MacDiarmid – a necessary luxury

The multi-million experiment that is the MacDiarmid Institute is both a necessity and a luxury for New Zealand, according to its new director, Dr Richard Blaikie.

That may sound a little edgy, but it makes sense when you consider the strategic importance of fundamental science in underpinning the discoveries that lead to an economy strongly supported by scientific and technological development.

It’s that strong support, and the implication of the two-way street between the apparent luxury of long-term scientific research and the necessity of ensuring such research has sound economic value to the broader society, that interests Blaikie.

In the past six years of operation, the Institute has developed well-established procedures and programmes which have resulted in both fundamental discoveries and practical industrial applications. Blaikie is keen to encourage further industry linkages, adding that he’d like to see the Institute spin off a new business every year as part of its role in commercialising the opportunities opened up by its work. He and new deputy director Shaun Hendry will be discussing such opportunities with the Institute’s principal investigators to assess what direct economic benefits flow on to the New Zealand economy.

Although it might sound like an economist talking rather than an electrical engineer, there’s much more to this approach than a simple bottom-line equation however.

“It’s not all about the dollars — there are lots of intangibles,” Blaikie says. “A lot of the value lies in the stories of our people.”

Those stories can be surprisingly varied, and take a long time to tell. Today’s new post-graduate student, gaining mentoring from researchers at the forefront of their field, could be the next decade’s technological entrepreneur. It’s that long-term focus that Blaikie considers one of the strengths of the Centre of Research Excellence system.

“I’m not looking at the next 12 months; I’m looking to the next six years.”

Blaikie believes that the CoREs provide crucial stability in a science arena that can be overly competitive and focused on short-term funding rounds. Having support for vital equipment purchases, for example, provides a solid foundation for important research programmes to continue to build on their work. For science, having a long-term horizon outside the annual funding round really is both a luxury and a necessity.

Add to that the core capabilities that have been built within the MacDiarmid over its past six years, along with the development of clear scientific objectives, and Blaikie sees a solid future for the Institute. He realises the importance of having those objectives balanced between the curiosity-driven desire to know at the heart of scientific discovery and the aspirations for economic return and direct relevance that powers technological development.

While it might be a researcher’s dream to be funded simply to satisfy their curiosity, Blaikie acknowledges that you can’t expect the taxpayer to be happy with that.

“It has to be of interest and value to more than just the scientist.”

That broader interest is aided by the cross-institute collegiality that the CoREs foster. Having a team of around 80 researchers and students based at fi ve universities and three Crown Research Institutes ensures that work supported by the MacDiarmid has broader potential. It also means that specialist areas of research are able to get the necessary critical mass on a national scale that hasn’t been achievable in the past by individual institutions.

Blaikie cites Robert Axelrod’s “Evolution of Cooperation” as giving him a sound basis to the idea that it’s a “no-brainer” to cooperate. He says the book’s use of game theory as a model for identifying the benefits of cooperative enterprise has a particular appeal to him as aphysical scientist. Thinking of his directorship as a form of experiment is just one way of dealing with the otherwise potentially daunting responsibilities involved. Having worked his way through the somewhat stressful 2006 assessment of the Institute’s position, he’s now looking forward to seeing the identified opportunities for growth develop over the next six years or so.

“I’d like to see us twice as big as we currently are,” says Blaikie, adding that while that may be a little bit ambitious, it might also be imperative, given the increasing number of highly talented researchers being drawn to New Zealand. He asserts the importance of maintaining a great community and a good environment to keep this reputation and keep the talent coming in.

“If we’re going to breed success out of this, it will be because we’re the right place to do this kind of thing.”

Blaikie doesn’t apologise for the strong encouragement that New Zealand students get to head overseas. He did the same after completing his BSc (Hons) in physics at Otago in 1988, heading for Cambridge to complete a PhD. And, like many Kiwi post-docs, he headed home finding a postdoctoral research position and, eventually, a lectureship and professorship in the Electrical and Electronic Engineering Department at the University of Canterbury.

It’s a migratory cycle he expects to see more of as Director of the MacDiarmid, with the Institute’s strong focus on student training, researcher networks and international collaborations. The Institute already supports annual student exchanges with IBM in the US, and there are likely to be other student-industry linkages in the future.

Blaikie is quick to point out that students and scientists don’t necessarily have to head overseas to get world-leading experience, or to see their work taken further.

“If we’ve got the expertise and can develop the technology at the early stage here, what’s the difference between doing it in Oamaru or in Seattle, Washington?”

He notes that all research starts basically with a couple of people in a room, and that room might as well be at Canterbury or Victoria or Industrial Research Ltd….