The UK is second only to the United States in the quality of its research into dementia, yet research capacity in the field lags behind higher-profile categories such as cancer, stroke and heart disease, an analysis by Thomson Reuters has found.

The study was commissioned by research charity Alzheimer’s Research UK, in an effort to raise awareness and increase investment in the field. It published the findings in a report, Defeating Dementia, which also makes 14 recommendations to the UK government based on feedback from dementia researchers.

Thomson Reuters’ Intellectual Property & Science business provided bibliometric data in February and July 2011 for the report on the output and quality of UK dementia research.

Low ratio

Extrapolating from the volume of research output, these data showed that the ratio of researchers working on dementia in the UK versus those working on cancer, for example, was roughly 1:6.

“When these numbers are seen in relation to the economic costs of dementia, cancer, coronary heart disease and stroke, the vast disproportion in the dementia field is evident,” the report comments.

It also found that a large proportion of research output in dementia was distributed among a small base of researchers and institutions.

Punching above our weight

Yet the quality of dementia research in the UK, as measured by its citation impact (i.e., how often UK scientific papers are referred to in other research publications) “is world-class and we are clearly punching above our weight”, the report notes.

For example, in the years 2006-10 UK dementia research had a citation impact (five-year moving mean) of around 1.8, well above the world average of 1.0, second only to Sweden, and above the US.

Yet over the last five decades the US has published 43.7% of all global research on dementia, compared with the 10.7% published by the UK and 3.3% by Sweden.

As a point of comparison, the Thomson Reuters citation databases extracted 125,404 papers published on dementia research between 1961-2011, of which 13,463 were published by the UK.

The worldwide total for cancer over the same period was 1,270,373 papers, of which 99,358 were published by the UK.

Not sustainable

“The high calibre of UK dementia research highlights how much more the field could achieve with more investment and greater capacity,” the report comments. “Although we are a global leader in the field despite low investment and capacity, this is not a sustainable model.”  

Alzheimer’s Research UK acknowledges that dementia is now being recognised nationally as a research priority.

The Ministerial Advisory Group on Dementia Research (MAGDR), which published its Route Map in June 2011, looked at ways of increasing the volume and impact of dementia research, including the need to harness existing resources and to build on capacity and capability.

“However, to capitalise on the UK’s research strengths and build capacity to levels more proportionate to our needs, discussions like this need to be ongoing,” the report insists.

Among its recommendations to government are:

•    Dementia research in the UK needs a cohesive national strategy, with sustained, ring-fenced funding.                                      

•    Funders need to revise current structures and programmes so that they do not preclude novel approaches and ‘riskier’ projects founded on strong science.                

•     Funding application and reporting procedures should be reviewed to ensure time spent on research, momentum and continuity are maximised to accelerate progress.                                          

•    Bottlenecks and “vicious cycles” caused by existing career structures in dementia could be eased by introducing: a) more independent fellowships; b) more permanent senior scientist/post-doctoral positions; c) ring-fenced funding for junior principal investigators.                                  

•    More flexible research funding and training pathways for clinicians who want to conduct dementia research.                                   

•    Increased investment in research to improve understanding of the diseases that cause dementia.                                       

•    Stronger links between basic and clinical researchers in the field, and stronger research networks.