Controlling their own destiny

The scientific legacy of Dr Bill Robinson is a new Institute at Victoria University Wellington bearing his name. The Robinson Research Institute is a newly-formed institute at Victoria which comprises the 25 scientists and engineers who previously formed the Superconductivity & Energy team at Callaghan Innovation (formerly IRL). This team has moved in its entirety from their previous employer to Victoria University and the new institute officially came into being in January. The superconductivity team has developed an international reputation for its contributions to the science of high temperature superconducting (HTS) materials and the development and commercialisation of HTS-based technologies. This has resulted in the spin-off of two companies and numerous national and international industry partners picking up the technology. In recent years the team has begun to apply its learning to other technology areas such as the manufacture of products for electricity systems. As the Robinson Research Institute, their mission is to ‘lead innovative engineering and applied physics endeavours creating substantial economic outcomes’ and members of the Institute will continue to undertake medium- and long-term research in superconductivity, energy and manufacturing technologies in partnership with New Zealand and international manufacturers, as well as with their new colleagues at Victoria. “As a university institute we can develop and pursue our own strategic research programmes,” says Institute Director and MacDiarmid Associate Investigator Bob Buckley. “This enables us to develop a mix of projects that will benefit our partner companies, the country and Victoria University, while maximising the capability of the team.”

“We’ve got a group with quite a range of skills and a range of experiences, and I think that’s really good,” says Buckley. “We can take on a range of projects from quite strong engineering and build projects through to doing quite sophisticated science. When you bring engineering and science together, you get really quite a powerful mix.” – Bob Buckley

  “The move provides clarity,” says Senior Scientist and MacDiarmid Associate Investigator Chris Bumby. “As part of Victoria we are employed to carry out applied research, and we will be judged by the quality and outcomes of that research. We have the autonomy that a university institute has in terms of setting our own research agenda and pursuing it vigorously.”  One of the key drivers behind the move is the ability to enter into competitive government funding rounds, says Principal Engineer Rod Badcock. “Our team specialises in directed research programmes in partnership with companies, working with them on high risk programmes— their technology futures.” Where the Robinson Research Institute differs from Callahan Innovation is focus and funding; unlike Callahan Innovation the new institute is eligible for contestable funding and is tasked with longterm outcomes. As Badcock says of the new focus: “To help those companies with their medium- and long-term needs we have to be in that contestable process.” The team has a mixture of skills and experiences from fundamental science through to engineering design and build projects. This has allowed them to take on a range of projects from building clinical quality MRI systems, superconducting transformers and automated manufacturing machines through to developing new materials and sensor systems. “Victoria was a good match for us,” says Badcock. “We’ve worked with just about every university and polytechnic in the country, however we’ve had a particular strong relationship with Victoria. We’re slightly different to a lot of the institute models at the universities in that a lot of the institutes have a few researchers and the rest is a grouping of academics from across the departments, whereas the Robinson Research Institute is actually a multidisciplinary spectrum of skillsets from research physicists to very applied engineers and fabricators. It gives a very strong directed R&D focus.” The Robinson Research Institute is home to several MacDiarmid Institute team members – one Principal Investigator, Jeff Tallon, and seven Associate Investigators (Bob Buckley, Chris Bumby, Simon Granville, Shen Chong, Ruth Knibbe, Suresh Narayanswamy, Stuart Wimbush). The relationship with The MacDiarmid Institute is viewed as critical to its success, and allows the team to act as a conduit into research across the country. “The scientists in the group get to engage with a broader range of very good scientists across New Zealand, I think that’s important,” says Buckley. “Being able to tap into that community is also essential, along with being able to contribute to it, adds discipline and helps with development.”  “You can’t have just applied physics, you actually need to have a deep understanding,” explains Badcock. “The MacDiarmid Institute Principal Investigators are more fundamental research based, but they work and integrate into our programmes and into our delivery. They’re a key part of understanding the nature of the problem not just fixing the immediate problem. It pulls it through into future problem solving. The network of people leads to a depth of understanding.”  Bumby has a very personal connection to The MacDiarmid Institute, as he was awarded a MacDiarmid Postdoctoral Fellowship in 2007 which meant he could start building a career in New Zealand as an emerging researcher. “The fact that The MacDiarmid Institute was there and was well respected meant I was able to get funding from The Royal Society (UK) to come to New Zealand and get involved in the first place. The value of The MacDiarmid Institute to me is quite a personal thing. For the group as a whole it’s an extremely important link into the broader physical sciences community in New Zealand and particularly the fundamental and basic science community.”  For the moment the team will stay at the Callaghan Innovation site at Gracefield, with a long-term plan of potentially moving to one of the Victoria sites when space becomes available. However, the retained proximity to Callaghan Innovation provides access to equipment and facilities as well as another important network of scientific colleagues.  The move to Victoria has its immediate problems—new IT systems, new contracts, a plethora of administrative tasks and the vulnerability of existing on competitive grants—but is seen as a positive move for everyone involved. The team of researchers are keen to get their research programme settled, as reflected in the short time span from proposal to launch of the institute. “The team wanted to work with our partner companies, we wanted an end to the uncertainty, we wanted to start setting our direction,” says Badcock. “It wouldn’t have happened without the whole team wanting it to happen.”