Strategic Promotion of Ageing Research Capacity 2005 - 2008
Final Report: Organisation and Outcomes by ,
byPeter Lansley, Director
SPARC was a four year project to encourage more newcomers into the field of ageing research, to raise the profile of ageing research with all stakeholders with an interest in ageing and the needs of older people, and to ensure that the newcomers were fully engaged with the full range of stakeholders.
Its creation was the culmination of several years of discussion, debate and lobbying which had emanated from the unsatisfactory state of ageing research in the late 1990s and early 2000s. During that period ageing research was dominated by traditional perspectives of the nature of science and the role of older people in society. These did little to develop initiatives or programmes of work which would encourage more scientists to take an interest. Although the EPSRC EQUAL Initiative, which commenced in 1998, had pioneered a new and highly successful model of ageing research which had emphasised multidisciplinary, collaborative and user-engaged research, the momentum it created was largely dissipated by a new requirement in 2001 for greater coordination of ageing research between the research councils. As a result there was a significant danger of losing the knowledge, skills, resources and enthusiasm developed in the late 1990s, especially those of younger scientists. The research communities relating to other research councils were faced with the same prospect.
The model of ageing research developed through EQUAL strongly emphasised engagement with non-academic communities and with policy makers. These included organisations and professionals from all walks of life with an involvement with older people and older people themselves. This model was adopted by the projects which were supported by EQUAL and by the EQUAL Network which was established to engage with these communities through workshops and advocacy. This was an attractive model which enjoyed considerable support from these communities and from key policy makers.
The concern to support the emerging talent and interest in ageing research in the face of an uncertain future, and to share the success of the EQUAL model with other research communities, led to many discussions with the research councils and other interested parties. In due course a proposal to the four main research councils for what is now known as SPARC was submitted. Although all had shown an interest it transpired that only EPSRC was willing to support the proposal, although eventually BBSRC became involved. It had been particularly attracted to the success of the EQUAL Network in working with the full range of stakeholders in ageing.
SPARC set out to
build capacity for ageing research by supporting newcomers to the field, both those
in early-career and mature scientists from other fields, and to network
scientists with each other across disciplines and with non-academic
stakeholders, especially older people. It had modest funds to achieve this,
eventually £1.3m to distribute as small awards to newcomers and £0.5m to
support workshops for all-comers and advocacy activities. This level of funding
was equivalent to one large research council project. Originally the plan was
to complete this work in three years. However,
with advice from EPSRC it was decided that the period should be four
years but with no additional funding. So SPARC ran from January 2005 to
December 2008. SPARC was to be organised around two offices. Professor Peter
Lansley the instigator of SPARC, based at the
The Work of SPARC
Supported by many individual scientists and professionals who acted in numerous capacities, but especially as referees and reviewers, and by its advisory committee, SPARC was able to identify and support 34 pump-priming projects out of nearly 200 applications for support, on the basis of scientific excellence and capacity building potential. The typical award value was £30,000. Most projects were for a year to 18 months in duration. In addition award holders received advice and support from the SPARC secretariat and advisory committee, as well opportunities to present their research at workshops and to take part in significant scientific meetings, some international. Although the initial allocation of funds would have enabled 21 projects to be supported, the quality of the proposals was so high that during the course of SPARC, additional funds were provided to support further projects. Even so, not all projects worthy of funding received support.
Final reports on each project were submitted and reviewed, and for most projects executive summaries were produced and published in hard copy and on the SPARC website. In the main the final reports were considered very favourably, with nearly 60% of the reviews judging them to be either very or extremely worthwhile.
