Archive December 2009

Thinking about education Fabiana Kubke Dec 26

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I have been putting more thought into education this year than I have in a long time. Part of it was stimulated by discussions held at kiwi foo camp, and part of it by some discussions held with my colleagues over courses we taught together. The common thread around both of them was how the material being taught fits within the student’s career choice (not always homogeneous in a class cohort) and how this, in turn, fits within the larger context of the contribution of the University to society as a whole.

Although the answer might be straightforward, implementing it is not so easy. As teachers we are constrained by the need to deliver a minimum of relevant information, limitations in the number of contact hours, and the ability to assess the students to make their degrees a meaningful measure of their professional capacities.

We can only provide students with the knowledge and training they need to develop their professional careers in today’s system. But we all know that the professional environment in which they will operate will continuously be changing. And it is the students that will be creating these changes, and we as teachers cannot know what those will be.

So, how do we, as teachers, pass down knowledge and training they need today, while making room for the changes of tomorrow?

As I prepare my lectures for next semester I am drawn back to ’The Element’ by Sir Ken Robinson. And from it I take his definition of creativity:

’the process of having original ideas that have value’

While Robinson talks a lot about encouraging student creativity, I am thinking more about my own creativity as a teacher. How do I teach an inhomogeneous cohort of students so that they will have the tools to create their own professional future?

While I think about this, I encourage you to be entertained by Sir Ken Robinson’s TED talk.

[Open] Science Sunday — 20.12.09 Fabiana Kubke Dec 20

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Great things to share this Sunday thanks to the magic of the internet and open access….

The good

There are some good news around Open Access:

First, last week Nat Torkington alerted me of this link. The first paragraph of the summary states

’With this notice, the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) within the Executive Office of the President, requests input from the community regarding enhancing public access to archived publications resulting from research funded by Federal science and technology agencies.’

Some commenting around this issue can be found in the Office of Science and Technology Policy Blog. (via @BoraZ on twitter). It is great to see the OSTP having started this discussion, and I will be interested to see where this leads to.

With the year coming to an end, nothing like summarizing what has been achieved, and here is a post summarizing how 2009 was a great year for Open Access (also via @BoraZ)

And it was great to hear about the new partnership between and PLoS. Nice!

The ‘How is this Reasonable?”

There is a post by Martin Fenner describing a talk on Open Access he gave at his University. I especially liked this extract:

’Reuse of a figure or table in an academic seminar usually falls under fair use, but many journals still require a (free) permission. And using the same figure in a medical conference can cost several hundred dollars, and it doesn’t really matter that you are one of the authors of the paper’

I did not know that use of my own figures at a conference did not fall under fair use. It’s just not right.

But this is even worse:

Who could oppose non-profit blind/disabled groups helping disabled people get access to written work?

You can find the answer in BoingBoing.

Back to the good: Cornell University

Cornell University Library partners with the Internet archive (heard through Open Access News). Absolutely priceless gems can be found here! There is nothing like dusting off the cobwebs of some old journal issues and reading the scientific discoveries as they were described originally by the scientists themselves. Cornell University has made this a lot easier.

Cornell University has a great series of videos on YouTube, including a really interesting one on bird’s songs. (By the way, wonderful description of feathers in Ed Yong’s Not Exactly Rocket Science blog.)

The Cornell lab of Ornithology also runs a great Citizen Science programme. (Dave Munger has a wonderful post about Citizen Science in Seed Magazine.)


OK, granted, I didn’t get this tweet from @sciencebase this week, but it is really so worth it! So, if you are not up to becoming a citizen scientist you might still be up for some quirky science party tricks. (If you like this video, there is more at Richard Wiseman’s Blog)

The ever-changing world of dendritic spines Fabiana Kubke Dec 18

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ResearchBlogging.orgSantiago Ramón y Cajal originally described spines in the dendrites of neurons in the cerebellum back in the late 19th century, but it wasn’t until the mid 1950’s with the development of the electron microscope that these structures were shown to be synaptic structures. Although it has been known that the number of dendritic spines changes during development and in association with learning, most studies have inferred the changes by looking at static time points rather than monitoring individual spines in the same animal over time, partly, due to the difficulty of tracking a single structure of about 0.1 micrometer in size (0.0001 mm). But new advances in imaging technology have allowed researchers to ‘follow’ individual spines over time both in vitro and in the whole animal.

