The Prime Minister's Science Prize, worth $500,000, has been awarded to Richie Poulton and the team behind Otago University's Dunedin Study.
The Multidisciplinary Health and Development Study, commonly known as the Dunedin Study, began in 1972 and 1973 and followed the lives of 1037 babies born at Queen Mary Maternity Hospital in Dunedin.
The data has led to changes to judicial practices thanks to the study's work on identifying anti-social behaviour and understanding later-life effects of teenage cannabis use.
Elsewhere, the information has led to the introduction of safety matting to prevent playground injuries and the shortening of electric jug cords to reduce burns.
Our Changing World's Alison Ballance has more information about this year's other winners.
Next assessment begins in two weeks
Prof Poulton said he remembered interviewing study subjects during his university years.
Back then, he was 22 years old and the interviewees were just 13.
"I didn't think I was a kid, I thought I knew something then ... Now, what am I, 54 and they're all turning 45 this year. We've all got to mid-life.
"Well not all of us sadly - 38 have died.
"But there's 999 people still alive and hopefully virtually all of those will participate in our next assessment, which begins in two weeks' time."
Prof Poulton said the study had been cited more than 1200 times.
He said recent work, focussing on the interaction between nature and nurture and explaining why people's lives work out the way they do, was a world first.
Prof Poulton said the prize was for the researchers and the subjects of the study to enjoy.
The money would be used for new studies on hearing and vision, chronic kidney injuries and musculoskeletal research.
Earthquake researcher wins Emerging Scientist Award
Brendon Bradley was the winner of the 2016 MacDiarmid Emerging Scientist Award, which was also announced this afternoon.
Within two years of finishing his PhD, he came face to face with what he was studying.
Professor Bradley was in Christchurch for the big quakes there, and he also found himself in Tokyo when the magnitude 9 Tohoku quake hit.
His work has included using a super computer to calculate billions of data points in one day for video animation, which would take about five years on a laptop computer.
"Some of the models that we've used to represent the South Island of New Zealand for looking at Alpine Fault earthquakes use about 25 billion points to describe the earth's crust below the South Island," Prof Bradley said.
"So that involves a huge number of computations and really harnessing that high performance is key for us to be able to understand those sort of results."
This year's other prize winners include Stokes Valley primary school teacher Dianne Christenson and Wellington-based science historian and writer Rebecca Priestley.