Final Report: Organisation and Outcomes by ,
byPeter Lansley, Director
SPARC has been a unique and innovatory project concerned with
developing both the culture and capacity of ageing research in the UK. It set
out to ensure the development of ageing research within two contexts: firstly,
a contemporary view of the role of science in society; and secondly, the need
for more ageing research in the
SPARC lasted four years, from 2005 to 2008, enlarging the small group of university-based scientists interested in the needs of older people and an ageing society and raising the profile of ageing-related research with all interested stakeholders. These included policy makers, professionals who work with and provide services for older people, carers, and older people themselves. SPARC built heavily on the success of the preceding EQUAL Network funded by EPSRC and gained inspiration from many non-academic stakeholders who greatly encouraged the development of stronger relationships between the world of research and those of practice and of older people. They were particularly supportive of encouraging more researchers into the area.
SPARC was funded by EPSRC and BBSRC. It had £1.25m to distribute as pump-priming awards for research; and approaching £0.5m to administer the awards scheme, to organise workshops and undertake other activities. This level of financial support, similar to that routinely provided to a large research project was significantly less than that available to conventional research council ageing research programmes.
SPARC pursued three main activities.
· Attracting newcomers to ageing research and pump-priming the work of some of these newcomers through a range of support mechanisms including funding, advice, and opportunities to discuss their work with non-academic professionals and older people and also to present their work on prestigious national and international platforms.
· Providing workshops on the latest ageing research for all stakeholders with an interest in ageing issues and, as a result, building ‘grass-roots’ support for the development of ageing research and its exploitation, as well as specialist workshops to support the development of those who held SPARC pump-priming awards.
· Active advocacy of the value of ageing-related research to policy makers and others who might benefit, including community groups. As a result of this, building support for the greater exploitation of ageing research and further investment in the area, especially from policy makers.
SPARC was developed and directed by Professor Peter Lansley,
principal investigator from the University of Reading, and Dr Richard Faragher,
co-investigator from the University of Brighton. It was supported by the coordinators
Verity Smith and Dr Nicky Hewson, and publicity officer Dr Lucy Chappell,
part-time for the final year, from offices based at the Universities of Reading
Although focused on supporting the development of design, engineering and biological research, SPARC attracted nearly 200 applications for pump-priming support from across a wide range of disciplines including the social sciences and medicine. It was able to fund 34 of these, but a further 14 proposals certainly deserved support. Twenty two of the award holders were at an early stage in their careers, for example in their first academic posts; the others were established academics from other fields. The projects received between £17,000 and £60,000 in funding, sufficient for a nine to 18 month project typically supporting one research assistant.
The topics pursued included older drivers, transport systems, housing adaptations and assistive technology, safer neighbourhoods, design of packaging, better computer interfaces, the older worker, cognition and communication, coordination of vision and movement, diet and nutrition, exercise, stem cells and the ageing of organs, tissues and cells.
As well as funding, the research teams received advice, assistance with publications, access to national and international dissemination platforms and many other incentives to accelerate their development in the field of ageing research. Nearly 100 scientists were involved as investigators and research staff and another 100 specialists including practitioners, as collaborators and supporters.
A basic requirement of the awards was that the host institutions of the award holders would also provide support, after all these were personal development projects building individual and organisational capacity for ageing research. Their contributions, along with those of the collaborators and the additional time of the award holders, which in most cases was more than they had expected would be required, were about equal to the value of the SPARC awards.
The proposals and final reports for each project were peer-reviewed by leading experts. Assessment was based on two prime factors, scientific excellence and capacity building. All the proposals which were funded were highly rated on these two factors as were most of the final reports.
The limited resources available to the projects did not overly constrain their ability to achieve high levels of scientific excellence or capacity building. In some cases the narrower focus of a small project may have enhanced these. Ratings for these factors and for resource management were very positive. Over half of the expert reviewers gave an overall assessment of the final reports they reviewed as either outstanding or tending to outstanding, and another 30% rated the reports they reviewed as good. Similarly nearly 60% were assessed as being either very or extremely worthwhile.
The quality of the work undertaken and the confidence which this engendered amongst award holders had a significant influence on the development of their activities in the area of ageing research. This is presented later.