Building largely on the experience of EQUAL Network, SPARC organised 47 Workshops mostly in conjunction with other organisations which hosted and, in many cases, part-funded these events. Of these, 25 were for all-comers, the type of event which it was planned should predominate, five were for older people, 12 were for the scientific community and five specifically for the award holders. In addition, many briefings on SPARC were given to academics, scientific bodies and community and professional groups. Also the directors gave a large number of presentations to a wide range of audiences about contemporary ageing research which incorporated much information about SPARC and its projects.
all-comers workshop was attended by about 80 – 100 people, a mix of scientists,
professionals from many walks of life, representatives of organisations
particularly involved with older people and older people themselves. The
workshops were held throughout the
Most award holders made at least one SPARC workshop presentation, some made considerably more, although not all presented to all-comers audiences. They welcomed the opportunity to present their work, rose to the challenges posed by rather different audiences than usual and valued the outcome of their experience, especially the satisfaction of being able to communicate their findings to such varied audiences.
continued from the EQUAL Network, was that of the advocacy of the importance of
older people in society and the contribution which can be made to improving
quality of later life and wellbeing through scientific research. This involved
extensive correspondence, meetings, briefings and presentations to a wide range
of policy makers and other interested parties, from professional bodies to community
groups, about ageing research and about SPARC. This advocacy helped to raise
the profile of ageing research, especially to highlight the contribution of
design, engineering and biological research, explain recent developments,
stimulate debate, and support the initiatives of others. Given the starting
point of many, that ageing research is the preserve of the medical and social
sciences, there was particular interest in the role of design and engineering
research and the potential of biological research, and in the strong
user-orientated model adopted by SPARC. High points were a question in
Parliament initiated by SPARC, a foreword to a compendium of SPARC projects by
Lord Sutherland and the participation of HRH The Princess Royal in a joint
workshop with the
Another strand to
advocacy was the publication of various newsletters and information booklets
about SPARC, executive summaries of the work of most of the SPARC teams,
interviews, a compendium of SPARC projects produced for the BA Festival of
Science 2008 and conference posters for all of the projects. All have found their niche. Linked to this was the very successful SPARC
website, the most visited
The attractiveness of SPARC and the effectiveness of its advocacy activities are revealed in a membership approaching 2000, which included many professionals and older people. It was not dominated by scientists. It is also reflected in the regular invitations which its directors received to make presentations, to join committees and think tanks, and more generally to introduce SPARC-based thinking to discussions about ageing research.
The Award Holders
The principal and most immediate beneficiaries of SPARC were the award holders. Their reactions to their experience and the support they received during their projects and afterwards were extremely positive. For these at least, SPARC provided an accelerated introduction to the world of ageing research, important developmental experiences, valuable contacts, tremendous insights and confidence to work in an area which is not one of the most straightforward. Many accrued personal benefits, for example, promotion, better jobs and recognition of their contribution in various ways. Most went on to publish their work in reputable journals, many made presentations to a range of academic and non-academic audiences. Some incorporated their work into student course materials. Nearly all were actively continuing in the area. Most were seeking further funding. By the end of SPARC over a third had already secured follow on funding as principal investigators, and overall two thirds were involved with further ageing research in some role or other. They were upbeat about ageing research and the future, although realistic about the difficulties of working in the area.
Objectives, Aims and Targets
Although SPARC had many objectives and aims they fell under the two closely related headings of capacity building and networking. However, the extent to which they were achieved is more easily discussed in terms of answering a number of questions which they raise. Thus, for this review, the objectives, aims and targets have been re-arranged into a series of questions specifically to aid the assessment of the extent to which they have been met. The questions are crossed referenced to the objectives and aims given in Section 1.
Has funding for small scale projects for newcomers been
provided? To what extent?
(Objective 3; Aim 1)
a. Small scale funding was provided to 34 projects creating a significant portfolio of projects, with a good range of topics, a spread from basic to applied research and some with strong interdisciplinary and cross disciplinary work.
b. These were sufficient to use fully the administrative resources available to run the scheme, suggesting near optimal use of these resources.
