Professor Kath McPherson

A health research system worth investing in

13 August 2019, Funding, Health Research Council

As the agency responsible for managing the Government’s investment in health research, the Health Research Council of New Zealand (HRC) plays a vital role in enabling research and discovery at the Malaghan Institute.

Through long-term capability funding via the Independent Research Fund and contestable funding for specific research projects and researchers, the HRC’s investment has been “transformative” according to Director of the Malaghan Institute Professor Graham Le Gros. 

Leading the helm at the HRC for the past five years has been Professor Kath McPherson, who stepped down from the role in early August. A champion for the need for better, more robust and better-funded health research, Prof McPherson shared some of her insights from her time in the role before her departure.

What’s the HRC’s role in New Zealand health research?

In a nutshell, we’re the Government’s main agent for investing in and driving health research in New Zealand. We’ve got this important role, that’s mandated in legislation, which is to support the very best health research in New Zealand.

Our main focus is on science that has the potential to improve human health. Part of this is ensuring this science is performing at the global level. If you’re not globally connected, globally relevant, globally at the highest standard, then the work’s not going to benefit your own country.

What’s been the most important part of your role as CE of the HRC?

On the surface, I’m really proud to be connected to the first increase in funds for health research in over a decade. That was momentous for New Zealand health research, and I’m really pleased we were able to support the argument for that investment.

At a deeper level, I think my involvement in the first refresh of the HRC, which then led on to the development of a health research strategy in 2017 for New Zealand is also something I’m proud of. It’s our first health research strategy – it provides a map for how the country can work together to build the health research system we need. It recognises that it’s not just about HRC funding, which actually makes up comparatively little in overall government funding, but the bigger picture of connecting the health research system, the science system and the health system better together, and that’s a really good thing for New Zealand if we get it right.

Why is homegrown research so vital?

For me, it’s that connection to being globally relevant, attracting the very best people to our country and generating knowledge which is such an important part of our economy. It’s a no-brainer really. Which is to say, health research is about global connectiveness. If we’re locally relevant but not globally considered excellent then it’s a disaster for our country in all sorts of ways, not in the least which would be the quality of research. 

What impresses you about health research in New Zealand?

I think Kiwi researchers are known for being incredibly enthusiastic, hugely collaborative and very positive, despite the difficulties there are in getting funding. I think that’s a pretty exciting thing. 

What are the opportunities and challenges for health research in New Zealand?

I think an opportunity we have is around the importance of different scientific disciplines connecting. Internationally, everybody is talking about the importance of it, but most countries find it difficult because their systems are very ‘siloed’ and very divided around disciplines. It’s tough, trying to break down walls. I think New Zealand could really drive forward that kind of connected approach that this new structure of the health research strategy is supporting.

In terms of challenges – we’re a small country with large aspirations. The current government is committed to increasing science funding to 2 percent of GDP. That’s a long way from where we are currently. Funding the sector is what the Government wants to do, but I think there are just so many needs in our country that have more immediacy that it will always be a challenge.

Yet, on the other side of the coin is our efficiency. We make money go a very long way. It’s no cheaper here to do research, but we get a lot done for the money that we have, and I think it comes back to what makes our Kiwi researchers unique in how we make things happen.

How has the HRC supported health research at the Malaghan Institute?

I think the Malaghan Institute has clearly been very successful in our contestable funding. One of the things I’ve loved about my job is that I’ve learned where there is excellence in New Zealand. We’re fortunate we’ve got some of the best researchers in the world – the quality is just as good as any country we admire from afar. They have a lot more funds than we do, but our research is of the same quality. We’re really proud that the Malaghan Institute is among this group.

What’s the future of health research and funding for health research in New Zealand?

Our job is to prove to the Government that the health research system is worth investment. Thanks to the refresh of the HRC we have forward momentum. Now we just have to keep it going by demonstrating to the Government that its investment is a good investment. 

To do this, we need to tell the stories of how health research and our investment has made a difference. At times in the past we’ve been disconnected from that story. Just like how the Malaghan Institute knows the importance of the highest levels of communication with your philanthropic funders, the same thing is true for government funding. If we’re disconnected from outcomes, why would the Government invest more through it? This communication and connectedness will be so important moving forward, and I think the future is very positive because of it.