Kate's Blog

Royal Society of New Zealand Honours Dinner

Royal Society of New Zealand Honours Dinner

“Without those conversations, we couldn’t have done this research.” Amidst the sparkle and reflection of a Langham ballroom bedecked for a research honours dinner that celebrated International Year of Light, Professor Edwin Mitchell, reflecting on receiving the Beaven Award Medal from the Health Research Council. Recognised for a career dedicated to discovering the causes of sudden infant death syndrome, and to developing public health interventions to prevent infant death, he spoke quietly of the gift he and his colleagues are given by grieving families – the gift of their story, their medical history, their family’s grief and trauma. “Their contribution enabled us to save babies’ lives.”

Last night featured many a reference to the contribution of communities, the partnership that exists between science and the society it serves. Associate Professor Ruth Fitzgerald, winner of the Te Rangi Hiroa Medal for her work in the field of medical anthropology was cited for the immense importance she places on the relationship between researcher and subject, on the balance between investigation and privacy, the critical tipping point of needing to know versus the need to tell one’s own story.

We at the Te Pūnaha Matatini table were delighted to share with the celebrations of this year’s medallists, particularly the outstanding selection of investigator Dr Michelle Dickinson as the 2015 Callaghan Medal recipient. There may have been a standing ovation from table 19 as Michelle went up to receive her award! Michelle too, spoke of the connection between the work she does with children, families, and communities, and her research, thanking her head of department for appreciating the value of public engagement and science communication.

There was a sense of contentment too, at the prevalence of awards for people who are deeply concerned with the impact of their research within communities, the need for partnership, collective approaches, and teamwork. Professor Margaret Mutu, awarded the Pou Aronui Medal for her contributions to indigenous scholarship in New Zealand, thanked the University of Auckland for its support of her, even when she’s enacting her role as critic and conscience – a acknowledgement of the importance of our own, scientific or research community.

It was a time for our community to celebrate some changes too – why? As Justin Trudeau might say, “because it’s 2015.” Of the fifteen people celebrated last night – eleven Royal Society of New Zealand medallists, two Health Research Council medallists, two Gold Crest Award winners – five were women. Professor Margaret Hyland, who was awarded the Pickering Medal for her work to reduce fluoride emissions from the aluminium industry, was the first woman to ever win that particular medal. There was a sense of more women present too, in the people asked to present awards, and the citation videos and the celebration of twenty five years of the HRC. Also new – Professor Michael Walker welcomed us in te reo Māori, and his mihimihi was followed by Society President Professor Richard Bedford also speaking at length in Te Reo.

A night, then, of light, and a collection of important words: team, collaboration, community, sharing, support. Society Chief Executive Dr Andrew Cleland alluded to the need for the Royal Society to remain relevant, to reflect the values of the scientific community, and where necessary to take leadership in modelling those values. It felt, last night, like a beginning.

A prize of one’s own


In 1947 Elizabeth Joan Batham made New Zealand science history when she became the first woman to win a Royal Society of New Zealand prize, medal, or award.[i] When she was named the 1947 recipient of the Hamilton Memorial Prize “for the encouragement of an early career researcher currently based in New Zealand for scientific or technological research in New Zealand”, that prize, named after Augustus Hamilton, the 1909-1910 President of the Society, had been running for 24 years.

The first award established by the Society, in 1911, the Hutton Medal for earth, plant, and animal sciences (named for Captain FW Hutton FRS, 1836-1905, who was the first President, 1904-05) is now awarded annually, rotating through the disciplines, but between 1911- 1995 was awarded every three years. More medals and awards were established over the next 104 years, so that in 2015 we now have 12 annual awards and another 9 awards biennially, triennially, or irregularly.

Back to Betty Batham. She was responsible for the redevelopment of what is now the Portobello Marine Biological Station, University of Otago, which during her tenure (1950-1974) gained “an international reputation, although for many years it was little involved in routine teaching and research activities of the university,”[ii] which seems to be her successor, John Jillet’s careful way of summarising the sexism Batham faced.[iii]

For her efforts, she was made a Fellow of the Royal Society of New Zealand in 1962, and the Department of Marine Science at the University of Otago set up a prize in her name in 2004. The deep-sea vessel at Portobello that provides visitors with a virtual benthic (sea-floor) experience is called the DSV Batham.[iv]

Betty Batham in the laboratory, 1962

The next woman to win a Royal Society of New Zealand prize was Lucy Cranwell Smith, awarded the Hector Medal in 1954:

