Important foundations

Professor Peter Crampton, Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Health Sciences), discusses the importance of research for the future prosperity and well-being of this country.

Earthquakes have taught us plenty about the importance of foundations, and also the importance of what's above ground in terms of fit-for-purpose building design and materials. And if we didn't know it before September 2010, we do now: however brilliant the building design and materials might be, they count for little unless the foundations are well planted and secure.

And so it is with New Zealand's future. A healthy population is a prerequisite for true prosperity, and research is essential if we are to achieve long-term health gains for all. The ongoing excellence and effectiveness of our health promotion efforts and our health-care system are entirely dependent on good science. Science has underpinned the major advances in health over the past century, including vastly disparate areas such as our understanding of safe potable water, urban design, the almost magical complexity of the immune system, the human psyche, pharmacology and so on. In solving the major challenges which face New Zealand and the globe, now and in the future, there is no question that we are absolutely dependent on high-quality science combined with deliberative and inclusive social debate.

Similarly, New Zealand's aspiration for a knowledge-based economy is dependent on research and education. Without stretching the metaphor past breaking point, research and education are the foundations upon which innovation and economic success rely. Without a foundational pipeline of science-literate graduates, research scientists – social, epidemiological and biomedical – and bottom-up research there will be no real innovation.

"New Zealand's health research is world-class and must stay this way. This is not a nice-to-have; it is a must-have."

Health research makes numerous direct and indirect contributions to New Zealand society. As illustrated in the following three examples, health science graduates populate New Zealand's science, food, primary industries and businesses with trained individuals.

Professor Tony Macknight gained his medical and his research degrees from Otago. He is now a director and scientific consultant at AD Instruments, which is based in Dunedin. AD Instruments provides computer-based data acquisition systems for research and education. ADI systems have also been used for data acquisition and analysis by the world's best academic, government and private organisations. The company was founded and is run by Professor Macknight's son, Michael, himself an Otago graduate in computer science, who responded to the gap in the market identified by his father.

Dr William Rolleston also gained his medical degree from Otago. He is now chief executive of South Pacific Sera, a South Canterbury biotechnology company that produces top-quality donor animal blood, serum and protein products for use in therapeutic, cell culture, microbiology and immunology applications around world. He is also a director of several other enterprises and was previously the provincial president of South Canterbury Federated Farmers. He chairs the Innovation Board of the Ministry of Science and Innovation (now MoBIE).

John Forrest graduated from Otago with a PhD in physiology. He is now the owner operator of Forrest Estate Winery and Vineyards. The Forrest Winery was launched in 1988 and was one of the first 10 wineries in the Marlborough region. John was honoured as New Zealand Winemaker of the year in 2000 and as runner up Entrepreneurial Farmer of the Year in 1999.

Research is not a predictable, linear process and, because of complex causal networks and long time lags, the social and economic paybacks from health research are not always easy to identify or define. The foundational research carried out in universities two decades ago is now reaping rewards and benefits which seem remote from the original effort and inspiration. Similarly, the basic science of today will lead to outcomes in decades to come which we can't currently anticipate.

Professor Tony Reeve and his group conducted 20 years of basic discovery work in the Otago Cancer Laboratory, largely funded by the Health Research Council. During this time, the laboratory was instrumental in introducing the latest genetic technologies to New Zealand and in training a series of talented researchers. The culmination of this research led to the establishment of Pacific Edge Biotechnology Ltd, a successful biomedical company specialising in the discovery and commercialisation of diagnostic and prognostic technology for the early detection and monitoring of cancer.

Professor Warren Tate, the 2011 Rutherford Medal winner, has pursued a 40-year career in basic discovery science focused on how proteins are synthesised in living cells. He has made ground-breaking discoveries in understanding the fundamental elements of cell biology. However, in the last six years a serendipitous finding has made a huge contribution to health research with potential applications for preventing and treating HIV-1 and neurological diseases such as Alzheimer's.

The Christchurch Heart Institute at the University of Otago Christchurch has been contributing to cutting-edge research around heart disease for more than 20 years. The accumulated basic science knowledge of this group of scientists and clinicians has achieved critical mass in recent years, leading to multiple international partnerships and a series of patented biomarkers that are presently undergoing commercial development.

Our experience tells us it is essential that researchers and scientists take the trouble to inform communities and politicians about the processes which lead to science-generated knowledge and advancement. Knowledge creation is not a linear process of problem identification, option analysis and solution. Rather it is a messy process built on the sheer hard work and perseverance of discovery science. This, together with measures of serendipity and the ability to identify unforeseen connections, over time leads to what we know as the advancement of scientific knowledge. This complex process cannot be directly purchased or legislated for, but propitious conditions can, and should, be set up and supported. This requires long-term investment and commitment to sustaining a solid science foundation.

New Zealand's record for supporting health research funding is not especially encouraging. Compared with, for example, Australia and the UK, we invest relatively modestly. In these times of economic constraint, it is essential that our communities, politicians and governmental agencies understand the importance of, and support, the research and science infrastructure which provides New Zealand with its world-class health research. If we aspire to a prosperous future with a healthy population and an increasingly knowledge-based economy our health research foundation is vital.

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