When Kiwibank announced its 2017 New Zealander of the Year (movie maker Taika Waititi) among the winners of its lesser categories was Dr Ed Gane.

Who? Very few of us had heard of him. Professor Ed Gane, it turned out, is credited with finding a cure for Hepatitis C, a life-threatening disease suffered by millions of people worldwide.

The Auckland scientist suspected a combination of anti-viral drugs might be effective against a disease for which there was no vaccination or cure.

For many years he supervised international trials of various combinations of anti-virals until they produced the results he expected.


Thanks to him and his colleagues in other countries just about everyone who contracts Hepatitis C is now being cured by a short course of tablets.

The World Health Organisation has reported more than a million people have been cured and it believes Hepatitis C could be eradicated within 30 years.

Beat that, New Zealand scientists could say to every other category of national achievement.

Except they would not say that. Scientists tend to be self-effacing in public, always conscious of the contribution others have made to their knowledge and they are usually quick to share any applause.

They also know their discoveries are often too esoteric for the popular recognition they deserve. Consequently, the sciences go undervalued in New Zealand.

How many of us could name one New Zealand scientist besides Sir Ernest Rutherford?

How many who have heard of him are aware that this year is the centenary of his splitting of the atom, creating the nuclear reaction that has changed the world?

The Royal Society of New Zealand marked the centenary, and its own 150th anniversary, with a gathering in Wellington on Wednesday night. It was a chance to honour many besides the grandfather of atomic physics.

The Herald's science reporter, Jamie Morton, highlighted several of them yesterday.

Sir William Pickering is probably the best known after Rutherford. He was head of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in the United States that designed Nasa spacecraft in the 1960s.

The name Maurice Wilkins ought to equally well known to the public as it is to scientists. It is often bracketed with the names James Watson and Francis Crick who discovered the structure of DNA following Wilkins' use of X-rays to produce photographs of the molecule.

All of them made their breakthroughs overseas but they have inspired fine work in New Zealand's universities and other research laboratories.

We ought to pay more attention to it. Scientists who make useful discoveries or develop new applications of science in this country should be as celebrated as our best sporting figures or film-makers.

Schools should not be short of science teachers.

Those positions should offer a pay premium to enthusiasts with the ability to stimulate inquiring minds.

Our research in agricultural sciences, biotechnology, geology, climate, nutrition, oceans and fisheries should be the best in the field. Scientists who advance any frontier of knowledge are our true superstars.