25 January 2017

Blog by Professor Kath McPherson, Chief Executive of the Health Research Council of New Zealand

Since Donald Trump won the election in November, many in the US science community have been speculating about how medical and health research will fare under a Trump administration. Will funding for US federal research agencies such as the National Institutes of Health (NIH) receive a boost or possibly a cut? Will priorities for health research change? And will current levels of interest in, and support for, international research collaboration increase or be challenged?

These and other questions abound, and it’s unclear at this stage just the influence the new administration will have on where research dollars go.

Following the US elections, there have been reports of a step (some say tidal) increase in the number of US citizens, including academics, considering moving to their near neighbour Canada, and even as far away as our shores. Speculation has also been swirling around medical research circles in post-Brexit UK, with researchers there concerned about possible funding cuts – and that dreaded phrase – a brain drain.

All this uncertainly has put a spotlight on the role of government in supporting medical and health research. In New Zealand, we’ll be watching with great interest to see how the US and UK governments approach medical and health research in 2017 as we enter the Trump and post-Brexit era. The past 12 months has seen a heightened focus on health research here too. We’ve seen a landmark increase in funding to the Health Research Council of New Zealand – 56 per cent over four years up to 2019 – and the Ministry of Health and MBIE are currently developing the first ever New Zealand Health Research Strategy.

Increased investment in health research and coordination of effort that is channelled through a cohesive strategy could strengthen our position in this area internationally. Although we are a small country and the amounts invested here are less per head of population than most, New Zealand’s health research capability and capacity is growing. Demonstrating the difference health research makes for our country is a big focus for us at the Health Research Council because it is right that the public sees the significant benefits that come from their investment.  

Just how good are New Zealand’s health researchers? Well, research is inevitably a long game and in fact, the big impacts may well come from connected pieces of research rather than from any one study. A recent review of the quality of publications from New Zealand’s health researchers indicates that our researchers are right up there with the best in any country – not in quantity, but in quality, and that is something we should be very proud of.

However, the impact of health research is about more than publications. One person who shows the breadth of this impact (although there are many) is internationally renowned and recently knighted brain researcher Distinguished Professor Sir Richard Faull.

Sir Richard has made a major contribution to the international fight against devastating neurological disorders. The Centre for Brain Research, which he developed and directs, is now one of the most distinguished neuroscience research centres in Australasia. His contribution to health research goes beyond undertaking excellent research, although that is an immense contribution. His passion has enabled him to champion a focus on brain health – particularly aimed at reducing dementia, attracting researchers and students from around our country and internationally to build a world-class brain research team right here in New Zealand.

So, although health research in many parts of the world faces an uncertain future right now, New Zealanders can be confident that its future here looks bright if we remain focused and motivated, invest wisely on research that matters, and with our health and research system working together to do what it takes to make a difference.