SciBlogs

Archive 2009

What’s ahead in 2010? Shaun Hendy Dec 29

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2010 is shaping up to be a defining year for New Zealand’s RS&T system. We will be hearing how the Government will set its RS&T priorities and what these priorities will be. The CRI task force will be reporting back, and we will find out how the Government is going to encourage R&D in the business sector. As I discussed in a post last month, the money spent by the business sector on R&D is strongly correlated with patenting.

What will I be blogging about in 2010? I have devoted quite a bit of time this year discussing data that we have extracted from the OECD patent database. There is still a lot of information to be mined from this database and I will be continuing to discuss this in the New Year. For instance, I will have more to say about inventor networks and how their structure changes with network size. I also want to look at some specific networks in more detail, comparing their size and structure between countries.

I will also follow up on some of my earlier posts on bibliometrics. It took me a while to get permission from Thompson Reuters to start publishing citation data, but this has now come through, so I will be looking at how the impact factors of New Zealand institutions have changed over the last 20 years. I also want to follow up with more detail on the surprisingly large co-author networks that exist within the New Zealand science community.

Of course, from time to time, I will blog on other matters that interest me throughout the year. I have been following the progress of some new types of collaborative research: mathematicians have been learning how to use the mass collaboration that blogging allows to prove theorems and solve original research problems. This is, after all, the reason that the web was created in the first place.

Collaboration, whether through blogs or other means, may be the key to New Zealand taking its own R&D to scale.

In the meantime, I hope you are all enjoying your holidays!

The nanoscience of ice hockey Shaun Hendy Dec 21

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n1009628089_30065983_4015During my PhD studies in Canada, I devoted a considerable amount of time and effort to becoming a mediocre ice hockey player. I have a scar and a grainy photograph to prove it.

You can imagine, then, what a difficult decision it was to come back to New Zealand to start a post-doctoral fellowship in a city without an ice rink. And despite the promises of our plucky mayor, my skates still hang unused in the closet.

While we wait for the rink to be built, it’s worth discussing what makes ice skating possible in the first place. One explanation commonly offered is that as water is denser than ice, the pressure of a skate blade will melt the ice underneath, creating a lubricating layer of water on which the skater glides.

However, this doesn’t explain why ice is slippery to walk on, whether or not skates are worn. And sure enough, it turns out that the pressure generated by a skate blade (a few hundred atmospheres) is only enough to lower the freezing point by about 3 degrees C — how do people skate at 4 degrees below zero?

In fact, ice is slippery because it is covered by a thin layer of water even at atmospheric pressure. The first person to suggest that this might be the case was the hugely influential English scientist Michael Faraday in the 1850s. He was intrigued by the fact that ice cubes tend to stick together when brought into contact and guessed (correctly) that this was because the cubes were covered by a layer of water too thin to see, but which freezes when the ice cubes touch.

These days we can measure this thin liquid layer using a variety of modern techniques: at one degree below zero, it turns out that the thickness of this layer on ice is about 100 nanometres, or one ten millionth of a metre, enough to make ice very slippery.

We have also discovered that this behaviour is not unique to water — at temperatures close to their melting points, most solids will be covered by a thin layer of their melt. Bridget Ingham, a colleague of mine at Industrial Research Ltd, recently returned from the Australian Synchrotron with x-ray measurements of the thickness of the liquid layer that forms on indium nanoparticles close to their melting points.

The presence of this molten layer below the melting point also explains why it is impossible to superheat most solids. As the temperature of a solid approaches the melting point, this liquid layer simply grows and grows, until eventually the whole solid disappears at the melting point.

This is in contrast to liquids, which can often be supercooled well below their freezing point. Freezing rain is another phenomenon that Canadians are more familiar with than Wellingtonians — this occurs when supercooled droplets of rain freeze on impact with the ground.

Despite the lack of facilities in Wellington for the study of ice skating, we do have a small company here called Beaglehole Instruments, which makes devices that can measure the thickness of these liquid films. This company was spun off from Victoria University in the 1990s after several physicists there became interested in thin premolten liquid layers. These physicists made some of the first measurements of the thin liquid layer that forms on a metal close to its melting point.

Nanostructures have an annoying habit of melting well below their normal melting temperature, so in nanoscience today, we are very interested in substances that don’t premelt. You can imagine that it is pretty difficult to keep a 10 nanometre ice crystal stable when ice usually forms a 100 nanometre liquid layer at —1 C. And it is the same with metallic nanocrystals, which obviously can’t be used in a nanoelectronic device if they are going to melt when the device heats up after it is switched on.

