Innovators are saluted at Royal Society function – but the ag/hort sector has scant cause to celebrate

Innovation in agriculture and horticulture – it seems – is no longer important to the Royal Society Te Aparangi.


Well, let’s check out the achievements and contributions of the innovators, kairangahau Māori, researchers and scholars that were celebrated at this year’s Research Honours Aotearoa, hosted by Royal Society Te Apārangi and held at the Town Hall in Ōtepoti, Dunedin.

The society awarded 17 medals and awards and the Health Research Council of New Zealand presented three awards.

Alas, we can find no agricultural or horticultural innovators, kairangahau Māori, researchers and scholars among those celebrated.

According to the society:

The top honour, the Rutherford Medal, was awarded to Distinguished Professor Jane Harding ONZM FRSNZ for her pre-eminent work determining the causes of newborn conditions and long-term consequences of interventions around the time of birth.

The Rutherford Medal is the highest honour awarded by Royal Society Te Apārangi for an exceptional contribution to advancing and promoting knowledge for the benefit of New Zealand.

Professor Harding is based at the Liggins Institute at the University of Auckland. Her research has led to new therapies and understandings that have improved outcomes for mothers and babies around the world. She pioneered a simple treatment for low blood sugar in babies, has shown that a routine-therapy was actually causing brain damage in premature babies, and has provided some of the first evidence that the health and treatment of a pregnant woman not only influences her baby’s growth, but also her baby’s disease risk as an adult. Hon Dr Megan Woods, Minister of Research, Science and Innovation, presented the medal.

Professor Harding said she was “deeply honoured” to receive the Rutherford Medal and acknowledged all the talented people, staff and students she has worked with over her career. “We have the privilege of working to enhance outcomes at that most crucial time in the life of any family: the birth of a baby.  We know that our focus on optimising care of mothers and babies has the potential to enhance health and wellbeing for their lifetimes, and for future generations.”

 Read more on 2019 Rutherford Medal.

That takes care of the Rutherford Medal.

And it’s fair to suggest none of the Health Research Council of New Zealand Awards would come the way of agricultural and/or horticultural candidates.

The Health Research Council of New Zealand awarded the Te Tohu Rapuora Award to Dr Matire Harwood (Ngāpuhi) of the University of Auckland for her outstanding leadership and contribution to Māori health. Dr Harwood is a doctor at a busy general practice and an inspirational leader and teacher in hauora Māori, yet she has still managed to find the time to excel in a clinical research career that has improved Māori health in key areas such as asthma, stroke, heart disease and diabetes.

For excellence in translational health research, the Health Research Council of New Zealand presented the Beaven Medal to Professor Richard Beasley FRSNZ from the Medical Research Institute of New Zealand. Professor Beasley’s research helped halt an epidemic of asthma deaths in New Zealand and has gone on to change the way the world manages asthma, saving hundreds of thousands of lives. Recently, his team found using a combined preventative/reliever inhaler reduced the risk of a severe asthma attack by half in high-risk patients and in those with mild asthma.

Distinguished Professor Ian Reid FRSNZ, Dr Anne Horne and team (University of Auckland) were awarded the Liley Medal from the Health Research Council of New Zealand for their significant medical breakthrough in the field of bone disease prevention. Their groundbreaking paper, published in the New England Medical Journal, could help reduce the number of older women presenting with fractures by up to half, and is leading to a global rethink of how to prevent fractures in older people.

Hmm. What about communication and leadership?

Dr Ocean Mercier (Ngāti Porou), Victoria University of Wellington, was awarded the Callaghan Medal from Royal Society Te Apārangi for her pioneering work engaging audiences in science and mātauranga Māori. Dr Mercier’s science communication spans television, public talks, writing, and university teaching. Described as “a bridge between worlds” by her former supervisor and medal namesake Sir Paul Callaghan, Dr Mercier is best known as a TV presenter. She hosted two seasons of Project Mātauranga (2012, 2013), a show which investigates how Māori people, knowledge and methods work with the scientific community to solve a variety of problems, and the third season of Coast New Zealand (2018). Read more on 2019 Callaghan Medal.

The Thomson Medal was awarded by Royal Society Te Apārangi to Dr Tim Haskell NZAM, formerly of Callaghan Innovation, for his outstanding contributions to the organisation, support and application of science and technology in New Zealand. Dr Haskell’s endeavours range from developing DSIR’s first computer network, implementing earthquake-safe building systems, NMR development, manuka honey extraction and large-scale telescope componentry. Furthermore, Dr Haskell led New Zealand’s Antarctic sea ice programme for nearly 40 years. Alumni from “Camp Haskell” are now key researchers in critical climate research programmes and in 2009 Antarctica’s Haskell Strait was named after him. Read more on 2019 Thomson Medal.

