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2023 Thomson Medal: Bold leadership for equity in the RSI system

Professor Nicola Gaston has been awarded the Thomson Medal by Royal Society Te Apārangi for transformative leadership for the research, science and innovation sector and as a ‘driver of change’ towards equity for women in science.

Nicola is a Professor of Physics at the University of Auckland, where her research focuses on computational simulations of nanostructured systems. She is also Co-Director of the MacDiarmid Institute for Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology, a Centre of Research Excellence.

Over the last decade Nicola has provided significant, transformative leadership to research institutes and societies in Aotearoa New Zealand. This includes her roles as President of the New Zealand Association of Scientists and Co-Director of the MacDiarmid Institute, and her work as a ‘driver for change’ to increase equity for women in science, particularly through publishing her book, Why Science is Sexist.

As President of the New Zealand Association of Scientists, she navigated a positive course for the science community during a time of critical challenges. These changes included establishment of the National Science Challenges, creation of Callaghan Innovation, disestablishment of Industrial Research Ltd, and incorporation of the Ministry for Science and Innovation into the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment.

Another challenge which Nicola remembers was the proposal for the Code of Public Engagement for scientists and researchers. The aim was to show what good public communication about science could look like.

“But the problem I always had was that it was framed as being about scientists saying the wrong things, stepping outside of their expertise, and that that was undermining public trust in science.

“I think it's far more valuable to have 12 scientists say more or less the same thing, but then maybe disagreeing on small details, than it is to have one person as the mouthpiece for a scientific discipline.”

Her advocacy resulted in the code being transformed into guidelines that seek to support scientists rather than restrict them from speaking out on matters of public importance.

Her book ‘Why Science is Sexist’ published in 2015 as part of the Bridget Williams Books Texts series has had a wide readership, and has led to Nicola being invited to speak internationally on equity for women in science.

The trigger for writing the book was being asked: “Nicola, why aren’t there more women in science?”

“I wrote the book because I really wanted to understand the problem from first principles. That’s how I’m trained as a scientist.

“So why is science sexist? Well, science is sexist because we’re people who do science. And unfortunately, we make sexist and other kinds of biased judgements all the time,” Nicola explains.

As Co-Director of the MacDiarmid Institute for Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology, Nicola was responsible, with her Co-Director (Professor Justin Hodgkiss), for developing the successful fourth re-bid for funding for the Institute – an outcome that had not seemed overly likely to many.  “They transformed the focus to a very powerful and socially resonant one of sustainability. They drove the alignment of the research themes, sometimes making quite difficult strategic decisions to not support previously supported areas,” says a referee.

Nicola says that shifting the focus to sustainability in materials science and nanotechnology reflected the interests and key motivations of the scientists and researchers who are part of the institute.

“I’ve always thought that materials science is inherently related to sustainability, perhaps for the simple reason that we have a finite number of all the elements in the periodic table on this planet... so we wrote the plan to bring the expertise of the people involved in the institute together in as strongly collaborative ways as possible to create the most impact.”

Before Nicola and Justin proposed the Co-leadership model for the MacDiarmid Institute, Nicola had worked with Justin for a long time, and they had both been Deputy Directors of the institute.

When they both receive the same question by email, they often respond at the same time with the same response.  “It’s funny, but it’s not some sort of spooky action at a distance, it’s not quantum entanglement, but simply that we talk a lot about our priorities – about how things should run. We try to ensure a high degree of transparency operationally. And so, often, when we get a question, it’s very clear what the answer is.”

According to her nominator, Nicola “shows critical wisdom in her choice of battles, tenacious boldness in speaking truth to power, and a driving ambition for equity and excellence across the whole of the New Zealand science sector to make New Zealand better for everyone”.

A referee agrees: “Professor Gaston is not only an eminent scientist but she is also a skilful scientific leader who has demonstrated an aptitude for contributing to big-picture issues. She has the ability to communicate her aspirations to an often disparate group of stakeholders, uniting them and leading them to a position in which the institution she leads is truly representative of all of its parts.”

Nicola says she is deeply humbled to have been nominated for this award. “I have always – apart from a few occasions when I have felt it my duty to take aim at the gender balance of the Nobel Prizes – really loved award ceremonies within the research community. It matters that we celebrate what we most care about – I’m a big fan of positive feedback loops when used for good!”

“That said, I do not feel that this is an award for me so much as an award for scientific community. I am very grateful to the members of the Council of the NZ Association of Scientists who taught me so much during my tenure as President; to those who supported me in writing Why Science Is Sexist; and to the wonderful folk at the MacDiarmid Institute it has been my privilege to work with.”

“I’d like to particularly thank Justin Hodgkiss, my partner-in-crime as Co-Director of the MacDiarmid Institute for the last five years. I have a very long list of things to thank him for, but we have honestly gotten so good at finishing each others’ sentences that I will just say ‘Thank you, e hoa, for …’ and leave the rest to him to fill in.”


Thomson Medal:
The Thomson Medal is awarded annually for outstanding contributions to the organisation, support, and application of science, technology, or the humanities. 

For providing transformative leadership to research institutes and societies in New Zealand and as a driver of change towards equity for women in science.