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

New Zealand’s agri-food future under threat? - A Measure of Science

Apr 19, 2010

KPMG released a report today by Ian Proodfoot, who predicts that New Zealand has as little as 5 years before its competitive advantage in production of bulk commodities is eliminated by the growth of large scale intensive farming practices in developing countries.  This will not be news to many in the agri-food sector. Last Wednesday I attended the Riddet Institute’s Agri-Food Forum on the future of the food sector in New Zealand. The forum encompassed a broad range of views, so while there were presentations from both local and international experts in food science, there were also talks from outsiders such as Sir Peter Gluckman, the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor, and Andrew Clelland, CEO of IPENZ. There is little doubt that the agri-food sector is one of the most important parts of our economy and that it … Read More

iPlumbing? - A Measure of Science

Apr 16, 2010

Why compute with electrons?  Why not use something a bit less exotic, like, say, water?  Sixty years ago, strangely enough, a New Zealander invented a computer that did exactly that.  Next time you are in Wellington, pop into the Reserve Bank Museum at #2 The Terrace and take a look at the MONIAC: The Monetary National Income Analogue Computer computes using the flow of water through tubes and pipes.  It was built in 1949 by Bill Phillips, an economist regarded by many as New Zealand’s greatest for his discovery of the link between inflation and unemployment.  The MONIAC was designed to simulate a national economy:  interest rates and taxes can be set by adjusting pipes and valves, and the flow of water should stabilise at a level that, with any luck, represents … Read More

NZ S&T post-doctoral fellowships: A key part of New Zealand’s talent pipeline - A Measure of Science

Apr 12, 2010

One of the most important steps in a scientist’s career is their first post-doctoral fellowship. Science becomes something to be practised rather than studied, you get a salary not a scholarship, and you start paying taxes rather than tuition fees.  At the end of the fellowship, a fellow will have established their own research direction, and will be capable of taking a scientific question from formulation to resolution. In New Zealand, FRST has been running the NZ Science & Technology post-doctoral fellowship scheme since 1993.  I was awarded an NZ S&T post-doctoral fellowship in 1998 to work at Industrial Research Ltd.  The job market was not great when I came back to New Zealand that year, so had it not been for the fellowship scheme, I am not sure I would have been able to start a science … Read More

New Zealand’s productivity paradox: Part III - A Measure of Science

Mar 31, 2010

Let’s continue the discussion of Philip McCann’s paper, ’Economic geography, globalisation and New Zealand’s productivity paradox’, New Zealand Economic Papers, 43: 3, 279 – 314 (2009). In Part II, I looked in depth at the productivity paradox.  As McCann notes, the debate about New Zealand’s poor productivity performance often focuses on regulation, taxation and institutions.  However, McCann argues that it is economic geography, not those factors, that explains the productivity paradox: The argument to be developed here is that the currently very slow (if at all) catching-up processes exhibited by New Zealand are nowadays largely unrelated to the arena of New Zealand’s past or present domestic policy-making or institutional changes.  Neither are they related to the greater-intervention versus the less-intervention debates, or to institutional arguments regarding the past pace of deregulation.  Rather, New Zealand’s desperately … Read More

Is superconductivity the wrong science for New Zealand? - A Measure of Science

Mar 24, 2010

After the announcements of the Prime Minister’s Science Prizes earlier in the month, Rod Oram wrote a piece for the Sunday Star Times, where he discussed the type of science that won the top prize.  As I wrote at the time, Jeff Tallon and Bob Buckley from Industrial Research Ltd in Lower Hutt were awarded this prize for their discovery of a ceramic material that remains a superconductor at temperatures close to the boiling point of liquid nitrogen. In his opinion piece, however, Oram claimed that research into high temperature superconductivity is the wrong type of science for New Zealand. He wrote: We have virtually no experience, scale or markets in these areas of science, technology and manufacturing.  From a commercial perspective it was completely the wrong science to pursue. We must … Read More

New Zealand’s productivity paradox: Part II - A Measure of Science

Mar 18, 2010

In this post, I will continue my discussion of Philip McCann’s paper ’Economic geography, globalisation and New Zealand’s productivity paradox’, New Zealand Economic Papers, 43: 3, 279 – 314 (2009). In a previous post, I briefly introduced the idea of the New Zealand productivity paradox: The mystery is why a country that seems close to best practice in most of the policies that are regarded as the key drivers of growth is nevertheless just an average performer. (OECD Economic surveys: New Zealand, 2003). In this post, I’ll look at the paradox in more detail.  In what ways is New Zealand close to ‘best practice’?  McCann reels off the following list: World rank 1 in terms of investor protection World rank 3 in terms of strength of property rights Amongst the world’s most transparent and least corrupt business … Read More