Purkinje Cell by S Ramon y Cajal

Dendritic spines are no longer thought of as the static structures of Ramón y Cajal’s (or even my) generation, but rather dynamic structures that can be added and eliminated from individual dendrites. And because each spine is associated with a synaptic input, and because their structure and dynamic turnover is known to have a profound effect on neuronal signaling, one cannot but be tempted to propose that they are associated with specific aspects of memory formation.

Two developments have made it possible to monitor individual dendritic spines at different time points in the same animal: the ability to incorporate fluorescent molecules into transgenic mice that make the spines visible under fluorescent illumination, and the development of in vivo transcranial two photon imaging that allow researchers to go back to that individual dendrite and monitor how the dendritic spines change over time. Two papers published in Nature make use of these techniques to look at how dendritic spines change in the motor cortex of mice that have learned a motor task.

In one, Guang Yang, Feng Pan and Wen-Biao Gan looked at how spines changed when either young or adult mice were trained in to learn specific motor strategies. They observed that spines underwent significant turnover, but that learning the motor task increased the overall number of new spines and that a small proportion of them could persist for long periods of time. They calculated that although most of the newly formed spines only remained for about a day and a half, a smaller fractions of them could still persist for either a couple of months or a few years. Based on their data they suggest that about 0.04% of the newly formed spines could contribute to lifelong memory.

Dendritic spine by Tmhoogland

Another study by Tonghui Xu, Xinzhu Yu, Andrew J. Perlik, Willie F. Tobin, Jonathan A. Zweig, Kelly Tennant, Theresa Jones and Yi Zuo did a similar experiment, but using a different motor training task. Like the Yang group, they also saw that training leads to both the formation and elimination of spines. Although newly formed spines are initially unstable, a few of them can become stabilized and persist longer term. Further, training made newly formed spines more stable and preexisting spines less stable. The authors interpret their results as an indication that during learning there is indeed a ‘rewiring’ of the network and not just addition of new synapses.

The two papers were reviewed by Noam E. Ziv & Ehud Ahissar in the News and Views section. Here they raise the issue that, if such a small number of spines are to account for the formation of stable memories, then what are the consequences of the loss of a somewhat larger number of spines on the neuronal network?

For someone like me that more than once as an undergraduate used a microscope fitted with a concave mirror to use the sunlight to illuminate the specimen, the ability to monitor individual synaptic structures over time in a living organism can only be described as awesome. But, as pointed out by Ziv and Ahissar,

’[…] although it remains to be shown conclusively that these forms of spine remodeling are essential components of long-term learning and not merely distant echoes of other, yet to be discovered processes, these exciting studies make a convincing case for a structural basis to skill learning and reopen the field for new theories of memory formation.’

Yang, G., Pan, F., & Gan, W. (2009). Stably maintained dendritic spines are associated with lifelong memories Nature, 462 (7275), 920-924 DOI: 10.1038/nature08577
Xu, T., Yu, X., Perlik, A., Tobin, W., Zweig, J., Tennant, K., Jones, T., & Zuo, Y. (2009). Rapid formation and selective stabilization of synapses for enduring motor memories Nature, 462 (7275), 915-919 DOI: 10.1038/nature08389
Ziv, N., & Ahissar, E. (2009). Neuroscience: New tricks and old spines Nature, 462 (7275), 859-861 DOI: 10.1038/462859a

The Hippocratic Oath and its younger relatives Fabiana Kubke Dec 15


I came across this blog post by Alex Madrigal on Wired Science the other day: ‘Should earth scientists take a Hippocratic Oath’? In his post he argues that such an oath would

’[…] provide a set of agreed-upon ethical norms for geoscientists, at a time when they are increasingly being called upon to pass judgment on massive human alterations to the Earth’s carbon, nitrogen, and water systems.

