Victoria researchers win multi-million-dollar funding

A Victoria University of Wellington-led team developing devices to make methamphetamine testing of homes and motorists more efficient has been awarded $1 million in the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment's 2016 Endeavour Fund science investment round.

The project is one of five led by Victoria that have been awarded nearly $15.5 million over the next three–five years by the Endeavour Fund.

Housing New Zealand is reported to have spent $21 million in the year to 30 June checking its properties for methamphetamine and cleaning and repairing those contaminated. This was an increase from $2.9 million the previous year and just over $700,000 the year before that.

Dr Justin Hodgkiss, Senior Lecturer in Victoria’s School of Chemical and Physical Sciences, is leading a research team developing a device for detecting and quantitatively mapping methamphetamine contamination in homes in-situ, thereby enabling more targeted and cost-effective remediation.

Dr Hodgkiss’s team, whose funding will be over three years, is also developing a real-time low-cost saliva test for methamphetamine to be used for roadside testing of motorists. The test currently available is rarely used as it is expensive, slow and unreliable (prone to false positives).

The project is a collaborative partnership with the Institute for Environmental Science and Research (ESR) Ltd, the Crown research institute responsible for providing forensic testing for New Zealand Police.

“As well as making New Zealand roads safer and helping our communities mitigate the ravages of methamphetamine, this project will benefit New Zealand through the high-value manufacturing of the analytical devices we are developing, which could be exported to law enforcement and housing agencies around the world suffering the same problems we’re addressing in New Zealand,” says Dr Hodgkiss.

Professor Gavin Painter, from Victoria’s Ferrier Research Institute, is leading a project that will receive nearly $10 million over five years to develop an off-the-shelf, low-cost, non-toxic cancer immunotherapy vaccine. The project, whose funding will be shared among researchers from the University of Otago, Malaghan Institute of Medical Research and University of Auckland, will tap into and further nurture New Zealand’s biomedical support infrastructure in order to ensure development and its associated economic benefits remain in the country through as many stages as possible before the need to license or sell assets overseas.

Professor Jim Johnston in Victoria’s School of Chemical and Physical Sciences is leading a project that will receive more than $3 million over four years to develop nanotechnology that would increase the energy recovered from geothermal sources by 15 percent. By more efficiently tackling the unwanted deposition of silica that compromises geothermal energy production worldwide, the research team would bring about what Professor Johnston calls “a paradigm shift” in the industry. The team includes researchers from HERA (Heavy Equipment Research Association) and will work closely with New Zealand geothermal companies.

Dr Mike Staines, Senior Scientist with the Robinson Research Institute, is leading a project that includes researchers from Callaghan Innovation and will receive $1 million over three years to develop technology that would slash the cost of manufacturing sensors for ultrasound imaging while at the same time improving performance through enhanced image quality. The impact on the multi-billion-dollar industry would be “disruptive”, says Dr Staines—with the new technology both capturing much of the current sensor market and triggering an expansion of it.

Professor Norman Gemmell, Chair in Public Finance in Victoria Business School’s School of Accounting and Commercial Law, is leading a project that will receive more than $600,000 over three years to develop analyses of how people behave in response to tax and welfare changes and help government policy advisers take these effects into account. This would make revenue forecasts more accurate than the current system of what Professor Gemmell calls “arithmetic plus judgement”. Professor Gemmell is a former Chief Economist at Treasury.

Victoria’s outstanding performance in the 2016 Endeavour Fund reflects its culture of research innovation and impact and its position as New Zealand’s No 1-ranked university for research excellence, says Vice-Provost (Research) Professor Kate McGrath.

“As a global-civic capital city university, Victoria is committed to high-calibre research that improves economic, social and environmental wellbeing, and the recipients of these five contracts exemplify that. We will all benefit from their work.”