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Capacity building in ageing research: Key successes and challenges of the Australian experience
Prof Helen Bartlett with Dr Wendy Martin and Prof Lorraine De Souza
Prof Helen Bartlett with  Prof Lorraine De Souza

Since the International Year of Older Persons (IYOP) in 1999, Australia has experienced a decade of capacity building efforts in ageing research that has brought policy, research and service sectors closer together and raised expectations of more sustainable approaches. The landscape also shifted from a deficit model of ageing to focus on healthy, active or productive ageing, indicating a broader multidisciplinary and collaborative approach.  While much seems to have been achieved in this time, questions remain about the prospects for a strategic and sustainable model for building ageing research capacity in the future. This paper provides an overview of the decade of development and examines the key successes and challenges for the future.

Building the ageing research agenda
A suite of strategic, review and position papers were released between 2000-2003, demonstrating the broadening of the ageing policy and research agenda. After extensive consultation, in 2001 the National Strategy for an Ageing Australia (Andrews, 2002) was launched, providing broad policy goals for addressing a comprehensive agenda of ageing issues.  This national focus on ageing was made explicit in the National Research Priorities released at the end of 2002 which identified ‘Ageing Well, Ageing Productively’ as a priority goal area.  It recognised the need for research into the economic and social participation of older people and their carers, supporting independence and quality of life, and compression of morbidity towards the end of life. A review of healthy ageing undertaken in 2003 by the Prime Minister's Science, Engineering and Innovation Council, supported and progressed the national priorities and goals (PMSEIC 2003).

In mid-2002, the Building Ageing Research Capacity (BARC) project was established by the federal Department of Health and Ageing with the aim of improving collaboration and coordination between researchers and policy-makers. Its initiatives included major national symposia in 2003 and 2006, development of the Framework for an Australian Ageing Research Agenda (Office for an Ageing Australia, 2003), and establishment of the Ageing Research Online (www.aro.gov.au), a national portal for information on researchers, projects, educational opportunities and grants. After flourishing for two years, with over 2,000 researchers registered on the site, the ARO has since languished and its future is unclear. 

A significant development during this time was Ageing Well Ageing Productively (AWAP) funding round which was jointly supported by the two main government funding bodies - the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) and the Australian Research Council (ARC). The AWAP round provided $10 million over 5 years for six projects addressing a broad range of issues including economics, genetics, health and lifestyle, and indigenous issues as well as support for longitudinal research. Nevertheless, ageing research still represents a relatively small proportion of the total ARC and NHMRC grants allocated.

A number of university research centres on ageing have come and gone over the past decade. There are currently around 30 ageing-related centres, including 18 Australian Association of Gerontology (AAG)/International Association of Geriatrics and Gerontology (IAGG) collaborating centres. Such centres have either a discipline focus (e.g. geriatric medicine, nursing, dementia, social sciences), or to a lesser extent, may be transdisciplinary. While important incubators for research on ageing, they generally struggle to be sustainable. Most are small (fewer than 10 researchers) and staffed with contract researchers; few have established partnerships with government; none have ongoing funding streams and there is no truly “National” centre. The recent move by universities to create larger Institutes or pursue other research priorities has seen some productive centres lose focus or disappear. A recent positive indicator is the ARC funding for a Centre of Excellence in Population Ageing Research which has been awarded $12.7 million over 7 years. This represents the largest commitment to ageing research to date and reflects the government focus on the economic implications of population ageing, as confirmed in the three Intergenerational Reports (Costello, 2002, 2007; Swan, 2010) produced by the federal treasury.  

Key success stories in capacity building
The ARC/NHMRC Research Network in Ageing Well
The Ageing Well Network is the leading example in Australia of an attempt to build capacity in ageing research. It was funded for five years (2005-2009) through the ARC Research Networks scheme and was jointly funded by the NHMRC in recognition of the multidisciplinary nature of the ageing research field.  The Network involved seven university partners and an Advisory Group comprising lead executives from the key ageing stakeholders in Australia representing consumers, policy and practice.

The Network was successful in facilitating collaboration between researchers across disciplinary /institutional boundaries resulting in $5million in competitive research funding and identification of new research agendas.  It increased partnerships between key constituencies (community, government and industry) and researchers. It also built capacity through providing support/training opportunities for emerging researchers in ageing through the Emerging Researchers in Ageing (ERA) initiative.

Emerging Researchers in Ageing initiative (ERA)
The ERA initiative was established in 2002 to provide support and encouragement to students undertaking research higher degrees in the field of human ageing in Australia, by offering them opportunities to network and collaborate with their peers, senior academics and policy makers within Australia and internationally.  ERA aims to be informed by the needs of the students and so conducted a National Survey of Emerging Researchers in Ageing (NERAS). The survey found that 75% of students wished to remain in the field post-PhD, but that a key barrier to doing so was insufficient opportunities to meet and collaborate with other researchers in ageing (see Bartlett, Underwood and Peach, 2007).

With the support of the Ageing Well Network, ERA appointed a part-time coordinator and the range of activities expanded to include trialling a mentoring scheme, developing the ERA website (www.era.edu.au), and a travel exchange program (which supported domestic and international exchanges). One of the major ERA activities has been a 2-day masterclass, held in 2008 and 2009 for students in mid-candidature. These masterclasses were facilitated by research leaders and covered networking, collaboration, career pathways, dissemination, publishing, and grant writing (see Bartlett and Peach, 2008).

