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Otago housing and health researchers win Prime Minister’s Science Prize

Wellington campus

Tuesday 2 December 2014 4:32pm

Philippa Howden-Chapman
Professor Howden-Chapman

The internationally acclaimed housing and health research team at the University of Otago, Wellington, has won the 2014 Prime Minister’s Science Prize, valued at $500,000.

The 28-member He Kainga Oranga/Housing and Health Research Programme’s research over more than 15 years has involved thousands of New Zealanders and informed policy developments for successive New Zealand governments.

The Programme is led by Professor Philippa Howden-Chapman from the University of Otago, Wellington, who is the first woman research leader and first social scientist to receive the prestigious award.

Professor Howden-Chapman’s five co-directors are Professors Michael Baker and Julian Crane from the University of Otago, Professors Chris Cunningham and Robyn Phipps from Massey University and Dr Malcolm Cunningham formerly from BRANZ. The team is made up of researchers in the areas of social science, epidemiology, biostatistics, engineering, physics, architecture, building science, and economics.

University of Otago Vice-Chancellor Professor Harlene Hayne warmly congratulated the team on winning the Prime Minister’s Science Prize, noting that Otago researchers have now taken the prize twice since it was inaugurated in 2009.

“This prestigious prize recognises transformational science that has had a significant impact on New Zealand or internationally. Philippa Howden-Chapman and her team have most certainly achieved this impact by demonstrating the major health, social and economic benefits that accrue from improving the condition of people’s homes.”

The team has worked nationwide to address long-standing quality deficiencies in housing, particularly as they affect vulnerable groups such as children, older people, and those with chronic health conditions including asthma.

Through large-scale community trials, involving around 10,000 New Zealanders, the team has tested, quantified and demonstrated the effectiveness of initiatives such as retrofitting insulation to modern standards, installing effective and non-polluting heating, and remediating injury hazards in homes.

One example is the team’s collaborative work in evaluating the Warm-Up New Zealand: Heat Smart Programme, which was based on the robust evidence from two of its earlier randomised community studies. This research showed that insulation and/or heating retrofits led to significant reductions in hospitalisations, the amount of medication required, energy consumption, and premature mortality of people aged 65 and over. A conservative estimate of the programme’s net benefit has been shown to be around $950 million.

Another example is the team’s work over a decade, monitoring reductions in hospitalisation rates when low-income families move from being private sector tenants to renting a state house.

Professor Howden-Chapman says she was motivated to establish the team by concern about growing inequality in New Zealand and the desire to do something practical to improve the health and wellbeing of New Zealanders.

“There’s been a long-standing assumption that all New Zealanders would own their own house but a lot of people now live in rental housing. I wanted to provide evidence to support the premise that everyone should have the right to warm, dry, safe housing regardless of whether they own or rent.”

In 2009, Professor Howden-Chapman was invited to chair the World Health Organization’s (WHO) Housing and Health Guidelines Development Group. She also works closely with the International Energy Agency (IEA) on the co-benefits of improving energy efficiency in housing.

Dr Carlos Dora, Coordinator of the WHO’s Department of Public Health and Environment says Professor Howden-Chapman and her team are global leaders in the area of effective healthy housing intervention and a source of evidence and inspiration for healthy built environments.

“We cherish their work and look forward to New Zealand’s continuing cutting edge scientific insights that allow us to build a healthier and more equitable future,” he says.

Nina Campbell, leader of the IEA’s multiple benefits study, says the team’s work has positioned New Zealand as a front runner in policy innovation. “Philippa’s work stood out as one of the most analytically robust and politically compelling pieces among the huge range of studies we reviewed. These findings have attracted keen interest from policy makers in IEA countries.”

Professor Howden-Chapman attributes the team’s success to the robust design of its research and a commitment to working in partnership with communities.

“I feel very proud of what our team’s been able to do. We’ve gone on a long journey together—many of the team have been involved from the beginning and that’s because they find it very rewarding to be doing research that directly improves people’s lives.

“Our team feels very honoured to have won the Prime Minister’s Science Prize. It’s a fulsome acknowledgement of the work we’ve done over a decade and a half and recognition to all those people who’ve been involved in citizen science, helping us collect data winter after winter, to understand and deal with a really serious problem for New Zealand.”

The team will use $400,000 of the prize money to carry out a community trial on the impact of improving housing on new born infants.

The 2014 Prime Minister’s Science Prizes were presented to winners on Tuesday 2 December at the Museum of New Zealand, Te Papa Tongarewa in Wellington.

The work of Otago’s Dr Karl Iremonger, which includes discovering a new brain cell structure and communication system, was also recognised through being awarded the MacDiarmid Emerging Scientist Prize at the same ceremony.

Watch Professor Howden-Chapman discussing the team’s work on YouTube.

For more information, contact:

Professor Philippa Howden-Chapman
He Kainga Oranga/ Housing and Health Programme
Department of Public Health
University of Otago, Wellington
Email philippa.howden-chapman@otago.ac.nz

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