Canadian research networks

By Shaun Hendy 14/05/2010

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.

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