Posts Tagged collaboration

Professor Hendy retires Shaun Hendy Jun 27

The Allan Wilson Centre ca 2002. Penny and Hendy are second and third from the left in the back row.

The Allan Wilson Centre ca 2002. Penny and Hendy are second and third from the left in the back row.

No, it’s not me … it’s my Dad, Mike Hendy, who retires this week from his Chair in Mathematical Biology at Massey University in Palmerston North.

Not surprisingly, people often ask me whether I am related to Mike Hendy.  Hendy is an unusual last name, which we get from our Cornish ancestors, and Mike is probably the best known New Zealand Hendy, especially in academic circles.

On the Googling of Hendys

If I google ’Hendy’ at with the flattering personalised search features off, I find that Dad shows up in third place, after the town of Hendy in Wales and some chap called Peter Hendy, the commissioner for transport in London.

So what has my Dad done that gets him third place in Google’s hall of Hendys?

Well, the family story goes that my Mum and Dad went to a debate between evolutionary biologist David Penny Professor Robert Brooks of Massey University** and a creationist*** in Palmerston North.  My Mum has never been entirely convinced of the value of mathematics, but on this occasion Dad says that she poked him in the ribs and said that surely if Darwin’s theory of evolution had truly occurred then he ought to be able to prove it mathematically.

(While I would like to be able to claim to remember this first hand, at this stage of my life I was too occupied with blowing things up with double happys down on the banks of the Manawatu to pay much attention to such things.  Luckily for all concerned, I developed an interest in science a few years later after my Dad gave me a copy of John Gribbin’s book on quantum mechanics.)

Putting Darwin to the test

Now strictly speaking you can’t prove things in science, you can only disprove them.  But if a theory survives many attempts to disprove it, while its rivals don’t, then scientists will come to regard it as very likely being true.

The problem with evolution lies in putting it to the test.  In the late 1970s, the philosopher Karl Popper had caused a stir by suggesting that natural selection might not be falsifiable — he argued that it was based on a kind of tautology: only the fit survive, but the only way to tell fit from not is by watching what survives*.

In fact, it was Popper’s scepticism that inspired my Dad and David Penny to put evolution through a particularly stringent mathematical test a few years later, showing not only that it was falsifiable but that it stood up to a particularly rigorous attempt to disprove it.

They used new techniques that were emerging in the 1980s for constructing evolutionary trees using molecular genetics.  By seeing how specific chunks of DNA differed between species, scientists were beginning to infer genetic relationships between species that resembled family trees.

How does this let you test evolution? If the ancestors of gorillas diverged first from the ancestors of humans and chimpanzees, then evolution suggests that the match between the DNA of humans and chimpanzees should be closer than either has with the gorilla. Although we don’t know a priori whether gorillas did diverge first from humans and chimpanzees, the theory of evolution predicts that the DNA will tell the same story no matter which piece we look at.  If we don’t get the same answer from different pieces of DNA, then we have falsified evolution.

Back in the 80s, it was still difficult to sequence DNA, so David and Mike used proteins, which are coded for by DNA.  They used five different proteins from eleven different species, finding that the trees constructed from each protein did indeed paint a common evolutionary picture of the relationships between the species.

They had found a way in which evolution could in principle be falsified, but then had found that it stood up to their test.

Putting Massey on the Map

David and Mike published this work in Nature in 1982.  It is one of the scientific articles that put Massey University on the map, and today remains the eleventh most cited scientific article written by anyone at Massey.

They went on to develop better methods for constructing trees based on genetic data.  The Penny-Hendy collaboration has Massey’s second and fourth most cited scientific articles, while overall the two of them account for more than 2% of Massey’s articles and attract 6% of Massey’s citations.

So I guess you might say that Massey is a Dad and Dave kind of university.

In total, Dad worked at Massey for 38 years. He did many other things, including training a band of very successful graduate students who have gone on to have a big impact on the New Zealand science scene and founding the Allan Wilson Centre, which is one of New Zealand’s Centres of Research Excellence.

Of course, no true mathematician ever retires, and in that spirit Dad is going to carry on his research for a few more years at the University of Otago.  He takes up a research Chair there on Friday July 1.

Have fun Dad!

*Popper later backed away from this position as the debate unfolded.

** Correction from Dad ;)

*** Dad also adds “opposing Robert Brook was the creationist debater was Duane Gish, who is referred to in your link to Popper. Robert was such an unusual debater that he floored Gish on a number of points!”

