Moana Ellis, Local Democracy Reporter
Whanganui-based health research will inform national discussion and thinking at a critical time for health reform and Māori development.
Two Kaupapa Māori research centres in Whanganui are among four independent research organisations that will share $38.3 million in Health Research Council (HRC) funding over the next seven years.
Iwi-owned Whakauae Research Services and Whanganui-based Māori health and environment research institute Te Atawhai o te Ao are the only Kaupapa Māori research centres in the country to receive the funding.
Te Atawhai o te Ao director Dr Rāwiri Tinirau said the investment in Whanganui research speaks to the calibre of the work coming from the region.
"It builds on the mahi and research that the institutes have done in the past, which has given the Health Research Council confidence to invest in the mahi moving forward."
He said HRC's seven-year programme of funding was for research organisations that sit outside of the university and Crown framework.
"We're a regional location, but being quite community focused and centred has been our strength."
Whakauae director Dr Amohia Boulton said the region was building a reputation for quality Māori research.
Whakauae is the only research centre in the country that is directly owned and accountable to an iwi entity, Rangitīkei iwi Ngāti Hauiti.
"It's just phenomenal that Whanganui and Rangitīkei have this," Boulton said.
"It's because of the legacy of [researchers] like Dr Cherryl Smith and Dr Heather Gifford who had that vision and foresight – and the support from their respective iwi, who understood the importance of Māori asking questions to drive iwi development objectives and goals.
"That's what it's all about. It has to be iwi who are asking and answering the questions of importance for iwi if we are to meet our own iwi development goals."
The funding recognises pioneering work by Whakauae to support health equity for Māori.
"In health and other sectors, people are saying the same thing: that Māori voices must be heard, Māori have to be in the driver's seat, Māori need to be determining their own futures."
Boulton said the end game is equity.
"At least equity – equity of outcomes for Māori. In every socio-economic indicator that you can think of, we have to be at least enjoying the same level of life and happiness as our non-Māori counterparts.
"And then there are other things that we as Māori should be able to enjoy without having to justify or rationalise or make excuses for. There are things that we do as Māori that we should be able to do unencumbered and unhindered."
The funding has also been awarded to the Malaghan Institute of Medical Research for biomedical research in cancer, asthma, allergy and microbiome research, and the Medical Research Institute of New Zealand for improving clinical management, clinical trial translation and implementation.
Boulton, who was last year presented with the Royal Society Te Tohu Rangahau Award for outstanding Māori health leadership, excellence and contribution, said the funds are specifically awarded to build research and innovation capability.
"We were the first four to be funded eight years ago when the fund was first established and we were invited to apply again.
"It means that we can invest more heavily in our people and our business, and build skills, expertise, knowledge and infrastructure to support the business of research, including communicating our results and getting them in front of decision-makers.
"We should be able to grow the research workforce. We can be much more nimble and responsive, and we can do much more."
She said sharing important findings with decision-makers would make a powerful contribution to improving health outcomes for Māori.
With a major health restructure under way, including the pending launch of the Māori Health Authority in July, the funding comes at an important time for researchers working to gather evidence about how Māori experience the health system.
"The pandemic has been a wakeup call for the health system," Boulton said.
"Making fundamental changes to the way the system does or doesn't work for Māori is the most important work we can undertake over the next few years for the benefit of all New Zealanders."
Tinirau said Te Atawhai o te Ao had been conducting research into intergenerational trauma and healing for a number of years.
"The research is contributing to a growing body of work in which by-Māori for-Māori research is needed to bring about change," Tinirau said.
"We've started to build a network of researchers who are interested in this space as well as practitioners who are wanting to implement some of the pathways that are being studied.
"What we're trying to do is ensure that communities lead the responses and that we're here to support them to activate the mahi that needs to be done."
The new funding will support Te Atawhai o te Ao to help whānau develop healthy strategies for living, healing and preventing intergenerational trauma, Tinirau said.