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Decisions on controversial High Value Nutrition funding to be made by year end

The first and largest of the government's controversial National Science Challenges, High Value Nutrition, will reach agreement by year's end on what science will be funded to meet the goal of developing high-value foods with validated health benefits to boost exports.

The ten National Science Challenges were announced in 2012 and High Value Nutrition (HVN) was the first to be officially launched last April with total funding of up to $180.8 million over ten years. Forty scientists are currently working on proposals and options for potential funding will be put before a science board for review on Dec.17.

HVN director David Cameron-Smith said projects were unlikely to kick off until well into the first half of next year and it would be a long-term turnaround. The goal is to boost food exports to $45 billion by 2025.

"The process for food biomedical research is that you have a five-year return from prototype to branded product launch. We have to prove to government by 2025 that we're starting to see significant economic reward and that New Zealand has changed from being an ingredient supplier to a supplier of finished branded products that create value."

There has been opposition from some scientific researchers to the mission-led science challenges which are aimed at tackling some of the biggest science-based issues and opportunities facing New Zealand. Critics say there is a lack of transparency, too much bureaucracy soaking up funding, and over-emphasis on commercial drivers rather than blue-sky research.

Cameron-Smith said the issue deserved debate including when you go down the path of mission-led science, how you make meaningful decisions on what areas to focus on. With global economies struggling, prioritising science funding had become an issue worldwide, he said. His personal view was that rather than relying on scientists writing publications saying how wonderful their work was, a better measurement would be how that work enriched the society that paid for it.

The HVN challenge is led by researchers from Auckland University, the University of Otago, Massey University, AgResearch, and Plant and Food Research. Operations and communications manager Efflam Allain said while New Zealand had world-class food scientists, there hadn't always been enough collaboration between the universities and crown research institutes towards a singular goal.

HVN has narrowed its focus down to four key research areas which play to New Zealand's strengths and capitalises on research already undertaken: mothers and babies; gut and immune health; obesity and diabetes; and mobility. The two enabling themes are that any food-led solutions have to understand the complex chemistry within the food process to deliver health benefits and that they drill down into what makes consumers tick and what they will want to buy.

Cameron-Smith said the end products needed to incorporate three things - playing to the NZ story of being natural and healthy, underpinning our reputation for food safety, and that are the best in market.

"New Zealand has been making handbags but we need to make Prada handbags. We have to create a need, a demand, a want, for things that consumers will pay for," he said. "We can't feed China but New Zealand can get out of the commodity cycle and be more targeted and get more value out of it."

The food industry discussed the research areas at a forum last month and Cameron-Smith said the feedback was industry wanted to be involved in helping prioritise specific projects. Initial funding of $30.6 million will be allocated next year and a further $53.2 million will become available in 2019 following a review. He said it will be at that point HVN would talk seriously with industry players about which research project had come up with the "true wins" that they would want to take to market.