By Siouxsie Wiles 22/05/2017


Friday, the 19th May. Another day, another funding application rejected. My proposal? To search for new antibiotics from New Zealand’s unique fungi to help avert a global crisis that experts predict will soon be killing more people than cancer.

This is the fifth time I’ve tried to get government funding for this project in the last 3 years. I’ve been lucky. A wonderful charity called Cure Kids has stepped into the void. They’ve given us $150,000 over the last couple of years so that we could employ a part-time technician to get this projected started and see if it’s worth pursuing. Our results are really promising, but time is running out and to make real progress we need more resourcing than just a part-time technician. That’s why Cure Kids have launched a crowdfunding campaign to raise $250,000 for our project. This is an unusual way to fund scientific research, so here are the answers to a few questions you probably have.

Wait, aren’t you a scientist? Aren’t you paid to do research? Why do you need to crowdfund?

Those are excellent questions. Yes, I’m a scientist and I run a research group at the University of Auckland. Unfortunately, most universities don’t just hand out money to pay for research. Which is okay if the research just involved me thinking and writing, but my research (including our search for new antibiotics) needs people to help do the experiments, and money to buy consumables (stuff like Petri dishes and chemicals) and to pay to access expensive bits of equipment. I have to raise all this money myself by writing grant applications to my university, government funding agencies, and charities.

If your research is so important why isn’t the government funding it?

Another excellent question! In New Zealand, the government is by far the biggest funder of medical research, but we spend less than the OECD average so competition is fierce. Success rates for many schemes are below 10%. This doesn’t mean that the other 90% of applications are unfundable, just that there isn’t enough money in the pot for everyone. Alas, we waste vast amounts of time and money trying to be the successful ones.

A recent study of medical researchers in Australia found that they lost 434.5 working years and more than $A52 million in one round of applications to the National Health and Medical Research Council. That’s because there was only enough money in the pot to fund a fifth of the proposals submitted, and a judging panel had to choose between them. Recent research has also shown that judging panels aren’t very good at telling the difference between good applications.

So what does the government fund?

Not much infectious diseases research. The bulk of government funding that I am eligible to apply for comes from the Health Research Council, which between 2012 and 2016 allocated $365 million for ‘applied’ medical research that will improve human health within a few years. Infectious diseases research got about 10% of that. $365 million might sound like a lot of money, but about half of it went straight to the institutions to help pay for stuff like electricity and water and admin salaries.

In 2012, the New Zealand government announced a $60 million initiative called the National Science Challenges, aimed at solving the most important science challenges facing our country. An 11-person ‘Peak Panel’ was appointed and chaired by the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Adviser, Sir Peter Gluckman, and tasked with recommending the challenges for the government to approve. There are four health-related challenges but the panel specifically excluded infectious diseases from them. They are only to focus on non-communicable diseases. This is a big blow for infectious diseases research, as the government has indicated that other funders, like the Health Research Council, will be moving to align more of their research investments to support the challenges. This means that almost $1.6 billion of funding will be invested in the National Science Challenges.

Hang on, infectious diseases weren’t considered a challenge? But what about antimicrobial resistance?

Crazy, isn’t it? New Zealand has rising rates of infectious diseases, and the antimicrobial resistance crisis isn’t going to miraculously by-pass our wonderful set of islands, so I can’t think of a better topic for a National Science Challenge. But the Peak Panel disagreed. They were tasked with choosing the challenges on the criteria of additionality (that is, what would they add to the science sector) and current scientific capacity and capability. At the press conference announcing the challenges, I asked Sir Peter Gluckman why infectious diseases had been excluded. He replied that the challenges focused on the areas in which New Zealand had capacity and capability. In other words, to the Peak Panel, our country doesn’t have a critical mass of people working in infectious diseases research. Ouch! It’s not hard to see how they reached this conclusion though. There were no infectious diseases experts on the panel, and none of the esteemed professors actively working in the area made any submissions for them to consider.

Ok, so what about charities then? Are they plugging the gap?

While charities are an important source of funding for medical research in New Zealand, the amount they distribute is a drop in the ocean compared to the government. And most of those charities are related to specific diseases, like cancer and heart disease. Now ask yourself: how often have your friends ask you to sponsor them to run a marathon for diarrhoea or pneumonia? I’m guessing never. That’s because there aren’t any charities dedicated to infectious diseases research.

Cure Kids have seen how a lack of new antibiotics is going to affect kids in New Zealand. Kids like Elijah, who relied on antibiotics during his cancer treatment. Or kids like Finn, who has heart and airway conditions and who’s life has been saved by antibiotics several times. Or kids like Addison, who was a healthy normal child who ended up fighting for her life in hospital with a bacterial infection. She’s been left with a damaged heart.

Ok, I’m convinced! What are you going to use the $250,000 for?

The $250,000 will provide the money to employ two scientists to work on our antibiotic discovery project full-time, as well as money for all the Petri dishes and chemicals we need.

Where do I sign up?!

Head over to Cure Kid’s website, where you can choose to donate $30, $50 or $100. Each of those amounts comes with a different little thank you gift from us, including a limited-edition Otis Frizzell print and a glowing bacterial art kit. You are welcome to donate more or less too. Every cent helps!

A version of this post was first published on The Spinoff