Government cuts 5000 children from Growing up in NZ longitudinal study
New Zealand's biggest longitudinal research project has been slashed in size by the Government, less than a year after the continuation of its contract was signed.
The Growing up in New Zealand Study is a 21-year project lead by Auckland University, following 7000 families from within 12 weeks before a child's birth to their 21st birthday.
The study provides information about what shapes a child's early development and how interventions might be targeted early, to give every New Zealand child the best start in life.
The continuation of its contract was agreed by government agency SuperU (formerly the Families Commission) in February this year.
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Associate Social Development Minister Jo Goodhew confirmed the contract was reopened for negotiation under heavy questions in the House, last month. But she refused to give reasons why.
The Government has already poured tens of millions of taxpayer funds into the study since it began in 2008; it's understood to have cost about $35-40m in development, and about $5m per year to run.
The study was allocated $15m by the Government in the May Budget. There are now fears that its downsizing will render previously collected data and the millions invested into it, meaningless.
Opposition MPs and a recent visiting academic brought to New Zealand by Superu itself, have decried moves to significantly alter the size of the group being studied.
A spokesman for Goodhew confirmed the contract had been signed, and the cohort of subjects reduced.
It's been cut by more than two thirds - only following the lives of 2000 children.
Labour's children's spokeswoman Jacinda Ardern said it was a "shortsighted move".
"We know how valuable past research like this has been. The size of this study though, meant we would have so much more information about ethnic groups growing up in New Zealand.
"That's information we've never had before," she said.
"You can't just slice a study like this by two thirds and keep all of the value in that research."
Superu, last week, flew a British academic to New Zealand to advise specifically on the use of evidence to improve social policy outcomes.
Chief executive of the Campbell Collaboration Howard White said it sounded "like a seriously bad idea".
"The value of longitudinal studies - and having the same uniform observation, the same children, the same households - is enormous.
"The additional power it gives you and the sort of analysis you can do, in terms of charting trends, analysing social programmes they may have been exposed to - it's just fantastic.
"And so the idea that you would somehow diminish the cohort, when you've got it already for 10 years now, seems to be unwise."
He said it would "undermine the value" of the Government's investment.
Goodhew said the reduction was to "future-proof" the study, and allow it to become "more sustainable". But it's future was not guaranteed.
"The Government has agreed to fund University of Auckland to undertake the eight year data collection wave of the Growing Up in New Zealand study with a sample of about 2000 children, larger than similar highly internationally regarded New Zealand studies. This confirms funding through to 2018/19.
"Once that data collection wave is complete, [the study] will compete for contestable research funding in the same way that all other studies do," she said.
"The Government would like to see the study run until the children are 21 years old as originally intended, as long as it continues to be of value by providing useful and accessible data."
Finance Minister Bill English said the decision was more about providing "value for money" rather than saving money.
He suggested the Government was not gaining adequate access to the data.
"There's a whole history behind the Growing up in New Zealand study, there have been ongoing negotiations for some time, to make sure it meets the Government's needs.
"To some extent the longitudinal studies aren't as powerful as they used to be, because we've got our own administrative data."
What was important to the Government was the "availability of the data".
"There's a natural tension between the academic interests, and the public interests, so as I understand it we've come to a plan over the next two or three years."