FACE TO FACE : Murray Bain – Championing tomorrow’s science heroes

Murray Bain has long been intrigued by how things work. In another life back in the ’70s and ’80s this former number cruncher rode the wave of this country’s embryonic computer discoveries and the early days of automatic tellers, EFTPOS and telephone banking.
This fascination with systems was, he says, one of the overarching attractions to his current role. As chief executive of the Foundation for Research, Science & Technology (FRST), Bain heads the team that controls the pursestrings on who lands funding for science and who languishes on the sidelines.
As layperson, he admits, he had been well aware that New Zealand spawns many high class scientists. Why, then, wasn’t he seeing and hearing more about their ideas and aspirations? Why do we not worship science heroes in the same way we idolise our rugby greats or cricketing legends?
In the two and half years since he took over at FRST, Bain reckons he’s unearthed some – but not all – of the answers to such questions. It is, he says, complicated. “I was very aware from my specialist IT background that I could see things that IT could deliver to company that normal company manager couldn’t see. I’ve always felt the same about science.”
One of the problems is linguistic, he’s decided. Many scientists find it hard to explain their complex world in terms that are simple enough for non-specialists to fathom.
It must have been heartening, then, to see how readily entrants to this year’s MacDiarmid Young Scientists of the Year Awards embraced its twin themes of scientific discovery and communication of those ideas.
Bain was one of many people “stunned” by the transformation at this year’s event, he says, where contestants’ research ideas were displayed on compelling storyboards: kind of advertising meets science.
He also credits listening to scientists as one of the most enjoyable parts of his current role. Partly, it’s the passion with which they communicate their projects. “If they can explain their ideas to me in layman’s terms, the concepts are so intriguing that I walk away thinking of the endless possibilities around what they’re doing.”
Asked to name one of New Zealand’s living science heroes, he plumps for professor Paul Callaghan, Wellington-based nuclear physicist and director of the government-funded MacDiarmid Institute for Advanced Materials and Technology.
A world-leading, and already much-decorated scientist Callaghan was made principal companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit (PCNZM) – the top gong in last year’s New Year Honours list – for his contribution to science.
In Bain’s view, Callaghan straddles the worlds of science and compelling storytelling, communicating his ideas in passionate, uplifting and inspiring way. “The year before last he was speaking to the young scientists at an event we have around the MacDiarmid Awards. He talked for about 20 minutes on the history of science, what it means to be scientist and the shoulders that you’re standing on: and it was brilliant.”
This combination of skills, to Bain’s way of thinking, foreshadows the scientific world of the future.
If language often sets up barriers to nation’s acceptance of scientific heroes, so too, often, do the very mechanisms created to help identify, fund and champion their discoveries. So when Bain first stepped into his new role at FRST, he wanted to take good look at the current systems. “How was management working? What were the funding flows? Were people empowered by the way the system worked or were there lot of constraints that made it difficult for science to flourish?” he says.
“I knew the science was being done but somehow it wasn’t getting out into the outside world and I wondered what the roadblocks were.”
Scientists, he firmly believed, were not short on ideas that could improve products or services, and create new companies or even whole new industries. “But, somehow, the system didn’t seem to let that happen in quite the way I would have liked… in the way that it does in the States, for example.”
And while governments worldwide may be lifting their funding of scientific R&D, Bain notes, these additional dollars aren’t keeping pace with the increasing number of fascinating and potentially groundbreaking areas for scientific exploration.
Governments, not unnaturally, want to get value for money from their science investments and level of assurance that they are backing the right horses. So science funding everywhere is real challenge, says Bain. “You’re being pulled two ways because science is not linear. It’s inherently discovery, surprise and risk. Governments put money into it but aspects such as its longer time horizons mean that what they get back is much less clear.”
Bain and his 90-strong team at FRST see their role as trying to bridge that uncertainty gap. “We’ll never close it,” he admits. “But we have to narrow it bit so that the government can at least get degree of comfort that it is getting value and the scientists can mix random, serendipitous discovery with work that solves problems that need to be solved.”
The foundation, he acknowledges, had in the past been seen as “somewhat remote, process-focused and fairly hands off” once an investment decision was made. So Bain’s first initiative back in 2004 was to trial one-year pilot project to check whether an outcome-based investment (OBI) model would provide more workable solution.
It was, he says, the foundation’s attempt at investing funds longer term “but on more partnership basis”.
Would this model, the foundation wanted to know, prove to be more capable of delivering results that led to new methods, products or services? Would it give research institutions more stability through long-term funding? Would it devolve decision-making in practical ways such as enabling those research institutions to work out how they would meet their contracted research goals? And would it hike collaboration between researchers while also enhancing the skills of the broader research, science and technology workforce?
The first contracts under the pilot scheme were for research into land-based ecosystems. They kicked off at the start of July 2004. One year later, an independent review by Economics and Strategy Group revealed the limitations of the OBI approach.
It worked fine when the end result delivered benefits that were widely dispersed, but drew blank when the value fell into the domain of single individual or just one organisation. In other words, it wasn’t going to be much cop for public good science and technology research.
Bain and gang are now rolling out new scheme which aims to pick the best bits out of previous approaches. Instead of contestable funding process with few opportunities for either party to fine-tune their thinking over time, the foundation is turning towards what it calls “a more negotiation-based” investment regime.
“The corollary to going away from contestable process and negotiating up front,” says Bain, “is that we put in review process to make sure that what we’ve negotiated around is what is actually being delivered through the longer term.”
This builds in opportunity for an ongoing conversation about the direction of the research and allows FRST to have more of partnership with the research organisation.
It’s actually standard management 101, says Bain. “If you’re letting contract to supplier, you might well seek tenders but then you negotiate with your favoured party. You certainly don’t disappear off into the sunset.”
The new system marches more closely in step with the way in which scientific trial, and error, can spread out over many years before it can prove truly effective.
“If you’re trying to get new species of grass that will have different nutrients and produce certain kind of milk, that’s 15-year programme,” says Bain. “You can check milestones along the way but you can’t actually say with any certainty that in three years you’ll have the outcome and know whether or not to con

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