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Prime Minister’s Science Prizes doled out in praise of climate change, eyes and earthquakes

The Prime Minister’s Science Prizes, which deal in both glory and cold hard cash from a pool of $1 million, have been presented in Auckland today.

Dr Evelyn Armstrong (NIWA Research Unit), Dr Robert Strzepek (postdoctoral fellow, Department of Chemistry, University of Otago), Dr Cliff Law (Principal Scientist, NIWA), Professor Philip Boyd (Director, Centre of Chemical and Physical Oceanography, NIWA)[holding the prize], Dr Kim Currie (NIWA Research Unit),  Associate Professor Russell Frew (Department of Chemistry, University of Otago), The Prime Minister, Dr Rob Murdoch (General Manager, Research, NIWA), Professor Keith Hunter (Pro-Vice Chancellor Sciences, University of Otago), and Dr Sylvia Sander (Department of Chemistry, University of Otago),

The Prime Minister’s Science Prizes, which deal in both glory and cold hard cash from a pool of $1 million, have been presented in Auckland today.

The top prize, worth $500,000, went to a team of scientists from NIWA (National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research) and the University of Otago for research that is helping to guide international decisions on mitigating climate change.

Professor Philip Boyd leads the winning nine-member team, which comes under the umbrella of the Centre for Chemical & Physical Oceanography based at the Department of Chemistry at the University of Otago.

The team investigated the role the ocean plays in influencing climate and used its findings to position New Zealand as a leader in the debate about whether manipulating the oceans to remove carbon dioxide emissions from the air – a form of geo-engineering – could mitigate or help solve global warming. 

Boyd says the findings commanded considerable international attention, having been published in international peer-reviewed journals and feeding into international conferences and government decision-making.

“Although we proved that increasing iron supply does increase the ocean’s ability to remove CO2, the increase was not as much as we thought, would be very costly, and is fraught with complex side effects including the release of other more potent greenhouse gases.

“Around the world, there is a growing lobby, which includes influential people like Bill Gates, for using geo-engineering to claw back some of the carbon dioxide humans are emitting. Our research has shown that adding iron to the ocean is not going to be an effective way to do that.”

This is particularly relevant for New Zealand, says Boyd, given its proximity to the Southern Ocean, one of the prime areas of “real estate” that has been considered for ocean-based engineering.

The group plans to use the cash for ongoing research to help establish a state-of-the-art culture facility at the NIWA/Otago Centre where scientists can study Southern Ocean phytoplankton.

The MacDiarmid Emerging Scientist Prize went to Victoria University of Wellington scientist, Dr Rob McKay, based at Victoria’s Antarctic Research Centre. His work is contributing to understanding what past environmental change in the Antarctic means for the current phase of global warming. Dr McKay receives $200,000, with $150,000 to be used for further research.

The 2011 Science Teacher Prize was been presented to Dr Angela Sharples, Head of Biology at Rotorua Boys’ High School. Dr Sharples receives $50,000 and Rotorua Boys High School receives $100,000. Dr Sharples has reversed a decline in the number of students studying biology at the school and significantly improved results in excellence grades and in the grades of Maori students.

The 2011 Future Scientist Prize went to Nuan-Ting (Nina) Huang, a Year 13 student at Auckland Diocesan School for Girls. Called “Eye Think”, Nina’s investigated the effects of high level concentration on pupil size and whether different activities could result in the early development of short sightedness. Nina wins a scholarship worth $50,000 to help pay for her tertiary studies.

The 2011 Science Media Communication Prize has been presented to Dr Mark Quigley, a Senior Lecturer at the University of Canterbury, who has been at the forefront of communication about the causes and effects of the Canterbury earthquakes. He has delievered over 40 lectures on the Christchurch quakes and has been interviewed frequently on radio and television. His website has attracted over 130,000 hits. He receives $50,000 with another $50,000 allocated for further developing his science media communication skills.

Presented annually, the Prime Minister’s Science Awards are New Zealand’s most valuable science awards and were introduced to raise the profile and prestige of science.