What was the demand? What was the quality of proposals and the projects? (Assessment 1)
a. The demand for support compared very favourably with that achieved by better funded and advertised schemes . The scheme received 185 serious proposals, 85% of which met the criteria in terms of being from newcomers to ageing research and being within the scope of the call. The significance of this achievement was further reinforced by most applicants being at an early stage in their careers. The subsequent funding of 34 small projects, an enhanced number owing to the provision of additional funds part way through the life of SPARC as a result of the quality of the proposals, provides yet further support of SPARC meeting its objectives.
b. The quality of proposals was high, sufficient for the funders to extend support from 21 to 34 projects, and yet for a further 14 strong projects to remain unfunded.
c. Interest and support in the scheme from the research community was considerable, reflected in a strong response to requests for the refereeing of proposals. The quality of the selection process was enhanced because nearly all proposals had at least three referees reports, most had four or five. Also, they were refereed by two members of the advisory committee.
d. The quality of the final reports was judged as high, nearly 60% of the reviewers’ assessments considered the projects to have been either ‘extremely’ or ‘very’ worthwhile. Few projects received disappointing ratings.
Were at least 12 workshops held? (Metrics 3)
a. In total 47 workshops were held of which 25 were for all-comers, the type of event envisaged in the proposal, and many other events were organised, some overseas and others with an international profile.
What was the breadth of attendance at those workshops?(Metrics 3)
a. A range of workshops was organised, some for all stakeholders, some largely for older people and others largely for scientists. During four years a diverse range of presentations were made.
b. Overall about 50% of the 3250 participants were academics and 50% non-academics, with strong representation of the latter at events designed for all stakeholders and older people, including charities, voluntary bodies, and health and social services professionals, and older people.
c. Business and industry were strongly represented at some workshops, and devolved government at others.
Has the relationship between the research community and research end-users been strengthened? (Objective 5)
a. SPARC built good rapport with major charities, voluntary bodies,
local government, professional organisations and industry. For example,
workshop hosts included Help the Aged, CCC, TAEN,
b. The level of interest in the workshops from academics and non-academics far outstripped that which was expected. It led to an enduring relationship, sustained through the membership of the SPARC network, approaching 2000 members and through continual interchange with professional and other bodies keen to support SPARC and to receive advice from SPARC.
c. The demand from end-users for more workshops, the level of use of the website, and feedback on publications are good indicators of the strong interest and support for closer relationships between end users and researchers.
d. The extent of collaboration with end-users and others outside of the Universities in the SPARC projects and their continuing encouragement provides further evidence of a strong relationship.
Have the outcomes from the small projects been presented on the same platform as large mature projects? (Aim 4)
a. Typically the SPARC projects were presented at workshops which also included presentations from established scientists in ageing research, and in some cases practitioners working with older people. Often prestigious figures were involved with the workshops. The result was an attractive mix of experience and perspectives, with important role models for the members of the SPARC teams.
b. Other research council funded projects were prominent, especially EQUAL projects less so SAGE/ERA projects, but not to the exclusion of work supported by other funders.
c. Presentation of most of the SPARC projects to non-academic stakeholders went further than that previously achieved for must large projects, through purpose written executive summaries of these projects.
Has the success of the EQUAL Network been repeated in fields represented by ERA and more generally for biological research? (Aim 5)
a. The prime feature of the EQUAL Network was providing a platform for current and recent research at workshops designed to appeal to all stakeholders. The intention was for SPARC to extend this to include biological research, specifically work completed as a result of the SAGE and ERA programmes, but also other work supported by BBSRC and other research funders. Although researchers from the EQUAL Initiative played a key role in SPARC workshops, the involvement of researchers from the SAGE/ERA programme, which was of a similar size to EQUAL, and from other biology programmes, was very modest.
b. Only half of the SPARC projects in areas of health and biology were provided with a platform to present findings to all stakeholders and few had full executive summaries describing their work. As a result the interaction of some teams in these areas with a range of audiences was limited, if at all. They did not benefit from the challenges, stimulation and rewards experienced by the other project teams.
c. Although the work of researchers involved with aspects of molecular ageing was quite well represented in workshops designed for academic audiences, the wider community of biological researchers and that of non-academics interested in biological and health-related biological research were not embraced effectively by SPARC.
d. In brief, the fulfilment of this aim is, as yet, incomplete.