Hence the interest of another colleague of mine, Nicola Gaston, in very small gallium particles that for some reason are able to remain solid hundreds of degrees above the melting temperature of normal gallium. It seems that there is still quite a bit to be understood about surface melting.

p.s. The first lucky reader to guess which player is me in the photo, or alternatively, upon which part of my anatomy my ice hockey scar resides, gets a free skating lesson when the Wellington ice rink gets built.

The productivity of inventors in cities Shaun Hendy Dec 16

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In previous posts I have looked at data that showed that bigger cities produce more patents per capita. For instance, over the 30-years that the OECD database covers, Auckland has produced one PCT patent for every 750 people, whereas Sydney has produced one for every 550 people. Why is this?

We have seen that inventors that participate in large collaborative networks tend to be more productive. It could be that the opportunities to collaborate, which will presumably be greater in a larger city, increase the productivity of inventors in bigger cities. For instance, if you are putting together a research team that needs specialist skills, it is more likely that you’ll find people with the right skill set in a larger city.

Inventor productivity We can test this by looking at the dependence of inventor productivity on city size. On the left I have plotted the inventor productivity (that is, the number of patents per inventor) versus city size for cities in Australia. This can be less than 1 as typically there is more than one inventor per patent application. As you can see, inventor productivity does not have a dependence on city size in this data. We have found similar results in all the countries we have looked at, including New Zealand.

The corollary is that the number of inventors per capita increases with city size in a similar way to the number of patents. Bigger cities have more patents and more inventors per capita. This seems to rule out collaborative network effects as the cause of the higher number of patents per capita in bigger cities.

What else could be going on? Economists talk about knowledge spillovers where innovations that take place in one business, spur innovation in neighbouring businesses. In this scenario, we would expect to see inventors clustered together, while not necessarily being more productive. This idea is at least consistent with the data above. We’ll explore this in later posts.

2009 RS&T Scorecard released Shaun Hendy Dec 09

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The 2009 RS&T scorecard is now available here. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to obtain a pre-release copy from MoRST so I have not had time to fully digest it.

However, I will draw your attention to the interesting plot on page 4 which charts the number of patents per billion dollars GDP (2009 PPP). This measure presumably says something about the R&D intensity of economies. I find it extremely interesting that the scaled data for New Zealand and Australia are so similar.

Readers will recall that in a previous post I observed how the patent gap between New Zealand and Australia seems to be related to the differences sizes of our cities. Does this then mean that the GDP gap between the two countries is also related to the differences in city size? I suspect so, and sure enough there do seem to be some economists (such as Phil McCann now at the University of Groningen) who have similar suspicions.

As a country we have little control over many of the circumstances that dictate our economic geography.  So is it actually possible for us to close this GDP gap with Australia? Lowering tax rates doesn’t seem to me to be the answer — what do we do when Australia lowers their rates? Instead, along with many others, I think we need to move from a commodity-driven to an innovation-led economy, something that may in fact be more easily accomplished in a smaller country, and something that the Scandinavian countries have managed. Can we follow suit?

The first blog? Shaun Hendy Dec 05

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In 1993 a physicist called John Baez started posting This Week’s Finds in Mathematical Physics to several usenet newsgroups. The style and regularity of John’s posts very much anticipated the modern blog, even if the web wasn’t yet world-wide, and he is, if we can apply the term retrospectively, still blogging.

Readers of soc.culture.new-zealand in the mid-90s will remember other early efforts along these lines from Russell Brown (still blogging at Public Address) and Brian Harmer. These guys kept many expats up to date on New Zealand news, sport and politics in the days before web browsers could.

My own contribution to early internet culture is that I may have sent John Baez his first piece of spam. I was reading John Baez’s posts on sci.physics early in 1993 when I was a summer student at Industrial Research Ltd, and starting to think about where I would go to do a PhD. These were the days that you applied for graduate studies by writing to Universities via snail mail. Yes, actual hand writing was involved!

I decided to speed things up – I pulled a list of 30-40 email addresses from likely sounding Universities in the USA and Canada from sci.physics, and proceeded to spam them with PhD applications. I was surprised by how many replies I received – in the early 1990s, it was probably still a novelty to get a form email from a prospective graduate student.

