Young people the focus of new Science Challenge

by Feb 19, 2016Media release

Science and Innovation Minister Steven Joyce today launched “A Better Start” – E Tipu e Rea – New Zealand’s 10th National Science Challenge.

The “A Better Start” Challenge will receive funding of up to $34.7 million over 10 years for research aimed at solving some of the complex problems that are faced by New Zealand children and young people as they start out on life.

“A Better Start is focusing on predicting, preventing and treating mental health and obesity in children, as well as improving how children learn so they get a better start in life,” Mr Joyce says.

“This work and other research taking place in the broader research environment will together have a significant impact on young people’s wellbeing, employment prospects and ultimately, on the New Zealand economy and society.

“This Challenge is using interdisciplinary methods and digital technologies to address the many crossovers – for instance, work on childhood obesity may increase self-esteem and reduce depression and anxiety, and have positive effects on literacy and mental health.”

As the Challenge beds in and draws on discovery research, it will also work to develop new methods for detecting and supporting young children with developmental and behavioural disorders.

“Proposed initial research for A Better Start is about understanding biomedical conditions and social behaviour that influence how children grow up. The Challenge will bring together medical researchers to work with educational researchers, to share and benefit from each others’ expertise and resources, to achieve transformational research outcomes across broad developmental areas.”

Some initial research examples include:

  • Investigating the way environmental factors like gut microbiome and epigenetics influence child obesity.
  • Developing tools using a mixture of socio-demographic data, body measurements and biological samples to predict which infants are at risk of becoming obese, and test interventions that can help children achieve a healthy weight at primary school.
  • Trialling interventions to help children at risk of literacy problems succeed in their first year at school, and supporting those bilingual in English and either Te Reo Māori or Samoan.
  • Developing next-generation online self-help tools to help detect common mental health problems like depression and anxiety in teenagers, and to offer them help, online or if necessary, with access to mental health services.
  • Using Big Data techniques to analyse links between health and sociodemographic datasets to build new understanding and create a strong evidence basis for where interventions are effective.

The Challenge is the 10th of 11 National Science Challenges to be launched. The National Science Challenges are designed to tackle the biggest science-based issues and opportunities facing New Zealand.

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.