Age-old problem

Ageing is a great challenge for the UK, says Richard Faragher, but policymakers' scientific illiteracy threatens progress

October 22, 2009

With Britain facing numerous challenges as a result of its ageing population, academic experts in the field may be expected to have a rosy view of government interest in their research.

But Richard Faragher, professor of biological gerontology at the University of Brighton, and chairman of the British Society for Research on Ageing, argues that policymakers are "either bored or confused" by science, and that funding for every field of research is "insignificant compared with need and potential benefits".

The professor, who won the Royal Pharmaceutical Society Medal for Outstanding Scientific Achievement in 2002 for his work on premature ageing, said the disengagement of the academy from government was an "acute" problem. "There are only a few MPs with science backgrounds, and many of them are leaving and may not be replaced. MPs seem increasingly to be drawn from a narrow band of professions," he said.

Ageing has been flagged up as a "grand challenge" for the UK, affecting a variety of issues from pensions to healthcare, but Professor Faragher said that research in the field was "in a sorry state".

"This must be remedied because fundamental research has shown that it is possible to dramatically slow the ageing process, preventing multiple causes of ill-health in later life," he said. "Research on animals shows they live a long time if they're healthy - if we could translate that into the healthcare system, the benefits would be immense."

Ageing-related health problems cost British taxpayers more than £50 billion a year, he said.

"In contrast, the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, the flagship funder for research into the biology of ageing, is able to spend only about £17 million a year studying the root causes of frailty and dependence. This is about 1/3060th of the health costs of ageing, which are set to escalate unless scientists are given more funds."

He added: "To me, the most worrying thing is not simply the decline of funding for science, but the erosion of the fundamental attitudes engendered by looking at things 'scientifically', such as the certainty that there is a real world, that true and false things can be said about it, and that it is reasonable to seek to understand that world and to shape policy and policy debates accordingly."

His own preoccupation with science began at an early age. When he was three or four, he saw a television documentary that mentioned - inaccurately - that tortoises live a long time because their cells keep dividing. The programme sparked an interest that has never waned, he said.

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