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The Dunedin Study 50th Celebration

Issue date: 
Wednesday, 22 March 2023
The Rt Hon Dame Cindy Kiro, GNZM, QSO

E nga rau rangatira mā, e kui mā, e koro mā, e huihui nei, tēnei aku mihi māhana ki a koutou. Kia ora tātou katoa.

It’s my great pleasure to be here this evening, and to share in these very special celebrations marking the 50th anniversary of the Dunedin Study. I wish to begin by specifically acknowledging: Mr Stephen Higgs, Chancellor of Otago University; Professor Helen Nicholson, Acting Vice Chancellor; Dr Richie Poulton, Director of the Dunedin Study.

The Dunedin Multidisciplinary Health and Development Research Study – or the Dunedin Study – has been widely described as the broadest and most in-depth study of human beings ever conducted – a description few would argue with. For fifty years, it has been providing us with profound insights into the question of why we become who we are.

The Dunedin Study is the gold standard of longitudinal studies internationally: responsible for the publication of more than 1,400 scientific journal articles, books, and reports. As a former academic, who understands the stresses and foibles of academic publication, this is an admirable achievement.

Where the study is truly special, however, is in how the learnings have translated into real world impact. The most obvious case is in the field of health, where it has helped us to better understand the effects of substance use and other variables on the developing brain, family structure, as well as physiological and psychological changes as we age. Thanks to the work done by the Dunedin Study, we also have a richer understanding of areas such as the relationship between sleep and obesity.

The study has also been cited as expert advice in courts of law, where it helps us to better understand criminal behaviour, with a more nuanced picture of impulsivity, resilience, and brain development. This has given the justice system tools for considering reoffending risk, more appropriate sentences, and how rehabilitation might help to break the cycle of crime.

When thinking about the study, and its contribution to this greater understanding of life-course and key developmental opportunities, I’ve naturally found myself reflecting on my own life path and experiences.

I certainly could never have imagined my career trajectory leading me to become the third Māori Governor-General, and first wahine Māori in the role. I am deeply honoured and grateful for all the opportunities that have been afforded me, and all the kindness and support I have received along the way – including by my colleagues in the Dunedin Study and at Otago University.

I came from a working-class family with very little money and not much formal education. However, they were loving and supportive and provided many opportunities for interactions with people from all walks of life. From an early age, I have been drawn to learning, and latterly in my career, the question of how research can inform and lead to positive societal change has dominated my professional life.

As a result, it may come as no surprise that, as Governor-General, I will continue to support and celebrate the role of experts and expert knowledge – another reason I am so delighted to be here this evening.

It has also struck me, in reflecting on your achievement, that the Dunedin Study takes an approach aligned with te ao Māori – where context is essential to understanding physical and mental wellbeing, as well as an emphasis on taking a long view.

The University of Otago, and all New Zealanders can be immensely proud of the Dunedin Study. And while 50 is the number we are celebrating this evening, perhaps just as worthy of celebration is 94 – which, as I’m sure you all know, represents the percentage of original study members still participating, these fifty years later.

That figure represents perhaps the most extraordinary achievement of all, and is one of the many reasons – along with your rigorous research methods and multidisciplinary approach – that the Dunedin Study remains the worldwide benchmark for a longitudinal study of this kind.

I’m sure there are many reasons for such a remarkable retention rate – great planning and foresight of course being one – but I would suggest the most important of all is trust.

Richie and your team have clearly earned the trust of your participants – you treat them with care and respect and without judgement. You understand, better perhaps than most, that our lives don’t always turn out how we might hope, and that we all make decisions potentially detrimental to ourselves and to others – but that that’s a great part of what it means to be human.

Participants know that when they share information with you – information perhaps deeply personal or potentially incriminating – that it will never be shared with anyone else. You have, over these fifty years, created a bond something like that of family.

To Richie and your team, as well as to Dr Phil Silva, whose vision brought this project to life fifty years ago: my sincerest thanks for your great diligence and care, and my congratulations once again on this remarkable milestone.

I wish finally to acknowledge a group, without whom, the Dunedin Study would not exist – and that is of course the 1037 participants themselves, as well and your friends and families. You have given so much, over such a length of time. On behalf of all those you have helped through your generosity and selflessness – thank you.

The Dunedin Study is a profoundly human piece of work – one that continues to contribute to a deeper and richer understanding of so many aspects of our lives. I wish all those involved, all the very best for the years ahead.

Kia ora huihui tātou katoa.

Last updated: 
Monday, 27 March 2023

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