Opinion: Time To Process

Dr Nicola Gaston teaches in the School of Chemical and Physical Sciences at VUW. Her research aims to improve our understanding of the functionality of materials. In particular she looks at the development and variation of physical properties as a function of size, from simple clusters of a few atoms, to large nanoparticles and bulk materials, using accurate quantum mechanical calculations and highly parallel computing. She has been a Principal Investigator in The MacDiarmid Institute since 2010, and was previously leader of the Electronic and Optical Materials theme and a member of the Science Executive. She blogs at whyscienceissexist.wordpress.com, and is the current President of the New Zealand Association of Scientists.   

The Marsden Fund celebrated its 20th anniversary this week, and I thought I might take the opportunity to reflect on my personal experiences: to discuss the importance of that funding in the broader context of science funding in New Zealand. I think this is particularly relevant to understanding how organisations such as the Centres of Research Excellence fit in and complement other sources of funding and support. I remember very clearly, in the first few years after I got my Marsden Fast Start in 2008 how I agonised over the list of outcomes in each annual report. I might have had a couple of papers to mention, and I was running around bending the ears of anyone I could get to sit still for half a second about gallium, and I was learning new things like mad—but it never felt like it was enough. And now, five years later, it is just starting to make sense. It may be, of course, that I am slow—but I think that there are good reasons why so many of the projects highlighted by the Marsden Fund as examples with clear and communicable outcomes were first funded quite a long time ago. There are two ways of looking at this, really: one way would be to say that the three-year timeframe that we give ourselves for these projects is somehow unrealistic. And while there’s an element of truth in that, the more important point is that additional sources of support, such as that provided by The MacDiarmid Institute, have a really important role to play in getting the most out of those bits of project-based funding. The environment that you are working in, and how it supports and recognises your personal judgement—or even intuition—of what good science is; this is so important. This has been brought home to me in the last year by the rather different environment that prevails in the university system, if I compare to the five years that I spent at Industrial Research Ltd (IRL), crown research scientists have a different level of concern about the stability of their funding. And the relevant numbers, in which one discusses funding, change considerably: 0.3 FTE is a large research commitment for a University scientist, while for a CRI scientist, it means you are still writing proposals. This isn’t necessarily a problem; both systems are suited to different types of research, and that’s a good thing. But the idea, that CRI scientists have the luxury of having all of their time to spend doing research—that was a myth that I felt needed debunking. For me, it has been an interesting experiment, helped in part by the fact that my move from IRL to Victoria University, as a theorist, happened with minimal overhead in terms of set up time and cost. (Okay, I’ll admit that I never quite managed to finish my research group website before term started last year, but I’ll get around to it sometime this year, I promise.) Thus I’ve had my research continue almost seamlessly from one workplace to the other, all the time that I’ve been learning where to find the stationery, how to book meeting rooms, and who to talk to in order to get through institutional firewalls. This experience has illustrated for me something I find really interesting. That the pace of teaching, for much of the semester, fits in rather well with the day-to-day tasks of my research: the sustained mulling over data; the repetitive, mostly unsuccessful postulation of explanation; and the need to go off and read up on a newly discovered idea. An analogy based on the kind of computational work I do, is that some kinds of calculation are best measured in CPU time, while for others, real time is the more realistic unit in which to judge your expectation of completion. Research seems to be much the same: you have to spend a certain amount of processor time on it, but there’s a lack of parallelizability that means you need a minimum amount of real world time as well. With this in mind, the thought experiment follows. Of the Marsden funding I have had, and the support I have had from The MacDiarmid Institute, which is more important? Obviously they aren’t independent, and one might even suspect that whichever came first would have helped in obtaining the second—but still—a question that is difficult to pose is often a question that has an interesting answer. For the moment, the answer that I can confidently give is this: The MacDiarmid Institute funding supported me to exist in an environment that made my Marsden project immeasurably better than it would have been without it. I don’t say more productive, exactly(the CPU time probably didn’t change)but much, much more complete. Robust. In terms of outcomes, this doesn’t mean that I have different answers to any of the research questions we posed—in fact, it means that those answers come with more caveats. Good things take time, as Mainland Cheese used to tell us. And in science, I think this means that we need to value the real world time spent on a project, as much as the resources expended on it. FTE values tell you what a project will cost while the length of real world time ‘used’ is more likely to predict the value of the outcomes. I realise that this isn’t a lesson for research funders, but perhaps for us as researchers. Stop. Think. Smell the roses. We can’t expect the incentives in the funding system to drive serendipitous discoveries that don’t correspond to contracted milestones—funded scientific projects are what they are, but they do not add up to all of science. What we can do for ourselves, though, is encourage and value science that is slow, that is done in the corners around and between projects. And that’s kind of wonderful.