The Government has launched a new campaign to slash obesity and boost learning among Kiwi kids.

Bringing together a team of 75 researchers from several universities, the programme is the second to last of New Zealand's 11 big-issue National Science Challenges to get off the ground.

The core mission of this project, dubbed "A Better Start", was to find better ways to tackle obesity, learning and mental health problems in children and teenagers.

According to official statistics, one in three New Zealand children is overweight or obese, one in three children is not meeting the National Standard for reading in their first year at school, and one in three young people will have had a significant mental health problem by the age of 18.


The researcher leading the challenge, Professor Wayne Cutfield of the Auckland University-based Liggins Institute, said a healthy weight, good learning skills and sound mental health were key to a child's health and success.

The strategy was a first for New Zealand because it would target those children most in need, involve their families and communities, and draw together a range of experts.

They include scientists specialising in paediatrics, education, psychiatry and psychology, along with health and education experts, epidemiologists, data analysts, software designers and economists.

Professor Cutfield and his colleagues would use state-of-the-art "big data" tools to understand problems, identify risk factors, test solutions and quantify their costs and benefits over a child's lifetime.

"Our children are our future and our job is to make science work for them," he said.

"Some of the biggest difficulties they can face are with obesity, learning and mental health. There is a big overlap among those at risk in each area, and each can influence the others."

Problems that began in childhood often became worse in adolescence and could get ingrained in adulthood, he said.

"The costs to the child, their community and the nation only multiply as life goes on. The earlier we tackle these problems, the greater the benefit to the child throughout his or her life, and to the country."

The challenge would also have a special focus on Maori, Pacific and poorer children, and Maori and Pasifika communities would be involved in the design of the research projects.

The obesity-focused work would involve developing tools, using sociodemographic and research data, body measurements and biological samples, that could predict which infants were at risk by the age of 5.

The research would also include investigating environmental factors such as food, activity, sleep and gut microbiome, as well as genetic inheritance and epigenetics -- the way the environment can change the behaviour of a child's genes.

Studies centred on learning would develop strategies to help children at risk of literacy problems succeed from their first year at school -- using the best techniques and services in the education and health sectors.

They would include investigating the best ways to teach vocabulary and phonological awareness -- the ability to read a word by sounding out the letters in it, and the best ways to integrate health and education services to support children and their families.

Scientists working in the area of mental health would work toward creating new online self-help tools for teenagers and those around them.

New Zealand's 11 National Science Challenges:


High-Value Nutrition: Develop high-value foods with validated health benefits to drive economic growth

2. The Deep South: Understanding the role of the Antarctic and the Southern Ocean in determining our climate and our future environment

3. New Zealand's Biological Heritage: Protecting and managing our biodiversity, improving our biosecurity, and enhancing our resilience to harmful organisms

4. Sustainable Seas: Enhance utilisation of our marine resources within environmental and biological constraints

5. A Better Start: Improving the potential of young New Zealanders to have a healthy and successful life

6. Resilience to Nature's Challenges: Research into enhancing our resilience to natural disasters

7. Science for Technological Innovation: Enhancing the capacity of New Zealand to use physical and engineering sciences for economic growth

8. Ageing Well: Harnessing science to sustain health and wellbeing into the later years of life

9. Healthier Lives: Research to reduce the burden of major New Zealand health problems

10. Our Land and Water: Research to enhance primary sector production and productivity while maintaining and improving our land and water quality for future generations

11. Building Better Homes, Towns and Cities: Research to develop better housing and urban environments