Lucy Cranwell Smith, citation for Hector Medal


The Hector Medal’s citation is currently “for outstanding work in chemical, physical, or mathematical and information sciences … awarded annually in rotation among the disciplines.”[vi] It was previously broader: “for plant sciences, chemical sciences, human sciences, solid earth sciences, mathematical physical and engineering sciences, and animal sciences”.[vii]

Lucy Cranwell Smith, who went on to have a highly successful career in palynology at the University of Arizona, was the first woman to win the Hector Medal. It has been won by 2 other women in the subsequent half century. Dame Patricia Bergquist, the eminent zoologist and anatomist, was awarded the Hector Medal in 1989 for her work on invertebrate anatomy, and was made a Dame in 1994 for her contribution to science. In 2012, Margaret Brimble was the Hector Medal recipient, for “excellence in chemical sciences.”[viii]

The Hector Medal, named for Sir James Hector, is the second oldest of the Royal Society of New Zealand’s medals – it was first awarded in 1912, and since then, has been awarded to 99 men, and 3 women. The oldest award – the Hutton Medal established in 1911 – has been awarded to 41 men and 2 women in its over 100-year history. The Humanities Aronui Medal (2011), Mason Durie Medal (2012), Pickering Medal (2004), Thomson Medal (1985), Cooper Medal (1958), R.J. Scott Medal (1997), Hercus Medal (1997), and the T.K.Sidey Medal (1933) have all never been awarded to a woman.

Dion O’Neale, July 2015


Six of the male Hector Medal winners now have other Royal Society awards or prizes named after them: Leonard Cockayne, the 1912 winner, and Lucy Cranwell Smith’s mentor, for whom the Leonard Cockayne Memorial Lecture Series Award was named; Ernest Rutherford, 1916 winner, the Rutherford Medal. Peter Buck (Te Rangi Hiroa) was awarded the Hector Medal in 1932, and since 1997 the Te Rangi Hiroa Medal has been presented for outstanding work in the social sciences; Charles Fleming received the Hector Medal in 1963 – and the Royal Society’s Fleming Award was inaugurated in 1989; Trevor Hatherton, for whom the Hatherton Award is named, won the Hector Medal in 1981; in 1998, Paul Callaghan, in whose name the Callaghan Medal for Science Communication was commissioned, was awarded the Hector Medal.

Women do have a prize of their own, of a sort – or at least one of the 21 prizes and awards is named after a woman. The Dame Joan Metge Medal, commissioned in 2008, celebrates outstanding contributions in the social sciences, and has been won by women 3 out of the 4 times it has been awarded. However, this success rate for women does not reflect the prizes and awards presented by New Zealand’s preeminent science and research organisation accurately. Over the last 104 years, only 10% of all prizes have been awarded to women; with most success coming in the early career award – the Hamilton Memorial Medal, which women have won 11 times since 1923. Of the 19 prizes that are named after a person, just one of them is named after a woman, and 8 of the 21 available prizes and awards have NEVER been awarded to a woman.

Higher percentages of women have won the Dame Joan Metge Medal (75%) and the Pou Aronui Award (28%), and the Te Rangi Hiroa Medal (75%), but these prizes are in the humanities and social sciences, discipline areas generally perceived to have better representation of women – but as the May 2015 update to the Athena SWAN Charter notes:

We commit to addressing unequal gender representation across academic disciplines and professional and support functions. In this we recognise disciplinary differences including:

  • the relative underrepresentation of women in senior roles in arts, humanities, social sciences, business and law (AHSSBL)[x]

Placed in the context of the relative underrepresentation of women in senior academic roles in humanities and social sciences, that no woman has ever won the Humanities Aronui Medal – for work of outstanding merit in the humanities, or the Mason Durie Medal– “awarded annually to the nation’s preemminent social scientist”[xi] is contextualised within a gap between the perceived relative equity in the humanities and social sciences, and the actual numbers of women in senior roles across those discipline areas.

It’s not hard to see that we have a problem. 8% women prizewinners doesn’t reflect the gender breakdown in society as a whole, but neither does it reflect the breakdown in science. Looking at a couple of individual prizes helps highlight that. Many would not be surprised that the Pickering Medal, technology medal for excellence, has never been awarded to a woman. But neither has the Sir Charles Hercus Medal, for excellence in molecular and cellular sciences, biomedical science or clinical science and public health– fields that many women have made an enormous contribution to.

Things have been getting better – more women are winning more prizes now than ever before. Since 1999 there has been at least 1 female prizewinner per year, a total of 25 prizes to 23 women in 15 years.[xii] Of those, however, 9 have been the Hamilton Memorial Prize (early career) or the Hatherton Award (best paper by a PhD student). That’s still only 16 senior prizes going to 14 women. One swallow does not make a summer, and all that. There’s still those 8 prizes that have never been awarded to a woman, and the T.K Sidey Medal’s been going since 1933. Many outstanding women – some of whom I have named here – have won a singular prize, and then gone on to great careers but, unlike their male counterparts, there’s no prize named for them.