Many of you may not know that the University of Buenos Aires in Argentina requires all graduates of all professions to take an Oath that is appropriate for their degree, without which a degree will not be conferred.

The Faculty of Exact and Natural Sciences from which I graduated has currently 4 different formulae, which primarily differ on whether the oath is made in the name of god, the scriptures, the country, or your honour. The common text in all 4 formulae is

’[…] to put to the service of society and your equals the art and the science of your profession’

The new text for the oath in the science faculty

I entered the University when Argentina was still under dictatorship, and witnessed the discussion, soul searching and changes that accompanied the transition to democracy. In 1988 (the year I graduated) a new optional text (which is non-legally binding) was introduced to the graduating oath as the result of a symposium on ’Scientists, Peace and Disarmament’.

I had the honour to be among the first graduates that had the option to make this oath. I opted in.

Loosely translated, this is the text:

Being conscious that science and its results can cause harm to society and to human beings when ethical controls are not in place,

Do you swear that the scientific research and technology that you will develop will be in the benefit of humanity and in favor of peace, that you are firmly committed in your scientific capacity to never serve aims that will harm human dignity, guided by your professional convictions and beliefs, seated in an authentic knowledge of the circumstances that surround you and of the possible consequences of the outcomes that can result from your work, and not to put remuneration or prestige first, nor subordinate yourself to the interests of your employers or political leadership?

If you weren’t to do so, let your conscience be your judge.

If you can read Spanish, the original texts can be found here.

[Open] Science Sunday — 13.12.09 Fabiana Kubke Dec 13

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More Sunday sharing thanks to the people in the internet and Open Access

ASCILITE is over, but it left me with a lot of work to do because of the great sessions in the conference. You can get a lot of the information covered there thanks to Grainne Conole on Cloudworks. I also posted some interesting resources on my FriendFeed page.

We’ve come a long way baby

The Wikipedia entry for Brain-Computer Interfaces, describes a prototype done in 1978. It was successful in having a man blinded as an adult perceive the sensation of light. But (continue reading), its operation required being ’hooked up to a two-ton mainframe’. Well, things have changed, and a recent article by Frank H. Guenther, Jonathan S. Brumberg, E. Joseph Wright, Alfonso Nieto-Castanon, Jason A. Tourville, Mikhail Panko, Robert Law, Steven A. Siebert, Jess L. Bartels, Dinal S. Andreasen, Princewill Ehirim, Hui Mao, Philip R. Kennedy published in PLoS One talks about a wireless brain-machine interface that could be used to produce synthetic speech for individuals with speech impairments. You can read the article here, and Brandon Keim has a great take on it on Wired Science.

Great stories online

My favourite tweet has to be one by @Mark_Changizi read Ed Yong’s post and you will know why it made me laugh so much!

Oh, and congratulations to NeuroDojo for being named ’blog of note

Tweeting my own horn

I was contacted by Jose Barbosa from 95bFM’s Sunday Breakfast, and we got to chatting about brains. You can find the recording of the radio segment here. And thanks to Jose, who found the link to Jeremy Corfield’s thesis on the kiwi brain.

Getting the timing right for song control Fabiana Kubke Dec 11

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ResearchBlogging.orgSongbirds have evolved special areas in the brain that are used for song learning and song production. Two types of output connections from a cortical area known as HVC (proper name) each go to two ‘separate’ pathways. Some HVC neurons connect directly with neurons in a brain area called RA (robust nucleus of the archopallium), which in turn connects with the motoneurons that control the muscles in the vocal control organ (syrinx). Another set of HVC neurons connect through what is called the anterior forebrain pathway, a collection of cortical, thalamic and basal ganglia nuclei that are important for birds to learn their song. The two pathways talk to each other through a nucleus called LMAN that sends a direct input to RA.

Vocal circuit, by Kubke

The anterior forebrain pathway sends an error signal through the connections from LMAN to RA to ultimately control the motoneurons in nXIIts to produce the desired song structure. What is puzzling about the circuit is how the precise timing for this to operate efficiently is achieved. Because it takes time for the action potential to travel down the axon, and because it takes time for information to travel through synapses, the anterior forebrain pathway roundabout way (HVC-to-X-to-DLM-to-LMAN-to-RA) should be much slower than the speed of travel of information from HVC to RA. And this is precisely what Arthur Leblois, Agnes Bodor, Abigail Person and David Perkel examined.

