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Published 12 November 2020

2020 Research Honours Aotearoa winners celebrated at Te Puna o Waiwhetū Christchurch Art Gallery

The achievements and contributions of five innovators, kairangahau Māori, researchers and scholars were celebrated at Te Puna o Waiwhetū Christchurch Art Gallery this evening, the second of three 2020 Research Honours Aotearoa events to be held around the country by Royal Society Te Apārangi.

The Society’s oldest medal, the Hutton Medal, first awarded in 1911, was presented to Distinguished Professor Neil Gemmell, University of Otago, for fundamentally changing our understanding of animal ecology and evolution and driving the development of new approaches for conservation and management of the world’s rarest species. Using the latest molecular genetic and analytical approaches, Neil brings together multidisciplinary teams that are shedding light on long-time enigmas such as the evolutionary basis of mutations that affect only males but are passed on by the mother, sex change in fish and, recently, mapping the genome of our unique tuatara.

In accepting this award, Neil said he was proud to be part of that community that has provided deeper insight into Aotearoa New Zealand’s remarkable fauna, but that many challenges lie ahead.

“In particular, it is vital that we start to actively manage the impacts that climate change and other factors that, left unchecked, will result in a rapid deterioration in our natural systems.

“In order to understand the pace and scale of the ecological change we are witnessing, we first need to understand the natural diversity and complexity of the systems we seek to maintain and then have the capability to monitor how these change over time.

“Genetics, my particular area of expertise, has already emerged as an important part of the toolkit for documenting our natural systems, documenting ecological change, and for ameliorating the most pressing effects of the biodiversity crisis. However, as the technology increases in power and portability, while costs decrease, we will see genetics move from the lab to the seashore, riverside, roadside, and kitchen table.

“Harnessing this revolution in genomic capability with citizen science initiatives will democratise the process of scientific discovery, building a more informed society and future through which we understand, respect, engage and manage our natural systems for the benefit of all. I look forward to a future full of this renewed exploration, led by a team of 5 million, through which I hope we will gain a deeper appreciation for the wonderful complexity of our natural world and, in particular, what makes Aotearoa New Zealand special.” Read more on the 2020 Hutton Medal winner. 

The Humanities Aronui Medal for research or innovative work of outstanding merit in the humanities was awarded to Distinguished Professor Jack Copeland FRSNZ, University of Canterbury. Jack is a leading philosopher of artificial intelligence, computing and information technology, and a world-wide expert on Alan Turning. He has written six books on Turing—the British mathematician, cipher code breaker and computer visionary—with prize winning TV documentaries by the Arte/History Chanel and the BBC based on these books. His research in computing and philosophy includes a revisionary history of the computer, and a rewriting of the early history of computer graphics and music. He is also an expert on New Zealand philosopher of logic Arthur Prior (1914–1969), who is increasingly recognised as the greatest of all New Zealand philosophers. Read more on the 2020 Humanities Aronui Medal winner.

Professor Steven Ratuva, University of Canterbury, was awarded the Metge Medal for research excellence and building relationships in the social science research community. He is an authority on ethnicity, racism and affirmative action, with expertise in conflict and social protection. He is inspired by the desire to address inequality and improve the situation of humanity. He leads a number of projects, including the Palgrave project on global ethnicity, the largest ethnicity project in the world. Recognising the need for research to cross disciplinary and cultural boundaries, he has built networks of researchers, policy thinkers and knowledge makers nationally, regionally and globally, while striving to give marginalised scholars a voice at every opportunity. Read more on the 2020 Metge Medal winner.

The Hatherton Award for the best scientific paper in the physical sciences written as a PhD candidate in New Zealand was presented to Dr Georgia Grant, of GNS Science. Georgia has developed a break-through method for determining past sea level rise. By analysing marine geological sediment cores from Whanganui, she has been able to determine water depths during warm periods in the geological past, similar to those projected for the coming centuries. This confirms New Zealand could experience up to 25 metres of sea level rise—due to extensive melting of the Antarctic ice sheets. Published in the leading science journal Nature, her paper has been extremely well received, including gaining attention from the International Panel on Climate Change. Read more on the 2020 Hatherton Award winner.

The Te Kōpūnui Māori Research Award to recognise innovative Māori early career researchers with a promising trajectory was awarded to Dr Michael Stevens (Ngāi Tahu). Mike is one of a small group of Māori scholars who have moved out of university appointments and into iwi-centred positions in order to develop fresh perspectives on Indigenous histories.  He has brought the southern New Zealand Ngāi Tahu history to international attention, particularly the importance of seafaring and maritime mobility. His richly detailed publications emphasise the individual as well as the widest national and transnational context. Through his scholarship, he is shifting the boundaries of Indigenous historical research both inward to the person and outward to interactions across Oceania. Read more on Te Kōpūnui Māori Research Award winner.

Additional 2020 Research Honours Aotearoa awards will be presented on Wednesday 18 November in Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland.

Source: Royal Society Te Apārangi