Nutrition research in the UK needs an urgent boost if it is to provide real benefit to the UK and global populations.
The Medical Research Council (MRC) and the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) have responded to a wide-reaching review of nutrition research in the UK with new proposals aimed at revolutionising the field.
The Review of Nutrition and Human Health Research, commissioned by the Office of Strategic Coordination for Health Research (OSCHR), was overseen by an expert Review Group and its aims included:
To ascertain the strengths and weaknesses of nutrition research relevant to human health in the UK; to assess whether the research base was well placed to meet the needs of policy makers; to identify opportunities for further interaction with the food/nutrition science industry both in the UK and globally; to consider whether there is sufficient capacity to provide a sustainable future for nutrition research in the UK.
The Review praised the excellent nutrition research in the UK, but warned that the field was facing a potential crisis as fewer younger scientists entered the field and experienced researchers approached retirement. It noted that while the behavioural/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.
The report’s recommendations may be found here.
In response to the review and after broad discussion, 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. Full details will be available via www.rcuk.ac.uk/funding/gcrf/ 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.
Professor Chris Day, Vice-Chancellor and President of Newcastle University, who chaired the Review, 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.”
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.”