Next – physical and biological sciences.

That’s more like it.  Let’s see…

 Professor Jadranka Travas-Sejdic FRSNZ from the University of Auckland and the Macdiarmid Institute was awarded the Hector Medal by Royal Society Te Apārangi for an outstanding contribution to the field of advanced polymers and nanomaterials. Professor Travas-Sejdic explores the fundamental aspects of materials composed of polymers and applies these findings to create electronic devices for a wide range of biomedical applications. These include hand-held sensors for electrical detection of DNA, such as detecting bacteria in water; stretchable electronics that can be worn or implanted to mimic biological functions; and novel carbon-based ‘nanodots’ for cell imaging. Read more on 2019 Hector Medal.

Distinguished Professor Philip Hulme FRSNZ from the Bio-Protection Research Centre at Lincoln University has been awarded the Hutton Medal by Royal Society Te Apārangi for advancing knowledge on how non-native plants become invasive weeds in New Zealand. Aotearoa has more non-native plant cover than almost anywhere else in the world, representing one of the most intractable issues facing New Zealand’s environment. Professor Hulme’s research has established that many pest plants have come from botanic gardens, ornamental nurseries and the pastoral sector and he calls exotic plants “ticking time-bombs”. He has presented clear and practical policy recommendations, which are changing how scientists and policymakers address plant invasions worldwide. Read more on 2019 Hutton Medal.

Oh dear.  There was nothing there for our people.

Then come the winners of awards for humanities and social sciences.

Professor Edwina Pio, Auckland University of Technology, was awarded the Te Rangi Hiroa Medal by Royal Society Te Apārangi for her pioneering research into intersectional diversity and its implications for business, government, education and society. Professor Pio studies how the intersection of ethnicity, religion and gender impacts on – and is influenced by – the world of work. Her studies have included entrepreneurship among Indian women in New Zealand, experiences at work for Muslims, and Māori mothers transitioning into higher education. She is making an important contribution to knowledge on how an increasingly diverse New Zealand can build a better workforce and society through respect, dignity and honouring difference. Read more on 2019 Te Rangi Hiroa Medal.

Associate Professor Selina Tusitala Marsh ONZM, University of Auckland, was awarded the Humanities Aronui Medal by Royal Society Te Apārangi for her outstanding creative and scholarly work to bring the voices of Pasifika poetry to a broad audience. An acclaimed poet, Associate Professor Marsh has just finished her two-year term as New Zealand’s Poet Laureate and was the Commonwealth Poet in 2016. She has published many collections of poetry and her latest book, which is just published, is a graphic memoir. Her writing is included in many anthologies, academic texts and websites. Through her scholarship, Associate Professor Marsh is providing a new framework through which Pacific Literature can be analysed. Read more on 2019 Humanities Aronui Medal.

Emeritus Professor Roger Horrocks MNZM, University of Auckland, was awarded the Pou Aronui Award by Royal Society Te Apārangi for his tireless work over five decades to support New Zealand culture in the creative arts. Professor Horrocks pioneered teaching Film, Television, and Media Studies in universities, just as a new film industry was emerging in New Zealand in the 1970s. He also helped establish many cultural organisations, including the Auckland International Film Festival and NZ On Screen. His research and writing on New Zealand-born artist and filmmaker Len Lye catalysed the re-discovery of this artist in New Zealand and the establishment of New Plymouth’s Len Lye Centre. Read more on the 2019 Pou Aronui Award.

Fair to say, humanities and social sciences was not likely to be a rich vein for agricultural and horticultural scientists.

What about co-created research?

Royal Society Te Apārangi presented a new award that recognises excellent, innovative co-created research, conducted by Māori, that has made a distinctive contribution to community wellbeing and development in Aotearoa. The inaugural Te Rangaunua Hiranga Māori Award was presented to Ngā Pae o te Māramatanga, New Zealand’s Māori Centre of Research Excellence, for successful fostering and leadership that has carved out a space for community-led mātauranga Māori, te reo and tikanga Māori science research in Aotearoa. Without the infrastructure that long established disciplines have, Ngā Pae o te Māramatanga has developed and implemented new processes and structures to support Indigenous community co-created research in a tertiary environment. It has supported over 160 community-partnered research projects and has become a national and global exemplar for Indigenous research, featuring excellent, innovative co-created research for and by Māori. Read more on 2019 Te Rangaunua Hiranga Māori Award.

But be patient, dear reader.  There are more categories.

Let’s check out the technology and applied sciences winners.

