University of Otago remains New Zealand's top research university for second year

31 October 2016

Bianca Nogrady

Julian Thomson/GNS Science 

University of Otago researchers at a deep drilling project at Whataroa. 

Not to be outdone by its Australian neighbours, New Zealand universities are building an international reputation for high-quality research.

1. University of Otago

2015 WFC: 31.56

Subject strength: Life sciences

In 1972, Dr Phil Silva, a former primary school teacher and psychologist, decided to track the health and development of 1,037 three-year-olds in New Zealand's south island city of Dunedin. He selected these children because they had been assessed at birth by the University of Otago's Medical School.

Thanks largely to Silva's initiative, the highly-regarded Dunedin Multidisciplinary Health and Development Study has been tracking the same group for more than four decades.

The study has delivered an extraordinary wealth of data on human health, development and behaviour. The plethora of papers it has produced also help explain why research in the life sciences accounts for the largest portion of the university's contribution to the index.

A Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences paper on biological ageing in young adults from the Dunedin cohort was selected by Science magazine as the fourth top science story of 2015. “The breadth of data gathered along the way is such that researchers can make associations that they wouldn't even think of hypothesizing,” says Richard Blaikie, deputy vice-chancellor of Research and Enterprise.

The University of Otago — the oldest university in the seismically active nation — also leads research into the Alpine Fault, the tectonic boundary that runs the length of the country's south island.

Last year, a team drilled 893 metres into the fault to embed instruments, revealing a wealth of information about this unique geological feature. They found, for example, that the temperature increases by more than 140 degrees Celsius every kilometre below ground, and that the rocks in the drilling area contained a lot of low-friction graphite, which sheds light on the strength of the fault.

2. University of Auckland

2015 WFC: 21.08

Subject strength: Life sciences

The University of Auckland attracts significantly more external funding — about NZ$250 million a year — than any other New Zealand university, due largely to its success in collaborating with industry to commercialize research. At least half that funding, which amounts to about $1 billion during the past decade, arose thanks to connections of its research company Auckland UniServices Limited, which connects university researchers with business, investors, government and community groups.

The university's position is the result of a 30-year strategy initiated by former engineering graduate, Sir Colin Maiden, who went to the United States to work for General Motors, then returned to his alma mater as a vice-chancellor. “Sir Colin brought what, for the late 80s, was quite a unique perspective on university industry engagement and that's been a key part of our strategy over the years,” says vice-chancellor, Stuart McCutcheon.

The University of Auckland has also built an international reputation for excellence in the life sciences, its dominant output in the 2015 index. Its cross-faculty Auckland Bioengineering Institute conducts research in areas from biomimetics — developing technologies inspired by nature — to implantable devices.

It also boasts a renowned academic drug discovery centre, the Maurice Wilkins Centre for Molecular Biodiscovery, whose spin-off company Pathway Therapeutics recently earned US Food and Drug Administration approval for an anti-cancer drug.

3. Victoria University of Wellington

2015 WFC: 15.81

Subject strength: Earth & environment

Being at the southern edge of the Earth, New Zealand has long been a launching point for expeditions to Antarctica, and the Victoria University of Wellington has capitalized on that.

Since 1957, students from the University's Antarctic Research Centre have travelled to the ice to conduct field studies that are revealing the shelf's climatic history and provide valuable insights into how the future might be affected by climate change. Last year, the university contributed to a Nature paper that reported melting Antarctic ice could increase sea levels more than predicted by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change projections.

The university's strength in the index is in Earth and environmental sciences, including seismology and volcanology. But it is also regarded for physical sciences. It is home to the MacDiarmid Institute for Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology, a national network of top scientists in the field, and the Robinson Research Institute, a leader in high-temperature superconductivity.

John Spencer, associate dean of research, says the university has attracted very good young scientists, particularly since the 2003 advent of the New Zealand government's Performance Based Research Fund — a tertiary education research assessment process.

“The university is very conscious of the value of its science faculty and it has directed its investment in that direction.” Spencer says.

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