Te Punaha Matatini, one of New Zealand's newest Centres of Research Excellence, or CoREs, opened today at the University of Auckland. Its director - top New Zealand scientist Professor Shaun Hendy - answers some questions from science reporter Jamie Morton.

Firstly, can you describe the general role and mission of Te Punaha Matatini, and the value and benefit it will bring to New Zealand? Can you give a few examples of some of its early projects?

Te Punaha Matatini - literally "the meeting place of many faces" - brings together multi-disciplinary research teams to study complex problems in business, the economy and the environment.

We want to make use of the increasing availability of big data sets to develop models of our society, our economy and New Zealand's unique ecology to enable us to make better decisions.


For example, we will be studying how ideas and new knowledge are created by New Zealand businesses, how best we can prevent the spread of flu through our population, and what options we might have for restoring natural ecosystems.

Although these things may seem very different, they all involve studying complex networks, whether the networks are made up of people, businesses or organisms.

We think that by understanding the networks that underlie each of these complex systems we will get insights into how to influence them, and how to develop better strategies for managing them.

Our research will guide us in making New Zealand's economy more innovative and our environment healthier.

What part did your own work, at the MacDiarmid Institute for Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology, play in the evolution of this institute?

I first started studying networks of people when I was Deputy Director of the MacDiarmid Institute to try to measure whether the scientists in the Institute were working well together.

I looked at the links between scientists who were working on joint projects and found that this network was getting denser over time.

In other words, our scientists were building stronger and more numerous collaborations with each other, exactly as I had hoped.

Having studied the MacDiarmid Institute, I realised I could use this type of thinking to look at scientists at other institutes and researchers working in innovative businesses.

This work eventually led to the book I co-wrote with the late Sir Paul Callaghan, Get Off the Grass, but along the way I had to learn to work with economists and business researchers to help understand my results.

I started to realise that this type of collaboration was not so common - there seemed to be too little interaction between social and natural scientists in New Zealand.

In an attempt to change this, two dozen researchers from across the disciplines got together to form Te Punaha Matatini in late 2013, and much to our delight we were one of six Centres of Research Excellence selected for funding last year.

Our team includes social scientists, statisticians, mathematicians, economists, physicists, anthropologists, and computer scientists.

We have links with many of the other Centres of Research Excellence and some of my colleagues from the MacDiarmid Institute have even joined us.

A strength of the institute seems to lie in cross-disciplinary problem-solving - combining a range of experts and scientific fields to bear on a specific issue or question. Has this approach always been a vision of yours?

It's something I've come to realise relatively recently, particularly as I became more interested in how research and problem-solving takes place outside of the academic world.

In academia we tend to work on problems that can be boiled down to very specific questions.

While this specialised type of research is important for advancing knowledge, it is often harder to see the direct impact of your work.

In business or in government, you don't get to pick and choose which problems you tackle, and the problems you face typically require a broad range of knowledge to solve.

This requires working in multi-disciplinary teams.

At Te Punaha Matatini we want to prepare our students to work outside of universities, so we want to expose them to the challenge of multi-disicplinary research so that they are well-equipped for the workforce.

The institute will draw on such varied areas as physics, biology, computer science and social science. These are complex fields, but how relevant can they be to everyday New Zealanders if capitalised upon innovatively?

We think these areas will be very relevant to Kiwis. In fact, we'll be asking New Zealanders to help us out with some of our projects.

We are very keen to help run a National Birdsong Day, where members of the public can use smartphones to record birdsong that will then be analysed to provide a national stock-take of our native bird populations.

The data from this project would inform our ecological models and help us design predator management strategies.

Would you like to think the work that comes out of this institute could inspire something new in New Zealand science - a culture-shift toward mission-led or collaborative research, perhaps?

Yes, exactly. We would like to demonstrate that it is eminently possible to do mission-led, collaborative and cutting edge research in New Zealand.

In many ways we are a complement to the National Science Challenges, which were organised through a government-led top-down process and have had difficulties in inspiring the research community.

At Te Punaha Matatini we have chosen our own challenges that suit our skills and that we think will make a big difference to New Zealand.

Five years down the track, where would you like to be in terms of development of this institute?

In five years, we would like to see collaborations between the natural sciences and the social sciences becoming much more common than they are now.

If we are successful at Te Punaha Matatini then I would like to think that this will inspire other initiatives like ours and perhaps even influence the way the government funds research in New Zealand.

Right now almost a third of New Zealand PhD graduates head overseas, but by working on problems that are very relevant to New Zealand we would like to see more of our graduates end-up in the New Zealand workforce.

You'll be able to follow our progress on the web at www.tepunahamatatini.ac.nz or on twitter @punahamatatini.

Will you yourself still be involved in researching and developing fundamental science or will your directorship keep you at an administrative level only?

The director's role will keep me busy, but I don't think I'll be able to keep myself from getting stuck into one or two of our projects.

I'm particularly interested in how connectivity and collaboration affects innovation so I'll be involved in that project at the very least.