September 25, 2009

The Blurred Boundary Between Science and Business

The second point from Sir Peter’s talk ‘Can Transforming Science Transform NZ?’ revolved around the blurred boundaries between science and business. The two are very different. Things cannot be easily measured in science that are valued and required by business, for example, profit forecasts, return on investment and other milestones. Science just doesn’t work that way – it is often hard to predict what will happen.

Simon Upton points out in the Dominion Post that “Politicians and managers just don't know enough about the essentially creative drivers of research to try to manage them.”

Sir Peter stated that the importance of business planning in grant applications has increased over the last decade. And so it should I believe, because scientists should not just get ‘money for jam’ - they must be accountable to taxpayers like everyone else. But because NZ Business investment in RST is so low, this has meant that the role of this business planning has fallen largely with the scientists, and as pointed out above, scientists really have no idea about business and vice versa.

Scientists have confused themselves between technology transfer and fundamental research, essentially trying to fit a mould while being micromanaged via the strict government grant process, which in Sir Peter's view creates a cynicism that leads to second-rate science.

Second-rate science achieves nothing, and to quote Simon Upton again, "attention would be better expended ensuring that those with the necessary business skills can access and commercialise the opportunities that arise in the ordinary course of research". In short: in R&D, the scientists should be left to the 'R' and the business/technology transfer experts should be left to the 'D'

I’m not so sure our research is second rate and in my experience traveling to conferences worldwide, I know that we can definitely hold our own. Do we simply not have the volume of basic research to drive innovation? Or is it that we lack the business skills to take great ideas to scale?

Potential solutions mooted here were:
  • Better assistance schemes for matching up science and business
  • Academics on company boards
  • Business Development/Technology Transfer skills as part of career development
  • Cheaper access to university research facilities

I agree with Sir Peter and I think he is creating a much-needed stir in his new role. The onus now lies with Prime Minister John Key and the National Government to make good on claims like "science should be at the heart of Government”, and "RST will be expected to play a bigger part in improving our economic performance". The recent announcements by Minister Mapp, indicate that things may at last be moving in the right direction.

September 23, 2009

Collaboration vs. Competition

The first point for improvement from Sir Peter Gluckman’s seminar “Can Transforming Science Transform New Zealand?” is a case of collaboration vs. competition. NZ has the most competitive science funding system in the world via too many funding avenues and far too many institutions.

Basically too many people are competing over not enough money, which has reduced scientists to begging and caused the destruction of logical career progressions in science in NZ (and the departure of top scientists overseas). In a country as small as ours, there will always be competition over funding, and so we must look for ways to maximise benefit from what we’ve got.

Sir Peter believes one answer lies in collaboration. He argues that it is hard to share knowledge in a system with so much individual and institutional competition. Individual competition comes about largely because of PBRF funding, while there are over 20 Institutions in NZ in which "RST is a matter of survival not a matter of national interest." Surely collaborating more, both domestically and internationally would give rise to more innovation. We need a new approach – we need to become an exporter of ideas, similar to countries of our size like Singapore, Denmark, Finland, and Israel who are capable of taking ideas to scale through collaboration.

NZ is in an excellent place to do this for a number of reasons:

  • We have a good reputation
  • A good education system
  • A practical economic base
  • Strength in other sectors (like the Trade, Manufacturing and Service sectors)
  • We are close to a growing Asia
  • And we are small (which is an asset contrary to popular belief)

I believe the problem NZ will have is that we will struggle to let our ideas go: we like the idea of Kiwi people in Kiwi jobs (blogged about here). NZ has made excuses in the past about being too far away from its markets. The biggest market is becoming closer by the day, and I believe the growth of and collaboration with Asia could have a huge impact on NZ – if we choose to grasp it. The old adage of 50% of something large vs. 100% of something small certainly rings true in this instance.

September 21, 2009

Can Transforming Science Transform New Zealand?

