New Zealand has an excellent record of conserving its native flora and fauna through pest control measures, especially in large uninhabited areas. Predator Free 2050 is a bold initiative that aims to rid the country of its most damaging invasive predators. However, to completely eliminate such predators from our shores, new and ambitious approaches are needed.
Implementing effective predator control over large areas
New Zealand’s unique and diverse native species of flora and fauna are extremely vulnerable to invasive mammals. Our often-publicised successes in conserving the country’s biodiversity by managing pests has mainly been restricted to large uninhabited areas. Meanwhile, large tracts of land owned by private individuals remain relatively unprotected.
When it comes to land management decisions such as pest control actions, careful negotiations are required with a wide range of stakeholders with differing views – from cat-lovers to rabbit-haters – so that agreements can be reached.
Experience has shown there are minimum thresholds for landholder participation in predator control measures for them to be successful. In practice, coordinated community efforts are required so that pest reinvasion from a few untreated properties does not compromise pest control achieved by others.
Another crucial element is biological connectivity between properties – the establishment of ‘safe passage’ corridors crossing landowner boundaries greatly assists in the dispersal of native species between fragments of suitable habitat. Large-scale pest control is therefore a spatial issue with social, environmental, and economic components.
The spread model is still being developed to provide more functionality for managers. In particular, we are investigating the ways in which landholders influence one another, how agencies influence landholders, and the presence of key influential landholders who might help catalyze actions are the current focus of research. Ultimately, the aim of the model is to improve strategic planning for mammal control at regional scales. Also, this model serves as a template for future dynamic maps of other mammal species.
Large-scale Cape to City research project in Hawke’s Bay
Te Pūnaha Matatini investigators Audrey Lustig, Mike Plank and Alex James, from the University of Canterbury, are involved in a large-scale predator control initiative covering 26,000 hectares of agricultural land in Hawke’s Bay, part of a wide range of research activities referred to as the Cape to City research project by the Hawke’s Bay City Council.
“This is just a start for a much more ambitious project that proposes a vision to eliminate invasive predators from the entire country,” says Audrey. “In this work, we develop a generic modeling approach as a planning tool for predicting the abundance and the likely persistence of four New Zealand top mammalian predators in the light of potential changes in management effort across human-dominated landscape.”
The first part of the project aims to generate a computer model for predicting the distribution and abundance of mammalian species across the landscape, the ways in which animals move from their natal sites, and how their distributions and abundance are affected by control interventions.
Such modelling can help inform managers on the likelihood of success of a specific pest control action (assuming every landholder participates in the control action). It also allows exploration of some of the mechanisms by which mammal populations might recover after control operations.
Importance of multi-stakeholder engagement
The work builds on a pre-existing knowledge base and data acquired by the Hawke’s Bay Regional Council, Department of Conservation, Manaaki Whenua and the Biological Heritage Challenge to bring about practical improvements in mammalian pest management in New Zealand.
“Such inter-organisational joint effort is common in New Zealand, but to me, what was critical was to bring a more practical insight into my research,” says Audrey. “In particular, the provision of direct feedback from decision-makers forms an integral part of the learning process and enriches my research experiences and outcomes, while providing useful information to the Hawke’s Bay Regional Council.”
For further details about this project, please contact us today.
Te Pūnaha Matatini researchers are collaborating across disciplines to develop novel tools that allow us to better understand trends underlying the citation of scientific papers and patents, a key indicator of their subsequent impact or importance.
PhD student Kyle Higham and his supervisors Ulrich Zuelicke (Uli) and Michele Governale from Victoria University of Wellington, and innovation economist Adam Jaffe from Motu Economic and Public Policy Research, have been researching how patents and scientific articles accumulate citations. Mapping the observed dynamics to a well-known network model, they were able to improve on previous studies by controlling for ‘citation inflation’ – an effect caused by the ever-increasing rate at which patents or articles are produced by inventors and researchers.
“As a result, we were able to reliably extract crucial network-model parameters and obtained extremely good agreement between data and model predictions for citation distributions,” says Uli. “Our work has proved to be a useful basis for gaining a deeper understanding of citation dynamics and is being utilised by us and others in the field to design improved network-model descriptions.”
Study suggests current rate of innovation faster than ever
The “icing on the cake”, says Uli, is that their study considered citation dynamics within specialised technology sectors for patents and individual physics research fields for articles.
“We were able to identify faster-moving technologies and research fields based on their faster rate of obsolescence exhibited in the citation dynamics.”
