A Spirit of Collaboration

 

In 2003, the MacDiarmid Institute was given a 10 million dollar grant from the Government’s education budget to spend on new equipment. It was a shower of rain after drought. Researchers finally had access to world class facilities and the Institute flourished. In four years the number of papers published more than tripled and the collaborations per researcher increased by more than twenty percent.

Last year the Institute received another injection of 10 million dollars for equipment. These amounts would represent a drop in the ocean for a top lab in America, Europe, Japan or even Australia. But, the spirit of cooperation and collaboration within the Institute and the advantages of being a small country have enabled these funds to work magic.

The key lies in an ethos of openness and cooperation. It is a policy that all researchers in the Institute have free use of any piece of MacDiarmid equipment.

To decide how the funds were to be distributed, each researcher put forward a wish list. A committee made up of MacDiarmid Principal Investigators looked at everybody’s needs, considered their track records, and with the whole Institute in mind, made a selection.

The aim was not only to meet existing research needs, but to create an ideal environment to foster new cross-disciplinary collaborations. Each piece of equipment forms a hub or meeting place, rather like an 18th century coffee shop that draws people of different backgrounds together in a relaxed environment to mingle and exchange ideas.

All the researchers agreed that without the MacDiarmid funding they would have had no way of purchasing the new equipment. In normal circumstances, buying a large piece of equipment is like buying a house with a hefty mortgage. Even if the host organisation (their university or Crown Research Institute) agrees to make the initial purchase, individual researchers have to pay them back out of their personal grants for years afterwards. These depreciation payments can be crippling to research.

Along with the equipment, researchers get access to world class expertise. Some of the more complicated machines, like the electron microscopes at Victoria University and the nano-fabrication equipment at Canterbury University have MacDiarmid funded technicians or post docs to help outside users. As Shane Telfer from Massey University says – “I would like to think that I could call up any of these people and be welcomed to use their gear just as I would certainly do that for anyone who would like to come here.”

Pablo Etchegoin, a world expert in Raman Spectroscopy was lured to the MacDiarmid Institute from the UK where he worked in top research groups at Imperial College and Cambridge University. He said that in Europe half the MacDiarmid Institute’s total capital budget could be allocated to a single person for a project which could fail.

“Here the approach was different,” he said. “It was to invest that money in facilities that can be used by many people and I think it’s a much more intelligent use of money and a lot more efficient. In Europe there’s a lot of duplication. At Imperial College there were two groups working in the same department in the same building who fought with each other like cat and dog all the time. There was, for example, one SEM (Scanning Electron Microscope), on this side of the corridor belonging to this group and one on the other side of the corridor belonging to the other. You might as well buy a larger, better SEM for everybody!.”

He feels that in the MacDiarmid Institute, that kind of compe­tition, which is common overseas, is won over by a spirit of collaboration. Add to this a national openness to try new things and you get a perfect environment for cross-disciplinary collaborations.

Bill Williams, who also came to the MacDiarmid Institute from the UK, is a physicist who loves biology. It is partly this openness and freedom to “look over the fence into someone else’s area” that keeps him here. “I think it’s that New Zealand’s small enough for it to work,” he says. “There are few enough people in your area that it’s just better to collaborate. Not saying that everyone in NZ is totally altruistic. It’s just better that way. It’s more fun!.”

Having access to equipment from across the sciences encourages researchers to branch away from the traditional methods of their own field, which gives them a unique competitive advantage. Alison Downard, a chemist at Canterbury University, has been making use of the lithography tools and expertise in the Electrical Engineering Department to develop her sensing technologies.

She said “ In many places the chemists would have trouble accessing instrumentation in engineering or physics depart­ments…The fact that we’ve been using these instruments interests people in coming to work with me and in organising collaborations.”

One of the most exciting areas of multi-disciplinary work emerging with the new equipment is bio-nanotechnology, for instance using physics tools to explore biological systems. Many of the new instruments have been chosen for this purpose.

Bill Williams is the proud guardian of an incredible new tool – “Optical Tweezers”, which allows you to trap microscopic beads in tightly focussed light beams and use them to measure forces at a microscopic level. You can use it, for example, to attach handles to the ends of a DNA molecule and stretch it to measure the force it takes to unwind. Or you could use it to find out the viscosity of the fluid inside a biological cell.

A Bio-Nano network has been set up within the MacDiarmid Institute to make the most of these opportunities and facilitate collaboration between physical scientists and biologists. Several multi-disciplinary projects are already flourishing, involving collaborations with the Otago School of Medicine, Crop and Food, the Riddet Institute for food technology, the Biology Department at Canterbury University and IZON, a Christchurch based nanotechnology company.

Jeff Tallon of Industrial Research Limited, who is well known for his pioneering work with superconductors, believes that the cross-over between nanotechnology and biology represents New Zealand’s greatest opportunity in science.

“It is such a rich and relatively unexplored field” he said. “I think the public are looking for those very big breakthroughs – the sort of Nobel Prize type scale of things…There’s great potential for that by bringing biology and nanotechnology together.”

A Nobel Prize is one thing but how will the new equipment benefit the country as a whole? One of the founding aims of the MacDiarmid Institute is to help transfer research into commercial activity to boost national prosperity. Former director Paul Callaghan feels it is vitally important to keep this focus.

“There is real pressure on the Institute to produce outcomes that are of clear, measureable benefit to New Zealand” he said. And equipment plays a key role in this.

Paul has been involved in setting up a small spin-off company, Magritek, which makes portable Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) devices for an international market. He says that the MacDiarmid funded equipment has been a huge factor in the company’s success, by enabling them to back up their products with reliable performance measurements.

Having the right equipment makes New Zealand a viable place for top overseas researchers and students to come and work. It has also helped MacDiarmid researchers expand their network of international collaborators. Ian Brown, for example, from Industrial Research Limited has started collaborating with the US Department of Energy labs who have taken an interest in his hydrogen storage technologies. “The mass spectrometer”, he says, “has been one of the entry tools that have made us good at this space we work in, and it’s why these guys want to work with us.”

It’s hard to tell in advance exactly when and how all the benefits emerge but by giving researchers the freedom to explore new areas and the tools to seize opportunities as they arise, the Institute is creating an environment that maximises potential.

Richard Blaikie, director of the MacDiarmid Institute, looks at the broad view. “It is essential,” he says “at regular periodic intervals to give people the ability to look at their research, look as a broader group at what we do, and how we deliver, and to ask, what are the key pieces of infrastructure that we need to support that? I think that last round of funding has proved that. We’re filling in the gaps. We’re just keeping the flourishing going.”