SPARC ran 47 workshops; 25 were for all-comers at which there was a mix of scientists, policy makers, professionals who work with and for older people, and older people. Five workshops were specifically for older people, 12 for either scientists or specialists and five specifically for the award holders. Of these, five workshops were held overseas and there were five international events held in the UK. Amongst the many all-comers workshops, one was held at the BA Festival of Science 2008. Another, on dementia, was hosted by a leading pharmaceutical firm and organised to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the presentation by Alzheimer of his original findings. Amongst those specifically for older people was a workshop on falls organised with a London Borough on National Falls Day 2006. Two workshops, in Wales and Ireland, enjoyed the support of government ministers, and another that of HRH The Princess Royal.
Most workshops were run in conjunction with other organisations, which sponsored and hosted the events although with organisational support, and occasionally financial support, from SPARC. Hosts included international companies, professional bodies, government organisations and universities . Most workshops lasted a full day. All workshops had plenty of time for discussion and networking, which was considered and planned for as an important objective of each workshop.
The workshops provided opportunities for the presentation of the latest research from those doing relevant work regardless of how they were funded and by practitioners who were involved with older people and issues of ageing. The workshops were particularly important for showcasing research supported by earlier programmes such as EQUAL (EPSRC) and SAGE and ERA (both BBSRC) as well as current programmes such as NDA. Nearly all SPARC award holders presented their work at a SPARC workshop, some at several, although not all had an opportunity to present their work either to mixed stakeholder audiences or to older people.
Notes: 1. Presentations were made by 31 of the 34 SPARC teams, 21 of the 26 EQUAL teams and 9 of the 38 SAGE/ERA teams. 2. Excludes presentations by SPARC directors
Figure 2: Number of presentations at SPARC workshops by research programme
Over 3,200 people attended the workshops, with equal representation from academic and non- academic communities, although for individual events the proportions varied. There was considerable support from local government professionals in health, social and housing services, and from charities and individuals, often representing local voluntary groups.
However, support from central and regional government was weak until the last few workshops when there was distinct enthusiasm, especially from members of the devolved governments of the UK and also from the Irish Government, as a result of a workshop in Dublin. Support from business and industry was modest, although for particular events, such as those on dementia, stroke and design issues, it was strong.
The ratings of the workshops by the participants were consistently high. Those from outside of the academic world valued the opportunity to meet researchers, to find out about their work and to discuss it. Many were anxious for more opportunities to hear about research and to meet and interact with those undertaking such work.
Similarly, the researchers appreciated both the challenges of presenting their work to such audiences and the perspectives, encouragement and advice which the audiences were able to offer. Both academic and non-academic participants reported other benefits, particularly as a result of contacts made and which were then followed up. In some cases this resulted in academics following leads and then securing funding for further research, in others it provided access to potential participants in forthcoming trials and surveys.
However the most significant outcome in terms of building capacity was that as a result of coming closer to users and beneficiaries of research, and society in general, researchers were able to start to understand the importance of their work to the lives of older people. This enabled them to articulate the case for their work in more meaningful ways and for their research priorities and research designs to be influenced by the concerns and perspectives of these stakeholders.
Figure 4: Participant evaluations of workshops
SPARC spread the word about ageing research in almost every conceivable way. The directors and coordinators gave 36 formal presentations at scientific conferences and public events, 15 full presentations to private gatherings of a range of charitable, governmental and business organisations, and several conference papers. Five refereed papers on the organisation and development of ageing research and several conference papers were also published.
Much energy was expended on corresponding with and meeting policy makers, discussing the contribution to be made by ageing research to improving the quality of life of older people and, subsequently, acting as an information broker for these contacts. There were extensive discussions with government ministers, politicians in both houses, government officials in Westminster and in the devolved parliaments, government related bodies, research funding bodies in the UK and overseas, think tanks, professional bodies, charities, business organisations, universities, and the media. As a result of their interest in SPARC’s mission, two politicians, one in each house, tabled parliamentary questions, one on the future of ageing research and the other on the older worker.
Submissions were made to government enquiries. In some cases these led to further involvement, for example, with Dame Carol Black’s review of the health of the working population, the National Dementia Strategy and the Foresight study of Mental Capacity.