In the UK, WISE – a campaign to promote women in science, technology, and engineering released a summary report in November 2014, “Not for people like me?” under-represented groups in science, technology, and engineering; this coincided with the Nielsen Report on Public Attitudes Towards Science and Technology, commissioned by New Zealand’s Ministry of Business, Innovation, and Employment as part of The Nation of Curious Minds/Science and Society Project.

The WISE report states:

Girls … need to resolve the conflict between self-identity and STEM identity in order to see STEM as offering careers ‘for people like me’[xiii]

 The Nielsen Report summarises public attitudes towards science and technology with the creation of 5 personas[xiv], representations of different segments of society:

Nielsen Report On Public Attitudes Towards Science and Technology, October 2014

You’ll note that while 3 of these personas are female, both segments of society with the most negative attitude towards science and technology are classified as female; in fact Nielsen go on to say:

In order to lift public engagement with science and technology we suggest that MBIE target the Optimistic Oliver and Penelope Public segments…we believe the Anxious Annie and especially the Negative Nellie group will be more difficult targets to convince[xv]

 From those people we, as a scientific community, choose to honour and recognise with medals and awards, through the names given to those prizes, to the names selected to categorise segments of society when discussing public engagement with science, we seem to be saying to young women and girls “not for people like you.”





[i] What is now called the Royal Society of New Zealand was established as the New Zealand Institute in 1867, and renamed the Royal Society of New Zealand in 1933. For the purposes of clarity, this paper will refer to the Royal Society of New Zealand for both.

[ii] Jillet, John. ‘Batham, Elizabeth Joan,’ from The Dictionary of New Zealand Biography. Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, updated 4 June 2013



[iv] Betty Batham, in the laboratory, 1962 http://www.teara.govt.nz/en/photograph/36056/in-the-laboratory-1962

[v] Transactions and Proceedings of the Royal Society of New Zealand, 1868-1961, vo. 82, 1954-1955, National Library of New Zealand. http://rsnz.natlib.govt.nz/volume/rsnz_82/rsnz_82_03_005740.html

[vi]Hector Medal citation, http://www.royalsociety.org.nz/programmes/awards/hector-medal/

[vii] Background to the Hector Medal, Royal Society of New Zealand, http://www.royalsociety.org.nz/programmes/awards/hector-medal/background/

[viii] Margaret Brimble, Hector Medal citation, 2012, http://www.royalsociety.org.nz/programmes/awards/hector-medal/recipients/

[ix] O’Neale, Dion. RSNZ Awards Visualisation http://bl.ocks.org/droneale/c3c4ea9f48b67722833d

[x] The Athena SWAN Charter, http://www.ecu.ac.uk/equality-charters/athena-swan/about-athena-swan/

[xi] Mason Durie Medal citation, http://www.royalsociety.org.nz/programmes/awards/mason-durie-medal/

[xii] In 2012, Professor Margaret Brimble won three prizes – the Hector, MacDiarmid, and Rutherford Medals.

[xiii] MacDonald, Averil. “Not for people like me?” Under-represented groups in science, technology and engineering, WISE, November 2014, p. 6 https://www.wisecampaign.org.uk/uploads/wise/files/not_for_people_like_me.pdf

[xiv] Report on Public Attitudes towards Science and Technology, Nielsen, MBIE, November 2014, p. 11 http://www.msi.govt.nz/assets/MSI/Update-me/Science-in-society-project/report-on-public-attitudes-towards-science-and-technology.pdf

[xv] ibid, p. 13

Ways to Change the World – Thoughts on a Panel at the Auckland Writers’ Festival

Ways to Change the World – Thoughts on a Panel at the Auckland Writers’ Festival

by Kate Hannah

Change, always present, is now, more than ever, the dominating feature of life on earth. This is how Phil Ball, the eminent science writer and former editor of Nature, described the world when asked by panel chair Jesse Mulligan what we’re doing right. “It’s more complex, more interconnected, more co-dependent than we’d ever imagined.” This increase in complexity – what Ball calls the shift from “the century of the molecule to the century of the system”- has resulted in a critical challenge to the tools and structures designed to deal with reductionism – the century of the molecule.