New Zealand’s productivity paradox: Part I - A Measure of Science

Mar 18, 2010

Philip McCann is a Professor of Economics at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands who has developed a very interesting view of New Zealand’s economic situation.  After a talk by Philip in Motu’s public policy lecture series last year (‘Economic geography, globalisation and New Zealand’s productivity paradox’), and a lively discussion over at Public Address, a number of people made the connection between some of my work on scale in R&D (in particular, the increase in patents per capita with city size as discussed here) and McCann’s analysis.  The slides from his talk are available here. I wasn’t able to make it to his talk, but I was put in touch with Philip earlier last year after I presented some of my results at a MoRST chat shop.  We have subsequently had some interesting discussions … Read More

New Zealand’s million dollar scientists - A Measure of Science

Mar 10, 2010

Congratulations to all the winners of the inaugural Prime Minister’s science prizes. I am particularly pleased to know four of the winners personally. Dr Jeff Tallon and Dr Bob Buckley, from Industrial Research Ltd, are two of New Zealand’s greatest physical scientists.  I discussed some of their work in a blog post last month.  Twenty five years ago, the Jeff and Bob took New Zealand to the forefront of research and development in high temperature superconductivity, and have kept us there ever since.  Their work has not only had immense scientific impact, but has led to the development of a superconductivity industry in New Zealand.  Jeff is a Principal Investigator in the MacDiarmid Institute, and Bob is a member of the Institute’s governance board.  Bob and Jeff have both been important mentors in my … Read More

A few noteworthy happenings - A Measure of Science

Mar 04, 2010

The Crown Research Institute (CRI) Taskforce report was released this morning — it is available here.  Reading the recommendations, I think that the Taskforce has nailed it.  If its recommendations are implemented, I think CRIs will finally gain the ability to work strategically for the interests of New Zealand.  Not everyone will be pleased; I have no doubt that fully contestable funding has been good for the universities, but I would argue that it has forced the CRIs to become more like universities, while neglecting their role as agents of technology transfer. Tonight I am back on Bryan Crump’s show (‘Nights’) on Radio New Zealand at 8.40pm.  I am planning that this will be the first in a series of chats about nanotechnology. And get in quick to get your tickets to see talks by Martin Lord Rees … Read More

Angels with fat tails - A Measure of Science

Mar 01, 2010

I'm a sometime theoretical physicist, sometime mathematician, so it's good I like numbers. As a researcher in the MacDiarmid Institute I'm also interested in innovation. Over the last year I've been exploring whether I could use numbers to study innovation after a chance conversation at a Dragons' Den exercise organised by Industrial Research Ltd. We crashed and burned in the Dragons' Den (someone later said that I came across like a "University lecturer" - presumably Not A Good Thing when seeking Angel investment), but afterwards a Dragon talked me through his day job as an Angel Investor. His first point: when evaluating an investment, he wanted to know the maximum pay-off, rather than the most likely pay-off. He already knew that the most likely outcome of any of his individual investments would be failure - sure things are backed by banks, not Angels. His second point: he expected to pull the plug on nine of every ten investments within two years. He then relied on the sale of the tenth to repay his fund with net profit. On the face of it this may not surprise you. An Angel's business is that of making risky investments, and a pay-off from one in ten is still better than playing Lotto. But one in ten is an interesting number. If the values of each investment were distributed on a bell-curve, it would make no sense to wind-up nine and keep one. Instead, the Angel is relying on something called the Pareto principle – that is, almost all of the pay-off from his investment portfolio comes from just one investment. In other words the distribution of pay-offs has what is sometimes called a fat tail. A bell-curve (more technically, a normal or Gaussian distribution) does not have a fat-tail: the likelihood of large pay-offs falls off exponentially. For distributions with fat tails, pay-offs are not clustered around the mean, and the likelihood of large pay-offs drops off slowly. As I've come to learn, fat tails often crop up in economics, but my conversation with the Angel was the first time I had come across a fat tail outside of physics. Does this tell us anything about innovation? Angels invest in ideas, which are then tested in the marketplace. Some of these ideas fail or have little impact, but the way that Angels invest suggests that there is a fat tail of ideas that succeed spectacularly. This may be something that is characteristic of innovation. Thomas Kuhn, the author of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, argued that science did not progress by incremental accumulation of knowledge, rather it "advanced" via occasional revolutions called paradigm shifts (Kuhn was a bit of a relativist, so I’ll put advanced in quotes). Kuhn called the humdrum stuff that most of us scientists do in between paradigm shifts “normal science”. It is quite tempting to draw the analogy between Kuhn's scientific revolutions and the Angel's one in ten investment that pays out. What if the impact of scientists’ work and ideas was distributed according to a Pareto principle? Would this have implications for the way we invest in science in New Zealand? I will explore this idea further in another post.