Victoria University of Wellington reinforced its position as New Zealand’s number one university for intensity of high-quality research

Victoria University of Wellington reinforced its position as New Zealand’s number one university for intensity of high-quality research (Performance-Based Research Fund, the country’s main measure of research activity).

Even in the midst of COVID-19, our academics had their best year ever for grants from the Government’s Marsden Fund for ‘blue skies’ research. Of the 134 grants awarded, teams led by our researchers received a fifth. The 27 grants were the highest number for the University in the fund’s 26-year history and their total value of more than $16 million the most we have received in a single round.

The grants will enable our researchers to address some of the biggest issues of our time, be they social, environmental, technological, health-related, or economic. The projects represent an impressive breadth of our research capability, with more than half led by women and many incorporating mātauranga Māori and co-designing with Māori to tackle issues of shared concern.

Project collaborations include ones with leading institutions overseas such as Johns Hopkins University, Harvard University and the University of California, Los Angeles, in the United States; the University of Cambridge, Imperial College London and the University of Edinburgh in the United Kingdom; and Australian National University, the University of Queensland and Monash University in Australia.

The University’s Robinson Research Institute received nearly $15 million from the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment’s Science Investment Fund to lead work on high-power electric motors for more environmentally friendly aircraft, ships, and trains and more than $11.5 million from the Ministry’s Endeavour Fund to develop superconducting magnets for a lightweight and energy-efficient propulsion system for satellites.

The MacDiarmid Institute for Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology, hosted by the University and co-led by Professor Justin Hodgkiss from our School of Chemical and Physical Sciences, received a resounding vote of confidence with its fourth consecutive designation as a national Centre of Research Excellence and the $48 million that goes with it, which will support it as it partners with business and government to address global challenges such as climate change, renewable energy, and clean water.

The University’s sustainability leadership was reflected in our Times Higher Education ranking among the top 40 universities in the world for social impact and commitment.

A team led by Professor Bev Lawton (Ngāti Porou) from our Wellington Faculty of Health, partnering with iwi, received more than $1 million from the Health Research Council of New Zealand to explore how empowering rural communities to screen and provide on-site rapid test results could reduce barriers to cervical cancer screening and treatment.

Professor Lawton also received the RANZCOG (Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists) Māori Women’s Health Award and was shortlisted in the Innovation, Science & Health category of New Zealand’s Women of Influence Awards.

Professor Gavin Painter from our Ferrier Research Institute received nearly $1.2 million from the Health Research Council to work with the Malaghan Institute of Medical Research, based on our Kelburn campus, the University of Melbourne, and Avalia Immunotherapies to develop a malaria vaccine.

The University is playing a lead role in the country’s COVID-19 vaccine research and evaluation, collaborating with the Malaghan Institute and the University of Otago as part of the Vaccine Alliance Aotearoa New Zealand, which has received $10 million in government funding.

Our academics have also been prominent conducting other COVID-19-related research and providing analysis and commentary to keep the public informed throughout the pandemic, including about mental health issues and economic and legal implications.

With elections in both New Zealand and the United States, our academics also lent their expertise to enhance public understanding there.

This included pioneering real-time processing of politicians’ social media accounts by Professor Jack Vowles and Dr Mona Krewel from our Political Science and International Relations programme. Their research resulted in parties making public commitments to fair campaigning and precipitated Facebook taking down one party’s page for violating its standards.

High among honours this year was our Antarctic Research Centre’s Melting Ice and Rising Seas team, a partnership with GNS Science and NIWA, winning the Prime Minister’s Science Award, the second time the $500,000 prize has gone to the University. The team’s Associate Professor Rob McKay was also awarded the 2020 Asahiko Taira Scientific Ocean Drilling Research Prize by the American Geophysical Union.

Dr Carolyn Boulton from our School of Geography, Environment and Earth Sciences was the first New Zealand recipient of the prestigious Jason Morgan Early Career Award from the American Geophysical Union and was also awarded an early career researcher medal by the Tectonics and Structural Geology Division of the European Geophysical Union.

Professor John Townend from the School of Geography, Environment and Earth Sciences was elected president of the Seismological Society of America and Dr Kyle Clem from the school was awarded the Edward Kidson Medal from the New Zealand Meteorological Society.

Professor Jim Johnston from our School of Chemical and Physical Sciences won the supreme award in the KiwiNet Research Commercialisation Awards and Dr Nathaniel Davis from the same school and Dr Martin Lupini from the School of Mathematics and Statistics received Rutherford Discovery Fellowships from the Royal Society Te Apārangi.

Associate Professor Maria Bargh (Te Arawa, Ngāti Awa) from Te Kawa a Māui—School of Māori Studies received the Te Puāwaitanga Research Excellence Award from the Royal Society Te Apārangi for her eminent and distinctive contribution to Te Ao Māori and Māori and Indigenous knowledge, in recognition of her research on political economy and the environment. Associate Professor Bargh is also leading research that received $2.95 million from the Government’s Biological Heritage National Science Challenge.

Professor Rawinia Higgins (Tūhoe), our Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Māori), received the Pou Aronui Award from the Royal Society Te Apārangi for her distinguished service to the humanities–aronui, in recognition of her work in revitalising te reo Māori.

Dr Robin Skinner from our Wellington School of Architecture Received a President’s Award from the New Zealand Institute of Architects.

Raqi Syed and Areito Echevarria from our School of Design Innovation won numerous awards for their short film Minimum Mass, including from the Animest International Animation Festival, the Viborg Animation Festival, and the Annecy International Animation Festival. The film was also selected for the Venice International Film Festival and Cannes XR—Tribeca.

Professor Damien Wilkins, director of our creative writing school, the International Institute of Modern Letters, won the New Zealand Book Awards for Children and Young Adults’ Young Adult Fiction Award for his novel Aspiring.

At the APRA Silver Scrolls, Associate Professor Michael Norris from our New Zealand School of Music—Te Kōkī won his third SOUNZ Contemporary Award in a row, for his composition Mātauranga (Rerenga), and the school’s David Long won the Best Original Music in a Series Award, for his work on the television adaptation of our alumna Eleanor Catton’s Booker Prize-winning novel The Luminaries.

It was a successful year for our commercialisation arm, Wellington UniVentures, which had a record four new spin-out companies, bringing economic and other benefits to the region as they address such challenges as a cure for multiple sclerosis and implementing a solution to waste and carbon emissions in housing construction.

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