The story of the MacDiarmid Institute

By Shaun Hendy 23/07/2010

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.

0 Responses to “The story of the MacDiarmid Institute”

  • Shaun,

    Does the ‘virtual’ nature of the institute also provide a type of defacto gathering around the coffee percolator, as found to be a major driver of ideas/innovation?

  • Peter,

    our non-virtual ‘water cooler’ interactions are very important. A lot of this is stimulated by the need to use shared equipment.

    Some of that may eventually become more virtual e.g. rather than sending your student and your sample, you may just send your sample with the student performing the experiment remotely.

    Something we are also working on at the moment is the use of on-line discussion groups – time will tell how effective that is. We do also make a lot of use of video-conferencing, including running a virtual seminar series on a monthly basis.

    For the time being though many of us will travel to interact. We have Institute wide annual meetings, our biennial AMN conference series and more regular meetings of smaller research teams. Some of my ideas have even been stimulated by presentations from other scientists in the Institute that have been given to visiting officials!

    All this seems to work in part because once people are part of the Institute, that sense of collegiality and belonging means that most of us are all willing to engage in ‘water cooler’ talk whenever we have the opportunity whether in airports or at lunch breaks during meetings.