The review of new treatments for a condition that affects 850,000 people was conducted by RAND Europe and investigates the strengths and gaps within the research workforce. It found that far too few people are entering the field of dementia research, with five times more people doing a PhD in cancer fields than in dementia, while retention in the field of dementia is equally poor.
Dr Doug Brown, director of research and development at the Alzheimer’s Society, said: "Dementia research is going from strength to strength in the UK but this report highlights that there are still too few people choosing it as a career, especially those from clinical and care professions. We must build the reputation of dementia research to show that it is one of the most cutting edge areas of research that is poised to make significant advances in the next decade.
"By attracting and retaining more of the very best researchers in dementia, we will be able to significantly speed up progress towards innovative care and that all important cure. Alzheimer’s Society is leading the way to address this challenge. We have recently invested over £6.5 million to support 75 individuals to develop their careers in dementia research and intend to do much more in the years to come."
Alzheimer's Society claims the findings highlight a critical lack of researchers in the care and clinical professions focusing on dementia. Social care bears the main responsibility for supporting people with dementia despite just 2% of dementia researchers being social work specialists.
The Prime Minister's Challenge on Dementia 2020 sets the ambition for “dementia research to be a career opportunity of choice,” but these findings suggest high barriers to academics, clinicians and care professionals pursuing a research career in this area.
Dr Brown has called on the government to help reduce such barriers including:
• The lack of a secure career path for researchers, which is present in many biological and health fields but amplified in dementia due to the relative scarcity of funding
• Too few mid-level positions for post-doctoral researchers to transition to their first independent research post
• A lack of junior-level posts and PhD studentships for allied health and social care professionals to gain experience in dementia research
• A lingering view that there is not much that can be done for people with dementia and that dementia research has faced many setbacks to date.
Alzheimer's Society further urges the government and other research funders to act on the recommendations put forward by the report to address the issues of dementia research capacity by:
• Tackling bottlenecks in the transition from postdoctoral researcher to independent investigator with dementia specific fellowships, rising star programmes and professional skills training
• Attracting more allied health professionals, nurses and social workers to the field through increased funding for dementia care PhDs and advocacy work to raise the profile of dementia research in the NHS
• Increasing diversity in dementia research with grants restricted for novel collaborations between dementia and non-dementia specialists.
In the UK, the cost of dementia to the economy is £26.3 billion, yet less than £74 million – or 0.28% - was spent on research in 2013. Despite this, the review found that the UK ranks second in the world in the amount of dementia research it produces, punching well above its weight considering that the US invests five times more into research in this area.
Dr Sonja Marjanovic from RAND Europe said: “We conducted 40 in-depth interviews with dementia experts and the message was clear. Although the UK does well in many areas of dementia research, there are several issues to be addressed to ensure a strong and sustainable research community.
“Based on our comprehensive analysis, we’ve put forward 10 recommendations that we hope will help equip the UK with the workforce capacity required to make much needed progress for people living with the condition today and in the future.”
Dr Jose Bras, an Alzheimer’s Society Research Fellow at UCL, added: “There isn’t a system in place that allows researchers like me to move from individual fellowships to academic positions. Although this is not a new problem, it creates insecure career paths that are likely driving away some of the bright researchers that the field should do their best to hold on to.”
Read the report in full at www.alzheimers.org.uk