Another core ERA component is the Virtual Seminar Series which uses videoconference technology to allow emerging researchers to “meet” with peers across the country and hear from senior academics and policy makers about the latest trends. This has helped to break down some of the isolation previously reported. The seminar series has expanded to include New Zealand nodes and a special Australia/UK seminar.  The important capacity building role played by the ERA initiative has been recognised by the new ARC Centre of Excellence in Population Ageing Research which has agreed to provide ongoing support for ERA. This support will allow ERA to continue to grow to meet the changing needs of emerging researchers.

The National Dementia Initiative
An outstanding example of a successful research/stakeholder partnership is that led by Alzheimer’s Australia which has worked closely with leading Australian researchers over two decades to build an ongoing focus on dementia. This has included commissioning reports on the economic impacts of dementia and advocacy to government during the 2004 election. This concerted effort saw dementia being made a national health priority, resulting in funding for dementia research grants, collaborative research centres, and training study centres. More recently, a National Quality Dementia Care Network has been established and work is underway to establish a Consumer Dementia Research Network.

The success of this initiative can be attributed to long term partnership between researchers and stakeholders, and strategic use of information – particularly highlighting the economic implications for government. In addition, unlike the broader ageing field, the initiative focuses on a disease state which is easier for people (including policy makers and funders) to engage with.

Key influences in Australian ageing research capacity building
IYOP and other international efforts highlighted the importance of ageing and this message was taken up by key policymakers who drove the agenda early in the decade and brought research and policy together, requiring both sides to look beyond their own interests to the wider research realm. This collaboration resulted in government support to build the research agenda, fund the Ageing Well Network, AWAP round etc, but this support has since tapered off.

There are also a number of barriers which have impeded capacity building efforts including the multidisciplinary nature of the ageing research field which makes it a challenge to build capacity across so many areas and harder to fund research within the discipline specific funding streams. The large number of stakeholders with different agendas means that there is often competition for attention. In addition, the three year electoral cycle makes it difficult to build a sustained policy focus. Finally, after some success in bringing ageing to public attention during the early 2000s, other long term issues like sustainability and climate change have now taken priority.

After the initial successes early in the 2000s, there is a danger of losing momentum in the ageing research field with the focus moving to specific ageing issues (the dementia initiative and the economic implications of population ageing) or away from ageing to issues like climate change. Further dedicated investment in ageing research capacity is needed to increase quality and scale of the research effort.  In particular, research is needed on promoting healthy ageing at a population level in order to minimise the implications of population ageing.

Due in part to the efforts of the Ageing Well Network, there has been some progress in building multi-disciplinary collaboration, as seen in the funding of the new Centre of Excellence, but ongoing efforts are required to promote this collaborative approach.  More strategic alliances between key stakeholders and researchers are also required so that they can work together to sustain policy attention and leverage funds.

There are lessons to be drawn from the capacity building efforts of the UK, where the research funding councils have a long history of collaboration and establishment of funding programs, or Canada, where the Institute of Aging was formed as part of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research. No such ongoing collaboration between the funding bodies and dedicated ageing research funding stream has emerged in Australia. Only the one-off commitments to the Ageing Well Network and the AWAP round have taken place. Researchers continue to compete in a national grant process that favours discipline-specific proposals. On a positive note, research translation is becoming a priority through the ARC Linkage and NHMRC Partnership schemes, but there is a long way to go.

Finally, if we are to retain emerging researchers in the field and attract new researchers, there is a need to provide new opportunities including post-doctoral fellowships, continued networking and mentoring opportunities. It is vital to build the ERA initiative so that it can continue to meet this need. It is also important to monitor research capacity so that accurate information about the research workforce is available in order to inform lobbying efforts to policy and funding bodies.

This paper is based on a Keynote presentation by Helen Bartlett at the 2010 British Society of Gerontology Annual Conference held at Brunel University in July.

Andrews, K. (2002) National Strategy for an Ageing Australia: An Older Australia, Challenges and Opportunities for all. Commonwealth of Australia.

Bartlett, H. and Peach, L. (2008) ‘I went in feeling like a student and came out feeling like a researcher’. An evaluation of the first Australian Masterclass for Emerging Researchers in Ageing. Australasian Journal on Ageing, Vol 27, No 4, 195-199.

Bartlett, H., Underwood, M. & Peach, L. (2007). Building capacity in ageing research: Implications from a survey of emerging researchers in ageing. Australasian Journal on Ageing, Vol 26 No 4, 187–193

Costello, P.  (2002). Intergenerational Report 2002-03. Commonwealth of Australia.

Costello, P. (2007). Intergenerational report 2007. Commonwealth of Australia.

Office for an Ageing Australia. (2003) Framework for an Australian Ageing Research Agenda. Commonwealth of Australia.

PMSEIC. (2003). Promoting Healthy Ageing in Australia. Paper prepared by an independent working group of PMSEIC. Commonwealth of Australia.

Swan, W. (2010). Intergenerational Report 2010 - Future Challenges for Australia. Commonwealth of Australia.

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