Two years ago, to commemorate the 300th anniversary of the original Longitude Prize, the UK government offered a ten million pound prize for the solution of a significant global problem. The original Longitude prize was set up in the eighteenth century by the British Admiralty to tackle the difficult problem that mariners faced of determining their longitude at sea. Three centuries later, it was decided that the challenge addressed by new prize would be chosen by the British public by popular vote.
Voters were asked to chose between challenges such as “How can we fly without damaging the environment?” and “How can we ensure everyone has nutritious sustainable food?”. In the end, the public chose to fight the rise of antibiotic resistance in bacteria: the first team “to create a cost-effective, accurate, rapid, and easy-to-use test for bacterial infections that will allow health professionals worldwide to administer the right antibiotics at the right time” will win the prize, provided this occurs before a cut-off date of 2019.
In New Zealand we held the Great New Zealand Science Project (don’t bother googling it, as the site will now try to sell you the services of a personal trainer “Effective Personal Workouts? That’s not Rocket Science !!?!”). The 2012 campaign encouraged the New Zealand public to vote for a range of science challenges and, like the people of the UK, the public voted for a project for “Fighting Disease”. I’ve always found it remarkable that of the ten National Science Challenges that were chosen by the government, not one tackles infectious disease.
In the end there were four challenges that involved the health sciences: “A Better Start”, “Healthier Lives”, “Aging Well”, and “High-Value Nutrition”. The Healthier Lives Challenge, which at first glance seem best placed to tackle infectious disease, addresses what it calls four of New Zealand’s main non-communicable diseases: “Cancer, Cardiovascular disease, Diabetes and Obesity”. The Better Start Challenge grapples with obesity, learning, and mental health problems in children and teenagers. Aging Well concerns “brain and body health”, as well as ways “to reduce disability and moderate the impact of age-related illness such as dementia, stroke, depression and frailty.”
So despite a mandate from the public, the National Science Challenges shied away from taking on infectious disease. The report of the panel that selected the Challenges noted that research into infectious disease did not meet their threshold for additionality (that is, what would a science challenge add to the health science sector) or for current scientific capacity in New Zealand. To appraise these comments, we need to look at what else is going on in the health science system.
With that in mind, the other major source of health science funding in New Zealand is the Health Research Centre (HRC). They fund a very wide range of projects, and those awarded since 2016 are listed here. To what extent does the HRC fund research into infectious disease?
It’s actually quite hard to tell. I pulled down two years of data from the HRC website concerning projects that were awarded funded in 2006 and 2014. Running through the list project-by-project, my estimate is that only 3% of the HRC funding in those years was allocated to researchers to study infectious disease. For the most part, HRC funding in these years mirrors the “Healthier Lives” Challenge (cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and obesity) with nods to a “A Better Start” and “Aging Well”.
This week’s #InfectedNZ discussion has highlighted some of the challenges New Zealand faces from infectious disease. There is clearly concern amongst the public and amongst the scientific community about this, particularly the potential threat from antibiotic resistant bacteria. There are also significant costs to our healthcare system: as the figure below shows, we have nearly 100,000 hospital admissions per year due to infectious disease.
It is hard to argue that a National Science Challenge in infectious disease would not have provided additionality: it would evidently have provided much needed resource in an area to which we devote less than 3% of our health research funding. If the panel that selected the National Science Challenge was correct, then it would seem we don’t have the scientific capacity in New Zealand to address infectious disease. This should be a serious concern in light of the conversation this week. Perhaps it is time to do something about it.
Shaun Hendy is the Director of Te Pūnaha Matatini. Shaun is an advocate for multi-disciplinary research and teaching, and lectures in the University of Auckland’s Department of Physics and the University’s Centre for Innovation and Entrepreneurship.
What is InfectedNZ?
Hey, Aotearoa. It’s time we had a chat about infectious diseases and what we’re going to do about the looming antimicrobial armageddon. That’s why we’ve asked leading health, social and economic researchers, and people with personal stories, to help us get real about our vulnerability and discuss solutions. Follow their blogs right here at tepunhahamatatini.ac.nz and watch the conversation spread across social media with #infectedNZ.
Backing it all up, wherever possible, is data from the good folk at Figure.NZ. Their super duper charts are based on data sourced from public repositories, government departments, academics and corporations. Check out their #infectedNZ data board and sign-up to create your very own data board on any topic that floats your boat.