A rewarding morning

by Sir Peter Gluckman
View of the New Zealand flags flying in front of the parliament building, the Beehive, in Wellington.

Today the Prime Minister presented the annual science prizes which, while in the name of the Prime Minister, are selected independently by committees appointed by the Royal Society of New Zealand.

As before, it was an exciting reminder of the talent and quality of research and science we have in NZ and a most enjoyable morning. The Prime Minister spoke very positively of the role he saw science playing in New Zealand’s future.

The Prime Minister’s prize went to a joint group between the University of Otago and NIWA. The group, led by Rob Murdoch, Phillip Boyd and Keith Hunter, has been studying phytoplankton in the Southern ocean and its relationship to carbon dioxide clearance for many years. It is a demonstration that there are no fundamental issues in science and scientists crossing the boundaries between CRIs and Universities, except for the age old problem of institutional boundaries and identity. It is also a demonstration of the value that is added when we get beyond institutional boundaries.

The Science Media Communication prize went to Mark Quigley, who played a critical role in addressing the biggest challenge in science communication we have had: helping the public to understand the earthquake cluster that devastated Christchurch against the background of complex community dynamics, fears and alarmist fear-mongering.

Antarctic research was recognised in the award of the MacDiarmid Emerging Scientist award to Robert McKay of Victoria University who is studying ice cores.

But arguably the two most important prizes went to Angela Sharples, a biology teacher from Rotorua, who won the Science Teacher prize for her most innovative and rewarding endeavours at Rotorua Boys’ High School, and to Nina Huang, a Year 13 student from Diocesan College who won the Future Scientist prize which is awarded to a high school student. Nina has being studying cognitive brain function and how thinking processes and control of (eye) pupil size are linked. Her acceptance speech was moving and demonstrated what talent we have in our young people. In introducing her to the Prime Minister and the audience, I referred to the story of Alvina Pau’uvale from Tamaki College and her work on fungal infestation of kauri trees in the Waitakeres as another example of the unexploited talent in our schools.

Indeed a most rewarding morning.

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