Dunedin Study team wins the Prime Minister's Science Prize 2017

by Ryan J Holder / 21 March, 2017

Richie Poulton.

The team behind the Dunedin Multidisciplinary Health and Development Study have been awarded the nation’s top science prize in Wellington today.

Their longitudinal research, commonly called the Dunedin Study, tracks the lives of 1000 children who were born in Dunedin in the early seventies, and is described by lead researcher professor Richie Poulton as “arguably the preeminent study of its type in the world”.

The prize of $500,000 goes to the entire team of University of Otago researchers lead by Poulton, including key members Terrie Moffitt, Murray Thomson, Jonathan Broadbent, Avshalom Caspi, Bob Hancox, Malcolm Sears, Nigel Dickson, Jennie Connor and Joanne Baxter.

Long-time Listener writer Rebecca Priestley was also recognised at the well-respected awards today, winning the Prime Minister’s Science Communication Prize for her commitment to “communicating science in a way that helps people make informed decisions about important issues facing society”.

The Dunedin Study attracts millions of dollars every year from overseas and has influenced health and social policies internationally.

It aims to “provide us with answers to questions on subjects as diverse as child health, injury prevention and links between drug abuse and adult psychosis” and to help policymakers and clinicians make evidence-based decisions in health and social services, as Beck Eleven outlined in the Listener.

Members of the study are brought to Dunedin at regular intervals “to participate in a day of interviews, physical tests, dental examinations, blood tests, computer questionnaires and surveys”.

Rebecca Priestley.

And the study has already made an impact in New Zealand. It has thrown up some interesting insights into the gene-environment interplay and successful ageing. Playgrounds have safety matting; electric jug cords are shorter (to reduce the incidence of burns); and the judicial process has benefitted from the study’s work on “identifying antisocial behaviour stemming from childhood and understanding the later-life effects of adolescent cannabis use”.

“The science we are doing is the best in the world,” says Poulton. “Winning the prize is not just for me. It’s for the team. It’s for the study that I love.”

The Listener’s Rebecca Priestley has written more than 200 science articles and features for the magazine and is the author of several books including Antarctica anthology Dispatches from Continent Seven, which is based in part on her travels to and scientific work on the continent, and Mad on Radium: New Zealand in the Atomic Age.

Priestley stressed the importance of the role of science communication in democracy, as she celebrated her role in helping to attract more young people into science careers.

“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.”

The $100,000 prize will go towards promoting science communication activities online and establishing New Zealand’s first independent science journalism fund.

In other prizes, Canterbury professor Brendon Bradley, profiled in the upcoming issue of the Listener – on sale March 27, has been awarded the Prime Minister’s MacDiarmid Emerging Scientist Prize for his research into the effects of ground shaking caused by earthquakes. He receives $200,000, with $150,000 of that to be used for further research.

The Prime Minister’s Future Scientist Prize has been won by former Onslow College student Catherine Pot for taking on a challenge at the International Young Physicists’ Tournament that no other student was willing to confront, the van der Pauw method.

Dianne Christenson of Koraunui School, Stokes Valley, broke new ground in winning The Prime Minister’s Science Teacher Prize – she’s the first primary school teacher to receive the $150,000 award.

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