Has the contribution of the small projects been demonstrated for (i) design, engineering and technology orientated research, (ii) biological research, and (iii) research at the interfaces between these two areas. (Aim 5)
a. The contribution for the design, engineering and technology projects and for most of those at the interfaces was demonstrated, at least at the level achieved by EQUAL, but generally more so to diverse audiences, but not for all projects (see earlier).
b. For some projects the executive summaries have enabled a greater level of achievement than was possible for EQUAL.
What has been the opinion of end users and intermediaries of SPARC dissemination activities? (Assessment 4)
a. There is ample evidence of meeting the needs and interests of intermediaries and end users through workshops, executive summaries and the SPARC web site.
b. Satisfaction with the workshops was extremely high, maintaining standards set by EQUAL.
c. The extent of use of the SPARC website by non-academic stakeholders suggests that SPARC had something of interest to offer.
d. Confidential reports and conversations with referees and reviewers of SPARC materials have also been very positive towards individual projects and extremely supportive of SPARC overall.
e. The SPARC model has attracted attention from other bodies and from overseas and parts of the SPARC model emulated principally because of its success in engaging with end users and intermediaries.
Has interdisciplinary networking been achieved? Has this been maximised to benefit the national research effort? Has this been communicated? (Objective 4)
a. All of the design and engineering projects and most of the biological projects had some interdisciplinary features.
b. Networking was an important aspect of all workshops, between scientists but also between scientists and all other stakeholders in ageing research. Interdisciplinary networking was most successful at all-comers workshops because of the mix of skills and interests attracted to those events.
c. The national research effort has been enhanced through the collaborations developed between scientists and, although it is rather too soon for much to have taken place, through the development of research proposals and the like.
d. The national research effort has also benefitted by the international profile of some events, which as a result led to international collaborations at the level of the individual scientist, and at a formal level between funding agencies.
e. SPARC invested heavily in communicating the benefits of interdisciplinary working, this was often combined with promoting the benefits of collaboration with relevant agencies and the need for strong user focus.
Have better links been forged between those who want to undertake
ageing research? How?
a. SPARC briefings and workshops have provided a valuable vehicle for bringing together those who want to undertake ageing research, even from outside of design, engineering and biology. Attracting these individuals to the workshops, ensuring that SPARC was seen as a key player, open to all, was a key activity.
b. It was also a vehicle for bringing together those who wanted to undertake research with those who were keen to encourage more research taking place.
c. The very frequent use of the website by all stakeholders, and enquiries to the SPARC secretariat for help in linking researchers with each other and researchers with research-users provide further to support the case that better links had been forged.
What is the contribution to the strategic objectives of EPSRC and BBSRC? (Aim 5)
a. The contribution has been at several of levels. The workshops and executive summaries and other publication activities have contributed strongly to the public engagement objectives.
b. SPARC organised ten international events and facilitated several
international collaborations. A bilateral programme involving EPSRC and IA (
c. SPARC was a major vehicle for demonstrating the involvement of EPSRC and BBSRC in ageing research. It achieved a very high profile, for example initiating questions in Parliament, being noted in government enquiries, and being invited to participate in some of these.
d. The objective of capacity building, especially engaging younger scientists, and achieving scientific excellence, were at the heart of SPARC.
Have activities at the EPSRC/BBSRC interface been stimulated (Aim 2)
a. Several projects were at the interface, encouraging others and leading to further proposals at the interface.
b. Some particularly attractive themes for workshops resided at the interface. These enabled the showcasing of ageing research from across design, engineering and biology, and showing the linkages in a particularly successful manner.