In its own right, SPARC published: executive lay-summaries of 23 of the 34 projects, an innovative and, at times, controversial way of supporting the award holders; an eight page booklet describing SPARC; a 24 page compendium of the activities of SPARC, with a foreword by Lord Sutherland, produced for the BA Festival 2008; and many one page flyers. It also published audio files of interviews with 20 of the award holders or members of their teams.
Within the resources available media activities were extensive and rewarding. SPARC was featured on prime-time BBC television news, on many local radio stations, and in the regional and local press. As a result of SPARC’s involvement with the BA Festival of Science, there was extensive national and overseas publicity of SPARC projects.
More generally, publicity led to some projects being featured by specialist journals and websites around the world. Discussions with journalists from the press and TV led to individual SPARC award holders having their work featured in national newspapers and being invited to contribute to TV documentaries on ageing.
SPARC was particularly interested in building partnerships with
leading researchers overseas, and especially to develop links between the
relevant funding organisations so as to facilitate further growth and
development. It was successful in establishing links between EPSRC and the
The SPARC website www.sparc.ac.uk carried extensive
information about SPARC activities and general information about the world of
ageing and ageing research. It included information about all SPARC projects
and all events, those which had been held and those in prospect, copies of most
of the presentations made at SPARC events, information about organisations
which fund ageing research and forthcoming opportunities to bid for research
support, and many items of news. The web site became so popular, often with
over 4000 hits a day, that at times it was the most frequently visited of all
ageing research websites in the
Advocacy and publicity created unprecedented interest. In 2008, membership of the SPARC network approached 2000, with about 60% of members being non-academics. These members received regular news items about the world of ageing research, advance notice of SPARC and other events, as well detailed information about funding opportunities and access to presentations, summaries and interviews with SPARC award holders. Even at the end of SPARC interested parties were still ‘signing up’ because they believed that the momentum created by SPARC would be maintained.
The overall impact of the advocacy activities was to raise the profile of SPARC to such an extent that it was consulted regularly by many organisations seeking information about ageing research and needing contacts. In addition, its input, for example, to government reviews, was taken seriously and it was invited to take part in significant discussions about ageing research and older people organised by a wide range of bodies including several from overseas. Through its involvement with these organisations it was able to push even further the case for investing in ageing research.
Building the confidence of a wide range of stakeholder organisations in the abilities of the existing ageing research community to address relevant and significant issues is a necessary precursor to moving forward the agenda for ageing research. There is little doubt that SPARC achieved this, that its outreach philosophy was valued, and that it became recognised as a key player in the field of ageing research.
Finally, these activities to promote ageing research can be seen to
have strengthened those of the research councils since SPARC was able to move
in a different way, in different circles and with a different face, but working
towards the same end. Importantly, at times both directors needed to provide
the institutional memory for the research councils necessary for the proper
comprehension of developments to ageing research over the last decade and half,
and so ensure that aspirations and plans did not cover old territory. At times
they could signpost emerging issues from different constituencies to those
frequented by the research councils to the benefit of all concerned.
The support to award holders and their teams included project funding, a range of advice, skill-building workshops (for example, media training, proposal writing, seeking funding support), and the opportunity to present their work on national platforms and, for some, international platforms. On average each team presented their work at two workshops. Twenty six teams presented their work at workshops to audiences of either all-comers or older people, and 20 participated in at least one SPARC international event or such an event supported by SPARC.
During the course of their SPARC projects or soon afterwards, nine of the award holders and four of the six co-investigators who were very involved with the projects were promoted or obtained better jobs. The careers of several other co-investigators and research assistants also progressed rapidly.
At the end of SPARC, most teams were busy disseminating their findings through refereed journals and conference papers, and through making presentations to other audiences, such as professional bodies, companies and community organisations. A sizable minority had incorporated their work into course materials.
About a half of the teams were disseminating their work ‘across the board’ from refereed journal to community group, a third were focused largely on academic outputs, whilst the remainder were following a dissemination path which relied largely on conference papers and presentations.
Overall 18 had published in refereed journals, of these about half had published three or more papers; 23 had published refereed conference papers or published abstracts of their work, 30 had made presentations of their work to events other than conferences and SPARC workshops.