Sir Peter Gluckman is the Chief Science Advisor to the Prime Minister of NZ. His appointment in early 2008 was a good signal that the NZ government wishes to re-examine the role of science in NZ's political decision making - something that has been lacking for quite sometime now.

On Monday I saw Sir Peter speak on "Can Transforming Science Transform New Zealand?" He said that in NZ we have missed the boat on the valuation of science research. We were a lucky country until the 70's, with our commodity exports (meat, dairy, wood, wool etc.) earning us prosperity (until recently), and because of that we've valued science only as a nice to have not a must have.

Consequently, we now have a cultural barrier to substantial Research, Science and Technology (RST) commitment, whereas other countries that invested in RS&T in the early days see it as a must have. Sir Peter has pointed out before that we seem to have forgotten the important role science played in making our primary sectors as strong as they once were.

In essence Finance Minister English wants to know what “bang-for-buck” he is getting. Sir Peter rephrased this as a question to the audience: “is science relevant to NZ’s economic growth?” [the answer is yes!], and so how can we shift the attitude from science being a nice to have, to science being a must have.

Changing this view will be incredibly challenging, but Sir Peter is the right man for the job, because he is well respected in scientific, business and media circles, and is not afraid to speak his mind!

Two main areas (of many) he highlighted for improvement are:

  • collaboration vs. competition; and
  • the blurred boundary between science and business

In the next couple of posts I’ll explain what I think he means by these points and add a few of my own.

Stay tuned…

September 18, 2009

Rapid Diagnostics

One of the big areas of growth in medical research around the world at the moment ($US30 Billion and growing) is rapid diagnostics. Basically this means that diseases, viruses, conditions etc., can be diagnosed in a simple, cheap and fast manner anywhere on earth. The prescribed treatment can then be administered, saving time and money on expensive lab analysis.

Innovations in rapid diagnostics are set to change the face of health care as we know it - they reduce the number of tests required, their associated charges, and limit casual antibiotic use and improper prescription of drugs. They allow community surveillance by informing physicians quickly about what agents are in the community, and furthermore, their simplicity and speed allow high throughput screening which can be done using nurses or trained individuals instead of doctors - freeing up the best medical professionals to do what they do best - solve complex medical problems.

An example from the last decade is pregnancy test kits which can now predict whether or not a woman is pregnant to a good level of accuracy, without the need to go to a doctor. With the level of chronic diseases such as diabetes (usually confined to developed countries) on a dramatic rise in underdeveloped nations and global pandemics such as the recent Swine Flu, the need for results straight away is becoming more crucial.

There are a few NZ companies that are leading the way in this area - Veritide Ltd, a start up in Christchurch who make detectors for anthrax spores, and Izon who make patented nano pore's for the detection of specific viruses. Check them out - they're doing some incredible work.

This year the NZ Venture Investment Fund announced they are looking to invest $10 million into new medical technologies. Hopefully the result of this is a few more companies in this area that NZ could benefit from.

September 15, 2009

Project West Wind

Project West Wind is Meridian Energy's new wind farm at Makara, near Wellington, New Zealand. Last week I had the pleasure of taking a guided tour with the Institute of Professional Engineers of NZ.

It was great to witness how a big project like that can all come together despite the many challenges faced. The biggest of these challenges was how to actually get the components to the site - if you are unfamiliar with the terrain it is incredible steep and rocky in places. This was done by barging the components across from Picton in the South Island, to a custom built wharf, moving them onto trucks, who transported them up 33 km of custom built roads to their respective sites. As the towers are 70 m tall, each blade 40 m long and each housing the size of a small truck, this was no mean feat, and the roads were carefully constructed for the correct gradients and turning arcs.

The turbines were produced in Denmark by Siemens, who sent out 50 engineers to install them. Meridian has a number of other proposals in for more wind farms which will no doubt equate to incredibly large sums of money that will provide great opportunity for NZ’s leading engineering firms.