Has a contribution been made to a national programme of ageing research that meets the needs of older people, policy makers, practitioners and other stakeholders? Is it coherent, accessible, internationally competitive? (Objective 6)
a. In its own right SPARC made a contribution by actively seeking to bring these stakeholders and researchers closer together. It became well known and appreciated for its unique approach to promoting ageing research.
b. The response of these varied stakeholders towards SPARC was positive and encouraging, suggesting both accessibility and coherence. Its membership grew steadily with few individuals leaving, a sure indicator of relevance.
c. SPARC researchers have more than held their own at international conferences, and the portfolio of work within SPARC has stimulated great interest. SPARC kept good company with those leading major initiatives overseas. This has led to several international collaborations.
d. There was significant interest in emulating the basic intent of the SPARC model in Wales by OPAN Cymru and in Ireland by CARDI.
e. SPARC contributed to several national strategic enquiries, such as the House of Lords Inquiry into Scientific Aspects of Ageing, the National Dementia Strategy, Foresight Mental Capacity and Wellbeing, the Review of Health, Work and Wellbeing, through submission of written and oral evidence and presentations to review panels and being engaged as a facilitator in public consultation activities. The directors were also engaged in various roles as members and advisors to grant awarding panels of the research councils and several charities.
How many new independent investigators are there? Have the SPARC awards led to at least 60% follow on applications? Have the SPARC awards led to at least 30% of SPARC award holders becoming new PIs on research council grants within two years of completion of their SPARC award? (Assessment3; Metrics 1 & 2)
a. SPARC supported 34 projects mostly with the principal investigator as the single key investigator sometimes supported by co-investigators but with some projects the principal investigator and a co-investigator operated in tandem. There were also research assistants and research students who in due course will have the potential to become independent investigators. Taking as a guide those who are principal investigators on large and medium sized projects, then 12 are independent investigators, but adding in smaller projects the number is significantly greater, 22.
b. Estimates of the number of truly active independent investigators focussed on ageing and close to EPSRC and BBSRC vary greatly. It is especially difficult to estimate the size of the BBSRC community because of the many other funders of ageing research. However, a review of current and recently completed research council awards leads to estimates ranging from about 25 to 50 for both communities, excluding SPARC researchers. Using a variety of combinations of different assumptions, from pessimistic/conservative to optimistic/generous, it is suggested that SPARC has led to a growth of each of the communities of between 20% and 50%. Also it contributed a rather higher rate of growth in the number of independent researchers in the first half of their careers than it for those at a later stage.
c. In terms of follow-on funding, the criteria set by the commissioning panel for applications, 79% have bid for funds as principal investigator compared with a target of 60%. When using a broad definition of principal investigator, 36% have secured awards on research council or similar awards compared with a target 30%. These targets have been met within a window of two years.
d. When other achievements are included the picture is very positive. All but eight of the award holders are engaged with some type of follow-on funded ageing activity, but of these eight, six are actively seeking funding; their work is going forward.
e. SPARC encouraged not just award holders but many others to become involved with ageing research through workshops on proposal writing, and many briefings on funding opportunities, for example available through the BBSRC-NIA, NDA and LLHW programmes, and in Europe.
Has the capacity of the UK science base been developed?(Objective 1)
a. There has been considerable activity: 47 workshops, many briefings
and presentations, energetic working links with
b. There was an overwhelming positive response to SPARC by the award holders, in general about their experience and to specific enquiries about issues such links, networking and ‘finding their feet’. Promotions have taken place, and some award holders have better jobs, in quite a few cases partly as a result of an individual’s involvement with SPARC. This success provides a good basis for the development of ageing research.
c. The award holders were particularly positive about the opportunities provided by SPARC to relate better to older people and the organisations which work with them, and to learn about the trials and tribulations of ageing research. Clearly this is not a straightforward area in which to work. Their comments have been balanced by their views on the advantages SPARC has provided for developing links with the academic community. Maybe surprisingly there is no hint of conflict or trade-offs. In this area it makes absolute sense to pursue relationships with both academic and non-academic stakeholders.
d. Dissemination strategies have varied. Mostly they have been very or quite energetic, but not universally so. Although it is recognised that some projects have only just finished and time scales for publishing journal papers are protracted, for a sizable number of project teams there is still much to achieve. However, there is a hard core of teams which have developed a very credible base of publications to support their further development in the field of ageing.
e. From the record of applying for support and gaining that support there is every reason to believe that SPARC has added to the science base.
