OPINION: Taking the J out of JAFA

By MacDiarmid Institute Principal Investigator Geoff Willmott

The problem is the gap between us on the map, and there’s no easy way to reconcile it.” – ‘Wellington’ (The Mutton Birds)

Geoff WillmottIn a colonial outpost a handful of academics follow the lead of those based further south, struggling to promote an institute in the midst of rapid societal change.

It might have been the University of Auckland in the 19th Century, but it was also the MacDiarmid Institute as recently as 2011, when Auckland was home to just three MacDiarmid investigators in the School of Chemistry. That era is now history, as there are currently sixteen Investigators north of the Bombay Hills. One Principal Investigator is the recently-arrived Head of Department in Chemistry, another leads a new CoRE from the Department of Physics, while a third is setting up shop in the heart of the School of Biology. Not to mention that if you drop ‘nanotechnology’ into a casual Auckland conversation you’re most likely to be identified with the Faculty of Engineering.

The MacDiarmid Institute’s growth in the ‘City of Sails’ has its own narrative. The pre- 2011 pioneers promoted the best of Institute traditions, extending themselves beyond raw research excellence, and a collaborative attitude and strong leadership contributions were capped by the successful hosting of AMN-6 (the international Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology conference) in 2013.

Despite predictable administrative barriers, Auckland’s full partnership in the Institute was eventually irresistible—a ‘city of 4 million’ could hardly be built without sipping some lattes. On (or just below) the ground, the Photon Factory and microfabrication facilities set up shop. Researchers have both emerged from Auckland’s ranks, and arrived from other centres. The particular flavours of our largest city will become increasingly relevant to the MacDiarmid Institute.

The University of Auckland now hosts four of the five other CoREs. The Vice-Chancellor ponders how New Zealand might obtain one university with a top 50 world-ranking, even as a Wellingtonian early-career researcher wistfully tweets about Auckland’s 2014 funding successes. Out in the ‘burbs, our Kōrero with Scientists scheme barely scratches the surface of teacher demand.

In lecture theatres, the world’s largest population of Pacific peoples is vastly underrepresented, and the prevalence of eager young Asian faces is equally striking. The lecturer is almost comically out of synch; typically white, male, and academically (often literally) raised in Europe or North America. Within this environment we have the task of establishing a mature MacDiarmid Institute presence.

At Victoria University any discussion of CoREs has the MacDiarmid Institute, at least subconsciously, at its centre. In Auckland, we are on the periphery. One obvious step we can take is enhanced advocacy and communication; placing our brand front and centre. It’s obvious, and has a deceptively simple ring to it, but getting individuals to give due priority to the Institute is our greatest challenge. Why does the MacDiarmid Institute deserve such priority?

Realisation of ‘The MacDiarmid Difference’ in Auckland is critically and immediately important for our Institute, so that there is a resounding answer to this question. Our cultural intangibles have been made tangible by stating our values (excellence, integrity, commitment, etc.), and through example with individuals walking the talk.

Careers have been nourished, collaborations have thrived, research freedom has a satisfying impact; it is much more than a transaction of CVs for FTEs. The contribution of this culture to our high performance—as illustrated in the CoREs and Effect report for example— aside from being re-funded, should not be underestimated. These are areas where the University of Auckland may still have a bit to learn about CoREs. Even an innovative institute must sit comfortably on its foundations. The Institute has been an unselfish collaboration from student to boardroom, pooling resources for the good of the country rather than one institution.

Our Institute was the CoRE blueprint, drawn up in Canterbury and Wellington, in Otago, and the Manawatu. Auckland’s shiny new look comes with a responsibility to step up and help to ensure that the MacDiarmid Institute still leads. Scientists cannot often pick their ports of call, and I feel very fortunate returning to Maungawhau and Owairaka after fifteen years away. The city is maturing, with major infrastructure and real estate making daily headlines. Demographic and lifestyle changes challenge Aucklanders to find an identity. Yet there are endearing constants: a day at the cricket does not involve ski gear, the pubs are as-yet unsaturated by pretentious beer, and the Waitematā twinkles even as a squall rips past North Head. It’s exciting, there are opportunities, and building a strong presence for New Zealand’s most important CoRE is one of them. As for the Muttonbirds, well if it was easy, I guess it wouldn’t be worth singing about. . .