Scottish Government funding for centres for research and specialist expertise on child protection have made headlines in recent weeks. The argument boiled down to where existing government funding ought to be allocated. But NSPCC Scotland believes the argument should be wider and that the impact and cost of child abuse and neglect demands an increased level of research investment and a much higher level of activity than we currently plan.

We have become used to thinking about child protection in response to distressing revelations of abuse, sexual exploitation or even child murder in the media. You would be forgiven for thinking we have not improved how we are dealing with these issues. Inquiries highlight individual failures and lessons but if inquiries into child deaths worked in preventing child abuse, we’d have solved the problem by now. Dozens of cases, over more than four decades, cite familiar problems – professionals not talking to each other, not putting the picture together and missing opportunities to act.

We hear less of the huge toll taken by neglect and abuse on many children’s lives. The scale of it is shocking and overlooked – an NSPCC study found one in five secondary school pupils in the UK have experienced abuse or neglect. There is accumulating, compelling evidence of the lifelong impact of early neglect and deprivation on children’s lives and futures. Adults with more adverse experiences in early childhood are more likely to have health problems, including alcoholism, depression, heart disease, cancer and type two diabetes.

Understanding better the causes, as well as the consequences of child abuse and neglect should be top of the list whenever the health of Scotland’s population is discussed.

On a recent Winston Churchill Memorial Trust fellowship, I visited the US and countries in Northern Europe which recognise the role of scientific research in preventing child abuse and transforming society. At the Harvard Centre for the Developing Child, the director – neuroscientist Professor Jack Shonkoff - argues persuasively and passionately there should be no greater priority for investment in society’s health than the prevention of child maltreatment.

Professor Shonkoff and his team believe the best of what we do now is nowhere near good enough. He argues we need to make decisive breakthroughs in our level of understanding and that requires a level of investment that we currently apply to huge health issues like cancer or heart disease. Indeed, he believes if we want to make real headway on those two killers we should focus on child maltreatment.

The centre is pushing at the frontiers of innovation and making the case for a quantum shift in the attention given to research and development in preventing child maltreatment. I visited the US because so much cutting-edge research in this field comes from there. Some programmes are being adopted in Scotland such as the Family Nurse Partnership, a two-year support service for young vulnerable first time mums.

Health in the earliest stages of life – from pregnancy onwards – strengthens developing biological systems that enable children to thrive and grow up to be healthy adults. The science of child development tells us policies across all sectors of government affect the capacities of parents and communities to strengthen essential foundations of development such as stability, responsive relationships, supportive environments and healthy nutrition.

These early experiences spark the developmental trajectory that influences lifelong outcomes in health, learning, and behaviour. Understanding how these factors work, how we can ensure safe healthy childhoods, is where we need a science-based framework for decisions about policies, systems, and practices that support the healthy development of all young children and their families.

Compared to the huge effort devoted to cancer research, child abuse and neglect is a much underdeveloped area of study in Scotland with few of our universities involved.

But it is clear Scotland must match the kind of commitment to learn about the roots of child abuse that is being shown in other countries. Sweden, Finland and the Netherlands all have well-funded research teams at the leading edge of developing our understanding of child abuse, its causes and how to prevent it. At the University of Leiden in the Netherlands, a research group is exploring the genetic and environmental mechanisms underlying the huge harm caused by abuse, including why some people survive abuse and can bring up their own children safely.

Scotland may not have the means to be a genuine world leader in every area of research, but valuable work taking place in similar-sized European neighbours shows the opportunities we have to create a golden legacy for Scotland’s future generations if we commit to a far greater investment in finding the causes of child abuse and neglect and creating new ways to protect our children.

Matt Forde is NSPCC Scotland's Head of Services.