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ScienceMarch 22, 2017

Tears, cheers and a timely celebration of good, meaningful science


Veronika Meduna watches the gongs get handed out at last night’s big Prime Minister’s Science Prize ceremony.

Anybody who thinks of science as the dispassionate study of cold, hard facts would have had their stereotype shattered at last night’s awards ceremony for the 2016 PM’s Science Prizes.

Tears rolled and laughter erupted, often at the same time, as recipients accepted their prizes for work that directly links science with people.

The top $500,000 prize went to the Dunedin Study, a longitudinal and multidisciplinary project now famous around the world, partly thanks to the documentary series Why Am I, for gathering the most detailed data on human development and helping to unravel the interplay between genetics and experiences in shaping our lives.

Richie Poulton in Why Am I?

It all began back in 1972 with about 1000 babies born at Queen Mary maternity hospital. Those babies are turning 45 this year and most of them have long left Dunedin, but next month they’ll start flocking back to the city for the next round of assessments and tests. Over the years, the study members’ collective life histories have shed light on many factors that influence health outcomes and behaviour, from the effects of teenage cannabis use on mental health in later life to the links between genes and antisocial behaviour.

Study director Richie Poulton accepted the prize on behalf of the research team, but says the study’s participants are the real heroes. “They do it because they know it will help other people.”

Read the Spinoff interview with Richie Poulton, ‘Future criminals revealed at age three? Not so fast, says Dunedin Study head’, here

Poulton, who first joined the study team as a 22-year-old “peroxide blond” psychology student and, after a few years overseas, returned as its director in 2000, says he has grown up with the study members. As they age, the research focus continues to change – and will likely keep shaping health and social policy far beyond New Zealand for years to come.

Earthquakes and the impact they have on communities is what drives University of Canterbury civil engineer Brendon Bradley, who won the PM’s MacDiarmid Emerging Scientist Prize. His work on modelling the impact of ground shaking on built infrastructure is feeding into several major rebuild projects in Christchurch and into the development of building codes internationally.

We know that the Alpine Fault and the subduction zone beneath Wellington are likely to produce a big earthquake. Even though it’s not possible to predict it, it is possible to prepare for the impact, he says. By building models that incorporate specific data about the underlying geology of different regions, Bradley can visualise how the shaking will affect buildings and structures that are most important to people in an emergency – hospitals, bridges, telecommunications headquarters, large office buildings – and how more robust designs can mitigate the earthquake impact.

In these post-truth times, it was good to see the PM’s Science Communication Prize go to someone who cares about the role of science in a democracy. Science historian, writer and Victoria University lecturer Rebecca Priestley plans to use her prize money to produce a massive online open course (MOOC) on science communication and to establish New Zealand’s first fund to support independent science journalism, with a focus on climate change and impacts of technology on society.

Rebecca Priestley and Bill English. Photo: VUW

“To make decisions about their future, people need to be able to understand, discuss and ask informed questions about issues such as climate change, water quality and emerging technologies. I think it is time for the science communication community to focus more on thinking about what we are doing, what we are trying to achieve and how we can do it better,” she said.

The most heartfelt reaction came from a group of pupils from Koraunui Primary School in Lower Hutt who had come to celebrate their science teacher Dianne Christenson, the first primary teacher to win the PM’s Science Teacher Prize, worth $150,000. Thanks to her, the kids get to study their local river and set up a taro patch in the school grounds. They have bee hives and make (and sell) balms and creams. They learn science by doing it, with all the exploration, risk-taking and failure that brings. They may not become scientists but they are bound to keep exploring and likely to remember those classes for the rest of their lives.

Onslow College in Wellington is another school that seems to have found a formula for inspirational science education. Former student Catherine Pot took home the PM’s Future Scientist Prize for tackling a tricky problem in semiconductor physics. Her win was the third time the school featured in the PM’s science awards.

The Spinoff’s science content is made possible thanks to the support of The MacDiarmid Institute for Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology, a national institute devoted to scientific research.

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