Research falters as funds tighten

A lack of new funding and rising costs are threatening world-leading health research projects at Wellington's Malaghan Institute.

Last week's Budget saw no new funding for health research, a trend that has continued since 2009.

The lack of money has meant increased competition for grants, which has driven down the percentage of successful applications to crisis levels.

The Health Research Council, the Crown's agent for allocating funding, has about $80 million to distribute each year.

Researchers compete for the funds and nothing is guaranteed.

Council chief executive Robin Olds said the success rate for projects getting funding had fallen in recent years and this year would sit at about 7 per cent.

"It's really low. When I talk to my colleagues from all round the world they all think it is a crisis if the success rate falls below 20 per cent. Once it gets to 7 per cent I don't care who you are or how famous you are, it's incredibly challenging."

New Zealand did not measure up to countries such as Australia that "seem to be keen to recruit our fantastic researchers," Dr Olds said.

About 5 per cent of the council's money goes to the Malaghan Institute. Medical director Graham Le Gros said the health research workforce was becoming demoralised, fragmented and was just trying to make ends meet.

New Zealand was becoming "quick and cheap" and the Government was missing chances in the health sector, he said.

"The institute has a world-leading cancer vaccine programme under way involving the production of the vaccine here and going to New Zealand patients. This is under real threat and is kept going year-by-year. It's no way to plan and achieve something which obviously works in a 10-year time frame."

Science and Innovation Minister Steven Joyce said the total budget for health research – money from the council and the ministry's own investments – sat at about $113m a year. There were investments in the Budget that would have a positive effect on health research. "The Government is about to develop a statement of science priorities which will review the allocation of funding between disciplines, and the health research sector will have the opportunity to argue for more investment as part of that process."

Dr Olds said if New Zealand wanted to think of itself as a first-world country, it needed to be a first-world science country. It was currently a fair way down the list of countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development when it came to state health funding and researchers were being forced to shrink the scope of their ideas to fit in budgets.

"The idea that the New Zealand economy has to grow ... it's not going to grow because we make more milk or we grow more trees or we sell more sheep overseas. It has to come from these sort of knowledge-based industries."

It needed to be able to respond to the growing number of infectious diseases, but "the next generation of research stars" had little chance of getting projects launched.

Contact Shabnam Dastgheib
Breaking news reporter
Twitter: @shab_d

The Dominion Post