When SPARC concluded, nearly all teams had bid for substantial follow-on funding, 23 of the project teams had bid with a team member, usually the SPARC award holder, named as principal investigator. Twenty had secured substantial portfolios of work which included large projects (£100k - £0.5m). For ten of these the Award Holder or a team member was principal investigator on a large project. Another two had secured medium-sized awards (£50k-£100k) as principal investigators. A further eight had secured follow-on funding as co-investigators. Although not securing a large or medium-sized award, six award holders had secured small project funding (<£50k) as principal investigators. A further six had successful bids as a partner in a network or consortium. All but two of the teams were actively seeking support and were committed to extending their interest in ageing research.
The total value of work secured, after taking just a portion of total project value for those projects for which SPARC award holders were not principal investigators, was approaching £10m. At least half of this, probably more, was a clear and direct consequence of SPARC support.
Figure 5: Number of SPARC teams in relation to the most important projects they had secured
The views from award holders were almost universally affirmative about their experience of SPARC. They were especially positive about the extent to which SPARC enabled them to meet and interact with the users and beneficiaries of ageing research as well as to form contacts and collaborations with other researchers. It had provided them with an ideal introduction to the realities of ageing research and how to operate effectively within this complex area. Their comments about the SPARC model were both extensive and effusive and underlined the value of the philosophy of capacity building within an environment which was actively shared with other stakeholders.
Supporting the Award Holders
Although pump-priming schemes to fund newcomers to research are fairly common SPARC was unusual because of the other support mechanisms which it incorporated. These included mentoring and other advice, encouragement to seek further funding, opportunities to make presentations at workshops and other gatherings, especially all-comers events but also on international platforms, assistance in the production of executive lay-summaries of projects, and involvement with the press and media. In particular SPARC sought to support both the academic development of the award holders and their teams and the development of their relationship with the non-academic world of users, beneficiaries and other interested lay-parties. Of course some award holders were quite able to develop their careers and their activities in both academic and other stakeholder environments without much, if any, support from SPARC. However, a surprising number indicated the many beneficial ways in which SPARC supported them, and that this had been critical to their subsequent achievements.
For example, as given earlier, the value of funding secured by the award holders and their teams during and immediately after their SPARC projects were completed amounted to nearly £10m, of which about half was clearly attributable to their involvement with SPARC. Similarly 20 of the teams engaged in international events organised by or supported by SPARC. Of these nine were already confidently involved with the international community, but for the others this was a new experience. The same can be said for presentations to non-academic audiences. Some made such presentations from time to time, but for 17 this was a new experience, one which they valued highly for both the opportunity it gave to meet new audiences and for the appreciation and interest in their work shown by those audiences. Those whom SPARC introduced to the press and other media also appreciated the experiences and ensuing benefits. Figure 6 illustrates the value added by SPARC in terms of enhancing the award holders’ experiences of the academic and other stakeholder environments for funding, publications, presentations and exposure to international audiences and the media. The assumptions used to compile the figure are conservative; the value added by SPARC was probably more.
Figure 6: Number of SPARC teams with certain achievements in relation to academic and other stakeholder environments attributable to Own Account or to SPARC
So, SPARC provided some award holders with important new experiences of the academic environment and most with significant experiences of the other stakeholder environment. This is as it should be. The typical researcher has plenty of opportunity to gain varied experiences of the academic environment, and SPARC supplemented these opportunities. However, there are fewer opportunities to gain experience the environment of other stakeholders. Here SPARC played a major role, reflecting one of its key objectives.
Quite significant developments are apparent when the activities of each project team are considered individually on a simple scale reflecting the extent to which a team had been able to engage with these two environments, firstly, on their own account, and then, secondly, with the support of SPARC. In terms of that achieved on their own account, most teams, even those led by mature researchers, had little or no experience of the environment of other stakeholders. Also, across all the teams, there was quite varied experience of the academic environment. As might be expected the early-career researchers had less experience of this environment than the experienced researchers. Thus, SPARC support led to a large increase in experience of the non-academic environment for both early-career and experienced researchers and a valuable increase in the experience of the academic environment especially for the early-career researchers.
