I was fortunate enough to spend three days recently with a tremendously smart and vital group of New Zealand scientists at the launch of Te Punaha Matatini, a new “Center for Research Excellence” funded by the NZ government.
Te Punaha Matatini is Maori for “the meeting place of many faces”, and what a tremendous variety of faces I met. A few I already knew, like director Shaun Hendy, nanoscientist, econophysicist, and co-author of the wonderful Get off the Grass; climate economist Suzi Kerr, co-founder of Motu; and geoinformatician and director of the Auckland eResearch Institute, Mark Gahegan. Others I knew by reputation, like Siouxsie Wiles, microbiologist and science advocate, and bioinformatician Alexei Drummond. But I also met many new faces: archaeologists, biologists, computer scientists, cosmologosts, economists, engineers, and others besides.
The topics covered, many in three-minute “lightning strikes,” included: disease spread in invasive possums; genetic studies of influenza spread in the NZ population; discussions of a predator free New Zealand; science communication in Antarctica; cultural diffusion among Pacific islands; impact of prehistoric and historic fishing strategies on fish populations; spatial distribution of soil types; water resources and markets; factors influencing innovation; predictive analytics for child abuse; and supply chain topologies in NZ exporters.
As I described talk after talk to a bemused relative, she asked “is there anything you didn’t hear about?” But the ambition and beauty of Te Punaha Matatini is that these topics are all connected–they each involve complex systems, network effects, and researchers imaginative enough to cross disciplinary boundaries.
I am not sure that this dynamic group is entirely typical of New Zealand researchers, but I left the meeting feeling tremendously excited for the future of Kiwi science and innovation. And along the way, I learned how to pronounce Te Punaha Matatini.