September 10, 2009

PowerbyProxi - Wireless Electricity?

PowerbyProxi are a spinout company of Auckland University who are developing wireless electricity solutions. I saw this talk and demonstration on about wireless electricity the other night, and I was reminded of PowerbyProxi. While the details (and possibly target markets) of the two technologies may be subtly different and are probably tied up in hoards of patent speak, I imagine the fundamentals are very similar.

This technology was in fact demonstrated by Nikola Tesla in the late 1890's before the FBI pulled the plug (pardon the pun) on it. Although explained in the video rather nicely, the basics of the technology revolve around the principle of electromagnetic induction - an electric current moving in a closed loop will generate a magnetic field, and vice versa. Hence if two coils are present one inside the other, the second coil can turn the magnetic field back into electricity. This is the basis of transformers. The key to making this work over long distances, however, is to make the respective coils oscillate at the same frequencies and 'couple' so that power can be transferred.

As pointed out in the comments section of the video, there will be some issues around who pays for the power (ie. can anyone tap into it?), but imagine a world where battery powered devices never go dead!

*PowerbyProxi was spun out of the University of Auckland in 2006.

September 3, 2009

The Bayer Innovator Awards

I was going to post about my PhD supervisor, Prof. Jim Johnston, winning a Bayer Innovator of the Year award, but was pipped at the post by the Gold Innovations Blog here! As the post points out, this was largely for his work on the innovative use of gold and silver nanoparticles as colourants for wool textiles.

As I've recently become involved in this research (along with current PhD students Fern Kelly and Kerstin Burridge), it may be a perfect time to explain a little bit more about it and what we're trying to achieve here.

As I've said before, when we shrink the constituent particles of a material down to the nano scale, we start to see new and interesting properties. This is because the particles can be considered closer to the size of atoms than to bulk materials - thus we see "quantum effects". One effect we see with gold or silver particles at this scale is a phenomenon called "surface plasmon resonance" which alters the way light interacts with the particles. Hence, instead of seeing the lustrous yellow colour we are all familiar with when we think of gold, we see a range of colours - red through blue. We then use these particles of different colour to "dye" wool (and a number of other materials too!).

The aim here is to link the high quality of NZ wool with the prestige of precious metals like gold and silver and sell into high value markets. Silver has the added benefit of being antimicrobial and so the resultant textiles are capable of killing bugs, making them ideal for medical textiles.

The work was funded by the World Gold Council's GROW Program (which I made a comment about here), and we are now progressing it towards commercialisation with a number of interested parties both in NZ and internationally. If you have any questions please leave a comment!

NIWA Wellington Science Fair

Last week Victoria University's School of Chemical and Physical Sciences hosted the NIWA Wellington Regional Science Fair. Last year I was honoured to be asked to judge the chemistry prize for this competition and it was inspiring to see so many young people interested in talking about science and in particular what they had done in their projects. It certainly took me back to the days of making lemon batteries or erupting volcanoes in my primary school days!

The top prizewinners this year were:
  • Zofia Arthur, for her work researching the most effective windbreaks (in which she found trees and shrubs were the most effective in comparison to perforated metal and solid walls);
  • Thang Tran, for his meticulous analysis in finding that juice stored at temperatures too high and too low will have lower levels of vitamin C, and;
  • Nika Thomson, who found that exercise does significantly improve the blood sugar levels of type 1 Diabetics.
Most of these students will be entering university in the next few years, and so the challenge now is making sure these young minds continue their scientific careers. How that can be done effectively with the mulitude of career options open to students at this stage, I do not know. One thing I do think we need to do though, is celebrate and publicize great scientific work, just as the NIWA Science Fair does. Who know's? Perhaps one of these students could be the next MacDiarmid Young Scientist of the Year, Bayer Innovator of the Year, or even a Nobel Prizewinner. Only by celebrating and talking about these achievements (and science in general) will young students become aware of the many wonderful career options open to them in science.

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