A major review has revealed that as experienced scientists approach retirement, the UK needs an urgent boost in recruitment to ensure high-quality research remains.
The review was chaired by Vice-Chancellor and President of Newcastle University, Professor Chris Day, and in response the Medical Research Council (MRC) and the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) have announced new proposals aimed at revolutionising the field.
Professor Day said: “The UK has a well-earned reputation for its nutrition research but we are in danger of falling behind if we don’t consolidate our strengths and build up capacity in key areas.
“A new nutrition research partnership will identify challenges in the area and then direct resources to meet those challenges. Most importantly, it will inform policy.
“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.”
Review urges action
The Review of Nutrition and Human Health Research, commissioned by the Office of Strategic Coordination for Health Research (OSCHR) and overseen by an expert Review Group, praised existing research but warned of a potential shortage of researchers.
It was noted that while the behavioural and social science aspect of nutrition research remained strong, the basic mechanistic understanding of nutrition research and its translation to healthier food was beginning to fall behind.
Dr Louise Wood, Director of Science, Research & Evidence at the Department of Health, welcomed the report: "The UK has a strong history in undertaking high quality and impactful nutrition research and the report highlights the huge potential of building on this for the benefit of the health and wellbeing of the public - both nationally and globally.
"To realise the potential highlighted in this report, we shall be working with a range of stakeholders and, via NIHR, with other research funders including industry to take forward the recommendations."
In response to the review, the MRC and NIHR have identified three courses of action to take place immediately which will be followed with longer term activities.
The three key pillars will be:
A UK nutrition and human health research partnership
The MRC and NIHR will establish a UK Human Nutrition Research Partnership comprised of experts from academia, health research and industry to develop and realise an implementation plan for the review recommendations. The focus will be on some of the tougher scientific challenges such as: linking cohorts to interventional nutritional research; linking nutritional epidemiology to mechanistic understanding; and looking at longer-term solutions to fundamental problems such as standardising measures. The partnership’s outputs will feed into decision-making bodies, devolved health administrations and policy units, and inform industry and public guidance.
Developing plans for global nutrition research
Global nutrition research has the potential to transform health and wellbeing across the world. Nutrition, and its influence at all life stages, plays a pivotal role in non-communicable diseases in lower and middle income countries and also has an impact on response and resilience to infectious diseases. Working across the Research Councils, the Department for International Development (DFID) and the Department of Health (DH), through the Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF), the MRC will launch new funding opportunities to tackle some of these global challenges.
This approach will link groups that have expertise in working in these countries with nutrition researchers here and in LMICs, while allowing groups not traditionally involved in LMIC research or even nutrition to form new partnerships and seed small projects.
Working with the food industry
The OSCHR review highlighted that to truly understand the nutrition ecosystem we must work with all stakeholders, including the food industry – agricultural, retail, food production, packaging etc. Industry must be seen as part of the solution and partnership with the food/nutrition science industry is vital so that research can lead to healthier products and improved nutritional support. This partnership must be governed by clear principles for engagement. The MRC is working with key stakeholders to build on its existing guidance in this area by developing a framework for engagement between researchers and industry.
Nutrition at Newcastle University
Newcastle University is already addressing this area with the Human Nutrition Research Centre carrying out valuable research on links between nutrition and health with a focus on the major public health issues of obesity and ageing. This world-leading research informs the teaching of several degree programmes including three new courses; B.Sc. in Food and Human Nutrition, Nutrition with Food Marketing and Nutrition and Psychology.
(Adapted with thanks to the MRC)
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