Our Challenge

What is A Better Start?

A Better Start: E Tipu e Rea is the National Science Challenge working to reduce obesity and improve learning skills and mental health in New Zealand children.

We are one of 11 National Science Challenges designed to find solutions to large, complex issues facing New Zealanders.

A healthy weight, good learning skills and sound mental health are key to a healthy and successful life.

Our mission is to find better ways to predict, prevent and treat obesity, learning and mental health problems in New Zealand children and teenagers.

We are drawing together New Zealand’s leading experts from across different institutions and disciplines to find solutions. 

Why invest in obesity, learning and mental health?

These areas are some of the biggest hurdles our children can face:

  • one in three of all New Zealand children is overweight or obese 1
  • one in three children is not meeting the National Standard for reading in their first year at school 2
  • one in three young people will have had a significant mental health problem by the age of 18. 3

There is a big overlap among those at risk in each area, and each can influence the others. Problems that begin in childhood often get worse in adolescence and get ingrained in adulthood. The costs to the child, their community and the nation only multiply as life goes on.

The earlier we tackle the problems, the greater the benefit to the child throughout its life, and to the country. A Better Start is working to find practical, evidence-based solutions that make a measurable difference for our tamariki.

What’s new about A Better Start?

Our research strategy is new for New Zealand because it will:

  • draw together experts from different institutions - over 75 researchers from seven universities, four District Health Boards and other bodies will work on initial projects
  • draw together experts from different disciplines - scientists specialising in paediatrics, education and psychology will collaborate with health and education experts, epidemiologists, big data analysts and economists
  • target children as early as possible in life – when we can make the most difference
  • target the children most in need – Māori, Pacific and poorer children
  • engage families and communities – Māori and Pacific communities will help us design, execute and interpret our research in a way that’s culturally right for them
  • take a holistic view of obesity, learning and mental health, which are usually studied in isolation.

Find out more about why our research approach is new.

How will A Better Start help Māori and Pacific children?

The burden of obesity, learning and mental health problems falls unfairly on our Māori and Pacific children, and those from poorer families - their rates of these problems are much greater than for the rest of the population. These tamariki often come from families that have higher rates of these problems, so a cycle can run through generations.

A Better Start aims to help these children become more resilient.

We can translate our research into solutions that work for Māori and Pacific children only when we work closely with their families and communities.

Māori and Pacific researchers work on our project teams.

We design our research in line with kaupapa Māori principles, to braid together indigenous and Western scientific understandings.

We are guided by Vision Mātauranga – the government research framework which aims to unlock the potential of Māori knowledge, resources and people.

How does A Better Start work?

A Better Start has up to $34.7 million dollars in government funding over ten years, from 2015 to 2024.

We are one of 11 National Science Challenges contracted by the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment.

A Better Start is hosted by the Liggins Institute at the University of Auckland, in collaboration with the University of Otago, the University of Canterbury, Victoria University of Wellington, Massey University, the University of Waikato, Auckland University of Technology and AgResearch.  

We have drawn together New Zealand’s leading experts from different institutions and disciplines.  They will work with other experts around the world. 

A Better Start will become a national centre of excellence, finding practical solutions for:

  • communities and families
  • government policy makers
  • national organisations
  • health and education providers and professionals.

Find out more about our people.

1 One in three of all New Zealand children is overweight or obese.  One in nine is obese and two in nine are overweight.

Ministry of Health.  2015. Understanding Excess Body Weight: New Zealand Health Survey. Wellington: Ministry of Health.  


2 One in three Year One children is not meeting the National Standard for reading in their first year at school, and one in four is not meeting the National Standard for writing.

Ministry of Education. 2014. National Standards Achievement Results 2014. Wellington: Ministry of Education. http://www.educationcounts.govt.nz/statistics/schooling/national-standards/National_Standards

3 One in three young people will have had a significant mental health problem by the age of 18.

Fergusson, D.M. and J.L. Horwood, The Christchurch Health and Developmental Study: Review of findings on child and adolescent mental health. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, 2001. 35(3): p. 287-296.