December 23, 2009

The Last Hurrah (for now)...

It is with a tinge of sadness that I must announce to all my readers that I will be leaving New Zealand and moving overseas for the foreseeable future. I'm doing this not only to further my career, but also to experience what life in another part of the world is all about. I'm incredibly excited.

Since beginning blogging about 6 months ago I have notched up over a half century of posts (58 to be precise), read many more, and as result learnt far more than I may have otherwise. I have met (virtually) a great number of passionate people and hopefully I have managed to convince some of you of the importance of science and technology in not only determining New Zealand's future prosperity, but the World's.

Rest assured I still have many more posts in me, and I hope to continue while I'm abroad - which could make some interesting comparisons to how things are done here in NZ.

I'll be travelling through SE Asia and China en-route to Europe where I hope to settle. If you know of anyone in that area who would love to employ an enthusiastic and passionate young mind in a science & technology-related area, please ask them to get in touch via this blog!

Best wishes for the festive season,


December 21, 2009

Reaching Out...

I was recently sent a link to an article in The Australian, on a survey completed by the UK Innovation Research Centre at the University of Cambridge and Imperial College London, on "Knowledge Exchange between Academics and the Private, Public and Third Sectors. The survey, which elicited 22,000 responses, made for interesting reading.

It turns out (in the UK anyway) that academics are engaged in a wide range of interactions with a wide range of partners in each of those sectors - 40 per cent of respondents worked with the private sector, 53 per cent co-operated with the public sector and 44 per cent with a third sector such as charities. I guess the big question to be asked here is, how much did this happen, and is engaging once in the last 3 years sufficient for an academic to give a 'yes' answer? In the case of this survey, I suspect it is, but for my liking once every three years could hardly be called engaging.

Whether that may or may not be the case, one thing was obvious from the survey - academics do seem to have motivation for Knowledge Exchange, albeit for different drivers - improve teaching, greater insights, test practicality etc., rather than making money. However, there are a few constraints to them doing so, the largest being lack of time and university bureaucracy. Academics can't do everything (as I've said before), and as the authors point out, after teaching, administration, outreach etc:

"There may be little capacity left within the university system for a greater level of interaction between academics and external organisations. Simply too much pressure may be placed on universities, or the academics within them, to engage with others and achieve economic impact. Furthermore, such pressure could undermine some of the core strengths of many universities in particular if it leads to less basic research."

This, coupled with the fact that the initiation of external activities was done by Technology Transfer Offices only 24% of the time, suggests the need for special/improved expertise in this area - just as Sir Peter Gluckman has mentioned in several speeches this year, and as Mark Dodgson points out in 'The Australian':

“There are implications for technology transfer and commercialisation offices. These should better reflect the diversity of their home institutions' missions and be much broader in the range of interactions they support. They have to ensure their commercial transactional approaches do not deter academics from initiating conversations with external parties."

I wonder what the results of such a survey would be in New Zealand? Perhaps the academics amongst you could think about who you've approached externally in the last 3 years to ensure your research has impact?

December 9, 2009

From Blackholes to a Laptop near you...

There is a really cool story on today about the winner of Australia's Prime Minister's Science Prize. I think it illustrates not only why fundamental research is so important, but also the time scales that the benefits often take to filter through and hence why we have to be patient!

In short: In the mid-70's John O'Sullivan and some colleagues had set out to measure the pulses emanating from black holes. These pulses distort as they travel through space and so John O'Sullivan and his colleagues needed a way to piece the distorted pulse back together again. The solution came from a mathematical equation called the Fourier Transform which was adapted to their field of astronomy.

Years later, when personal computing became more popular, O'Sullivan wondered what it would be like if "you could just cut the wires". The problem they faced was that in offices, cafes, etc. where we all like to use our wireless devices, the signal was distorted by things like walls and floors. This in essence was the same problem as he had faced when researching pulses from black holes - how to put a distorted signal back together again. From there wi-fi technology was born, a technology was developed that has gone on to earn him and his employer, CSIRO, hundreds of millions of dollars, and revolutionized the way we communicate and access information.

While John O'Sullivan and his team clearly put in the hard work and had the vision to do something with their work, I think it is a lesson to us all that we need to support our fundamental researchers in the excellent work they are doing, because you never know how your research is going to be applied years down the track, and what potential gains you (or your country!) might make from it.

December 4, 2009

Living Cell Technologies

You might remember one of my early posts on Living Cell Technologies (LCT), a NZ company who are experimenting with the use of pig cells to treat diabetes patients. They are currently in trial at Middlemore Hospital in Auckland, and I read this morning that the first trial patient has had no side effects after transplant 8 weeks ago, and has now been able to reduce his daily insulin intake by up to 30 %.

LCT is actively working to develop life-changing cellular therapies – treatments that will improve the quality of life of patients with diabetes, haemophilia, hearing loss, liver failure and brain degenerative conditions such as Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease and Huntington’s disease.

In the case of diabetes, this is done by encapsulating the healthy living pig cells that produce insulin, in a seaweed derived extract (alginate) to form tiny particles that are then implanted into the patient to provide insulin.

Diabetes is suffered by 11,000 New Zealander's, and throughout both developed and developing countries, the number of those affected is increasing at a steady rate. Although there are clearly some ethical issues involved with this type of treatment, this is an emerging area which, through Living Cell Technologies, represents an opportunity for NZ to capitalise.

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