Ball had been asked to start with what we’re doing right; he responded with a reference to the last section of The Bone Clocks, by fellow Auckland Writers’ Festival attendee, David Mitchell, which describes an anthropogenic apocalyptic future, in which climate change has wrought severe environmental, social, and economic impacts. A future in which the very nature of the human condition, human society has been irrevocably changed. “I know that’s not what we’re doing right, but it’s an example of how science and technology both solves and creates problems.”

Fellow panellist, the surgeon and science writer Atul Gawande, expanded on this idea of increased complexity, describing how Gorovitz and MacIntyre had summarised human fallibility in 1975 as being caused by either ignorance (“the limitations of the present state of natural science”) or ineptitude (“from the wilfulness of negligence of the natural scientist.”) Gawande sees the state of the world now as related to ineptitude – a systemic failure to apply knowledge correctly, creating a what he describes as “complexities of inequity” in which things like life expectancy, infant mortality, female education levels, vary greatly between countries and within socio-economic and/or ethnic groups within countries.

Chinese journalist in exile, Xinran, whose radio interviews and books focusing on women in rural China provide a window into the complexities of inequity Gawande describes echoes the rate of change as a key contributing factor to the status quo. China, which has travelled from pre-industrial to post- industrial in three generations, calls into question the very notion of human happiness or wellbeing as the overarching goal of human society. Xinran’s China is a country in which there is a 200-year gap between the industrialised cities and the rural countryside, one in which the pinnacle of human happiness for a woman is to bear a son. There’s a cold draft that fills the ASB Theatre when Xinran talks about the 30 million missing Chinese daughters, a gap made since the introduction of the one child policy.

For Xinran, discourse moves between what is real and what is imagined – she evokes the I Ching as a text that described, well before we had scientific language to reveal it, the intersection of place and time, the code (DNA) embedded within everything. This notion of describing the human condition in multiple languages lies at the heart of ways to change the world. Charlotte Grimshaw, the novelist and short story writer, notes that both Ball and Gawande, as science writers, use examples from literature in their science writing. Gawande’s most recent book, Being Mortal, refers extensively to Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich, which explores what it means to live, and thus die, without meaningful, human connection. Similarly, Ball refers to Michael Frayn’s play Copenhagen in his exploration of the uncertainty principle, and his discussion of the choices made by scientists during the Nazi era. For this panel, Snow’s two cultures are not riven apart, but connected by a shared language of image and metaphor that deepens human understanding.

I like to think that we at Te Pūnaha Matatini speak this language too; we’re aware of the impact of both ignorance and ineptitude, consistently trying to tell good, true stories about our increasingly interconnected and data-rich world. In this interplay between our existing human tools and structures, designed to deal with the twentieth century –there’s a sense that we’ve missed something in trying to reduce matter to its constituent parts – and the world we live in, in which the sum total of human knowledge concerns just 4 % of the universe – wherein we need to develop tools to understand self-organising phenomena that form complex patterns and hierarchies – is the founding motivation bringing this team of people together.

Given that what emerged from last Sunday’s panel discussion was a shared sense that the thing we are doing right is talking about the problems we face, the decisions we have to make, the increased need for human connection, Te Pūnaha Matatini’s central metaphor – ‘the meeting place for many faces’ – becomes more critical. It’s both an actual place in which many faces (peoples, disciplines, ideas) meet, and an image of how we imagine the best kind of human thinking and human interaction occurs, face to face, kanohi ki te kanohi. Charlotte Grimshaw said that what she and her fellow panellists, fellow writers’ festival participants and attendees were endeavouring to do was to “illuminate the problems that beset humanity;” more prosaically, we’ve said that at Te Pūnaha Matatini we’re trying to transform complex data about New Zealand into knowledge, tools, and insight to help make better decisions.

Better decisions? When asked for next steps, Ball responded: “Actually, we know what we need to change the world: we need more equality, more justice, more compassion, more tolerance, more love.” Pressed for a scientific answer – as the scientist on the panel – Ball responded with a list of value-filled abstract nouns. Gawande’s words take this notion of value further – describing happiness or wellbeing as emerging from a sense of purpose and connection. “We’ve lost the moral language that would allow us to ask the right questions.” As writers, as wisdom-seekers, as humans, the panel – a journalist, an author, a scientist, and a surgeon – agreed: the way to change the world is to adopt a stance based within family, human connection, relationship. From that place to stand, we then must engage compassion and curiosity – Gawande called these “the virtues or characters we need to bring to see the world.” Listening to those words, I instantly bought to mind our Te Pūnaha Matatini whakataukī: E tipu, e rea, mō ngā rā ō tāu ao. Grow up and thrive for the days destined you. Like Xinran, Grimshaw, Ball, Gawande, we’re approaching the questions at hand from a place of connection, compassion, and curiosity.