To determine this, they electrically stimulated HVC and recorded from area X, DLM and LMAN, and were able to explore the mechanisms by which information travels around the anterior forebrain pathway as well as how long it takes to get from one point to another (latency).

How is transmission routed along the anterior forebrain pathway?

What they found is that low intensity stimulation from HVC produces excitation of area X neurons, but that higher intensity stimulation also produces a rapid inhibitory input from local area X circuits. One of the effects of this early inhibition is a lengthening of the time interval between consecutive action potentials in the neurons in area X that project to DLM (pallidal neurons).

DLM is normally inhibited by pallidal neurons in area X. But if the time interval between action potentials in the pallidal neurons is increased, it releases the ‘veto’ signal on DLM neurons which can then fire action potentials (either in response to other excitatory inputs or as a result of ‘post inhibitory rebound’). Based on the results, DLM neurons will therefore become activated (and in turn activate LMAN) when the local inhibition in area X (in this case triggered by HVC stimulation at high intensity) lengthens the time period between action potentials in the pallidal neurons. This is consistent with the observation that responses in LMAN could only be elicited by high levels of stimulation in HVC.

Zebra Finch (male) by Peripitus (GNU documentation licence v1.2)

In this way, an input from HVC sufficient to elicit fast inhibition in area X, removes the veto signal on neurons in DLM, which are then able to discharge and excite LMAN, which can then send the appropriate signals to RA.

Does the timing work?

The short answer is yes. First, the authors showed that although the path-length between HVC-Area X and that of Area X-DLM, are similar the conduction times are much smaller in the latter. This, they suggest, is achieved both by an increase in diameter of the axons projecting from AreaX to DLM, axons which are myelinated even within DLM. The population latency in DLM and LMAN following HVC stimulation is very similar, but the authors argue that perhaps the population of DLM neurons that have the shortest latencies that are the ones that are playing the key role.

The specialisations in axonal morphology and myelination of the pallidal neurons may be an evolutionary adaptation that contributes to a short latency pathway that can modulate fine temporal features of song production.


Leblois, A., Bodor, A., Person, A., & Perkel, D. (2009). Millisecond Timescale Disinhibition Mediates Fast Information Transmission through an Avian Basal Ganglia Loop Journal of Neuroscience, 29 (49), 15420-15433 DOI: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.3060-09.2009

Second Life and the future of education Fabiana Kubke Dec 07

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The 2009 conference of the Australasian Society for Computers in Learning in Tertiary Education (#ASCILITE09) is currently taking place in Auckland New Zealand.

Scott Diener, from the University of Auckland IT services delivered a great Keynote address centered around Second Life.

A guided tour through the long white cloud island

Diener took us through a tour of the Long White Cloud Island (the English translation for Aotearoa, the Maori name for New Zealand). The lecture hall he showed us is literally inside a mountain that can be reached by navigating through dense native vegetation, the projection screen placed against an imposing cliff face. He then walked us to the University building where we reached an emergency room, fitted with an exam table and vital sign monitors. The ambulance parked at the bay can be actually driven, and driving off in it and hiding it from the eyes of the ’Professor’ seems to have become a regular prank.

It is not about procedural skills

…but about developing critical thinking and group interaction skills in emergency situations. The readings in the monitor can be controlled to create all kinds of simulated medical emergencies where students can learn to communicate in an efficient manner to, as a group, solve the situation. I cannot imagine a medical team being able to efficiently operate without a good development of these skills.

Second Life is not a game

People that interact in Second Life will tell you that it mirrors the rules of social engagement that we have on our ‘real lives’. I have heard also about how the experiences of one’s avatar (positive or negative) transfer to the ‘real’ person behind it. Diener argued that perhaps this transfer between both lives may be similar to the real emotions we feel when we watch movies, and suggests that it may be related to the mirror neuron system. It is an interesting concept. But whether mirror neurons are involved or not in the relationship between avatars and their real life counterparts, one thing that cannot be argued is that Second Life provide the equivalent of a ’real life experience’.