The New Zealand Innovation Ecosystem Map Shaun Hendy Apr 14


Ten days ago we released a map of New Zealand’s largest inventor network using Google Earth to geo-locate the inventors in New Zealand. The map revealed some interesting connections between companies and public sector research organisations that at first sight may have seemed unrelated. It also showed that Kiwi inventors are collaborating across the country, with Auckland well connected to the other major centres.

NZ ecosystemThis time I would like to release the full New Zealand map (get it here – you will need Google Earth to open it), which I have decided to call the innovation ecosystem map. It contains all the New Zealand-based inventors from the European Patent Office database, including those in the previous map (note that you can toggle between the previous map and the full map in this file if you wish). It’s obviously a much denser map, and in some ways this makes it much harder to pick out the detail. It does give a very visceral impression on the intensity of inventive activity in and between New Zealand cities.

I have had comments from a number of people about the map:

The NZ Innovation Map clearly shows the extent of research-industry interaction and innovation in the field of technology. This data will be a useful tool for expanding technology networks that communicate new opportunities and provide connections between relevant partners in research, industry and government.

Dr. Peggy Tompkins, The Lighthouse Platform

We are fortunate in the sense that geographical distance is not an inhibiting factor for collaboration in New Zealand. Besides patents, people collaborate and share ideas by attending the same conferences, workshops and seminars — but this map shows we have a great platform to build on and deepen. Seeing our inventor network in this form is a good reminder that New Zealand needs to operate as a single entity if we are going to compete globally.

Lesley Middleton, MSI

We need these perspectives (albeit something of an ICBM’s view of innovation :-) ). For example the map highlights that we do manage to collaborate over quite large distances within New Zealand, despite our centres widely dispersed across a geography that is sizable for a 4 Million population.

John Houlker, NZTE

Shaun Coffey, my CEO at Industrial Research Ltd, also had some comments:

In New Zealand there is a wealth of great ideas and innovative companies but collectively we face many disadvantages due to our small size, distance from markets and lack of access to capital. It is widely understood that active management of the innovation ecosystem is critical in small economies like New Zealand but to do this effectively it is important to first have a deep understanding of the nature and complexities of the ecosystem.

In fact, Shaun has provided me with some extra resource (an IRL Fellowship) in order to develop this further. The next version will illustrate our international linkages and then I would like to produce an equivalent map based on companies and organisations. This will be a bit more challenging as we will have to infer these connections by the connections between people. It would also be good to add subject area information.

Who are we collaborating with? Shaun Hendy Jul 30

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Our talented intern from MIT has produced another tag cloud.  This time she has taken a look at who we collaborated with in 2008 based on our co-publication preferences in the ISI database.   The resulting map is shown below:

citycity08 copy

It’s clear we like working with Australians.  Those in Auckland, Palmerston North and Christchurch prefer to work with Sydneysiders, while those of us in Wellington prefer Victorians.  Hamiltonians have more exotic tastes with a clear preference for Californians.  And although Dunedin is often said to be the Edinburgh of the South, our southern scientists show a strong preference for London.

The story of the MacDiarmid Institute Shaun Hendy Jul 23


In my job as deputy director of the MacDiarmid Institute, I regularly get to recount the story behind our Institute to all sorts of visitors.  Last week I hosted a group of US scientists on Wednesday and a small Iranian science and technology delegation on Thursday.  On Thursday this week I had the opportunity to introduce some of the members of Alan MacDiarmid’s family to the Institute after many had travelled to join us at the opening of the Alan MacDiarmid building at Victoria University.

Our patron

Alan MacDiarmid was New Zealand’s most recent Nobel Laureate.  He was born in Masterton on 14 April 1927, and although he spent most of his career was spent in the United States, he maintained strong links with New Zealand.  He attended school in the Hutt Valley near Wellington and took a Masters degree in Chemistry at Victoria University of Wellington.  However, the majority of his professional life was spent at the University of Pennsylvania, after PhDs at Wisconsin and Cambridge.  Sadly Alan passed away in Philadelphia on the 7th of February 2007, just days before he was due to travel to New Zealand to attend one of our conferences.

