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‘Dunedin Study’ makes it three PM’s Science Prizes for University

Tuesday, 21 March 2017 10:36am

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Dunedin Multidisciplinary Health and Development Research Unit Director Professor Richie Poulton (left), Prime Minister Bill English and Otago Vice-Chancellor Professor Harlene Hayne at the awards ceremony this afternoon.

Members of the 45-year-old University of Otago-led study which has changed and saved lives around the world have this afternoon picked up New Zealand’s most valuable science prize.

The 2016 Prime Minister’s Science Prize has been awarded to the Dunedin Multidisciplinary Health and Development Research Unit (DMHDRU), which has been engaged in what is more popularly known as the “Dunedin Study” since 1972-73.

The $500,000 award was presented to Unit Director Professor Richie Poulton in Wellington by Prime Minister Bill English.

The accolade comes just a week or so before the study’s most detailed assessment phase so far begins.

Professor Poulton says study members will soon be flying back into Dunedin for assessments that start on 3 April.

Associate Director Professor Terrie Moffitt of Duke University in the United States has also arrived back in Dunedin for the next assessment round.

"Receiving the prize is a watershed moment, really. This is going to be lovely for study members to be part of."

Earlier this month, Vice-Chancellor Professor Harlene Hayne presented study members with the University of Otago’s 2016 Research Group Award, only the second time it has been made. The award recognised the efforts of all the researchers, support staff and participants, and was made for the study’s outstanding record of publication and its impacts on society in New Zealand and overseas.

University researchers have won the Prime Minister’s Science Prize twice before.

In 2014, it was presented to the He Kainga Oranga/Housing and Health Research Programme, led by Professor Philippa Howden-Chapman, for their work into nationwide housing deficiencies, especially affecting children, the elderly and those with chronic health problems. In 2011, scientists from the University and the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research received the top prize for climate-change mitigation research. The nine-member team, under the auspices of the Centre for Chemical and Physical Oceanography and based in the Department of Chemistry, were led by Professor Philip Boyd.

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Members of the Dunedin Multidisciplinary Health and Development Research Unit team with the Prime Minister this afternoon.

Professor Poulton says the PM’s award “will be a lovely way of starting this next assessment phase”.

“Receiving the prize is a watershed moment, really. This is going to be lovely for study members to be part of.

“This assessment will last for 20-22 months, with individuals being brought back from wherever they are in the world. About 25 percent live overseas, so doing that is a major logistical undertaking.

“This will be the biggest, most complex, most detailed assessment phase ever, by quite some margin.

“It will involve a number of new components, including neuroimaging, hearing, vision, kidney function, musculoskeletal function, as well as everything we have done in the past – everything that is age appropriate, where there is wear and tear on our study members’ bodies.

"There’s a familiarity when we see people returning for assessment, but there’s a privacy we respect as well. Study members regard this as a place of safety and respect."

“Vision and hearing testing will pick up and build on measures taken during childhood from the last 30 years.”

The “Dunedin Study” is the most detailed of its kind in the world. Hundreds of international studies with significant societal impact have come from assessments of a cohort of 1037 children born at Queen Mary Maternity Hospital in 1972-73. There are still 961 study members participating, representing 95 per cent of those still alive. Thirty-eight have died.

About 55 percent live in the South Island, 30 percent of those still in Dunedin, with about 20 percent in the North Island, 15 percent in Australia and about 10 percent in the Northern Hemisphere.

Professor Poulton says the researchers are gearing up to use new high-tech equipment for new investigations.

“All the new equipment is here. We have a soundproof room, very sophisticated equipment, worth hundreds of thousands [of dollars].

“Each person will spend one to one-and-a-half full assessment days here. For those who’ve come from the Northern Hemisphere, we put them in accommodation for up to four days.

“The last assessment was when they were 38, in 2010-11. They have been carried out every six years since age 26, that’s a slightly longer cycle than earlier and it will now be every six to seven years for the foreseeable future.

“They used to be more regular in childhood – every two years – because there were more changes to monitor and study when the group was younger. But now they’re in mid-life, we don’t want to bother people unnecessarily.

“There’s a familiarity when we see people returning for assessment, but there’s a privacy we respect as well. Study members regard this as a place of safety and respect.”

Professor Poulton was a 22-year-old psychology student when he first became involved with the study that he has now directed since 2000.

Watch Professor Richie Poulton discuss the Dunedin Study and the Prime Minister's Award.