Researchers win PM’s Science Prize for protecting NZ from Covid-19

A national research team, including several University of Canterbury (UC) researchers, has won the Prime Minister’s Science Prize 2020 for their mathematical simulation of Covid-19 infection modelling and their communication work.

New Zealand’s premier award for transformational science, the Prime Minister’s Science Prize, has been awarded to a collaborative team of academics and researchers working with Te Pūnaha Matatini research centre for its Covid-19 response.

The UC team comprises mathematical modellers Professor Michael Plank and Associate Professor Alex James, and data scientist Senior Lecturer Dr Giulio Dalla Riva, all from UC’s School of Mathematics and Statistics, with UC graduate researchers Dr Rachelle Binny, Nic Steyn, and Dr Audrey Lustig.

During the first half of 2020, the researchers’ significant population modelling effort fed directly into daily official and ministerial briefings about how Aotearoa New Zealand would respond to Covid-19. This included providing the scientific evidence that led the Government to proceed with a nationwide lockdown.

The work has continued in 2021 and has underpinned decisions for citywide lockdowns in Auckland. As well as providing direct assessments to the Government, the researchers have undertaken a comprehensive programme of publishing peer-reviewed research so that their mathematical modelling and the underlying methods and assumptions are in the public domain. This work has been hugely significant for New Zealand in navigating its response to the global pandemic.

UC’s Deputy Vice-Chancellor – Research, Professor Ian Wright, welcomes the news of the UC mathematicians’ award-winning, transformative work as part of Te Pūnaha Matatini research team.

“The prestigious Prime Minister’s Science Prize recognises the real-world impact of UC’s leading-edge research as well as the productive collaborations our world-class academic researchers contribute to,” Professor Wright says.

“I’m incredibly proud of the way our UC academics used – and continue to use – their deep mathematical modelling expertise in a critical, timely way to prevent community spread and ultimately help eliminate Covid-19 in New Zealand.

“Mike Plank has been especially effective and diligent in taking time to explain to New Zealanders, via the media, the mathematical modelling and analysis behind the Government’s science-based response to Covid-19. Alongside the urgent research they undertook, he and Alex James have generously shared their knowledge with the wider public on how to tackle Covid-19, writing about it for the public numerous times throughout the past year.”

Mathematical modelling has played a key part in understanding and responding to the pandemic in countries around the world, helping to prompt government action. These and other models were used to help inform the New Zealand government’s response in areas such as contact tracing, border management, testing, and outbreak control.

In early 2020, UC mathematical modeller Professor Plank worked on the early models of what would likely happen if Covid-19 spread throughout the community. He recalls they spent a lot of time chasing the data to put into the model but once the predictions were coming out, it was very sobering.

“Seeing the actual numbers in front of you made it seem a lot more real,” Professor Plank says.

University of Canterbury Science graduate Nic Steyn is one of the early career researchers who worked on the contagion network. He says it has been the most amazing learning opportunity and also deeply rewarding to have been able to “be doing something to help the situation” during lockdown and afterwards.

The modelling work continues as New Zealand rolls out its vaccination programme. Professor Plank says they have been working on scenarios of what happens if there is another outbreak during the vaccine rollout and for understanding “what protection the vaccine is giving us”.

Plank and James’ articles for The Conversation attracted three quarters of a million page views. The mathematical modelling work was covered in The GuardianThe Times, the BBC, and the ABC.

The award comes with a $500,000 prize that will allow the research centre, headed by Professor of Physics Shaun Hendy, to turn its attention to other key issues that New Zealand faces.

  • Professor Michael Plank will speak about his work in a free public discussion of how maths, science and law fought Covid-19, at the University of Canterbury’s Ilam campus on 11 August 2021. More information will be available soon:

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