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

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.

CRI bibliometric performance: Part III - A Measure of Science

Feb 19, 2010

Last week, John Key signalled in a speech to Parliament that there would be changes to the way the Crown Research Institutes are funded.  Indeed, the debate over CRI funding has continued pretty much unabated since they were created.  In earlier posts, we looked at the growth in the total bibliometric output of the CRIs and at the increase in their citation impact relative to the rest of New Zealand.  In this post, I will look at the relationship between CRI funding and bibliometric output.  The data suggest to me that the growth in bibliometric output has been driven by the development of new revenue sources. First, I want to look at CRI revenues since 1994.  It is clear that CRI revenue has increased by about 30% over this period, once adjusted for … Read More

Key speech highlights high-tech manufacturing - A Measure of Science

Feb 12, 2010

In his speech to Parliament earlier this week, John Key signalled that supporting high-tech manufacturing would be a priority for his Government.  As my colleague Richard Blaikie, Director of the MacDiarmid Institute, pointed out in his newsletter last week to MacDiarmid Institute researchers, New Zealand is becoming increasingly reliant on high-tech industry for our export receipts: New Zealand’s high-tech industries are now our third-biggest exporter earners, outpacing wine and meat exports and sitting relatively close behind the dairy and tourism sectors.  This is according to the Technology Investment Network’s 2009 TIN100 Report, sponsored by NZTE and Ernst & Young, which says that technology exports rose 4 per cent last year to NZ$5.1b, compared to the dairy sector’s NZ$8.8b. The Report, now in its fifth year, makes excellent reading if you are interested in the growth of New Zealand’s high-tech … Read More

CRI bibliometric performance: Part II - A Measure of Science

Feb 10, 2010

In a post a few weeks ago, I looked at the total published output of the CRIs from 1993. Now I want to look at the citations to CRI papers. I will use two citation measures. The first is a two year impact factor, which is a measure that is often used to rank journals. The impact factor of a CRI in 2008, for example, is the average number of citations in 2008 for papers published by authors at that CRI in 2006 and 2007. The second measure I will use is a 5-year impact factor i.e.  the average number of citations to papers in 2008 that were published between 2003-2007 is the 2008 5-year impact factor. Now, the analysis I am going to give below is somewhat naive. I should really be breaking down the citations by … Read More

Kiwi superconductivity industry overcomes resistance - A Measure of Science

Feb 08, 2010

This week, New Zealand hosts the 18th International Superconductivity Industry Summit, where multi-national heavy-weights like Siemans AG will rub shoulders with New Zealand-based companies such as General Cable NZ Ltd and HTS-110.  As the superconductivity industry matures over the next decade, these New Zealand companies have an excellent chance of becoming significant export earners.  How did New Zealand come to have a superconductivity industry in the first place, and why are multi-national companies descending on Te Papa later this week to hear what we have to say? Superconductivity was discovered almost 100 years ago, when it was found that many metals completely lose electrical resistance once they are cooled to a few degrees above absolute zero (-273 degrees C).  When metals become this cold, rather than jostling and shoving their way through an electrical wire, electrons … Read More

Who hid the Higgs? - A Measure of Science

Jan 29, 2010

I had a lot of fun being interviewed by Bryan Crump on Radio NZ on Monday evening about why particle physicists have had such trouble finding the Higgs boson.  If you missed it and are interested, you can listen to the audio here. It was a good opportunity to highlight some of the wonderful stuff going on at CERN, even if the catalyst for the interview verged on the frivolous.  As you’ll hear if you listen to the interview, Holger Nielsen and Masao Ninomiya proposed in a recent paper that production of the Higgs might be suppressed by some exotic non-local physics.  This was colourfully described in the New York Times as sabotage from the future.  In the interview, I characterised their speculations as mathematical philosophy, although perhaps it is a bit more subtle … Read More

CRI bibliometric performance: Part I - A Measure of Science

Jan 26, 2010

In a post last year, I looked at New Zealand’s bibliometric productivity in the university and government research sectors using data from the SCImago bibliometric site.  Over the next few weeks, I will report on some further bibliometric analyses using the Thompson Reuters Web of Science.  While providing substantially the same New Zealand-wide results as SCImago, the Web of Science database also allows me to break down publication data by research institute (and by individual author if needed).  Unfortunately, it is not freely accessible – I have institutional access through Victoria University of Wellington. I’ll start this series of posts by looking at the total published outputs of the Crown Research Institutes (CRIs).  The CRIs were established in 1992 by scientists from the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research (DSIR), the research division of the then … Read More

Top patenting organisations in New Zealand: some stats - A Measure of Science

Jan 22, 2010

In a post a few weeks ago, there was a discussion on the value of patents. Sciblogs reader Bruce Hamilton pointed out that the value of an abandoned patent could simply be as an output for a funding agency. Could it be then the requirements of funding agencies for outputs is driving patenting activities? Bruce has put together a selection of statistics from IPONZ looking at patenting activity in some of New Zealand’s research organisations, both public and private. Bruce did not intend the list below to be exhaustive, but he has covered a selection of Universities, CRIs, large private companies and smaller start-ups. It’s very interesting to see who some of our top patenting organisations are, and how many of them have patents in progress. Number Aborted (%) In Progress (%) Completed (%) Fisher & Paykel 424 60 … Read More

Giving a great scientific talk - A Measure of Science

Jan 18, 2010

In the Southern hemisphere, conference season is just a week or two away.  Graduate students south of the equator are beginning to get that sinking feeling.  They’ve been dreading it for weeks, and their data only came through the day before.  Yes, it’s the thing a student fears most:  the conference talk. Do I need to stress that your conference talk is very important?  When you give a scientific presentation, you present yourself as well as your results. If it goes well, potential post-doctoral supervisors in the audience will take note. If it goes really well, it will put you in the running for the prize for best student talk. If it goes really, really well, your supervisor will think of you when they realise that the all-expenses paid plenary talk in Hawaii they said yes to six months ago, … Read More

How the US lost its lead in science and technology - A Measure of Science

Jan 15, 2010

Having bailed out Wall Street last year, the US is now looking for new industries to kick start its economy. However, many observers feel that the US may have squandered its technological lead over the rest of the world:  the US trade balance in high technology products has fallen steadily into the red over the last decade, from US$5.3bn in surplus in 2001 to to more than US$50bn in deficit by 2007.  What went wrong? Many commentators point to the outsourcing of high-tech production as the root cause of the US decline. It has been argued that innovation in many industries is most effectively transmitted by face-to-face contact. This favours clustering, where, as Michael Porter has observed, companies in similar industries find it advantageous to be geographic co-located, to allow information flow between organisations. In the Harvard … Read More