One person who replied was John Baez, giving me with all sorts of advice about careers in physics. In the end I did my PhD at the University of Alberta in Canada. The person who I had emailed there (who actually turned out to be a grad student) had replied with a small essay on the virtues of the physics department at the U of A. It turned out to be  good advice.

In fact, a well directed and personalised email can still be a good way to make contact with a potential PhD supervisor. However there are also now plenty of PhD spammers who email out form letters like I did – these days they probably largely get ignored.

The benefits of collaboration Shaun Hendy Nov 27

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Yet another thing we can do with the OECD patent database is study the benefits of collaboration quantitatively. I have heard more than one cynic claim that a major effect of the Performance Based Research Fund is to increase the number of co-authorships (I’ll put your name on my paper, if you put mine on yours). Is such an effect visible in the patent database? Do the big collaborative networks that we have found just arise from cynical self-interest?

CollaborationEvidently not. In fact, what we find is a strong correlation between the mean number of collaborators in an inventor network and the mean productivity (in terms of the number of patents per inventor) of that network. This is shown in a plot on the left where I have used data from inventor networks in Germany and the USA. The data shows that the people who collaborate do tend to be more productive, although of course this is a correlation, not necessarily a causation.  However, from my own experience, I know there is a cost to collaboration — in time, patience and comfort. So it should perhaps not be surprising that if people are collaborating they are gaining some benefit. 

Productivity

Do these measures correlate with inventor network size? Yes indeed. The plot on the right shows that both collaboration and productivity among inventors increase with the size of the collaborative network. Again, perhaps it is not surprising that productive, collaborative people will build large networks around themselves. However, one could still imagine such networks arising out of the cynical sharing of inventorships by inventors around a fixed pool of inventions — this doesn’t appear to be the case. The largest networks are both more collaborative and more productive.

How do these networks form (if not by cynical trading of inventorships)? That is something we are still studying and although I do have more to say on this subject, I will save it for a later post. 

How to make money from your science Shaun Hendy Nov 22

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The MacDiarmid Institute held its annual meeting at the University of Auckland this year.  This year’s theme was ’How to make money from your $cience’.  Our students and post-docs participated, along with a number of students from Singapore.  The science students were taught how to write a business plan, then put into teams together with a student from the University’s business school.  Each team was asked to brainstorm a business idea to present to a ‘dragon’s den’ panel.

Now, we don’t expect all our students to become hot shot entrepreneurs (although a good many of them do want to, and no doubt will), but even those who remain in academia will find the ability to present a sound business case to be essential. 

On the day, the teams pitched concepts ranging from long-life ice cream to rapidly switchable, tintable coatings for glass.  The team that won had an idea for a fetal health monitoring device.  In the end, I think everyone enjoyed themselves immensely.  We will be preparing a podcast based on interviews with the students during the event so you can hear what they really thought!   

One session of the meeting was a talk from Basil Sharp, a University of Auckland economist who mused on why New Zealand’s patenting rate was so low when its number of researchers was so high.  (He suggested ‘market failure’, but if you read this blog you will know that many of our ‘researchers’ are not scientists or engineers.) 

We also had a talk by Brett Wells from Aeroqual who discussed the fun of successfully running a high tech start-up company in New Zealand.  This was very interesting and generated a lot of discussion — it was evident from Brett’s talk that the support and patience of Aeroqual’s investors has been critical to its success.  I hear many explanations for why New Zealand is not good at producing high tech start-ups, but those in the game such as Brett often don’t see many disadvantages at all. 

My thanks go to David Williams from the University of Auckland for organising the event. David’s career is a case-study in making the transition from academia to industry and back (he has even done this more than once).  He is certainly someone who knows how to make money from his science. 

Zipf’s law and the distribution of patents among applicants Shaun Hendy Nov 17

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One of the interesting things we can do with the OECD patent database is look at how those patents are distributed among applicants. The applicant for a patent is often the organisation or company that employs the inventors rather than the inventors themselves. By looking at the distribution of patents among applicants we are looking at the size distribution of patent portfolios. Note that an organisation may apply for patents from multiple addresses — in this case I have treated each address as a separate applicant.

Applicant distributionThe plot on the right shows the distribution of European Patent Office patents among applicants from the USA, New Zealand, Australia and Finland. The data is shown on log-log axes — remarkably, the data in all four countries fall roughly on straight lines with slopes close to -2. In other words, the proportion of applicants with p patents is inversely proportional to p squared.