Alan’s Nobel prize was awarded in 2000 for his part in the discovery of polymers that conduct electricity.  Most of us take it for granted that polymer-based materials like plastics are good electrical insulators.  This is a pretty good assumption unless they are made from some of Alan MacDiarmid’s conducting polymers.  Many of the new smart phone active display technologies now rely on conducting polymers for instance.

After Alan won his prize, he embarked on a New Zealand lecture tourin 2001.  Alan was a superb public speaker and he drew crowds at every venue he spoke at around the country.  This was timely reminder to the public that Kiwis could do world beating science.  Alan’s story of hard work, collaboration and a little bit of luck was also an inspiration to many scientists.

The Centres of Research Excellence

In 2001, the government decided to experiment with a new way of funding research at universities.  At the time New Zealand was widely regarded as having one of the most competitive systems for funding research in the world.  In a new approach, the Centres of Research Excellence (CoREs) were set up to try to encourage collaborative research between institutions.

Late in 2001, the Royal Society of New Zealand was asked to run a competitive tender process to select the CoREs.  I was associated with two initial proposals, one led by Richard Blaikie at the University of Canterbury and another led by Paul Callaghan (now Sir Paul Callaghan) at Victoria University of Wellington.  However, only a year out of my post-doc at IRL, I was not sophisticated enough to see that these two proposals should be combined.  Luckily, the Royal Society called first for expressions of interest, and then published these on line, allowing wiser heads to put two and two together before the final selection process began.

The MacDiarmid Institute was born out of the union of these two proposals and today this gives the Institute a multi-institutional character unmatched by any of the other CoREs.  Paul was the founding director of the Institute, serving from 2002-8, while Richard, who had been deputy, took over in 2008.  Alan MacDiarmid played a key role as the Institute’s patron in our early years; his presence at our first two conferences in 2003 and 2005 turned them into major international events.

Has it worked?

Cohort2002-2008Well, yes, but I guess I would say that wouldn’t I?  Actually, my interest in collaborative networks was sparked by some work by Sally Davenport and Urs Daellenbach from Victoria’s School of Management who decided to look at how successful a delocalised ’Centre’ could be.   One of the things they did was to construct co-authorship diagrams which showed that not only did the Institute’s productivity climb sharply, but that we were collaborating more widely with one another.  This is something I have picked up with my studies of co-authorship and co-invention.  The figure on the right shows the Institute’s co-authorship network from 2002-8 of the 2008 cohort of Principal Investigators.

There are many other measures that we have seen improve, including our relative citation impact and our external (non-CoRE) research income.  In fact our citation impact today places us up with some of the very best research institutes in the world.  As I see it now, the Institute brings scale and scientific excellence to materials science and nanotechnology in New Zealand.

Why did it work?

I think there are many things responsible for the improved performance of researchers in the Institute.  Most important was the example set by Paul and Richard in working so effectively across institutions.  In particular, Paul was an inspirational founding leader who was able to unite forty principal investigators from seven different institutions around the country in a common purpose.

By allowing the Institute to carry his name and by taking such an interest in our activities, some of Alan MacDiarmid’s mana rubbed off on us — MacD-logothis also helped break down the institutional barriers that had come to characterise New Zealand science in the 1990s.  People in the Institute were proud to put the MacDiarmid Institute as their primary affiliation — I remember how good it felt as a young researcher to give talks overseas with the MacDiarmid Institute logo on my powerpoint slides.

There are a number of other factors I think were important.  I will highlight a few here:

  • Our two capital injections enabled us to purchase world class shared equipment that would have been very difficult for individual institutions to afford.  Several of our main collaborative nodes seem to be based on particular pieces of equipment.
  • Alan’s success in communicating science to the public was an inspiration to Paul, and his job as director gave him the mandate and the resources to pick up where Alan had left off.  Paul describes it as the start of the science communication business in New Zealand.  Not surprisingly, scientists like working for organisations that have good public profiles, and the profile that Paul built for the Institute made us all proud to be part of it.
  • In 2005, we created our Science Executive committee to make executive decision making within the Institute more collegial.  Most of our scientists get to serve on this committee at some stage. It helps bring institutional balance to our decision making, something that is so important for a distributed research centre.
  • We make sure that we scrutinise our own performance as closely as possible.  Continued membership of the Institute is not guaranteed.  Every three years the Science Executive reviews each of our scientist’s performance both on measures of scientific excellence and productivity, but also on their wider contributions through outreach or commercialisation for instance.  We have also held two science reviews by panels of international experts who put our performance in an international context.

