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MRC priorities for nutrition research

Nutrition, diet and physical activity play an important, if not a determinant, role in the promotion of health and in the protection from and treatment of disease. Poor nutrition is a direct cause of disease such as diabetes and cardiovascular problems and we are facing a global obesity epidemic. The challenges are worldwide and will require a global, coordinated response. The UK has earned a strong reputation in nutrition research but we now need to ensure we are well placed to take on these new challenges. 

In response to this, the Office for Strategic Coordination of Health Research (OSCHR) asked the MRC, in partnership with the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR), to conduct a strategic review of nutrition research (PDF, 3.00MB) with particular relevance to human health. Building on the Cross-Council Vision for Food, Nutrition and Health research, the review assessed the critical gaps in basic, translational and applied health research on the underpinning role of nutrition in individual and public-health.

The review panel’s report, published 20 July 2017, praises the excellent nutrition research in the UK and highlights existing strengths but warns that the UK is facing a potential crisis in fundamental nutrition research as fewer young investigators enter the field and experienced researchers approach retirement. There is continuing strength in the behavioural/social science aspect of nutrition research but basic, mechanistic understanding of nutrition research and its translation to healthier food is beginning to fall behind.  The review sets out a vision for the field’s future that is broad and ambitious. It envisages revitalisation, capitalising on the immense potential, expertise and resources (both public and private) in the UK, maximising the translation of research to improve human health and wellbeing, both nationally and globally.

In response to the review and after broad discussion, the MRC has identified three pillars of activity for nutrition research for immediate action to give long term gain. 

  1. Building the UK research base: the UK nutrition and human health research partnership

The review articulates the need for clear and visible leadership from the scientific community and from the funders to deliver nutrition research.  To achieve this, the MRC, in partnership with NIHR, will establish a UK Human Nutrition Research Partnership comprised of experts from academia, health research (at individual and population level) and industry to develop and realise an implementation plan for the review recommendations.  We will work closely with colleagues in the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) to continue our joined up approach.

Under the auspices of the MRC, the partnership will be tasked with identifying research opportunities, establishing pilot projects and promoting capacity building.  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 how we can start to tackle these. The partnership will also look at longer-term solutions to fundamental problems such as standardising measures.   To have real impact, it must feed into decision-making bodies, link to the devolved health administrations, policy units, industry and the public.

  1. Developing plans for global nutrition research

Global nutrition for health 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 (LMICs) but will also 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), we are launching new funding opportunities to tackle some of these global challenges.  Full details will be available via the UKRI website but we aim to create long-term investments in global nutrition and health research. 

  1. 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 and the MRC is working with key stakeholders to build on its existing guidance in this area and to develop a framework for engagement between researchers and industry.

The establishment of strong, pre-competitive research collaborations with the food and nutrition science industry could be an opportunity to build capacity in the field and to enhance the sharing of expertise and resources.