This appears to be yet another example of Zipf’s law, which is a frequency distribution that crops up in all sorts of strange places (none stranger than the popularity of opening moves in chess). One way such distributions can arise is through a process called ’preferential attachment’ (sometimes called a rich get richer process). In our case, such a distribution could be generated if an applicant’s probability of getting a new patent increases with the number of patents the applicant already has. The value of the exponent generated by such a process (close to -2 in the data shown) depends on the rate at which first-time applicants enter the population versus the rate at which new patents arise amongst existing applicants.

What is interesting is that the exponents are quite similar across the four countries, suggesting that the process that generates the distribution is the same in each. The main difference between countries is the absolute scale of the distribution rather than the slope.

Applicant distribution by BERDWhat determines this scale? The best correlate I have found is the level of business expenditure on research and development (BERD) in each country. If we instead plot the number of applicants per million dollars of BERD, the distributions almost collapse on to one another. Actually, you can see that with this rescaling New Zealand comes out quite well — we get more patents for the dollars we spend than the other countries shown.

Despite the value for money New Zealand businesses appear to get for their R&D spend, the data show that you largely do get what you pay for. Indeed, the similarity of the exponents between countries also suggest that the innovation process itself does not vary widely — it is the amount of research you do rather than the way you do it that is important. Unfortunately in New Zealand, our focus is all too often on how we innovate, rather than how much we innovate.

What is a karonkka? Shaun Hendy Nov 05

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I’m on my way to Helsinki at the moment to examine a Finnish PhD thesis. The University of Helsinki PhD exam is quite different from its New Zealand counterpart. To start with the thesis itself is a merciful 40 pages, although it is accompanied by 6 refereed journal articles. Overall the body of work is roughly comparable to a good New Zealand PhD thesis.

But most significantly, the oral exam is conducted in public. I am called the Opponent — after a short presentation from the candidate I am expected to question the candidate for approximately 2 hours. At the end of this period, questions can come from the public.

One thing the Finns have stressed is the dress code. This was mentioned in the official invite I was sent:

On such an important day it is worth dressing elegantly, and not to show up wearing jeans and a worn-out pullover, something that has occasionally been the case in Sweden.

Those crazy Swedes! Suffice to say that I had to send my measurements for a tailcoat and waistcoat a few weeks ago.

After the exam itself, I understand that I will be sequestered while I write my report on the exam.

Then comes the karonkka. I am told that karonkka literally means coronation, but on this occasion it is a dinner to celebrate the success of the candidate (apparently only two candidates in the 355 years of the University have failed the public exam, and having read the thesis it’s very unlikely there be a third by Friday). While I suspect the karonkka will not be good for my liver, my job as Opponent is (luckily) pretty much over at this point — it will just remain to toast the newly minted PhD.

It is a great privilege to be able to participate in such a tradition. This is also my first visit to Finland, a country that shows up strongly in my patent studies.  

Patents: Australia vs New Zealand Shaun Hendy Nov 02

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The All Blacks may have swept the Wallabies in the Bledisloe Cup this year, but how do New Zealand and Australia stack up on innovation? A few posts ago I looked at how New Zealand’s patents were distributed regionally. Using an OECD database of PCT patents from 1978-2008, I found that Auckland had the most patents per capita of any New Zealand city (naturally I was interviewed about this late last week by the Herald). But how do New Zealand cities compare to Australian cities in patents per capita?

AusNZ Patents by RegionTo make the comparison, I have graphed the New Zealand and Australian city data together. Overall, the Australians are about a third ahead on patents per capita: there is one PCT patent for every 750 Australians compared to one for every 1000 New Zealanders.

However, we don’t do so badly when we compare cities. In fact Auckland compares well with the similar sized city of Adelaide, and even stacks up well against Brisbane. Where Australia gets ahead of us is through Sydney and Melbourne, with one patent for every 550 people. 

As discussed earlier, this trend for larger cities to have more patents per capita has also been noted in data from the United States. It appears to hold in Australasia too, although Canberra bucks this trend with one patent for every 200 people. Thanks to CSIRO, Canberra is the most inventive city per capita in Australasia. 

Nonetheless, why do bigger cities tend to have more patents per capita than smaller cities? I will look at this in later posts.

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