In 1988 the Medical Research Council posited the concept of a more broadly based Health Research Council (HRC), to give greater prominence to public health research. The HRC came into existence on 1 October 1990 under the Health Research Council Act 1990, with four statutory committees:
- Biomedical Research
- Public Health Research
- Māori Health
The HRC’s first triennial report, for the years 1991–93, spelled out a fundamental change in the balance of funding. With restricted funding available for research, greater emphasis was to be placed on public health issues, including Māori health. This contrasted with the former predominance of funding for biomedical research.
By 2003, the HRC had established nine distinct research portfolios:
- biological systems and technologies
- communicable diseases
- determinants of health
- health and independence of population groups
- health sector management and services
- injury and rehabilitation
- mental health and neurological disorders
- non-communicable diseases
- rangahau hauora Māori (Māori health research).
Further administrative change occurred in 2005 when the HRC became a Crown agent, charged with putting into effect government policy in relation to health research. Oversight of these committees was entrusted to a council of 10 members, five of whom had been actively engaged in health research and five with expertise in community affairs, administration, law, management or the perspectives of patients.
An old boys’ club?
Health Minister Helen Clark was critical of the research priorities of the old Medical Research Council, in particular its lack of emphasis on public health. During the 1990 parliamentary debate on the transition to the Health Research Council, she described the MRC as an ‘old boys’ biomedical club’.
Among the many projects funded by the HRC in the 2010s were:
- The Dunedin and Christchurch Health and Development longitudinal studies examine the health of cohorts of people, from early childhood through their lives. The Dunedin study focuses on people born in 1972-3, while Christchurch follows a group born in 1977.
- The Edgar National Centre for Diabetes and Obesity Research at the University of Otago is researching ways that lifestyle changes involving diet and exercise can reduce the risk of diabetes. Diabetes has become a major problem in New Zealand, particularly among Māori and Pasifika communities.
- Whakauae Research Services, a team established by Te Rūnanga o Ngāti Hauiti, works to develop Māori health research with an emphasis on primary health care.
- Le Ala project is a collaborative project aiming to increase awareness among Pasifika communities of drug and alcohol-related harm and seek remedies. The project encourages community members to tell stories of their experiences.
Housing and health
In the early 2010s Otago University’s He Kainga Oranga, the Housing and Health Research Programme, was an example of an HRC-funded public health project. The multi-disciplinary study involved researchers from the fields of public health, medicine, building science, architecture, and Māori health and development. The study was based on the idea that physical and mental health is strongly dependent on the housing conditions people experience.
The MRC’s annual budget rose from an initial £5,000 to £55,000 in 1956 and £97,000 in 1960. In 1975 the Otago and Auckland medical schools each received approximately one-third of the total funding. This did not compare well internationally, and by the 1970s New Zealand researchers had gained a reputation for carrying out world-class research on very limited funding. In a 1973 study, John Borrows, technical secretary of the MRC, analysed research funding since the early 1950s. He argued that inflation meant funding increases had been minimal, and New Zealand still lagged behind comparable countries such as Australia, Britain, Canada and the US.
Mark Richards from the Christchurch School of Medicine pointed out in 2000 that health research accounted for only 1% of the national health budget. Studies in 2008 and 2014 confirmed that New Zealand’s spending on health research was significantly lower per capita than that of Australia, the UK or the US. The 2014 study warned that urgent, sustained action was needed if hospitals and universities were to retain clinical and academic staff.