Fostering science’s accidental collisions

In the words of the late, great Carl Sagan: “We live in a society exquisitely dependent on science and technology, in which hardly anyone knows anything about science and technology.”

Working to change that and to counter the false news and pseudoscience that inundates our information-loaded world is the task of scientists globally. It is also their job to inspire younger generations to make science their career and so enter a world that can influence and improve every aspect of human existence. 

We need new scientists more than ever in our challenging world. And we need to evolve and develop our approach to educate the public so they better understand the evidence-based methodology, innovation and progress intrinsic to scientific research.

The University of Auckland has a new state of the art building which is home to the Schools of Chemistry, Environment and Psychology.  It has dedicated design spaces and laboratories for a wide range of science research – from marine and environment to psychology, chemical and biological sciences – and is adjacent to buildings housing many of the other science disciplines. It includes a new environment research centre funded by a $5 million donation from alumnus Dr George Mason that will make a very real contribution to the environmental health of our nation.

As well though, this stunning facility is a physical representation of how we undertake science here at Auckland.  Its design is symbolic of how we must teach and conduct our research to best inform and inspire.

For example, the building is open and welcoming, with bright public spaces and walls of glass making visible, in a safe way, our labs and working spaces to everyone passing by. This reflects the openness and transparency that scientists need to undertake and explain their work and its potential impact. It isn’t enough to ‘just’ be a scientist these days, you must communicate the implications of that science as well. It’s what sets apart people like Dr Michelle Dickenson and Dr Siouxsie Wiles who are defined by their openness, transparency and ability to tell the public what they do and why it is important.

Another feature of the building is its connectivity, the way it physically connects our science disciplines. Losing the physical separations between buildings draws our scientists together. This fosters the accidental collisions that engender new ideas – PhD students and staff from Environment can bump into fellow researchers from Chemical Sciences and, as well as sharing down time and coffee, they can share ideas and inspiration.

And so too in the wider world, connectivity and collaboration between disciplines is vital to finding solutions to the world’s major problems – it is the only way we will be able both understand what is going on and provide workable solutions and mitigations.

Climate change is the perfect example of a problem that needs a trans-disciplinary approach. We need historical data from palaeontologists and bio-geographers to inform the climate models developed by physicists, mathematicians, chemists, earth scientists and environmental scientists that allow us to understand and predict how climate will change and what impact that will have on our geography. We need biological scientists, agronomists, marine scientists and engineers to understand what those changes mean for life and society, and how their effects might be mitigated, such as through renewable energy approaches, crop adaptations, repopulation of shellfish beds to sequester carbon, new building methods, and so on. And we need social scientists, and business academics to lead changes in public opinion, and develop sustainable business models.

The building offers world class facilities which serve to attract the best students and academic staff, and allow them to contribute meaningfully to global endeavours.  There is a wider picture here too. We as a nation need to rely more on what we know rather than just what we grow, and to do this we need world class research facilities, staff and students to ensure we develop the new knowledge needed and apply it to industrial problems, to do more of “the weird stuff” that Sir Paul Callaghan encouraged us to do. For example, Professor Cather Simpson in The Photon Factory is developing hi-tech dairy sector applications through Engender Technologies and Orbis Diagnostics and Professors Rod Dunbar and Margaret Brimble in the Maurice Wilkins Centre are developing new immunotherapy-based cancer treatments, commercialised through their Sapvax spinout.

Finally, to aesthetics. The building is beautiful in a modern brutalist way, its industrial appeal softened by stunning Auckland views and significant pieces from the university’s art collection.  And this clearly links to the inherent beauty we find in Fundamental Science. For example, Professor Richard Easther, who works in astrophysics, affords us a glimpse of the Universe at its beginning; Professor Ted Baker, with his understanding of protein structure, reveals the same beauty of the biological world; and Dr Erin Leitao does too, in her work on silicon polymers, analogs to the carbon polymers which life as we know it is based on. We see beauty in mathematical theorems and their proofs – and for that we need look no further than Distinguished Professor Marston Conder and his group theory work – and in the patterns extracted from Big Data, by data scientists such as Professors Lumley (Statistics), Pfahringer (Computer Science), and Hendy (Physics).

So while the new Science Centre alone is a reason to celebrate, the building design provides a constant reminder of how we must carry out our science long after the sparkling newness has worn off our laboratory equipment.

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