Māori research wins big at awards

Social injustices that undermine Māori, and treating babies with brain injuries were among the diverse focus areas of six University of Auckland researchers who won top awards at the Royal Society of New Zealand Research Honours dinner on Tuesday night. 

Professor Peter Shepherd (Medical Sciences) won the Callaghan Medal for science communication, for developing activities to increase the understanding of science by the New Zealand public.

These include a programme to keep biology teachers, and their students, up to date with the latest developments in the life sciences and recognition of the impact of the Annual Queenstown Molecular Biology Research Week.

After realising how little the public understood about his own field, how obesity and type-2 diabetes develop, he set out to improve public understanding about science.

One of his initiatives has been to deliver high quality scientific information to secondary schools.

"In our rush to find better ways to communicate science we have sometimes undervalued the most obvious way of doing this, which is through schools.

"Continual upskilling and empowering of our science teachers and developing new school-based science programmes is something we haven’t done well in the past but is a really cost-effective way of getting more members of our communities to understand and buy in to the real benefits science offers our society.”

Professor Cris Shore (Social Sciences) was awarded the Mason Durie Medal for his contributions to political anthropology and the study of organisations, governance and power. He has pioneered the use of anthropological methods to study policy and institutions.

"I am a passionate believer in the value of anthropology and the social sciences for understanding the major social problems and political challenges that our world is facing today,” he said on receiving the award.

Professor Tracey McIntosh (Māori Studies and Pacific Studies) received the Te Rangi Hīroa Medal for advancing our understanding of enduring social injustices that undermine Māori wellbeing and inhibit social cohesion and meaningful cultural diversity in Aotearoa.

Clockwise, from top left: Alistair Gunn, Aroha Harris, Peter Shepherd, Tracey McIntosh, Cris Shore and Danny Osborne. Photos: Supplied by the University of Auckland

Her research focuses on how to correct the intergenerational transmission of social inequalities, how they pertain to Māori, and new indigenous knowledge and policies that work for Māori and the nation.

"I am honoured to accept this award that acknowledges the importance of Māori research that is centred in the margins and draws on the knowledge of communities to deliver solutions that are sustainable and transformative,” says McIntosh.

In 2016 Professor McIntosh appeared as expert witness at the Waitangi Tribunal Wai 2540 claim concerning the Crown’s alleged failure to meet its Treaty obligations to reduce reoffending among Māori.

Dr Aroha Harris (Humanities) was awarded the inaugural Royal Society Te Apārangi Early Career Researcher Award in Humanities for her substantial contributions to the award-winning Māori history, Tangata Whenua: An Illustrated History, which spans the entirety of Māori history. She was lead author of the section on sociocultural history of twentieth-century Māori.

“This award is a wonderful recognition of Māori history. I'm very proud,” says Harris who is currently on secondment at the Waitangi Tribunal.

Harris was appointed a member of the Waitangi Tribunal from 2008, she currently sits on the Te Rohe Potae (Wai 898) panel, which is investigating over 200 claims from Mokau in the south to Whaingaroa in the north. Her research-based teaching focuses on Māori policy and race relations, Māori historical methods including oral histories, and Māori perspectives of the past.

Danny Osborne (Psychology) received the inaugural Royal Society Te Apārangi Early Career Research Award in Social Sciences for his prolific research programme which has advanced understanding of the psychological barriers to collective action.

His research examines New Zealanders’ attitudes and shows that people’s basic needs for stability, beliefs about their collective ability to change the system, and culture-specific beliefs about past injustices all undermine collective action.

“Inequality and injustice around the world show no signs of abating and in fact it could be argued are actually on the rise,” Osborne says.

“So it’s increasingly important to understand why people do not engage in collective effort to address these issues.

“I’m delighted and honoured to receive this inaugural award and the support it provides for my work, helping increase understanding of how we might make the world a fairer a more equitable place.”

Professor Alistair Gunn (Medical Sciences) was awarded the Beaven Medal by the Health Research Council of New Zealand, for his pioneering use of mild cooling to treat babies with brain injuries at birth.

Gunn, Head of the Department of Physiology, was the first to show that even very delayed cooling could reduce brain injury in large animals around the time of birth, and to systematically work out how and when cooling needed to be applied to protect a newborn baby’s brain from damage.

“This award recognises the efforts not just of our team but also our many friends and collaborators in New Zealand and around the world, over several decades, to bring it from an interesting observation to everyday use,” said Professor Gunn.

“I’m particularly grateful to the families who let their babies take part in the first randomised trials at a time when deliberately cooling babies was still a radical suggestion, and for the generous and consistent support of the Health Research Council of New Zealand from the very start. Finally, I’d like to acknowledge the Auckland Medical Research Foundation who supported our first cooling machine.”

University of Auckland Deputy Vice-Chancellor Professor Jim Metson says the awards further demonstrate the quality and impact of research being carried out at the University.

“We congratulate our academics on this well-deserved recognition; we are proud of all their outstanding research and the contribution they are making to New Zealand and internationally.”

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