Sensational news stories and the early release of research findings are “damaging” academic research on nutrition, according to a report.
The study, commissioned by the UK’s Office for Strategic Coordination of Health Research, warns that the discipline is facing a critical juncture in the country as established scientists approach retirement and too few new researchers enter the field to replace them.
A group of nutrition experts chaired by Chris Day, vice-chancellor of Newcastle University, who oversaw the review on behalf of the Medical Research Council and the National Institute for Health Research, found that young academics think that the field offers poor career progression and limited opportunities to produce high-quality science.
The report, titled Review of Nutrition and Human Health Research, found that the country had an “impressive track record in nutrition research” but that there has been a gradual fall in its profile and standing.
“The UK is failing to capitalise on its strengths and the field is not reaching its full potential…Urgent action is required to ensure a robust future,” it says.
“The field is approaching a critical point as a cadre of nutrition scientists move towards retirement and new researchers are not entering the field due to perceived poor career progression and the challenges of undertaking high-quality nutrition research,” adds the report. “Despite the complex and challenging nature of nutrition research, it is sometimes regarded as a ‘soft’ and unexciting science with low recognition of its academic value."
In recent years, the public and academics have been “critical” of nutritional science with some researchers claiming that it “can lack quality and rigour”, the report says. “Sensational or exaggerated nutrition-related health stories in newspapers, coupled with the premature dissemination of research findings, are damaging for the field and its researchers and have eroded the public’s trust of nutrition science,” it warns.
Research into nutrition encompasses different disciplines but “more often than not it sits in isolation” without sufficient links to health and disease research or other underpinning areas, according to the report. In addition, there is no overarching research strategy for nutrition.
Responding to the report, the MRC and NIHR said that they will create a new nationwide partnership with representatives from academia, health research and industry to develop a plan that tackles the issues highlighted in the report.
The MRC will also launch new international funding opportunities through the Global Challenges Research Fund and develop guidance on how researchers can better work with industry.
Professor Day said: “Working more closely with industry partners will provide opportunities to build capacity in the field, enhance the sharing of expertise and resources, and ensure that excellent nutrition science is available to all.”