The 2020 Prime Minister’s Science Prize has been awarded to Te Pūnaha Matatini for our contribution to Aotearoa New Zealand’s COVID-19 response.

The Prime Minister’s Science Prize is awarded for transformative science which has had a significant economic, health, social or environmental impact.

Te Pūnaha Matatini are being recognised for our work that developed a series of mathematical models, analysed data and communicated the results to inform the New Zealand Government’s world-leading response to the global pandemic.

Te Pūnaha Matatini is a Centre of Research Excellence funded by the Tertiary Education Commission and hosted by the University of Auckland. Over the past six years, Te Pūnaha Matatini has grown from the kernel of an idea into a diverse national network of over a hundred investigators and students who are tackling the interconnected and deeply interdisciplinary challenges of our time. Our values, expertise and focus on communication made us uniquely positioned to grapple with the COVID-19 pandemic in Aotearoa New Zealand.

Te Pūnaha Matatini’s modelling was key in helping the government make good decisions about lockdowns, particularly in April and May when the need to relax Alert Levels arrived, and in August, when a tailored lockdown was used in Auckland to eliminate a large outbreak. These public health interventions have had an immense impact on New Zealanders’ lives, not the least of which was preventing a considerable number of deaths due to COVID-19 if the virus had been allowed to spread unimpeded.

“Even I underestimated the centrality of [science] advice for me, in this time in office, and just how important it would become to us as a government.” – Jacinda Ardern, Prime Minister of New Zealand

The team made sure their models served the health system by working with Orion Health data scientists to ensure information got to where it was needed. Orion Health works with healthcare sector clients to deploy and manage machine learning models, which meant they were able to offer their technology and processes to support the Te Pūnaha Matatini team.

Te Pūnaha Matatini’s work and related research from around the globe was actively communicated to the public throughout 2020, and several of Te Pūnaha Matatini’s researchers were the most prominent science communicators during the crisis.

“I want to thank the many, many, many people in this room who were a part in your own ways in either helping us generate the information we needed to make those decisions, or who helped us communicate those decisions when it mattered most.” – Jacinda Ardern, Prime Minister of New Zealand

The transdisciplinary team working on COVID-19 that received this award brought together researchers from the University of Auckland, University of Canterbury, Victoria University of Wellington, Manaaki Whenua Landcare Research, Market Economics, and Orion Health.

The COVID-19 programme at Te Pūnaha Matatini continues into 2021 with projects focusing on branching process models, complex network models, phylodynamics, and the spread of disinformation and misinformation.