The Royal Society of Edinburgh (RSE) is pleased to respond to the Select Committee’s Inquiry into EQUAL (Extend Quality Life). The RSE is Scotland’s premier learned society, comprising Fellows elected on the basis of their distinction, from the full range of academic disciplines, and from industry, commerce and the professions.

The Society believes that EQUAL is an important initiative and should be supported. The World Bank estimates that, in the year 2000, 20% of the population in countries with market economies will be over 60 years of age. It has also been estimated that this year, 10 % of the population of the USA and Europe will be over 80, and, of these, 25% are likely to suffer from some level of dementia. Similar demographic statistics apply to the rest of the developed world, with some countries predicting even greater increases in the proportion of the population over 80 and higher incidences of dementia. A further change, that is occurring in many countries, is the increased demand for older and more disabled people to continue to live in their own homes, rather than within institutions. However, without technological support, society is unlikely to be able to afford appropriate quality of life for elderly people or their carers in the future.

The Royal Society of Edinburgh is undertaking a range of activities in this area and was recently awarded £500,000 by the Lloyds TSB Foundation for Scotland to support research and scholarly activities over the next three years aimed at improving the quality of life of Scotland’s ageing population. In addition the Society held a Foresight seminar on "The Ageing Population" in December 1999, addressing the opportunities and challenges for all sectors associated with the projected increase in the average life expectancy of UK citizens over the next 25 to 30 years. It concluded that work in this area was important and increasing, and that there were exciting long-term opportunities for UK Industry.

The specific areas of consideration are addressed below:

The costs and outputs of the EQUAL initiative

The Society believes that the EQUAL initiative has been cost effective, and that it is important that initiatives of this nature are continued and extended into new areas.

The effectiveness of the Initiative in confronting the challenges of an ageing population

Given the large and increasing percentage of the population which could be assisted by research into ageing, there is scope for extending this initiative, and initiatives of this nature. At present levels of research effort, the challenges of an ageing population are unlikely to be fully met, nor will the UK industry be in a position to respond to the market opportunities provided by the needs and wants of older people. In particular, there is scope for more research into adapting communications and information technologies for older people in order to reduce social isolation; providing appropriate levels of monitoring and supervision without violating privacy; and keeping elderly people intellectually, physically and economically active, and independent for much longer.

The success, so far, of the Initiative in meeting its aims

The Equal initiative has produced some very interesting research findings; however, the scope of the initiative needs to be widened, and funding increased to encourage the broader research community to undertake research in this area. At present, this area of research does not have a sufficiently high profile to attract a large enough number of high quality researchers. As this field is a comparatively young one, attempts should be made for the research to cover a wide portfolio of interests, rather than focusing too narrowly on any specific priorities.

The current Government policies, if implemented, go a long way to creating the context for improving quality of life for an increasingly ageing population. However, they need to be supported by evidence and, where this is lacking, by a long term research and development programme, which requires continuity and foresight. The latter is obviously on board, and it is hoped that the various components do indeed work together.

The role of the Office of Science and Technology in coordinating the Initiative

Research within the EQUAL remit is inter- and multi-disciplinary in nature and it is still a young science. The criteria for excellence for assessing research proposals of this nature, therefore, can be very different from that for the more traditional sciences. For this reason, it is important that the Research Councils in general are aware of these differences when research proposals relevant to this general field are assessed.

The reduction of disability and poverty would make a major contribution to extending the quality of life. Disability, however, is not simply a physical product of illness or accident; it is compounded, and its reduction hindered, by the interaction of all the topics under each of the disparate research programmes. Therefore, if specific research priorities are to succeed, there needs to be a comprehensive understanding of how they can be tackled in a multifactorial and interdisciplinary way.

Additional Information

Copies of this response are available from the Research Officer, Dr Marc Rands and details of the research support available from the Royal Society of Edinburgh on improving the quality of life of Scotland’s ageing population can be obtained from the Research Awards Manager, Anne Fraser 

Professor P N Wilson CBE FRSE
General Secretary, Royal Society of Edinburgh


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