aged included, among its many other assets, Research into Ageing (RiA).  RiA was rightfully the leading charity voice in ageing research having funded top-class scientific research since the 70s with significant impacts on our understanding of the ageing body and mind but also changes to policy and practice. 

True, it could sometimes come across as somewhat traditional, but it consistently pulled in good work including its activities on public engagement.  These deservedly received an Association of Medical Research Charities (AMRC) science communication award on more than one occasion I believe.

At the time of the merger I remember that there was considerable apprehension among the ageing research community about what would happen to RiA and what the impact would be on the wider field.  Well, perhaps now we know.

Research into Ageing (RiA) has been renamed the Research into Ageing Fund and is now a constituent part of Age UK.  In doing this, Age UK has either misunderstood its inheritance or simply allowed overly commercial considerations about the Age UK brand to rule over common sense, removing RiA as a significant player and entity in its own right  from the global stage of research.  And, a small point, you have to dig down into the resouces for professionals on Age UK’s website to find the research pages at all – no front page billing here.

Research as a whole represents just 3% of Age UK’s expenditure when for a charity of this size you’d expect it to be reaching the 7-10% level if it considered itself a serious research funder.  And, it is a bit difficult to tell because RiA’s old accounts are no longer available from the Charity Commission, but in the year-end to March 2010 Age UK spent about $1.5 million on research compared to $2.5million in RiA’s last year.  Happy to be corrected of course.  I could not find forward projections about funding but it would be interesting to know.  All of this, of course, sends signals to others.

As does the decision over its grant funding as covered in the Observer.

To be fair, research is given a chapter in the last annual report and is mentioned in the Chief Executive’s report but actions speak louder than words as they say.

The context to this is also important.  In 2005/6 the House of Lords Science and Technology Select Committee chaired by Lord Sutherland, wrote a seminal report on what needs to happen in ageing research.  Its recommendations included the need for greater funding and greater co-ordination of that funding.  Progress in taking forward the report’s views has been less than one would have hoped.  Forums such as the UK Age Research Forum have emerged stutteringly from the debates following this report (it does an excellent conference) but, as with all causes, ageing research needs its champions to cajole, to corale but also to lead by example.

I fear that Age UK has failed to grasp not just the opportunity but its responsibility to fulfil this role as the leading charity which says it is about transforming older people’s lives.

As someone posted on the Observer comment page: ‘They haven’t so much abandoned research as forgotten where they put it down.’

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