Business 'lethargic' about world collaboration - NZ physicist

By Ben Chapman-Smith

Dr David Krofcheck from Auckland University was one of the physicists associated with the Large Hadron Collider. Photo / Greg Bowker
Dr David Krofcheck from Auckland University was one of the physicists associated with the Large Hadron Collider. Photo / Greg Bowker

New Zealand's role in the biggest scientific discovery in decades shows what can happen when kiwis get involved in international collaborations, says a leading physicist.

Scientists at the world's biggest atom smasher in Switzerland discovered a new subatomic particle in July, believed to be the long-searched for Higgs boson.

David Krofcheck, a senior physics lecturer at the University of Auckland, was instrumental in getting New Zealand involved in the global project at the European Centre for Nuclear Research (CERN).

He and expatriate Kiwi physicist Alick Macpherson hatched a plan in 2001 to develop new beam radiation triggers for the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), the world's biggest and highest-energy particle accelerator.

To go in the draw to win one of five single passes to see David Krofcheck and others speak at TEDx Auckland on Saturday October 6, click here.

New Zealand's size and lack of access to capital meant we were simply unable to take on large scientific or high-tech reserach projects ourselves, said Krofcheck.

"You can't guarantee that you can do that in New Zealand because we don't have a big industrial base. We're so far away that we don't have that kind of infrastructure."

When Krofcheck speaks next month at the Auckland TEDx event, a key message will be that New Zealand corporations needed to start gaining more access to international collaborations by finding niche products to develop.

"It has to be the right sized part for us to fit in. We couldn't take on something that was too big for us that would cost $100 million. We need a project that fits our economy and our manpower - finding a niche is key.

"This is what gives us access to technology we would never usually be able to access, like a high energy particle accelerator."

Krofcheck, who moved here from America in 1995, said kiwi businesses seemed 'lethargic' and were failing to seek out exciting opportunities offshore.

"I think we've been going along and we've been happy with our primary industry and we've had a long relationship with Great Britain, supplying dairy products, or shipping lamb to the Arabs. And we've become very comfortable with that. "

We needed more opportunities for smart New Zealanders to go away to work and make contacts overseas, he said.

"Being so far away from the hotbeds of innovation, like Silicon Valley and Singapore, I think the only way we can break out of that lethargy and break that inertia is to send people out into international collaborations."

It was natural that if we invested in sending people out, they might not come back.

"But there are some that will come home too and it's those people who will bring back the connections and the contacts and then teach the next generation.

"Ultimately it's about those human connections in international collaborations, where everyone's looking in the same direction. And in the end, sometimes you end up with the Higgs boson."

When Krofcheck and Macpherson came up with their idea to develop the beam triggers, they discovered how difficult it was to access funding in New Zealand.

"There was no funding to do fundamental type research. The only way I could get funding was to say 'once I'm involved in CERN we can get access to technology that is only a dream for us'."

The pair fought hard because they knew people were going to like the project, Krofcheck said.

"Our detectors gave nice clean signals that detected protons colliding. I knew everybody would need that."

Krofcheck said New Zealand companies tended to commit a "disturbing" lack of funding towards research and development compared to other countries.

"Why can't we do it? Is it just inertia again? Do we need better science training for people who run businesses? Should we do more at university level to help people appreciate science? I'm not sure what the answer is.

"I think we need to make people see the advantage of making their own products better through research and development."

Our country needed more great scientific minds, especially after the passing of world-renowned physicist Sir Paul Callaghan in March.

"There's a guy we lost way too soon. I don't see anyone replacing him. We need another Paul Callaghan.

"He believed in not just picking a winner of technology but finding people who liked and were good at doing something and then supporting that person in whatever field it was."

Being part of the new subatomic particle discover in July had been the highlight of his career, Krofcheck said.

"I can't tell people that this Higgs boson is going to change their life today. You're still going to get stuck in traffic, you're still have to go shopping, I'm still going to have to mow the lawn.

"But it was like this with other discoveries of other particles 100 years ago. And now here I am sitting with a laptop watching YouTube clips of Paul Callaghan giving me advice from across time."

Every fundamental breakthrough in history had eventually proven itself, he said.

"I can't say exactly what will happen but I will say it will be something great. I will bet on that but it might be our grandchildren that get the benefit. Right now we just get the thrill of discovery."

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

Assembled by: (static) on production apcf04 at 24 Nov 2014 09:20:30 Processing Time: 48ms