By Sarah-Jane O'Connor 31/12/2020


In a fitting bookend to a year of science, over a dozen scientists and health experts have been distinguished in the New Year’s Honours.

Every year at New Year and Queen’s Birthday I scan the list of honours looking for familiar names from the research field, and I can’t think of a time so many scientists and other researchers were honoured.

The full list is here, and I’ve highlighted a select few below.

COVID-19 responders

There are lots of reasons why New Zealand’s COVID-19 response has succeeded, but the one I think we should be most proud of is that we listened to experts. Deservedly so, two of our most valued experts have been made members of the New Zealand Order of Merit.

Michael Baker – ONZM

Professor Michael Baker has been the expert face of the pandemic. I’ve been doing some work looking at which experts were being quoted in the NZ media on COVID-19 this year, and Michael is well above any other expert, behind official voices such as the Prime Minister and Dr Ashley Bloomfield.

He’s been commenting to the media since mid-January, when he featured in the Science Media Centre’s first round of expert commentary on the topic, and it seems it hasn’t stopped since. Early on, he was a vocal critic of the Government’s response, calling for stricter border measures, mask-wearing and lockdown. There’s no doubt in my mind that his evidence-led advocacy improved our response and helped lead to the situation today where we can all enjoy a normal summer holiday without fear of the virus.

According to Stuff, Professor Baker is now enjoying his own well earned holiday – let’s hope the media can survive a few days without asking for comment!

Shaun Hendy – ONZM

Way back during lockdown, I fielded a media query from a journalist looking for an expert to talk about contact tracing: I put them onto Professor Shaun Hendy. Later, that same journalist – Steve Kilgallon –  commented on a podcast that a physicist “wasn’t an obvious choice” but that Shaun turned out to be the best person to answer his questions.

That feels emblematic of the way Professor Hendy has turned his skills to be useful for New Zealand. This time last year, he was finishing up a book tour of #NoFly about his year of no flying. I suspect COVID-19 has scuttled any plans to catch up on international travel for Shaun, but also how timely to remind us of the problems with flying when we all had to stop unexpectedly.

Of course, the problem with these sorts of honours is they don’t recognise the collaborative nature of research. Michael’s Otago colleagues should be equally proud of their work this year, including Nick Wilson, Amanda Kvalsvig, David Murdoch, Miguel Quiñones-Mateu and many others. So too, Shaun’s Te Pūnaha Matatini colleagues who have helped with the modelling work and working to combat mis- and disinformation: Michael Plank and Alex James at the University of Canterbury, Kate Hannah and Andrew Sporle at the University of Auckland and the many others in the widespread collaborative team.

(In case you’re wondering, Siouxsie Wiles was made a member of the order of NZ last year).

Top women researchers become Dames

It was an absolute thrill this morning to see two women researchers become Dame Companions. We’re all aware of the ‘leaky pipeline’ issues in science and the historic lack of women is higher positions. To have two excellent researchers honoured today greatly boosts the number of Dames and continues their work paving the way for women in research.

Juliet Gerrard – DNZM

In her tenure so far, Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor Professor Juliet Gerrard has built up a network of chief science advisors across justice, education, health, environment and conservation, natural hazards, transport, statistics, social development and science policy. The team has reported on issues from literacy to plastics, family violence to cannabis: this year turning its attention to COVID-19.

Cynthia Kiro – DNZM

In-coming Royal Society Te Apārangi Ahorangi Chief Executive Cindy Kiro (Ngāpuhi, Ngāti Kahu, Ngāti Hine) will shortly be leaving her role with the University of Auckland where she is Pro-Vice Chancellor (Māori) and lead a formal te reo Māori policy and committing the University to a Te Tiriti policy.

Stephen Chambers – CNZM

One of our leading researchers on infectious diseases, Professor Stephen Chambers spent more than a decade as the only infectious diseases physician in the South Island. He established and led the Infectious Diseases Department at Christchurch Hospital in 1987 and has since trained many of the country’s infectious disease specialists.

Philippa Howden-Chapman – CNZM

Distinguished Professor Philippa Howden-Chapman is the leading voice in New Zealand on the need for healthy housing. Her tireless work has helped inform government standards for rental homes and she continues to drive debate on the topic. She co-directs He Kāinga Oranga, which in 2014 was recognised with the Prime Minister’s Science Prize.

Bronwyn Hayward – ONZM

Political scientist Professor Bronwyn Hayward is internationally regarded for her work on sustainability and youth politics. She was a lead author on the IPCC’s special report Global Warming of 1.5 ºC and author of Sea Change. Her calm head and kind heart serve us well in our journey to a more sustainable future.

Colin Meurk – ONZM

Colin is an institute among ecologists: his ‘Meurky Walk’ has become the Christchurch 360 trail, encircling the city and showcases the city’s diverse ecology and culture. He was also instrumental in gaining reserve status for Travis Wetland and is the founding Chair of iNaturalist New Zealand – the country’s largest citizen science network.

Geoffrey Rice – ONZM

It seems only fitting in the year of the pandemic that Professor Geoffrey Rice – author of Black November and pre-eminent scholar about the 1918 influenza pandemic – has been honoured.

Congratulations to all those honoured today – check out the full list for the many other names I haven’t been able to cover here.

Featured image: Nagatoshi Shimamura on Unsplash