Thousands of young New Zealanders face serious challenges in their lives. Ten per cent of them are obese, and nearly a quarter overweight. One in three do not meet the National Standard for reading in their first year at school. Distressingly, a third of them will have had a significant mental health problem by the age of 18.
These familiar indicators have resisted any number of efforts to turn them around. They burden the nation with significant costs. Obesity contributes to the country's most common non-communicable diseases such as type-2 diabetes, stroke, arthritis, cancer and heart disease. Obesity is more prevalent among Maori and Pacific Islanders and the disadvantaged. Childhood obestity has knock-on impacts in education and behaviour, and is associated with low self-esteem, depression and learning disability.
New Zealand's adolescent mental health record is troubling. The rate of adolescent and young adult suicide is one of the highest in the western world, and most often related to underlying mental health disorders. Surveys have found that while three-quarters of young New Zealanders say they are fine, a significant number report episodes of self-harm, depression and anxiety.
In the field of reading, the ability to read at a young age is closely related to educational success and the ability to crack the job market. One study put the cost of illiteracy at $3 billion a year. If a report card was to be issued for these markers it would conclude "must do a lot better'.
Few economic development strategies yield a higher level of benefit than investing in getting children off to a good start in life.
It is against this backdrop that the Government is funding another assault on the landscape of New Zealand childhood with an ambitious $34 million, 10-year investment. The initial tasks involve as many as 75 researchers from seven universities, four district health boards and several other organisations. Some of New Zealand's sharpest minds are engaged on what has been titled "A Better Start - E Tipu e Rea". Unlike some previous interventions, the groundwork has been methodical, firmly science-based and appears to have broad support in the research community, which reflects its origins as one of 11 national science challenges. The scope of work includes blending western and Maori research perspectives. That is vital given that a disproportionate number of children at risk are to be found in Maori and Pacific communities. Moreover, obesity, learning and mental problems often appear together in these troubled youngsters.
It is one thing to produce solid and potentially transformative research. If it is to make a difference, if a decade's worth of publicly funded effort is to translate the science into better lives for young New Zealanders, then the research results will have to lend themselves to policy formation. There are bound to be hurdles and brick walls and, given the generous timespan of the project, the emergence of policy alternatives and quick-fix demands.
The public will want, over the life of this project, reassurance that those in charge are on the right research track and that any interventions will have a deep, persistent and positive impact. The Better Start project recognises this hurdle and is devoting part of its budget to investing in ways to implement the research. Young New Zealanders deserve nothing less if they are to enjoy a healthy and successful life.