Limitations to the concept of teaching in Second Life

One may argue ‘why do it in Second Life when it can be done in real life?’ The answer is in the ’when’ in that sentence. I am not sure I see an advantage (other than the amusement factor) when it can be done in real life.

But it cannot always be done in real life. Diener suggested that given the rate of population increase in the world it will not be possible to scale educational ’structures’ to accommodate the increasing student population. One solution is not to educate an equal proportion of people, the other is to build resources, like those that Diener is building in Second Life, that are scalable and will therefore be able to accommodate the increased number of students.

But at this time, the limitations are not in what can be done in Second Life, but more on how it can be accessed. The internet and technology needed to make Second Life accessible are not globally available, and they are even less available in areas that could benefit the most from this technology. (For example, he said that even at the University student computers are not able to run Second Life.)

So what’s next?

If I interpret Diener correctly, he had two clear messages around the usability of Second Life. First, here is a scalable system that can overcome the edificial limitations of educational institutions in the future (and accessibility in the present), but that requires more coordinated global strategies around building internet infrastructure that will enable it to be used in its full scale. Second, that those resources which are built in Second Life should be left open for others to use, take advantage of and build upon.

There is a great warning message hidden in here somewhere:

Is it possible that in becoming so keen on developing these types of educational technologies we may end up, in the absence of a parallel affordable infrastructure strategy, limiting education access to a relatively small elite able to afford it?

[Open] Science Sunday — 6.12.09 Fabiana Kubke Dec 06

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These are some of the fun (and more serious) stuff I found around the magic world of the internet and Open Access.

I give my favourite tweet this week to @MsBehaviour (again) for pointing her tweeps to the Manchester Manifesto. Her tweet links to a great post on the University of Manchester that summarises the issues raised in the Mancherster Manifesto. (The text can be found as pdf here.) Great read.

There is also a great post by Glynn Moody from Open… on ’Harnessing openness in higher education’ which is also a great read.

My favourite piece of research this week is a paper by Karmraan Gill and Dale Purves, ’A Biological Rationale for Musical Scales’ published in PLoS One, looking at the prevalent use of the pentatonic and heptatonic scales.

Karmraan and Purves suggest that we

“prefer tone combinations that reflect the spectral characteristics of conspecific vocalizations.”

Peter Thorne and I once had a discussion on whether our choice of musical scales might be related to the way that sounds are mapped in the cochlea,  which was  fueled by this wonderful video from the 2009 World Science Festival.

Great finds on the internet:

Oh, and congratulations

  • to the new ScienceBlogs and National Geographic partnership and
  • to Peter Gluckman who was named one of the most influential people by The Listener (2009 Power & Influence List: Science & Technology).

Hey, Calcium, show me the way! Fabiana Kubke Dec 04

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ResearchBlogging.orgMost (if not all) questions about neuroscience can be answered with <blah blah blah> Calcium (or so it was rumoured at the Neural Systems and Behaviour Course in the MBL back in the ‘90s). Humour aside, there is some truth to the statement, and Sheng Wang, Luis Polo-Parada and Lynn Landmesser examined the role of calcium changes in developing motoneurons.

Their work looked at how calcium changes may be associated with the process through which neurons in the spinal cord find their target muscles, and they did so in a well known system, one that Lynn Landmesser has dedicated most of her career to. The neurons in the spinal cord at the lumbosacral level are organized in longitudinal columns that span several vertebral segments. Neurons in each column will connect with a very specific leg muscle. This means that neurons at different spinal levels, but innervating the same muscle, will have their axons come out through different spinal nerves. All of the axons from different nerves come together at the plexus at the base of the limb where they sort out; axons that will connect with the same muscle become clustered. This has become a wonderful system in which to study how neurons know ‘who’s who’, and make sure they just ’stick with their own kind’, an important process that avoids incorrect innervation patterns during development.