Importance to New Zealand

In think the MacDiarmid Institute’s success will prove very important to New Zealand in the long run.  Some of this benefit will come from the companies we spin out and the talented graduate students we produce of course.  But perhaps more importantly I think that the Institute has exemplified a new way of doing things in New Zealand.  By assembling teams of scientists on the basis of merit and skill rather than geography or institution, New Zealand can create scientific research institutes which compete with the best in the world.

Canadian research networks Shaun Hendy May 14

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I am in the USA this week attending a meeting of a Canadian research network that is very similar in some ways to New Zealand’s Centres of Research Excellence (CoREs).  The Canadian scheme is called CIFAR (Canadian Institute for Advanced Research) and was set up in the 1980s to try to counter the understandable tendency of Canadian scientists to collaborate with their US neighbours rather than their often more geographically distant Canadian colleagues. Like our CoREs, CIFAR funds collaborative research activities between Canadian scientists from multiple institutions.

I am at the meeting of CIFAR’s Nanoelectronics programme.  There have been a lot of cool talks; one interesting (if slightly disturbing) highlight was a talk on the development of a real time in vivo (i.e. surgically implanted) device for monitoring levels of specific biomolecules in the blood.  So far it has been shown to work in mice, although it still doesn’t have the sensitivity that would be required to make it really practical.  However, the days of sending samples to the lab are numbered.  Within our lifetimes, I expect many of us will be monitoring ourselves at home, looking for biomarkers for cancer and other diseases.  If the idea of having an implant monitor your blood sounds icky, don’t worry, disposable, one-shot devices that analyse a drop of blood will be available.

Many talks have been focussed on graphene, which is the hot material at the moment in materials science and nanoelectronics.  Graphene is closely related to graphite, which is the soft, crumbly form of carbon that is used in pencil leads.  At the atomic scale graphite is rather like filo pastry — it consists of flat sheets of carbon stacked on top of one another.  If you are able to peel off a single sheet of carbon, then you get graphene.  It promises to have many attractive features for electronics, so there is a rush to understand its properties and to incorporate it into devices.  From my point of view, it was very exciting to meet a researcher from the University of British Columbia who has been doing experiments that directly relate to some computer simulations of graphene that are being performed by my research group.  We will definitely try to start a collaboration on this work.

It has also been interesting comparing and contrasting approaches to developing and running research networks. Some of their programmes have been very long lived — for instance, the CIFAR Cosmology programme is 25 years old now and has been seen as a real success.  I was loosely associated with the CIFAR Cosmology programme when I was doing my PhD at the University of Alberta.  If I recall correctly I was funded to attend a conference in Banff — thanks CIFAR!

In New Zealand, no one is quite sure yet how long a CoRE should be maintained.  My own view is that in the long term, CoREs can provide a pipeline for developing leaders in the scientific community in a way that other institutions would find difficult.  CoREs could and should be maintained beyond the tenure of their initial leadership teams if they can demonstrate that they are providing this pipeline for young researchers.

However, the CIFAR programmes are centrally managed in a way that the CoREs are not.  CIFAR has a overarching management organisation based in Toronto that coordinates funding (private and public), and organises joint activities in outreach for example.  This takes much of the management burden off the researchers involved, but perhaps stifles the creativity and willingness to experiment that New Zealand’s CoREs have shown.

In New Zealand, the TEC monitors, rather than manages, the CoREs, while the CoREs coordinate activities through aCoRE, an association of the CoREs which meets every few months.  I can see advantages in this more devolved approach: although it does place a management burden on some of our leading scientists, it also gives them the opportunity to innovate and take the science community in new directions.

So do New Zealand scientists collaborate more with their overseas counterparts than with other Kiwis? Maybe.  I am on a Marsden panel this year; of the standard proposals I saw in the first round, more than 50% had an (unfunded) overseas collaborator, whereas only 20% had a collaborator from another New Zealand institution.  This is worth some further study.

Scientific collaboration within Australasian cities Shaun Hendy Apr 26

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Does scientific collaboration depend on city size?  And if it does, are smaller cities with fewer institutions and fewer scientists more collaborative?  Or do bigger cities with more specialisation and more opportunities for interaction support more collaboration?

Auckland 2009 To get at this question, I looked at scientific papers published in 2009 listed in the Thompson Reuters Web of Science database that had at least one author in a major Australasian city (Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth, Auckland, Adelaide, Canberra).  From the list of co-authors for each city, I constructed the corresponding co-authorship network.

