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Special Critic And Conscience Of Society Award For Public Health Specialist

One of the most recognised public voices during New Zealand’s COVID-19 response is this year being presented with a special Critic and Conscience of Society Award by The Gama Foundation in a ceremony at Dunedin’s Otago University.

This year, for the first time, two $50,000 Critic and Conscience of Society Awards have been presented, to Associate Professor Anita Gibbs and public health specialist Professor Michael Baker.

“The Judges decided to make a special Award to Professor Michael Baker for making an outstanding contribution by providing independent, expert commentary on New Zealand public health issues from 2016 to 2020 and notably during the Covid-19 crisis,” says Grant Nelson of The Gama Foundation.

This award was established to encourage academic staff at New Zealand universities to act as ‘critic and conscience of society’—as required under the Education Act—by providing the public with independent, expert commentary on issues affecting the New Zealand community and future generations.

Professor Pat Walsh, from the Award’s judging panel, says Michael 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 well-being 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

“For a while there, it seemed that every time we turned our radio or TV on, there was Michael Baker explaining what needed to be done, supporting the measures he agreed with and advocating for others.

“By doing so, he both influenced the Government’s policy response for the better and helped to bring about widespread public acceptance and compliance with the strict lockdown measures introduced by the Government.”

Professor Baker says he is delighted to receive the award. “Thank you to Grant and Marilyn Nelson for their generous support of the Award through The Gama Foundation. I feel privileged to work in the university sector, where being a ‘critic and conscience’ is part of the job description.

“New Zealand’s proactive response to the COVID-19 pandemic has shown that good science and good political leadership are a powerful combination that can protect both public health and the economy.”

Professor Baker 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.

Highlighting hidden disability

Associate Professor Anita Gibbs has worked for many years to bring to public attention the hidden disability of fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD), which affects 3000 babies born every year in New Zealand.

“As a nation we are not recognising this disability or supporting families attempting to care for the children and young people who end up filling our care, prisons and mental health systems,” says Professor Gibbs. “FASD is not currently formally recognised by our government for funding, which means that thousands of sufferers do not get any support but they end up using enormous amounts of our mental health, social welfare and corrections services.”

The judges noted that Professor Gibbs’ work on FASD had resulted in a much greater public awareness of this avoidable disability which has tended to be misunderstood and overlooked.

“Several thousand children are born with FASD each year and there are tens of thousands of undiagnosed sufferers in the community,” says Grant Nelson. “Her work has influenced the FASD Action Plan and led to more effective support services for affected children and more training for professionals.”

Professor Gibbs plans to use her award money to provide free seminars to health and social care professionals, further training to Corrections staff, run caregiver support groups for Dunedin families, and provide advice and research to the Ministry of Health on new FASD Action Plan initiatives.

“If universities are to meet their statutory obligation—and it is an obligation, not an elective—they depend on academic staff being willing to lift their heads above the parapet and engage in the cut and thrust of public debate in the way that these recipients have done,” says Professor Pat Walsh, who along with Grant Nelson and Professor Emeritus Vernon Squire is one of the judges deciding on the award.

Each recipient receives a framed certificate and a cheque for $50,000 to assist with their work.

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