Also during development, the motoneurons become electrically active, producing burst of rhythmic electrical activity. The patterns of activity are characteristic of each motoneuron pool (that is, the group of motoneurons innervating an individual muscle), and changing the normal rhythm produces errors in axon guidance. Because calcium is known to be involved in many cellular responses, and because electrical activity can increase the levels of calcium inside the cell, the group looked at how calcium in the cell was changing during the bursts of electrical activity.

They found that the electrical rhythmic activity produced calcium transients in early developing motoneurons, even in some that were still migrating towards their final position in the spinal cord. All motoneurons were initially quite synchronous with respect to the calcium changes, but the duration of the calcium transients was different in different motoneuron pools. These differences in duration in the calcium transient could contribute to the downstream signaling that leads to the identity-specific behavior of the axons in the periphery.

One interesting finding is that blocking non alpha-7 nicotinic receptors blocked the spontaneous bursting but did not prevent calcium transients from happening under electrical stimulation. Further, although these channels underlie the bursting activity under normal conditions, the calcium transients were able to propagate across motoneurons while the channels were still blocked. This suggests that although these receptors may normally be involved in the production of electrical bursts,  other neurotransmitter systems may be able to operate to allow the propagation of calcium transients.

As the authors suggest, the next step will be to see whether the difference in the duration of calcium transients in different motoneuron pools are sufficient to produce the phenotypic differences that provide each motoneuron with its ability to recognize its ‘own kind’ and find their way to the correct target.

Wang, S., Polo-Parada, L., & Landmesser, L. (2009). Characterization of Rhythmic Ca2+ Transients in Early Embryonic Chick Motoneurons: Ca2+ Sources and Effects of Altered Activation of Transmitter Receptors Journal of Neuroscience, 29 (48), 15232-15244 DOI: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.3809-09.2009

Disclaimer: Lynn Landmesser was my PhD supervisor.

The road to science funding (is full of speed bumps) Fabiana Kubke Dec 01


At any given point in time there is a boundary between that which is known and that which is unknown and, precisely, the role of science is to grab pieces of that ignorance, study it, transform it into knowledge and, in doing so, broaden the human landscape.’ Marcelino Cereijido [1]

New Zealand science is facing a crisis, one that would not be easy to solve in the best of scenarios, and less in the midst of an economic crisis. Finding a solution to the role of science in New Zealand cannot be divorced from the process of economic recovery.

At the heart of the problems are issues associated with research funding, as well as issues associated with the culture within which science currently operates. A recent document put forth by Ministry of Research Science and Technology [2] has ignited a debate that was long overdue.

At the centre of the debate is the question of how funding should be distributed and which areas should be prioritized. Unfortunately, this time New Zealand cannot afford to get it wrong.

The problem with science funding in New Zealand

To say that he level of R&D investment in New Zealand compared to other countries is low would be an understatement [Ref. 3, p.5]. R&D investment as a percentage of GDP shows that while the USA sits at above 2.5% (with a target to reach 3%), New Zealand sits below 1.5% mark. This is a relatively small increase with respect to the mark of about 1% in 1980. New Zealand’s 5% increase over the last 30 years is in contrast to countries like Australia and Denmark that, while having similarly low R&D investment in 1980, have been able to catch up with the USA having now reached almost equivalent levels of R&D investment. Although NZ’s government contribution is somewhat low in comparison with other countries, the great majority of the gap in these figures is due to a lack of industry contribution.

Yet equivalent levels of government investment do not seem to translate to equivalent levels of funding. At a panel discussion organized by Stratus (U of Auckland) on November 19th [4] Jill Cornish showed that the Health Research Council in New Zealand invested in 2007 about $NZD 10.2 per capita while equivalent figures were much higher for Australia (NHMRC, $NZD 34.6), the UK (MRC, NHS, $NZD 54.3) and the USA (NIH, $NZD 126.0). And this is a big problem. Although Key’s government increased the level of science funding in the 2009-10 budget, as Paul Callaghan stated:

’That leaves New Zealand’s’ per capita GDP investment in R and D unchanged at around 0.52 %, way below that of Australia, the OECD average, and small economies like Finland, Singapore and Denmark, all of whom have built prosperity from innovation.”