The 2009 Auckland co-authorship network is shown on the right.  In the middle sits the largest connected component of co-authors which contains 72% of the authors in the diagram.  Not all of these authors will be Aucklanders of course — many are in the network because they have collaborated with Aucklanders.  For example, I am in the network (somewhere in the middle)  because I co-authored an article with a colleague from the University of Auckland last year.

In a blog post last year, I constructed the co-author networks for the New Zealand CRIs using the same database.  What I found surprised me:  in 2008, more than 50% of CRI scientists (including me again) were connected through the largest connected co-authorship network (up from about 12% in 1994).  I also looked at the 2008 University co-authors and found that 70% of them could be connected by a single network.  So Auckland looks pretty connected.

To put those Aucklanders in context however, let’s compare them with other major cities in Australasia.  Below I’ve plotted the number of co-authors associated with a selection of the major cities versus the proportion of those co-authors in the largest connected component. Australasia 2009
Auckland is actually at the low end of the scale, along with Perth and Canberra.  At the high end, the largest components in the Melbourne and Sydney co-author networks occupy close to 90%.  Larger cities do seem to exhibit more connectedness amongst researchers.  If you accept connectedness as a proxy for collaboration, the big cities in Australasia were more collaborative in 2009.

Interestingly, when you put New Zealand itself on the plot, you find that it is more connected than Auckland.  This will not surprise many south of the Bombay Hills!

How the US lost its lead in science and technology Shaun Hendy Jan 15


Having bailed out Wall Street last year, the US is now looking for new industries to kick start its economy. However, many observers feel that the US may have squandered its technological lead over the rest of the world:  the US trade balance in high technology products has fallen steadily into the red over the last decade, from US$5.3bn in surplus in 2001 to to more than US$50bn in deficit by 2007.  What went wrong?

Many commentators point to the outsourcing of high-tech production as the root cause of the US decline. It has been argued that innovation in many industries is most effectively transmitted by face-to-face contact. This favours clustering, where, as Michael Porter has observed, companies in similar industries find it advantageous to be geographic co-located, to allow information flow between organisations.

In the Harvard Business Review, Gary Pisano and Willy Shih generalise this concept. They see the collective R&D, engineering, and manufacturing capabilities of a nation as an industrial commons. Each firm benefits from the existence of the commons, and each contributes to the commons through its know-how in R&D and production. In fact, they argue that flow of information between the shop floor and the lab is vital to the commons. As Gregory Tassey from NIST puts it:

’… co-location of R&D and manufacturing is especially important because it means the value added from both R&D and manufacturing will accrue to the innovating economy, at least when the technology is in its formative stages. This phenomenon occurs because much of the knowledge produced in the early phases of a technology’s life cycle is tacit in nature and such knowledge transfers most efficiently through personal contact.’

J. Technol. Transfer (2008) 33:560—578

Despite this, it may make sense at the individual firm level to split R&D and production by outsourcing. Firms that choose to outsource may improve their profitability in the short term, but at the same time this capability is lost to the commons. Pisano and Shih argue that the US industrial commons has been eroded to the point where US firms have lost their competitive advantage in innovation.

The weakening of the US industrial commons has been blamed on the rise of a managerial class in corporate America, who, in search of short term financial efficiencies, have outsourced production on a massive scale and dismantled their large industrial labs. For example, the Kindle cannot actually be manufactured in the US, even if Amazon wanted to do so — the technological capacity now exists only overseas. Bell Labs, the organisation that gave the world the transistor and the photovoltaic cell, began the decade with more than 30,000 staff; today, under the ownership of Alcatel-Lucent, it has less than 1,000.

Even the US government has retreated from its support of research and development as shown below:US R&D spend

Pisano and Shih make two suggestions as to how the US can turn things around:

•    The government must alter the way it supports both basic and applied scientific research to promote the kind of broad collaboration of business, academia, and government needed to tackle society’s big problems.

•    Corporate management must overhaul its practices and governance structures so they no longer exaggerate the payoffs and discount the dangers of outsourcing production and cutting investments in R&D.

The question remains:  does the US have the energy, ingenuity and cold hard cash to rebuild its industrial commons?

The benefits of collaboration Shaun Hendy Nov 27


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. 


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. 

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