The COVID-19 crisis demonstrated the value of health research but is likely to result in the loss of jobs and opportunities for scientists and stretch an already underfunded sector.

Throughout the pandemic the New Zealand Government has relied heavily on advice and evidence from scientists to make crucial decisions on protecting people from the novel coronavirus.

One of those advising the New Zealand Government is Professor David Murdoch. The infectious diseases expert is Dean of the University of Otago, Christchurch and a member of Te Papa Hauora’s Advisory Council.

Murdoch says the pandemic thrust research – health research in particular – into the spotlight.

“People could see the real value of health research and science and how it related to protecting us from this new coronavirus. They could hopefully see that to control or eradicate a virus like COVID-19 requires teams of experts working together to understand things such as how it spreads, who it affects, and potentially what weaknesses it has that can be targeted.”
But while demonstrating its value, COVID-19 is putting extreme pressure on any already fragile sector.

“It’s like post-quake”, says Murdoch. “The quakes disrupted science projects on the whole while certain related areas, such as geology and engineering, were busy. Researchers doing work on COVID will be busy but if you are not in that space it will be a difficult and uncertain time.”

Murdoch says there will be less money for health research as funders are affected by an anticipated financial slump. Money that might usually fund research projects on disease such as cancer or heart disease could be put towards COVID studies.

The closure of borders means young researchers cannot go overseas and work in leading research facilities, then bring their knowledge home.
Murdoch says these new COVID-related challenges compound existing ones.

“In New Zealand we have always been underfunded in the sciences compared to other countries and (the pandemic) is showing it up. Support has gone into a number of sectors to keep businesses going and unemployment low but in science, apart from certain areas that seem to be strategically important related to COVID, the overall feeling is quite bleak.”

Professor Letitia Fickel is Pro-Vice Chancellor at the University of Canterbury’s College of Education, Health and Human Development. She sees an opportunity to study the health sector’s digital response to COVID, and use the information to better prepare the next generation of health professionals.

“The environment has changed. We need to be engaging with our colleagues in practice and thinking about what the future will look like and together think about what capability this new digital space might need to effective. Because everything is in flux, that innovative space is a research space.”

Fickel says one example of where research on the impact of COVID could be beneficial is in the field of mental health, and other allied health fields.

“There has been some concern in the telehealth space, about the outcomes, are they as good? We need data right now to show how well digitalisation worked (during lock-down) or didn’t. There is research to be done, I think, about what was it like for counsellors and psychologists and others using those digital telecommunications. What worked? What didn’t? What did they find? What would they need to do it better in the future? Such a study is being developed by a team drawn from the Te Papa Hauora partners, a great example of this bringing together clinicians, health education and research experts.”