The 2020 Prime Minister’s Science Prizes have been announced in Wellington, recognising the impact of science on New Zealanders’ lives, celebrating the achievements of current scientists and encouraging scientists of the future.
The 2020 Prime Minister’s Science Prize, the premier award for science that is transformational in its impact, has been awarded to Te Pūnaha Matatini for its COVID-19 response.
Te Pūnaha Matatini, hosted at University of Auckland, is a multidisciplinary Centre of Research Excellence, set up to apply complexity science to ‘critical issues of our time’.
Centre Director Professor Shaun Hendy MNZM FRSNZ, University of Auckland, quickly saw in early 2020 that there was a gap in providing the New Zealand Government with the data science it needed to make informed decisions about responding to the pandemic. He quickly assembled a team who have worked tirelessly to fill this need.
The team’s response has been multifaceted. Throughout the pandemic, they have developed a series of new mathematical models and ran a multitude of different scenarios to inform the unique situation that New Zealand found itself in. They have done modelling work and analysis on a wide number of areas including hospital capability, contagion rates and likely disease spread, virus genomic tracing, contact tracing and vaccination.
The results of this work were translated for use by the Government policymakers and front-line operators and helped inform the Government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Te Pūnaha Matatini modelling was key in helping government make good decisions about lockdowns, particularly in April and May when the need to relax Alert Levels arrived, and in August, when a tailored lockdown was used in Auckland to eliminate a large outbreak.
Diane Abad-Vergara from the World Health Organisation said that the work of Te Pūnaha Matatini on the COVID-19 response has had significant health and social impacts for New Zealand and internationally “contributing to New Zealand’s internationally coveted status as one of only a limited number of nation-states which have eliminated and contained the virus”.
Te Pūnaha Matatini modelling work, together with other scientists’ research from around the globe, was actively communicated to the public throughout 2020 – with several of the centre’s researchers emerging as the nation’s most prominent science communicators during the crisis. This included Associate Professor Siouxsie Wiles, who produced a number of graphics with cartoonist Toby Morris for The Spinoff, many of which have ‘gone viral’ internationally and are being used by governments and the World Health Organisation.
Siouxsie was recently named 2020 New Zealander of the Year for this work.
Another strand of the work of Te Pūnaha Matatini has been to analyse and counter misinformation and disinformation.
The other prize winners:
The Prime Minister’s 2020 MacDiarmid Emerging Scientist Prize Winner
Won by Dr Christopher Cornwall, a Rutherford Discovery Fellow at Te Herenga Waka – Victoria University of Wellington, for his cutting-edge research on how marine organisms will fare under climate change. Chris studies how warmer and more acidic ocean water affects the ability of calcifying marine organisms to lay down calcium carbonate to grow and make their skeletons. This includes the foundation marine organisms called coralline algae, calcifying seaweeds, which cement reefs together, both in temperate and tropical waters, but also signal to and provide a home for many other species, such as pāua and kina. His cutting-edge research using boron isotopes showed for the first time the pH levels inside the organisms where they lay down this calcium carbonate. This allowed him to identify those species with a greater ability to keep their internal pH constant under ocean acidification. He has followed up with studies to see if these traits to resist ocean acidification can be gained in a lifetime or over many generations. Next, he has led a team to assess and model how 233 tropical reefs will be able to grow and survive at varying levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Sounding an urgent warning, he says “these reefs will be badly impacted by both ocean acidification and warming. Our ability to keep CO2 emissions down is really the best way we can protect these reefs for the future.”
The Prime Minister’s 2020 Science Communication Prize
Professor Michael Baker MNZM, an epidemiologist with the University of Otago, Wellington has won the 2020 Prime Minister’s Science Communication Prize. He is a Professor of Public Health, Director of the Health Environment Infection Research Unit, and Leader of Co-Search, a Health Research Council funded group conducting multi-disciplinary research to support the Covid-19 response. Michael has been New Zealand’s go-to science expert since the start of the pandemic. He has done more than 2,000 interviews since January 2020, contributing over 30% of the total science outputs recorded for the 70 commentators tracked by the Science Media Centre. Michael describes the period at the start of March 2020 just before New Zealand went into lockdown as the “the most intense period of my working life”. Michael says he developed a concept of Covid-19 elimination and concluded that it was the optimal response strategy. He also concluded that New Zealand needed an intense lockdown to stamp out the virus and give the country time to build the capacity to manage the pandemic. Michael promoted these ideas actively through multiple forms of science communication in early March and was hugely relieved when they were adopted by the Government.
The Prime Minister’s 2020 Science Teacher Prize
Queenstown teacher Sarah Washbrooke is the first technology teacher to win the Prime Minister’s Science Teacher Prize. Her hands-on approach to teaching technology is so engaging for her students that they often remain unaware of the depth and range of learning they are doing. Sarah ensures her students remain engaged by making sure to offer them real life authentic projects and also involves the wider Wakatipu community in setting challenges. She hopes that by following the design-thinking process, her students develop empathy and that “they can learn to learn for themselves and they can learn to solve problems and go back again and be prepared to try again, then those skills are going to set them up for life in the future”. The selection panel was most impressed with the way that Sarah’s work is increasing student participation and engagement in technology at her school and also within the community, and also by how she develops and shares resources to the wider New Zealand technology teaching community.
The Prime Minister’s 2020 Future Scientist Prize
James Zingel, a former student of Bethlehem College in Tauranga, has been selected as the 2020 Prime Minister’s Future Science Prize Winner. James’ research project used a breast cancer dataset run through both a classical computer and a quantum computer in an effort to see which is superior in analysing the data and determining the type of breast cancer present. James has spent hundreds of hours delving into this project and has learnt so much in terms of quantum physics and machine learning. Being able to go from a general understanding of quantum physics theory, to describing it in maths, and finally coding it in a language that generates coherent results has been a fantastic progression that he has loved completing. His findings showed that, at the moment, the classical method worked better than the quantum one, but excited about the possibilities of quantum computing, he said “I think the quantum algorithm will much outperform the classical one in the very near future”. The selection panel were impressed with the way he applied himself whole-heartedly to this complex project and his enthusiasm for quantum computing.