Professor Keith Gordon FRSNZ, University of Otago, was awarded the MacDiarmid Medal by Royal Society Te Apārangi for his innovative use of light to understand the molecular structure of a wide range of materials from solar cells, fish oils, to plastics in the environment. He uses interactions between light and matter—known as spectroscopy—to achieve this. His research has optimised solar cells, and he has developed methods to identify the different crystalline forms of pharmaceuticals, even at the nano-scale. He has also developed methods to assess the quality and composition of foodstuffs, including dairy, fish and horticultural products. Read more on 2019 MacDiarmid Medal.

Professor Cather Simpson FRSNZ, University of Auckland, received the Pickering Medal from Royal Society Te Apārangi for her pioneering research and commercialisation of innovative photonic technologies, which are addressing challenges with a New Zealand focus and global impact. Professor Simpson’s research uses ultrafast laser pulses to probe molecules in the millions of billionths of seconds after absorbing light. She has developed this technique for micromachining and microfabrication and she has also spun out the technology to solve problems in New Zealand’s agricultural sector. These include being able to sort sperm by sex and assess the composition of milk for every cow at every milking. Read more on 2019 Pickering Medal.

Professor Don Cleland, Massey University, was awarded the Scott Medal by Royal Society Te Apārangi for making advances in the field of food refrigeration and heat pump technology. Professor Cleland has provided a suite of tools that allow accurate predictions for how a food will respond during processing, cool storage and transport. He has made advances in understanding how product shape affects rates of freezing, thawing, cooling and heating and the movement of water in and out of a food product during refrigeration. By prioritising sharing his findings, Professor Cleland’s research is leading to improved performance, energy efficiency and sustainability of food processing and refrigeration systems worldwide. Read more on 2019 Scott Medal.

We have one more chance, folks.

Early career research.

Dr Lee Streeter, University of Waikato, received the Cooper Award for making key advances in the theory and practice of time-of-flight imaging, a technique used in many industries to produce rapid 3D images of moving objects. Dr Streeter has developed numerous methods to reduce errors in this imaging technique and has even been able to use motion blur to determine both how far and how fast objects are moving, greatly extending the usefulness of this technique for industry. Read more on 2019 Cooper Award.

Dr Lisa Te Morenga (Ngāpuhi, Ngāti Whātua Ōrākei, Te Uri o Hau, Te Rarawa), Victoria University of Wellington, was awarded the Hamilton Award for providing irrefutable evidence that sugar in the diet contributes to weight gain. Dr Te Morenga’s breakthrough meta-analysis study, published in the British Medical Journal, clearly demonstrated a link between free sugars in the diet and the risk of excessive weight gain. The study found sugar increased weight by promoting excess energy consumption, not through metabolic effects. Based on this research, the World Health Organisation has updated its guidelines to limit free sugar in the diet and many countries have introduced new policies to reduce sugar consumption. Read more on the 2019 Hamilton Award.

Dr Bronwyn Wood, Victoria University of Wellington, received the Early Career Research Excellence Award for Social Sciences for her research on how today’s young people engage as citizens – especially in the school context. Dr Wood led a team that evaluated a NCEA initiative for personal social action within the social studies curriculum. This research showed that teachers could foster meaningful democratic engagement in their students through a hearts and minds approach. She has also researched youth citizenship in multicultural neighbourhoods, and advocates for lowering the voting age to 16 in New Zealand, alongside enhanced civics education in schools. Read more on 2019 ECR Research Excellence Award for Social Sciences.

Christian Offen, a PhD candidate at Massey University, was the winner of the Hatherton Award for his paper that outlines the development of a new framework to study a class of non-linear differential equations that have values at which the number of solutions changes. These equations can be used to model physical systems with tipping points or where effects lag behind causes. By using advanced geometry to describe these equations, followed by analysis with what is known as ‘catastrophe theory’, his framework has proven useful for the general situation and has allowed him to discover new features of this type of equation. Read more on 2019 Hatherton Award.

Dr Anne-Marie Jackson (Ngāti Whātua, Ngāpuhi, Ngāti Wai, Ngāti Kahu o Whangaroa, Te Roroa), University of Otago, received the Te Kōpūnui Māori Research Award for forging new knowledge at the interface of mātauranga Māori and the physical sciences. Dr Jackson studies how traditional connections with water and ocean can bring flourishing health. She is part of a team creating a water safety programme for Māori that seeks to strengthen whānau connections to water and reduce drownings. She is Co-founder of Te Koronga – a Māori postgraduate research excellence group focussed on ancestral scholarship and excellence, leadership and community connectedness—which is building a strong platform for Indigenous research at her university. Read more on 2019 Te Kōpūnui Māori Research Award.

Perhaps the economic importance of the agricultural and horticultural sectors – and the need to foster innovation in this sector – have been forgotten by those who decide the award winners.

AgScience can only lament that this is a shame.


Author: Bob Edlin

Editor of AgScience Magazine and Editor of the AgScience Blog

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