Our native wildlife could one day enjoy a New Zealand free of the predators that threaten them, one of the country's foremost scientists believes.

Professor Mick Clout from the University of Auckland, who has spent decades working on pest eradication science, was jointly awarded the Marsden Medal by the New Zealand Association of Scientists (NZAS) at a ceremony in Wellington this evening.

The top award recognised Professor Clout's life-long contribution to conservation biology, along with the leading work in environmental and chemical oceanography by co-recipient Professor Keith Hunter of the University of Otago.

Like the late Sir Paul Callaghan, Professor Clout believed every last predator in the country could be wiped out - but he said the whole country would need to get behind the project.


A start could be completely eradicating possums, a pest species he had studied for many years.

"It would be a huge challenge but I honestly believe it could be done, it is feasible."

While offshore havens had ensured the survival of our rarest birds, which might otherwise have been lost forever, people always cared more about things they could see and touch, he said.

"Our threatened species cannot only be tucked away in sanctuaries that are remote and inaccessible," said Professor Clout, who was a pioneer of the concept of creating pest-free sanctuaries for endangered species.

"We have to bring wildlife and people together, with conservation happening in everyone's backyard."

Professor Clout has published widely, including a book on invasive species, and up until 2009, chaired the IUCN Invasive Species Specialist Group, which works globally to help protect the world's biodiversity from invasive species.

Professor Hunter was meanwhile described by the NZAS as "a recognised leader and innovator" in oceanography and an author of 140 publications.

"His research is characterised by the application of fundamental chemistry to the investigation of the oceans, in all their complexity," the association said.

His close collaboration with Niwa scientists had resulted in the establishment of a joint Research Centre in Chemical Oceanography.

In recognition of his contribution to New Zealand and international science, he was made a Fellow of the Royal Society of New Zealand.

University of Auckland senior lecturer Dr Michelle Dickinson, one of the country's best known scientists, was meanwhile named Science Communicator for 2014.

Dr Dickinson, who has told of dreams of being a science superhero and who tweets under the popular handle Nanogirl, is a regular guest and commentator in media, including regular appearances on TV3 and RadioLIVE.

She also made headlines this year when she was invited by billionaire Sir Richard Branson to discuss technology and sustainability at his private island in the Caribbean.

Dr Dickinson is also a roving science ambassador, organising events aimed at making science fun for young and old alike.

Recently she completed the "100 Days of Science" project, where schoolchildren used everything from marshmallows to balloons to learn the complex theories behind scientific phenomena.

"I have a passion for showing that, no matter your age or education level, science does not need to be scary - it's fun," she said.

Professor Wei Gao, also of the University of Auckland, was presented the Shorland Medal in recognition of his work on nano-materials, thin films and coatings, light alloys, corrosion and oxidation, superconductors, photocatalysis, wastewater treatment and electron microscopy.

Professor Gao and his group discovered a simple method to produce "black titania", which can collect energy by absorbing UV, visible and infrared radiations from sun light, dramatically improving the efficiency of solar energy.

The Research Medal, recognising the recent scientific contributions of researchers under 40, was jointly awarded to Professor Merryn Gott, of the University of Auckland, and Associate Professor Richard Tilley, of Victoria University of Wellington.

Professor Gott leads a programme of research that looks at how to reduce suffering at the end of life within the context of rapidly ageing populations and constrained health budgets.

Professor Tilley has developed the synthesis and electron microscopy characterisation of nanoparticles in New Zealand, with applications such as the development of MRI contrast agents, in collaboration with the Malaghan Institute and Wellington Hospital.

NZAS president Dr Nicola Gaston said the awards celebrated sustained excellence in a broad range of areas.

"I am particularly pleased to see the Research medal awarded jointly to a social scientist and a physical scientist, both of whom are making contributions in the medical arena, though in very different ways," she said.

"Likewise, the contributions of our Marsden medalists, in expanding our understanding of ecology and environment, are complemented by the practical achievements of our Shorland medalist in developing new materials for solar energy.

"The focus on future and long-term benefit speaks well for science in New Zealand, just as the work done by Dr Dickinson bodes well for the quality of our future scientists."

2014 New Zealand Association of Scientists Award winners:
* Marsden Medal: Professor Mick Clout (University of Auckland), Professor Keith Hunter (University of Otago).

* Shorland Medal: Professor Wei Gao (University of Auckland).

* Research Medal: Professor Merryn Gott (University of Auckland), Associate Professor Richard Tilley (Victoria University of Wellington).

* Science Communicators Award: Dr Michelle Dickinson (University of Auckland).