Food scientists win coveted Prime Minister's prize

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Prime Minister’s Science Prize winners Distinguished Professor
Paul Moughan and Professor Harjinder Singh of the Riddet Institute

Two Massey University food scientists have been jointly awarded the Prime Minister’s Science Prize – New Zealand's most valuable award for scientific achievement.

The $500,000 award goes to Distinguished Professor Paul Moughan and Professor Harjinder Singh, who are co-directors of the Riddet Institute, a centre of research excellence led from the Manawatū campus that focuses on food and health innovation.

Their contribution to food protein science is world-renowned. Professor Singh’s expertise is in food protein structures and how they interact in food systems while Professor Moughan focuses on how proteins are broken down and absorbed in the digestive system and the resulting physiological benefits.

They have worked together for more than a decade, establishing Riddet as a world-leading centre. Since 2003, the institute has secured over $40 million in research funding and used it to carry out fundamental and strategic research and apply the knowledge to create new food products, processes and systems.

Professor Moughan says he is thrilled and humbled to have received the award. “It recognises the fundamental contributions that we’ve jointly made in food protein science.” He says Massey has provided a fantastic research environment. “While we head the Riddet Institute, our professorships and long-standing employment is at Massey. This award not just for us but also for Massey as it rewards the research ethos at the university. Massey has always led from the front in terms of research and science. It has given us a fertile ground to work in, so the award also reflects on our colleagues.”
Professor Singh says they plan to use the $400,000 of the prize money tagged for on-going research to commercialise discoveries made at the Riddet Institute. “We have a lot of bright minds that come up with really good ideas,” he says. “The prize money will allow us to screen those ideas and take the most promising through to the next stage.”

At a breakfast in Wellington this morning, Prime Minister John Key congratulated all the winners and acknowledged the importance of "blue sky" research. "We can't draw a straight line and say everything we spend money on is going to be converted into something that is used or a drug that is created or a process that is adopted."

Mr Key also said the Government was aware that New Zealand universities rank among the best in the world in terms of teaching but rank lower than they should internationally because they need more research funding. "I know it's something the [tertiary education] minister [Steven Joyce] is looking at to try and get more money into them. There will never be enough is probably the answer but we are keen to make sure that our universities continue to do the great work they've done."

Massey Vice-Chancellor Steve Maharey says Professor Moughan and Professor Singh are a formidable team and an exemplar of how to create a successful innovation pipeline in a critical industry. “Food supply is one of the major issues that faces the world and New Zealand has an enormous amount to contribute,” Mr Maharey says. “Professors Moughan and Singh realised this early on and have championed it throughout their professional careers. The rest of the country is now catching up and realising how important it is.”

Deputy Vice-Chancellor Professor Robert Anderson says the prize is well deserved. “Armed with an inspirational vision for research into advanced foods and biologicals, Professors Moughan and Singh founded what has become a brilliantly successful centre involving significant partnerships with several other New Zealand universities and crown research institutes. The success of their journey is tangible proof that it is possible to shape one’s own destiny within the New Zealand science framework, rather than simply rely on others to do it for you. I am absolutely delighted for them. They are a world-class act.”

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