Has the large project and consortia approach of EPSRC and BBSRC been complemented through a growth in the number of academics capable of gaining funding for large projects? How well networked are they? (Aim 3)
a. SPARC has sought to ensure opportunities for contact between award holders and their teams with more experienced researchers involved or potentially involved with large projects and consortia.
b. SPARC award holders were very active members of consortia bidding for awards from NDA, LLHW and for large projects from the research councils, at this stage mostly as co-investigators, but often responsible for major work packages. They have offered skills and resources which are attractive to those leading these proposals. Several were members of successful consortia. They needed to be well networked to become involved with these and their involvement with these projects will network them further.
The SPARC Model
SPARC was more than a project to support the emerging field of ageing research and to introduce a new model for research which had worked well for design and engineering into the biological research community. It was also an opportunity to explore the extent to which responsibility for running a capacity building programme could be devolved to the research community, with relatively loose controls from the research councils. The research councils operate many different types of research funding scheme directed by university-based personnel, but usually there is much closer liaison and the research councils have more involvement.
A further difference was that SPARC was not just pump-priming to establish a new area of research within an existing broader field. Rather it was endeavouring to establish a different model for ageing research, one which offered a perspective which was opposite to the prevailing traditional culture of science which had proved largely ineffective for stimulating meaningful ageing research. It set out to do this through a package of inter-related activities - awards, workshops and advocacy, a combination which again was rather unusual for its degree of emphasis on engagement with non-academic communities. So in reviewing SPARC it is important to consider the extent to which it did transfer a philosophy established in design and engineering and initiate a change in the culture of biology-based ageing research.
There is little doubt that SPARC achieved a great deal in return for a modest investment, through the considerable encouragement and enthusiasm of many interested parties and those engaged directly in its work. In terms of making a difference by building research capacity and from the point of view of cost-benefit it would score very favourably. However, in terms of establishing the new model and initiating cultural change, its success has been limited. For design and engineering the model was already in place from the EQUAL Initiative but it wasn’t for biology. It was here that there were the greatest challenges and difficulties, and as has been shown, several award holders did not benefit from the whole of the SPARC package and opportunities to engage more closely with non-academic stakeholders with an interest in biology were not pursued.
During the course of SPARC, diametrically opposed views emerged about the value to scientists involved with the biology of ageing interacting closely with end users and beneficiaries of ageing research, especially with older people. Whilst many enthusiastically embraced the SPARC model, some placed little value on the contribution which older people and those who work with them can bring to many aspects of the research process, a low priority on creating a direct dialogue and had a selective view of what should be communicated to them.
Maybe this should not have been an unexpected problem. For decades this has been a prevailing concern of successive governments. These have spent much effort in making the case for the greater engagement of scientists with the public and others outside of the academic world. They have invested heavily in knowledge transfer mechanisms and in encouraging scientists to adopt current thinking which incorporates science AND society, and the principles of two-way communication. In turn the policies of the research councils and the expectations of the public, are for more involvement and consultation about scientific developments. Close to home this is revealed in the findings reported in Public Attitudes on Ageing Research: Research into Public Attitudes Towards BBSRC and MRC-funded Research on Ageing, Final report by Ipsos-Mori , 2006. It is also reflected in the recently introduced requirements of those applying to BBSRC for funding, which is to clarify the relationship between their research and non-academic stakeholders, as described later. This has been a standard requirement for proposals to EPSRC for many years.
