Shaun Hendy

Professor Shaun Hendy is Director of Te Punaha Matatini, the Centre of Research Excellence based at the University of Auckland. His PhD was in astrophysics and cosmology (he watches The Big Bang Theory for the equations), but these days he apply physics, mathematics and computer simulation to solve problems in materials science and nanotechnology. Recently he has also been applying a few ideas from complex systems theory to look at how innovation works in New Zealand and overseas. He'll use this blog to report some of the results, and to discuss other topics that are of importance to New Zealand science. Shaun is on Twitter @hendysh

Scientists need to hold policy-makers to account - A Measure of Science

Sep 30, 2014

Over on Public Address last week, New Zealand Association of Scientists President, Dr Nicola Gaston, wrote a very important post on Science and Democracy. When politicians ignore scientific advice, or special interests seek to undermine such advice, how should scientists react? Dr Gaston considers the guidance on offer for scientists in such circumstances in the Royal Society of New Zealand’s code of ethics and rules. Dr Gaston’s post is very timely. In Nicky Hager’s Dirty Politics it was alleged that ex-MP Katherine Rich arranged for the posting of “hits” on a popular blog in order to undermine scientific advice about the health risks of consuming alcohol or fatty, sugary foods. While Rich, who is Chief Executive of the Food and Grocery Council, … Read More

Science and its privilege in the policy arena - A Measure of Science

Aug 25, 2014

Scientific evidence is held in high regard by New Zealand’s government and its public officials, and frequently plays a significant role in the policy arena. As the late Sir Paul Callaghan said, “‘Science is the compass on the voyage we must all make into the twenty-first century.” But as government moves to appoint science advisors across its Ministries, it is worth reflecting on why science should be valued so highly. Why should scientific evidence be privileged over other inputs into the policy-making process? “Scientists should stick to the facts,” concluded the Vancouver Sun after an interview with the New Zealand Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor, Sir Peter Gluckman, on the role of scientists in policy. Sir Peter has argued that scientists must act as brokers of knowledge – not advocates – when providing advice to policy-makers. Read More

Misogyny in science - A Measure of Science

Jul 09, 2014

I had to wait until fourth form for my first lesson about feminism. I went to an all-boys school in provincial New Zealand, where classes on contemporary political issues were few and far between. So I sat up straight when my maths teacher told us that feminists believed that “All men are rapists.” For his fourteen-year old audience, he felt the need to clarify “What they mean is that all men are capable of rape.” But he had thought long and hard about this: “Remember boys, if you ever meet a feminist, just tell her that all women are prostitutes.” What a dick. Today I work in physics at the University of Auckland, where it is my turn to teach the next generation of young scientists, technologists and entrepreneurs. As a country, it is universally acknowledged that we have a … Read More

Evidence-based science policy - A Measure of Science

Jun 11, 2014

In May last year, the New Zealand Herald ran an editorial in which it declared: Science has been a black hole for taxpayers’ money. Governments of all stripes agree that science is something they should fund without knowing very much about it. Ironically, the editorial went on to praise the virtues of the National Science Challenges (NSCs), which had been announced a few weeks later. Ironic, because the NSCs are shaping up to be one of the biggest black holes that science has sent the taxpayer’s way in a long time. In this post I want to introduce the emerging science of “science policy”, which represents a new approach to evaluating the outcomes of science and innovation investment and offers hope for rescuing science funding from the Herald’s black hole. The dark arts Many … Read More

Timing is everything - A Measure of Science

Feb 17, 2014

Today, I will be reflecting on the importance of good science communication at the University of Waikato’s International Symposium on “Transforming Engagement on Controversial Science and Technology”. There is a lot to say, and a lot that has been said, about science communication. In this post, however, I want to reflect on an aspect of science communication that is often overlooked.  Sir Peter Gluckman, in his role as the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor, wrote last year about scientists, the media and society. In his essay, he warns scientists of the dangers of becoming advocates for a particular cause, instead arguing that scientists need to act as knowledge brokers for society. Sir Peter’s article is well worth reading, but I think it neglects an important aspect of science communication – namely, that of first response. Scientists as … Read More

Marsden 2013: Big increase in funding lifts success rate - A Measure of Science

Jan 24, 2014

This post is late, very late! I have a long list of excuses, many of which involve moving to Auckland and writing a Centre of Research Excellence Proposal. But with the 2014 Marsden round almost upon us, it is well past time to look at the numbers from 2013. 2013 saw a big increase in the funds handed out. In fact the $68m awarded was the largest ever*, only surpassed by the 2009 round ($65m) if you adjust for inflation. In real terms, the Marsden fund has handed out about 18% more each year over the period 2008-2013 than it did over the preceding decade. The average funding awarded to each successful proposal (fast-start and standard) continues to hover just below $600k. If the total investment was high in 2013, while the funding per proposal remained static, … Read More

The Physics of Santa - A Measure of Science

Dec 24, 2013

At this time of year, many parents worry about the risks posed to their children from exposure to Santa Claus. We know very little about the science of Santa because the government refuses to fund research into Christmas,as it cannot be linked to direct economic benefit. Yet, as Colin Craig has been at pains to remind us this year, unless we know the facts, how can we be sure that Santa’s reindeer are chemical free or whether he even exists? Luckily, Radio New Zealand commissioned a small study this year to answer some of New Zealanders most pressing concerns about Santa*. Many New Zealanders want to know how fast Santa has to travel to deliver all his gifts. We estimate that Santa has a bit over 30 hours to do this, assuming that he starts around … Read More

Pounamu returns Thursday Aug 29 - A Measure of Science

Aug 25, 2013

This coming Thursday (Aug 29) from midday we will be running Pounamu again for 24 hours. This is a free, online game set in a future world where all of us can use science as easily as they can use a computer now. We ran the game for the first time last year, in conjunction with the Transit of Venus forum and boy was it addictive. Sciblogger Michael Edmonds wrote a post about his experiences last year. Like Michael, I found it to be one of the most stimulating and exciting forms of science communication I had ever engaged in – I learnt a lot. You play by posting micro-forecasts (concise ideas – 140 characters, like twitter) of future possibilities, or build on and reshape other players’ ideas. Here’s a micro-forecast … Read More

Getting Off the Grass - A Measure of Science

Aug 06, 2013

Fonterra’s discovery of the bacterium that causes botulism in a batch of whey protein concentrate has alarmed many.  As the whey protein is an ingredient in popular infant formulas, many parents will be worried that they have inadvertently exposed their children to potentially fatal bacteria.  Hopefully, the recall of  products that use Fonterra’s whey ingredient will prevent any illness, even if it appears that these recalls may have been tardy.  One would also hope that Fonterra learns from the experience, because when Fonterra stumbles, so does the rest of the country. This latest incident illustrates once again how important it is that New Zealand diversify its economy.  In fact, this is the subject that I address in my upcoming book, Get Off the Grass, co-authored with the late Sir Paul Callaghan.  I’ll be launching the book with a … Read More

Complexity, emergence and networks - A Measure of Science

Jul 11, 2013

What do magnets, stock markets, and Facebook all have in common? With Get Off the Grass off to the printers, I now have some time to ponder such important questions. So tonight at 8.40pm, I’ll be back talking to Bryan Crump on Radio NZ Nights about what it is that these things share: namely, complexity. (You can listen the interview here.) It’s complicated We are surrounded by complicated things. It seems obvious that both the behaviour of the stock market, which is a result of many individual investment decisions made by thousands of investors, and the behaviour of a magnet, which is the aggregate of the magnetic properties of a very, very large number of individual atoms, are complicated. What is much less obvious is that the stock market and a magnet should behave anything like each … Read More