A tribute to Distinguished Professor Richie Poulton

by Sir Peter Gluckman
Richie Poulton

I have lost a close friend and collaborator, and New Zealand has lost an intellectual giant with the passing of Distinguished Professor Richie Poulton.

Richie did so much to advance our understanding of human development and used his wisdom to impact public policy. For the last 15 years, we have worked closely both as scientific collaborators, and as science advisors. During this time, I witnessed his profound impact on the field of social sciences. He dedicated his life to the translation and application of social sciences for the greater public good. He has been a Koi Tū academic associate, supported our assessments of youth mental health interventions, and has been a co-author on several of our publications and policy inputs on the factors leading to a loss of social cohesion.

Richie achieved global recognition for his exceptional leadership and refreshing of the Dunedin Multidisciplinary Study, a groundbreaking initiative that has fundamentally shaped our understanding of human development and life course sciences. His commitment to the rigorous application of social science principles has set a high standard for research in our field.

The Dunedin Multidisciplinary Study shattered records with its length of observation and impressive domain coverage. Remarkably, it has maintained a high level of subject retention. Founded in the early 1970s, this groundbreaking initiative has produced a plethora of significant, policy-relevant, and scientifically groundbreaking papers. With more than 2000 scientific publications to its name, it has contributed to academic knowledge and has profoundly impacted public policy in numerous countries. While the study predates his involvement, Richie breathed new life into it when he took the helm as director. Recognising its immense potential, he forged collaborations with economists, psychologists, geneticists, and public policy scholars to produce research of fundamental importance. Under his stewardship, the study transcended its original design to become pivotal in shaping public policy and understanding human development. Richie’s leadership style was marked by collaboration and a commitment to team-based research. Often, his papers placed his associates and collaborators at the forefront, reflecting his dedication to interdisciplinary work.

While he is undoubtedly best known for his leadership of the Dunedin study, Richie’s work extended far beyond New Zealand’s borders, influencing policy decisions on a global scale. His research and leadership exemplified a commitment to translating health-related social sciences into tangible public benefits, leaving an indelible mark on society. Richie advised governments in Asia and Europe, including Singapore and the Cook Islands, on improving human potential.

I was delighted to persuade him to become the first Chief Social Science Advisor to the New Zealand Government. His role was groundbreaking and influential, spanning several ministries and reporting directly to the Prime Minister on child well-being and poverty. This role has served as a global model for integrating social sciences into government decision-making. We worked very closely together.

Beyond his formal academic and policy roles, Richie worked with many social organisations in mental health, community disadvantage and child development. As a science communicator, his 2016 documentary series, ‘Why am I? The Science of Us,’ reached audiences worldwide, further cementing his role as a bridge between science and the public.

Sadly in the same week we have also seen the passing of Chloe Wright, remarkable philanthropist who supported much of Richie’s most recent work and our collaboration. Richie’s ability to lead, collaborate, and inspire has transformed the field of life-course research and the lives of individuals and communities.

I have lost a close friend and it is with deep sorrow that the whole Koi Tū family pays tribute to a remarkable man: a scholar, advisor, and visionary whose work will continue to resonate for generations to come. His wife Sandhya and his daughter Priyanka should be very proud of Richie and what he has contributed to future generations.

Credit: Adapted from a photo by Sharron Bennett, NZ Listener

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