By Victoria Metcalf 10/08/2016

The assignment from Te Punaha Matatini – to think about how we might reframe innovation in the New Zealand context and to use the available data from Figure.NZ to do so – has given me pause to consider some often overlooked and what I believe are pivotal components to creating a brighter future – diversity (in this piece, focussing only on gender), leadership & interdisciplinarity.

I have used Figure.NZ data to help shape my thoughts.  I’ve split my original longform post into two parts. This is Part 2 (and the shorter part) on interdisciplinarity data as well as summarising Parts 1 and 2. Please read Part 1 first.

Navigating the jagged rocks and journeying through the looking glass

A case and a space for gender diversity and connectivity – Reframing innovation in New Zealand.

Disclaimer: Comments, opinions and analysis are my own.

Interdisciplinarity information

I could find little data within to do with interdisciplinarity- what I could find is covered below. Perhaps that is because we scientists are slow to adopt this approach here? This might also be a problem with interdisciplinarity being a somewhat nebulous concept that makes data capture challenging.

Role of the tertiary sector

New Zealand has a middle-of-the-road approach to public sector spend on research and development among the OECD. Like elsewhere, the tertiary sector has an important role in contribution to this R&D. However, interdisciplinary approaches are slow to come into the tertiary sector globally, as noted in this Nature Special Issue.  Moreover, as there has until recently, been less fostering of links outside the tertiary sector to develop an interdisciplinary approach within New Zealand, then this could relate to how innovative we are or aren’t. Recent initiatives such as the National Science Challenges directly aim to create a space for problem-driven collaboration to address this. Change is thus in progress, and will take some time to show impact in the data.

In looking at what tertiary level multidisciplinary programmes we have within New Zealand, I note that universities have far fewer tertiary students enrolled in mixed field programmes than wānanga, institutes of technology and polytechnics, or private training establishments. It would be important to know what indicators have been measured for these data to get the full picture:

Source: Figure.NZ

Moreover, the Ministry of Education data on mixed field programmes we currently have in the tertiary sector suggests that they are only in employment skills, general education, and social skills, as opposed to methods of scientific research and research training.

This is potentially a gap in terms of what we could be doing to create an interdisciplinary approach to study at tertiary level.  This includes the types of mixed field programmes we could be offering and their relationship to R&D and innovation (see here for a German example that provides an interesting model).

However, a strong caveat here is that perhaps putting all these institutions together as the ‘tertiary sector’ is misleading. They fulfil very different roles and hence it might indeed be a case of comparing apples with oranges. Another caveat is that interdisciplinarity happens at the margins and as such we don’t know what we don’t know. Gaining data on interdisciplinarity and making inferences is challenging. Additional data from elsewhere may provide further insight.

Globally, it is possible though that the academic sector can move beyond the present scenario of academic knowledge as the basis for R&D, to universities acting as a fundamental driver for innovation through driving new business models and company structures, as well as cost-saving in public health and social development. New Zealand could be well placed in this space, if universities are willing to be nimble and novel in their approaches (for examples, see Oxford Martin School, Green College UBC, and Karl von Linde-Academy).

It may be too that specific interdisciplinary courses are not what’s required, but rather looking at an appropriate mix of professional skills, including teamwork and problem solving. Interdisciplinary practitioners, in general, are self-selecting. If we provide interdisciplinary postgraduate degrees for example, we are simply giving licence to that selection, which is useful. Should we be thinking in New Zealand about investing in diverse professional training, rather than maintaining a traditional research model (and alongside that training innovative researchers). Or do we invest in both these strategies? Certainly the National Statement of Science Investment is addressing this in removing sector buckets – for example, the Endeavour fund. Seminars and workshops to build bridges are also important early stages of fostering interdisciplinary innovation.

Having too broad an interest can be deemed by those within specific disciplines as chaotic, with a strong push to maintain the silos that already exist. For example, as someone with broad research interests and bigger picture thinking, I was told as an academic by my HOD at the time, that that didn’t look good on paper and I needed to narrow things down to one or two interests only. This experience is quite typical for those interested in interdisciplinary work. Advice on interdisciplinary innovation however, recognises the benefit of mixing mavericks (as influencers) and managers, and of putting expert generalists with specialists.