The bottom line is, science in New Zealand will not be competitive at the global scale without bridging the existing R&D investment gaps. And the government needs to find a way to get more private input into R&D.

The continuum between basic and applied science

It would be very hard to imagine that Hodgkin and Huxley were thinking of brain machine interfaces as they recorded the action potential from the giant axon of the squid, or that Fernando Nottebohm was thinking about stem cell therapies for neurodegenerative disease when he came across the first irrefutable evidence of adult neurogenesis. As Peter Gluckman said in his lecture [3]:

’This should remind us that science so often has its major impacts a long way from where it started.’

I have heard many argue ‘why not let the richer governments fund basic science, we can use their discoveries’. The answer to that is because that means never being ahead or on par with the game. Any scientific paper that is published today, is the result of an idea that is several years old. The authors have by then probably moved on to bigger and better things, and, if their work had any commercial value, the deals have probably already been struck.

There is a long road between the process of discovery and technology development, but the latter cannot happen without the former. Peter Lee, Gillian Lewis and Jim Metson all highlighted this point at the Spark Stratus panel discussion [4]: when it comes to basic science, we never know where the revolution will come from. The one thing we can be certain about is that innovation will not happen without basic science investment.

The problem with the science structure

According to Dick Bellamy, the current system is unsustainable for a small country such as New Zealand. There is a lack of critical mass in almost every area: we have little pockets dispersed all around the country. And this is a concept that Gluckman continuously insists on: we should drop our egos at the door, stop acting as competitors and begin to behave as collaborators.

Gillian Lewis [4] recognized that without private investment in R&D the burden of funding commercial science falls on the government. As a consequence there is not enough funding for commercial science and not enough funding for the basic science. This does not lead to economic growth. Or as Peter Gluckman put it:

’Our funding system has been extraordinarily focused on private sector‐directed public sector research.’

We are all fighting for a very small slice of a very small cake. And we are not particularly keen on sharing it.

The solutions

The process of commercialization is not money limited but idea limited, and basic science has historically shown to be essential for the types of new discoveries that lead to innovation. But we can improve on the way that scientists operate by increasing the level of collaboration and data sharing. Peter Gluckman said in his lecture [3]:

’A large part of my report focuses on the issue of technology transfer — the export of knowledge out of CRIs and universities to business. Part of that must be through open innovation. That is, universities and CRIs must get better at making knowledge freely available to firms and maximising the value of their work for ’New Zealand Inc’.

Choices need to be made, and that means setting priorities, and ultimately decisions will be constrained by the democratic process. Peter Shepherd [4] suggested that Unviersities need to have a new social contract. This means sharing between different interdisciplinary groups as well as sharing with the public. Science in New Zealand will not have much chance of prospering until the public values science and its scientists. Scientists need to communicate the value of science, how it affects our daily lives and emphasise where the roots for commercial implementation come from. Gluckman’s concept of open innovation should certainly help formulate this new social contract.

There is no doubt that industries in New Zealand need to begin to take responsibility over the burden of R&D investment that has been placed on the government, and set it free, so to speak to fund ideas, discovery and innovation. Finishing with Gluckman

’The science we do impacts on people’s lives — and we cannot always predict how’.

It is up to us, the scientists, to tell that part of the story.

  1. Marcelino Cereijido. La nuca de Hussay [Houssay’s nape]. Fondo de Cultura Economica ed. 2000 (my translation from p.187)
  2. New Zealand Research Science and Technology feedback document. (October, 2009)
  3. November 26th, 2009. Peter Gluckman’s lecture at the University of Auckland ’The Evolution of Science, where is New Zealand Going?’.
  4. November 19th, 2009. Panel discussion: ’Today’s basic science inspires tomorrow’s new technology; What is the right balance for New Zealand’ organized by Stratus (U of Auckland). Participating in the panel were Prof Dick Bellamy, Prof  Paul Callaghan, Prof Jill Cornish, Prof Jim Metson, Dr Peter Lee and Prof Peter Shepherd; moderated by A/-Prof  Gillian Lewis.

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