Researchers are helping Europe, and the EU in particular, meet the challenges imposed on the region by an ageing population and declining birth rates. They are also tackling how fragmentation is affecting the impact and efficiency of international and interdisciplinary research efforts. The ERA-AGE 1 and 2 (European Research Area on Ageing 1 and 2) ERA-NETs have made major headway in tackling these issues by consolidating research resources and know-how, and optimising the impact of research on policy, practice and product development. Thanks to ERA-AGE 1 and 2, Europe is providing answers to issues that weigh heavily on the minds of everyone.
ERA-AGE 1 consolidated skills and knowledge to coordinate ageing research and got a multi-disciplinary European Research Area (ERA) in the field of ageing research off the ground. The pièce de resistance was that it helped Europe benefit from investments made in this field. Following on the success of ERA-AGE1 was ERA-AGE 2, initiated to ensure the ERA's benefits in the ageing field in the long term.
For ERA-AGE coordinator Alan Walker, a Professor of Social Policy and Social Gerontology at the University of Sheffield in the UK, ageing holds a very significant place for the public and policy makers.
'Ageing is defined in various ways. The public and policy makers tend to think of it in chronological terms, with 60 or 65 as the threshold,' Professor Walker tells Research Headlines. 'It is more helpful I think to see it in functional terms. What people are capable of or, in other words, what damage has been done to people's bodies and minds over the life course. It is important because the structure of European societies is changing in a fundamental way i.e. fewer younger people and more older people, with life expectancy rising year on year and so more very elderly people.'
Before the project's kick-off, the ERA-AGE team determined that one of the biggest issues facing the ageing research community was the lack of coordination of effort. Despite the involvement of various countries, 'each country was following its own path regardless of how many times it crossed with another country's', Professor Walker points out. The headache was the huge duplication of effort. He also notes that there was a significant amount of concern about the lack of capacity among the next generation of researchers in this field.
Enter the ERA-NET scheme, which was the best tool for ERA-AGE as it effectively brings together national research organisations, such as ministries and research councils, in a coordinated effort.
Commenting on how ERA-AGE 1 and 2 contributed to the creation of the ERA, Professor Walker says: 'In a number of ways: bringing together partners in a consortium to share knowledge and good practice in mounting ageing research programmes (creating the foundation for the ERA); launching the successful FLARE ('Future leaders of ageing research in Europe') postdoctoral programme, which was designed to address the capacity building issue, engaging all major stakeholders (in biological research, medicine and sociology) in discussion about ageing research priorities; planning Europe's first research programme in this field.'
As for how the scientific community and the public are affected by the work of ERA-AGE 1 and 2, the benefits are many and huge. 'Impacts include engagement of the wider research community in the ageing research endeavour, a sense of a European research community, focus on multidisciplinary approaches to ageing research, a new cohort of young researchers in this field and an identifiable European focus,' Professor Walker underlines. 'The impacts on society will follow the research itself but already the FLARE projects are demonstrating impacts across a broad front — for example, new approaches to the alleviation of hearing loss in later life to understanding the ethical issues involved in the new anti-ageing medicines and techniques.'
While the future of the network is unclear, what we do know is that knowledge exchange and cooperation between multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary researchers are proving fruitful for all Europeans, both young and old. EU Member States have recognised the importance of the area. The Competitiveness Council has asked the Commission to consider launching in 2011 a Joint Programming Initiative on Demographic Change with which ERA-AGE has proposed to collaborate.
With almost EUR 1.7 million in financial support, ERA-AGE 1 and 2 brought together experts from Austria, Bulgaria, Finland, France, Israel, Italy, Latvia, Luxembourg, Romania, Sweden and the UK.