The UK's world-renowned dementia knowledge base could be lost unless scientists have better opportunities to enter and remain in the field, the government has been warned.
Ministers must avoid "flash in the pan" tactics on dementia research and commit instead to a national dementia research strategy, according to a new report published by Alzheimer's Research UK.
As the UK population ages, the numbers of people living with dementia are spiralling towards one million, costing the economy over £23 billion, and with the limited treatments available only alleviating some symptoms, pressure remains on research to deliver new drugs, preventions and improved diagnosis, it says.
However, despite recent initiatives from government and other research funders, a history of underinvestment has left dementia research undermanned and underfunded, dwarfed by provision for research into cancer and heart disease. For every dementia scientist, over six are working in cancer, yet neither heart disease nor cancer pose the same degree of challenge presented by dementia for society and the economy, the charity says.
The report, Defeating Dementia, makes a range of recommendations to the government, calling for a national research strategy which would encourage ring-fencing of funding for dementia research, plus greater flexibility and calculated risk-taking to foster innovation, and measures to boost research to improve disease understanding and accelerate treatment development.
The research charity is also calling for a simplification of funding applications and the removal of unnecessary bureaucracy which comes at the expense of productive research time.
"New efforts by the government to streamline the regulatory process are an ideal opportunity to address the difficulties in carrying out dementia research. Current delays in getting ethics approval, as well as the difficulties of accessing patient data and undertaking studies with dementia patients, restrict capacity," the report points out.
Alzheimer's Research UK chief executive, Rebecca Wood, said that while it is right that we pay serious attention to the care challenge that dementia poses today and tomorrow, “we can't just paper over the cracks. The only answer to dementia lies in research that will deliver new treatments and preventions."
"Government and other funders have taken some positive steps towards boosting research efforts in the UK, but we can't rely on flash-in-the-pan tactics. Through our recommendations, we are challenging all funders to take an essential long-term view on dementia research. If we can't boost the number of scientists working on dementia, then we will fail the 820,000 living with dementia today, and we will be powerless to avert the looming increases in prevalence," she warned.
'Investing in our high-achieving UK scientists is the only answer to dementia - our brains depend on theirs," added Professor Julie Williams, chief scientific adviser to the research charity.
"We do not have enough scientists working in the dementia field to meet the colossal challenge it poses to society. We must not only support our current world-leading scientists, but also encourage new brains into the field, with new ideas and expertise to add to our armoury. We have to remove bureaucratic barriers to research so we can foster the right environment for scientists to thrive," said Prof Williams.