With the identity of the beneficiaries, clients and partners of SPARC, outlined in Section 2, not uniformly recognised then there could be no effective prescription for the type of organisation and processes appropriate for the tasks to be undertaken by SPARC, an issue which was exacerbated by the organisation of SPARC into two offices along disciplinary lines. The result was an organisation which was not suited to those activities requiring active engagement with other stakeholders and the production of materials for these stakeholders and which lacked the degree of systematisation necessary to achieve a consistent face to all partners. So performance across different stakeholders and research communities was uneven.
However, the structure was not without some merits. It did prove to be suited to the setting up, organising and managing the awards scheme, where the well-defined infrastructure of procedures and time scales played an important role in terms of the pace and sequence of activities, and for relating to the academic community. Here the requirements of the research councils played a big role in ensuring that this was indeed the case.
This fundamental organisational flaw echoes those seen many times in both research and business organisations, of expecting cultural change to happen from within an existing value system when the force for change is from outside. Clearly it would have been better to have had a single organisational entity, so as to ensure consistency of approach, standards of delivery, and regular critical reflection on progress and experiences. However, this may have reduced in other ways the opportunity to embed the model in a new family of disciplines. This is, of course, the individual view of one director. It is accepted that alternative organisational analyses could lead to different conclusions. However, whatever these might suggest, it will be clear that the SPARC model was not fully implemented.
Nevertheless, a good proportion of the biological community warmed to the SPARC model, basic scientists as well as those in more applied fields, who in turn might have been expected to be more sympathetic. Encouragingly, the award holders were particularly enthusiastic. They could see the advantages of occupying a position which was closer to beneficiaries and users of research, and informed by the social and political context of their work as well as the scientific context.
At the close of SPARC the importance of this position became clear. SPARC had been built on understanding the emerging requirements of the scientific community and, for example in its awards scheme, anticipated what at a later stage was to become a standard requirement. In January 2009 it was announced that future proposals to BBSRC will need to include a two page document describing the delivery of impacts to the non-academic community. This will cover how the proposed project will be managed to engage users and beneficiaries and increase the likelihood of impact; methods for communication and engagement with beneficiaries; track record relating to impact; and, resources for these activities. This follows a path which has been well-trodden by most SPARC Award holders. Also, early in January 2009 BBSRC announced its intention to establish a Healthy Ageing Research and Technology involving a broad range of business sectors including, pharmaceuticals, food, healthcare and insurance, to address the needs and aspirations of consumers within an ageing population. In its early stages, SPARC developed strong links with these sectors. Although it did not take advantage of these as fully as it should have, the interest of industry in working more closely with academic biological scientists in the field of ageing was very clear. So too was the major contribution being made by scientists based in industry about which university based scientist were quite unaware. These two developments are a vindication of the full-blooded pursuit of the SPARC model. They underline the importance of scientists endeavouring to balance their relationship with the academic community with an understanding and involvement with non-academic stakeholders.
In summary, although successful in many ways, the application of what has been termed the SPARC model was incomplete, but the elements of the model are becoming increasingly recognised as relevant to the emerging environment of research.
A replicable model
As a model for capacity building the strength of the SPARC model lies in the way it embraces beneficiaries and end users and respects their needs and perspectives. It is because of this that it so successfully negotiates the major hurdles of dissemination and knowledge application. Its ability to take a user perspective strengthens the likely affinity of users for research. Its dissemination methods deliberately impose disciplines of communicability and relevance on the way materials are presented. In most cases it has been possible to show how a piece of research relates to larger processes which affect older people, whether biological or in terms of their relationship with the environment, and how particular actions by the individual, organisations or society can influence those processes. Even where work has not had an instrumental applicable outcome, it may have raised understanding of the issues involved in ageing and an ageing society. However, without the emphasis on user engagement the model would look like any other research funding scheme, of which there are many. So the SPARC model is likely to be successful only where it is accepted that the research activities which need to be developed can be based within a strong societal context.