Discipline preservation over time may lead to ‘cognitive rigidity’ due to the building and maintenance of a particular kind of elite. This may lead to a failure to thrive of those that don’t fit the model of that particular discipline. Diversity within academic disciplines, as elsewhere, does however, matter for innovation. And using my personal example, biochemistry itself was a new inter-discipline once whose origins as crossing knowledge boundaries perhaps have now been forgotten by those silo-ed within it.

Interdisciplinary innovation results from a creative tension between the ways in which these structured knowledge boundaries (within disciplines) are maintained and are indeed beneficial, and the ways by which these knowledge structures shift and change. The most valuable innovations from interdiscplinarity are typically those not anticipated at the outset (as they involve not only new answers, but also new questions).

Effective ‘pole-star’ leaders who can act as brokers between knowledge boundaries and translators of different languages are the enablers for interdisciplinary innovation. Pole star leaders can also guarantee success in outcomes, whilst maintaining the essential conditions for serendipity and curiosity. How many such pole star leaders do we have within New Zealand?

Interestingly, the qualifications of people who work in the New Zealand tech sector are in general low, with the majority having level 1-4 certificates or no qualifications:

Source: Figure.NZ

Do we need a more skilled (with respect to qualifications obtained) tech sector to also aid in fostering interdisciplinary approaches and drive innovation, or is on-the-job experience the most critical when it comes to expertise? Education may potentially act as a barrier as it promotes the division between disciplines through knowledge boundaries and creates elitism. Imbalance in qualifications between sectors who are trying to foster interdisciplinary connections may also be another obstacle.

Misconceptions and prejudices that different groups have about each other can be blockades to interdisciplinarity functioning. The different approaches different sectors, institutions etc, take to defining a problem and determining the appropriate method to understanding it can be an additional barrier to interdisciplinary activities- the understanding of the ‘other’. For success, there is a need to break through from a single discipline team and their social networks and their social capital to a new shared vision with new social capital.

Different disciplines also often have different core values.  Yet, working towards understanding of new shared values is critical to find new suites of technologies (e.g. nano, bio, cogno, info –based) to approach jagged issues.

With the important role the tertiary sector plays in R&D, the ability to speak the same language and share the same values might be an important component of creating greater interdisciplinarity between science and tech sectors and beyond. The average level of qualifications in one sector versus others thus may be an obstacle towards that goal. Designers in particular, are skilled at spanning boundaries and have an important role to play, or for us to learn from.

The predominant source of conflict in interdisciplinary fields typically centres on poor communication. A lot of resources are required to establish common culture via socialising. Developing effective personal relationships is a time consuming and necessary first step. Fostering excellent communication skills in students is also essential.

The role of business

In looking at data on professional, scientific and technical services business births and deaths in New Zealand from 2001-2015, an interesting recent trend (from 2015-2015) appears to be businesses starting and ceasing operation mapping each other, rather than mirroring each other, as occurred previously.

Image: Figure.NZ

A flattening growth trend has been seen for enterprises in the scientific research services industry from 2009 onwards. Data on business survival rates in this same industry (professional, scientific, and technical services) from 2007-2015 paints an interesting picture of a potentially greater failure rate of businesses established in 2010 versus those established in 2006. More data would be needed to understand what exactly might be behind these trends.

Source: Figure.NZ

If small business plays an important role in driving innovation, the gender gaps noted earlier may mean we are missing out on key knowledge input and diverse functioning teams that might lead to greater innovation. This includes new enterprises formed, as well as greater chance of business survival. Understanding why women appear less likely to be present in a small business is critical, including whether this is typical across small business or whether there are specific sectoral differences. This also includes understanding why there is a marked and widening gender pay gap. There is likely much analysis being done in this space that isn’t yet within Figure.NZ data.

In addition, a recent German report by Elsevier’s Analytical Services (Mapping Gender in the German Research Arena) found that:

  • “Publications authored only by females are the most internationally collaborative;
  • Mixed-gender research teams are more likely to produce interdisciplinary publications compared to male-only or female-only teams;
  • Publications for which the majority of the authors are female focus on different research topics compared to male-only publications in a gender balanced research area.”