There is ample evidence of the contribution of the career-building experiences provided by SPARC across all of the areas of research supported by SPARC. This highlights the value of SPARC pursuing the important aim of familiarising the award holders with the environment of non-academic stakeholders. However, the support was not uniform. Only three quarters of the SPARC teams enjoyed the full SPARC experience. This was largely because not all projects had the opportunity to be presented at all-comers workshops, had executive summaries suitable for lay audiences or had enjoyed any media exposure.
Figure 7: Experience of SPARC teams of the academic and other stakeholder environments: comparison between indices for Own Account and Overall
SPARC had a range of objectives relating to building the capacity and quality of the science base in the area of ageing research and networking researchers with key stakeholders in ageing issues, including older people, so as to build a broader base of interest and support in the area. A detailed analysis and commentary on the extent to which these objectives were met are given in the full report.
In terms of the usual measures of success, based on expert review of the outcome of the projects, the capacity building objectives were achieved. The quality and value of the SPARC projects however assessed are very clear indeed. In addition, and perhaps more realistic, is the subsequent motivation and dedication of the award holders to ageing research. Here too there is plenty of evidence of new capacity being mobilised, in terms of research funding secured, and the commitment of the award holders to both academic and non-academic environments of research.
Significantly two thirds of experienced award holders quickly secured further funding as did at least half of the early-career researchers suggesting that SPARC did accelerate the development of those it supported. Some of the awards secured were significant in terms of both funding and their focus on issues which concern the quality of life of older people.
Level of Interest
The level of interest in ageing research which SPARC set out to stimulate within the academic community and with non-academic stakeholders was far exceeded. On the academic front this was revealed in the response to the awards scheme, the quality of proposals received, and the continuing support for SPARC events. On the non-academic front it was revealed in the attendance at SPARC workshops, the offers to host workshops received from non-academic stakeholders such as local authorities and industry, the hit rate on the SPARC website and the level of media interest.
Further indicators are the number of invitations received by the directors to address a wide range of gatherings about ageing research and its contribution to quality of life, and the doors of policy makers, many of which were opened when initially they had been firmly closed. Individual award holders also received such invitations. There was evidence that their work had been noted as being of interest and value.
In particular SPARC brought together all interested parties in
ageing and set about building a stronger relationship between researchers and
the beneficiaries and users of their work. It is not claimed that developing
such relationships was new or unique; rather the claim is that SPARC was able
to provide a continuing stream of opportunities for coming together so that
those involved were able to engage for the longer term, and benefit from the
understanding which emanates from a developing familiarity with a field and a community.
It did this well and was noticed, not
just in the
Indicators of international standing can be found in the bilateral collaborations with Canada, Japan and the USA forged during the life of SPARC. Evidence of relevance to policy makers is the keen interest taken in SPARC by the Welsh Assembly Government, the Irish Government and the research councils in their search for new models for ageing research, and the strong relationship which developed with government and non-government policy forming and influencing organisations.
SPARC emphasised ‘interdisciplinarity’ in all of its activities: its public statements, the research it supported and in its workshops. Most projects embodied this to a degree, some projects seriously so. Workshops, in particular those for all-comers, emphasised the interdisciplinary nature of ageing research and the cross-professional nature of its application. In short, SPARC provided a rich arena for highlighting the value of interdisciplinarity and encouraging its further development.
Through workshops, briefings, the website, and communications of various types, SPARC reached out to encourage those who were interested in undertaking ageing research. As can be seen by the response to the awards scheme and the attendances at workshops, it was largely successful. In addition, through its advocacy activities it was welcomed by policy makers concerned with the health and welfare of older people, potentially stimulating priorities which will lead to a need for more research, and by many bodies concerned to make best use of that which exists and to influence the future direction of ageing research.
These are but a few of the ways in which SPARC established a new model for ageing research.
Cooksey, D ( 2006) A Review of UK health research spending, HMSO http://www.hm-treasury.gov.uk/d/pbr06_cooksey_final_report_636.pdf
Denham, J (2008) Science and Society, Ministerial Address, Royal Society of Arts, 16th January 2008, http://www.dius.gov.uk/speeches/denham_science_society_160108.html
DIUS (2008), Innovation Nation, CM7345, HMSO, http://www.dius.gov.uk/publications/innovation_nation_docs/ScienceInnovation_web.pdf