Since 1997 ageing research in the United Kingdom (UK) has been promoted through a series of research council special programmes with an emphasis on multi-disciplinary, collaborative, user-focused research. There has been notable progress and substantial setbacks, especially a major lull in activity, and strong disciplinary biases in later programmes. Skills, expertise and influence on policy and practice, developed through early programmes, have been lost. Two philosophies of programme management have emerged: a top-down approach to the development of priorities and activities, largely reflecting a linear model of research, development and diffusion; and, a bottom-up approach strongly influenced by the priorities of users including older people, which has emphasised the role of problem-solving and social interaction between researchers and users. A comparison of these two philosophies highlights factors which contribute to successful programme implementation and valuable outcomes for society at large. These emphasise: involvement of all potential users; encouragement of champions; supporting researchers at all stages in their careers; transparency in communicating intent, progress and achievements; varied and robust knowledge transfer; and, above all else, understanding the challenges faced by individuals as they grow older. Future programmes would be assured of making significant contributions to supporting older people and an ageing society if those commissioning the programmes recognised the importance of these factors and accepted the consequent challenges for the organisation of the programmes.