Otago experts deemed ‘critic and conscience’ of society

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Otago experts deemed ‘critic and conscience’ of society

Media release the University of Otago
Prof Michael Baker
Public health specialist Professor Michael Baker from the University of Otago, Wellington

For the first time, the Gama Foundation has recognised two people at once for their efforts in being the ‘Critic and Conscience of Society’ – both University of Otago academic staff members.

Public health specialist Professor Michael Baker from the University of Otago, Wellington, today receives the Critic and Conscience of Society Award for his extraordinary efforts in keeping the citizens of New Zealand informed about the COVID-19 crisis and public health issues in general. While, lecturer and social worker Associate Professor Anita Gibbs also receives the award for her tireless advocacy raising the profile of Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) in New Zealand.

The Gama Foundation founder Grant Nelson says it is the first time since the award was introduced in 2017, that it has been given to two people.

“The judges decided to make a special award to Professor Baker for making an outstanding contribution by providing independent, expert commentary on New Zealand public health issues over the past few years and notably during the COVID-19 crisis.”

Professor Baker has worked incredibly hard over the past few months to help educate and inform both policy makers and the New Zealand public about how to combat COVID-19. He has been sought by media internationally to comment on both the international and New Zealand response to the pandemic, as well as providing expert advice to the Government and practical advice to New Zealanders.

Associate Professor Gibbs, a lecturer in social work, sociology and criminology has been researching and raising awareness of the impacts of FASD since 2012. She knows first-hand how debilitating the disability is, as she and her husband adopted two sons from Russia, now aged in their teens, who live with the disability.

The neuro-disability impacts 3000 babies born in New Zealand annually, while there are tens of thousands of undiagnosed sufferers and she is concerned numbers may increase in 2021 as a result of the soaring rates of alcohol purchases during lockdown, potentially resulting in more babies being born with the disorder next year.

The Critic and Conscience of Society Award acknowledges academic staff who provide independent, expert commentary on issues that affect the New Zealand community and its future generations. Recipients receive $50,000 to assist with research, conferences and other work-related expenses.

Professor Pat Walsh, from the Award’s judging panel, says Professor Baker’s commitment to New Zealand’s public health capacity is longstanding and has focused on the need for Government to take responsibility for public health and to be prepared to prioritise the health and wellbeing of people and the environment over commercial interests.

“But of course in 2020, Michael’s public intellectual role as critic and conscience reached new levels. He is a member of the Government’s COVID-19 Technical Advisory Group engaging directly with the Ministry of Health and seeking to shape the New Zealand policy response.

“At the same time, he has been an extraordinarily prominent media commentator, informing the public, criticising and praising the Government’s policy response and always being a consistent and fearless advocate for what he sees as the most effective responses to the huge challenge that this pandemic has laid down for us.”

Mr Nelson says the award attracted a strong field of applicants this year.

The judging panel felt Associate Professor Gibbs’ “extensive work” showed a true depth of commitment to the ‘critic and conscience’ role.

Associate Professor Gibbs says she is “completely stoked to be trusted as someone who could fulfil the role of critic and conscience of society”.

“It is hard to do research that focuses on reducing the damage caused by pre-natal alcohol exposure; it is an unseen and unpopular issue.”

She plans to do a number of things as a result of receiving the award, including providing free seminars to health professionals, further training to Corrections staff, running caregiver support groups for Dunedin families and providing advice to the Ministry of Health on a new FASD action plan.

Professor Baker says he is very grateful to receive the award.

“The last six months have reminded me yet again of the value of research intensive universities. During this crisis, they have provided a huge amount of support for New Zealand’s very successful response to COVID-19.

“I also want to thank my many colleagues who have been great collaborators as well as filling in for me at times so I could focus on the pandemic.”

Professor Baker plans to use his award funding to build on New Zealand’s successful pandemic response. He hopes that the country can “reset” its direction to better manage other public health threats such as the looming climate change crisis and environmental disruption.

He plans to use his award funding to build on New Zealand’s successful pandemic response to help ‘reset’ its direction in other key public policy areas to support improved health, equity and sustainability.

The Awards Ceremony will be held from 5.30pm on Friday 31 July at The University of Otago’s Council Chamber

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