15 Nov 2020

Māori research projects land Marsden Fund support

10:50 am on 15 November 2020

University of Otago researchers this week learned they have secured $17.5 million in funding for 30 projects, including three with a unique Māori perspective.

Clocktower of University of Otago Registry Building in Dunedin.

The clocktower of the University of Otago Registry Building in Dunedin. Photo: 123rf

The Marsden funding will go towards projects across the university's disciplines from Commerce and Health to the Humanities and Sciences.

Fourteen projects received grants ranging from $729,000 to $960,000, and a further 16 researchers received kick-start $300,000 grants.

Funding for climate change research

The newly-formed Climate and Energy Finance Group received $869,000 to explore to what extent, and when, increasing floods would affect property values in coastal cities.

The research, led by Otago Business School's Associate Professor Ivan Diaz-Rainey, had immense value for the future.

"This is an extremely important topic because 65 per cent of the population in New Zealand live within 5km of the sea and 85 per cent of individual wealth is concentrated in real estate," associate professor Diaz-Rainey said.

"It also has implications for the stability of our banks given that over 60 percent of the value of the four largest New Zealand banks loan portfolios are to housing."

The research drew on a unique framework of Māori traditions and principles.

"Our research framework learns from Māori traditions of considering multiple generations in decision-making and Māori investment principles where environment and people are integral to a systemic view of investment decisions," he said.

"Accordingly, this research will explore to what extent, and when, increasing flood frequencies will impact property values in New Zealand's coastal cities given that markets are forward looking and have imperfect information.

"Further, we will examine if there are flow-on effects of these losses on the stability of domestic banking system.

"New approaches to answering these questions will be adopted by an interdisciplinary team of experts in geographical information systems, geology, climate change, real-estate and banking."

Funding to examine Adoption Act

Researcher Dr Erica Newman received $300,000 to examine the impact of the 1955 Adoption Act on the identity of descendants of Māori adoptees yet to connect to their taha Māori.

The work held personal significance, she said.

"I am the daughter of a Māori adoptee and do not yet know my taha Māori," she said.

"Although I know I am of Māori descent I do not know my whakapapa, my hapū or iwi, my pepeha or my tūrangawaewae and this is because my mother was adopted into a non-Māori family. I know I am not the only person of Māori descent who is in this situation and it is important that these stories and journeys are explored.

"Absence of tūrangawaewae for descendants of Māori adoptees has an effect on their identity and their health and wellbeing. Finding whakapapa connections can only benefit the participant in strengthening their Māori identity by having the knowledge of who they are and where they come from. This journey could also connect the adoptee, if they are ready."

Health research funding

Dr Htin Lin Aung also received $300,000 to decode the genetic determinants of a strain of Tuberculosis-causing bacteria which disproportionally affect Māori.

"Tuberculosis is a curable disease caused mainly by the bacterium Mycobacterium tuberculosis (Mtb), and yet paradoxically it claims 5000 people's lives daily. Despite New Zealand being a low TB country, TB disproportionally affects Māori and Pasifika compared to New Zealand Europeans.

"Remarkably, there are Mtb strains endemic to Māori and Pasifika communities. The Mtb strain "Rangipo" is strongly associated with Māori. It is hypothesised that this association may be driven by both host and bacterial genetic factors as well as socioeconomic factors. The aim of this study is to decode genetic determinants of the Rangipo strain for its virulence in Māori."

By understanding the factors it was hoped the health inequity for Māori could be better understood and addressed.

Money for substance use research

Dr Jude Ball, of the University of Otago, Wellington, was awarded $300,000 to understand how the function and meaning of substance use has changed in young people's lives.

"Adolescent smoking, drinking and drug use have declined dramatically over the past 15 to 20 years in Aotearoa New Zealand and other OECD countries. Because we don't know what has driven substance use down, policy makers and researchers are poorly placed to predict future trends or influence further positive change," she said.

"This research will contribute to international efforts to understand why substance use has declined. It will also inform local efforts, including efforts by and for Māori, to reduce substance-related harm."

Testament to the work at Otago

University vice-chancellor professor Harlene Hayne said the awards were a significant achievement and testament to the exceptionally hard work and world-leading research happening at the University of Otago.

"There is always huge competition for these awards, not just from the country's eight universities, but also about 30 Crown research institutes and private and public-sector organisations.

"This latest impressive performance continues the University's strong record in gaining external research funding and reflects the ongoing strength of the University's research culture."