23 Mar 2017

Prime Minister's Science Prize 2016 - the Dunedin Study

From Our Changing World, 9:06 pm on 23 March 2017

The Prime Minister’s 2016 Science Prize – worth half a million dollars – has been awarded to Professor Richie Poulton and the team behind the University of Otago’s Dunedin Multidisciplinary Health and Development Study, more often known simply as the Dunedin Study.

Richie Poulton and the Dunedin Study team

Richie Poulton and the Dunedin Study team that has won the 2016 Prime Minister's Science Prize. Photo: Supplied

The Dunedin Study has been following the health and development of 1000 children born in Dunedin in 1972 and 1973.

Prof Poulton says there have been plenty of challenges over the years, but what gives him joy has been making important contributions that help people.

He says if he were to summarise the more-than-1200 papers that have been published about the study he would say that “most of what emerges in middle or later life has its roots early in life.”

Standing by the data

He says some of the findings of the study have gone against accepted wisdom, and that it’s been important for the team to stand by what the data show.

“We produced a paper in the early 2000s that showed – against the conventional wisdom of the day – that breast feeding did not protect against the development of asthma and allergies, and that it in fact may be a risk factor. And that caused a great deal of outcry at the time.

“We weren’t saying anything against breast feeding per se. In our paper we listed all the benefits of breast feeding,” says Prof Poulton.

He explains that it’s to do with the hygiene hypothesis, the idea that we live in too clean an environment.

“Breast feeding was great in the old days to protect against the natural grub we used to exist in. But because it’s overly clean these days and because you get extra protection from breast feeding, it may result in changes in the immune system that make it more sensitive to challenges later down the track.

“You need to be strong and stick with what the data show. It’s not about confirming the status quo. It’s about pushing it, extending it and sometimes changing it.”

Self-control is a key life skill

Prof Poulton says that the importance of self-control has come through strongly in the study.

He stresses the value of “self-control in childhood – that is the ability to control strong emotions [both negative and positive] … - to keep a lid on those, in the service of approaching a challenging task and persevering with it.”

He says that impulsive kids with low self-control in their first decade of life went on to have worse outcomes in their fourth decade of life. For example, they had higher rates of imprisonment, poorer financial circumstances and poorer health.

The good thing, says Prof Poulton, is that self-control is a skill that can be learned at any stage of life.

Public policy changes resulting from the Dunedin Study

The raft of changes that have resulted from the 44-year-old Dunedin Study include the introduction of safety matting to prevent playground injuries, shortening the length of electric jug cords to reduce scalds and burns, influencing judicial practices by identifying antisocial behaviour stemming from childhood and understanding the later-life effects of adolescent cannabis use.

Why am I’ is a documentary series based on the Dunedin Study.

2016 Prime Minister’s Science Prizes – the winners

The Prime Minister’s 2016 Science Prize has been awarded to a team of University of Otago researchers, led by Professor Richie Poulton, which is behind the Dunedin Multidisciplinary Health and Development Study, credited with providing the most detailed data on human development ever amassed.

The Prime Minister’s 2016 MacDiarmid Emerging Scientist Prize goes to Professor Brendon Bradley from the University of Canterbury, who is leading worldwide research into the effects of ground shaking caused by earthquakes

The Prime Minister’s 2016 Science Teacher Prize has, for the first time, been won by a primary school teacher—Dianne Christenson, who is the curriculum leader for science at Koraunui School in Stokes Valley, in the Hutt Valley. Under Dianne’s leadership, students at Koraunui School work in the garden, the river, the ocean and the kitchen, getting the opportunity to explore, take risks, get used to failure and have fun while they’re doing it.

The Prime Minister’s 2016 Science Media Communication Prize has been presented to Dr Rebecca Priestley who is committed to communicating science in a way that helps people make informed decisions about important issues facing society.

The Prime Minister’s 2016 Future Scientist Prize has been won by former Onslow College student Catherine Pot who tackled a problem that no other New Zealand student competing in the 2016 International Young Physicists’ Tournament wanted to take on. Catherine investigated the van der Pauw method, which is used in experimental semiconductor physics in many university labs, and came up with an experimentally-verified way of improving the technique so it can be more widely applied.

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