This analysis looked at Scopus publications and piloted a novel methodology to analyse gender in publications.

If we want more interdisciplinarity to lead to greater innovation, including more women in STEM teams is critical.

Summary of interdisciplinarity information:

  • Mixed field approaches appear low within universities (recognising though there are problems with the tertiary sector data categorisation) and mixed field approaches in other tertiary areas may not adequately cover the full range of interdisciplinary options.
  • There is considerable room for growth in promoting interdisciplinary approaches in New Zealand and to look at appropriate training for interdisciplinary students and support and protection of those that self-select in this career space.
  • Teaching communication skills, collaborative team work approaches, relationship development are pivotal to interdisciplinarity.
  • Workshops and seminars between organisations are important bridge building exercises.
  • Have we identified pole-star leaders? Are we providing sufficient time, resources and space to develop relationships and establish common culture?
  • A mismatch between qualifications across sectors may make cross-talk challenging due to differing ‘languages”, elitism, and the different kinds of knowledge.
  • Diversity is intrinsically linked to interdisciplinarity. There might be a relationship of gender gaps (or other diversity categories) to business births and deaths, flattening enterprise numbers and higher recent business failure rates, especially within small businesses.

How do we shoot through the jagged gap?

Diversity, including gender balance, positive and team-based leadership, appropriate management, and interdisciplinarity are all key components of innovation. In many cases, willingness for change, or an element of disruption is also important. And maintaining time and space for collaboration and relationship building, alongside curiosity, serendipity and creativity are essential.

Fostering a culture of working across knowledge boundaries, of relationship development, working with people’s strengths and utilising collective intelligence are also imperatives.

We are a small nation and in theory we are very connected. We need to better leverage these connections to promote the importance of diversity and interdisciplinarity. Looking at the opportunities that our tertiary sector provides for innovation and then actively building relationships with other organisations is important. This includes better recognition of the strengths and expertise present in our regions. The recently announced regional research institutes are a step in addressing this.

Efforts that not only attract young people into STEM fields, promote retention and utilisation of women in the labour market, improve infrastructure for women and improve public recognition for women’s active participation in STEM are essential. In terms of what has been implemented elsewhere, Korea has been actively working to address diversity issues with respect to gender in STEM fields for a number of years, due to their very low rates of participation by women.

Korea has, for example: created a National Centre for support of women in STEM, established a database of women in STEM, conducted a survey for women in STEM (presumably to better understand their experience of working in this industry and any barriers) and implemented the WISE programme (this shares some similarities to the Athena SWAN programme for equality). What initiatives, similar to those Korea has implemented, might work in the New Zealand context, particularly with a view to enhancing our innovative capabilities?

Our unique value proposition in New Zealand is our inter-connectedness, our strong desire for equity as a nation, our small size and our strong tradition of blue skies or curiosity-drive research. We need, with overarching goals, to maintain the latter.

Recent initiatives from the government are, I believe, helping to provide an appropriate environment for innovation. The National Science Challenges in themselves are a big bold step, and although they have had their share of criticism, they are intended to support greater space for creativity and interdisciplinarity.

The Nation of Curious Minds strategic plan and the activities implemented from the plan (and with which I am involved) also offers opportunities and new ways of working = innovation. Projects funded by the Unlocking Curious Minds fund are reaching new audiences and fostering interest in STEM in young people and across communities in innovative ways.

In particular, the Participatory Science Platform (PSP) that I am National Coordinator of is providing resources to bring communities, scientists and educators together to work on locally meaningful projects. This novel way of working together with co-design at its basis is innovative for New Zealand. The PSP is breaking down barriers, with people working across knowledge boundaries and it is humbling and inspiring to see these projects in action and to imagine the possibilities that these kinds of projects could lead to.

I’d put $10 (because Kate’s on the note) on this: that if we embrace diverse teams (gender and otherwise), foster appropriate positive leadership, provide the right nurturing environment for interdisciplinarity to develop and add in a dash of disruption, it will provide the space and environment from which innovation can grow. We can journey through those jagged rocks. Who is keen to walk through the looking glass with me?

You can find my complete saved list of interesting data that relates to this post here.

The entire post (Parts 1 and 2) can be found on the Te Punaha Matatini site here.