The focus on the needs of the user and beneficiary rather than constituent disciplines makes the SPARC model particularly useful when considering areas of research characterised by multidisciplinary and multi-professional engagement. It is through the focus on needs, problems and the search for solutions that the contributions from a range of disciplines and professions can be integrated and appreciated by all concerned, the scientists, intermediaries, users and beneficiaries. It is unlikely to be of value where the focus is development within a single discipline or small area of concern, or where there are concerns about not straying outside of established territories and ways of working.
Given these reflections and what might be judged as the qualified success of the SPARC model it is useful to ask about what might follow. Clearly, the notion of an extension to SPARC in its present form would not be appropriate. It has done its job and it is now for those it has supported to take their work forward. Until it is possible to see how well they fare there would be little sense in a further pump-priming exercise. By then the research community should be better established.
However there are areas within ageing research which would benefit from the SPARC model, specifically those which are reliant on the participation of researchers from disciplines with under-developed research traditions, not least the allied health professions. Not only are these in the front-line of helping older people retain their independence but past research council funded projects in which, for example, occupational therapists, physiotherapists, dieticians and podiatrists, have participated, have gained immeasurably from the experience, skills and user-orientation of these professions.
Although future research agendas are likely to emphasise those areas in which these professions operate, their relatively recent research track record will place them at a disadvantage when bidding for support for research funding compared with the established medical and health professions. Thus, there is a need to develop rapidly the research skills, experience and confidence in these newer professions. Past projects have also shown that these professions have an important role to play in the development and application of technologically orientated ageing research, supported by EPSRC, and health-related research, supported by BBSRC. Work in these areas could provide an attractive context for the development of the research skills of those in the allied health professions, through a collaborative programme. This might call for collaborations between researchers in the allied health professions and designers, technologists or engineers, or between allied health professionals and biologists in areas such as telecare, chronic pain management, diet, activity and many others which relate to independence and wellbeing. Other disciplines might well be involved. The suggested approach would be similar to that championed by SPARC, of multidisciplinarity, collaboration and user-focus coupled with a strong emphasis on dissemination and outreach. It could achieve a great deal, especially if new researchers could work with experienced researchers supported by pump-priming funds.
The SPARC model drew very heavily on the experience of the EQUAL Network to which was added the awards scheme. In 2009, KT-EQUAL, a new EPSRC funded activity, will pick up the mantle held by SPARC. For four years it will pursue, in a more determined way, the transfer of research-based knowledge to all stakeholders with an interest in ageing and disability issues. A seamless transition is planned, with Professor Peter Lansley and Verity Smith playing a key role in KT-EQUAL, especially in the early stages.
KT-EQUAL, which will run for four years, will be directed by Professor Gail Mountain, Sheffield Hallam University, Professor John Clarkson, Cambridge University and Professor Lansley, supported by Verity Smith as co-ordinator and others who have yet to be appointed.
Although this initiative will be funded solely by EPSRC, support for activities which keep together the SPARC award holders has been offered by BBSRC. There is every intention to ensure that this happens and in particular to provide opportunities for those SPARC award holders who have not been given the opportunity to present their work at all-comers workshops and to ensure that those who do not yet have executive summaries of their work are supported in their development of material suitable for lay-audiences. Whilst these activities will be alongside those of KT-EQUAL, not a major feature, there is considerable support and interest amongst the wide membership of SPARC, in ensuring that SPARC’s hidden gems should not be kept under wraps for longer than necessary.
The level of interest and support for the activities which were established by the EQUAL Network and which have been emulated and extended by SPARC, together with the confidence with which these have been carried out and the standards they have achieved, provide important bench marks for future initiatives such as KT-EQUAL. If nothing else has been achieved by SPARC, then at least it has demonstrated the considerable benefits to be gained from encouraging scientists to place their work in the broader context of the lives of older people, their carers and those many others who work with and for them. Those benefits take many forms but probably the most important is SPARC’s contribution towards a new generation of researchers with the interest, commitment and confidence to operate in a manner which is relevant to the needs of society and science in the twenty first century.