“Interestingly, we also found evidence for obsolescence times to have become shorter for physics articles published in 2000 compared with older ones from 1990. This indicates a general trend for the research frontier to move faster now than in the past, which is an interesting finding whose social origin deserves further exploration.”
Research helps to inform science and innovation policies
Uli explains there are good reasons to study citation dynamics.
“Research on citation dynamics can provide tools with which to inform rational science and innovation policies. Such research also underpins the design of meaningful and robust informetric impact measures.”
“To us, citation data provide a fingerprint or reflection of knowledge generation as a social endeavour. Citations could be, or are being, mined to understand [for example] geographical and social patterns of knowledge diffusion through communities of inventors and academics, as well as historical trends and drivers for knowledge generation and consumption.”
Keen to learn more about this project?
Te Pūnaha Matatini investigators Mike Plank, Alex James, Jeanette McLeod, and postdoc research fellow Daniel Lond, are using social network analysis to assess risk in vulnerable children in New Zealand.
Collaborating with our stakeholders in the government sector
Working with an extensive data set, the team is exploring how the Ministry for Social Development (MSD) can improve their measures of the risk of harm to vulnerable children, for use by front-line practitioners. Directly funded by MSD, the researchers aim to develop tools that can be used to protect at-risk children and improve their lives.
The project uses relationship data pertaining to children who have had contact with Child, Youth and Family (CYF) from 2005 to 2016, and includes all relationships observed by CYF staff in their work with that child and their family. CYF has since been succeeded by the Ministry for Children, Oranga Tamariki (MCOT).
Using network science to develop tools that can improve outcomes
Networks are constructed to map the relationships between different individuals within the database. By examining these networks we are identifying key relationship risk factors that lead to children being of high estimated concern.
Preliminary results suggest that this approach can provide insight to help social worker decision making. The tool can be used by CYF staff, in addition to their existing experience and protocols, to assist in making real-time assessments regarding in-depth investigation or intervention.
Please contact us today if you would like to find out more about this project.
Enjoy craft? Then you probably enjoy mathematics too, you just may not know it. This was the idea behind the recent Maths Craft Festival, a weekend-long festival held at the Auckland Museum, celebrating the many links between mathematics and craft. The Festival was the creation of Jeanette McLeod (University of Canterbury/Te Pūnaha Matatini) and Julia Collins (University of Edinburgh), who were inspired to start the festival after a serendipitous encounter while Julia was on holiday in Christchurch. Jeanette and Julia – both avid knitters and crocheters – wanted to find a way to share the beautiful mathematics behind craft with the public. Jeanette pitched the idea to Te Pūnaha Matatini who responded with instant enthusiasm, and not only offered to be the major sponsor, but encouraged Jeanette and Julia to “think big”. With that, the idea of the Maths Craft Festival was born. A short time later, after being coerced into crocheting a hyperbolic plane, Phil Wilson (University of Canterbury) was recruited. Together the trio went on to create the first event of its kind in New Zealand.
The Festival combined eight hands-on craft stations with a series of public talks, and was immensely popular, even making an appearance on One News. Over 1,800 people visited the Festival, trying their hands at a range of mathematical crafts, including crocheting hyperbolic planes, building fractal sculptures, making Möbius strips and folding origami dodecahedrons. The public talks were given by mathematicians and crafters, and covered topics ranging from the mathematics of knitting, and the Four Colour Theorem, to fractals in art and nature, and chaos and the crocheted Lorenz Manifold. (In fact, Prof Hinke Osinga issued a challenge during her talk: be the first in NZ to crochet a Lorenz manifold and she will send you a bottle of champagne.) The Festival was the largest event run at the Museum in over six months, and was praised by staff for not only its popularity, but for attracting a such diverse group of people.
The Festival was an experiment, born of a desire to share the beauty of the mathematics in crafts, and it really hit a nerve. The positive feedback was overwhelming, with comments like “What a great event, our whole family has enjoyed it, from age 7-47!” and “Thank you for putting up such a cool event! Math is awesome.” Others thought that it was “Brilliant to see so many people old and young being enthused by mathematics. Let’s hope more of these events happen as there is clearly high demand for more maths related fun.” School teachers were inspired and “Have come away with some fabulous ideas to share with numerous teachers and their classrooms across Auckland. Looking forward to this becoming a regular event …. hint, hint.” In fact, the most common piece of feedback can be summed up by this comment: “Loved it, please repeat!”
What did people learn from attending the Festival? Aside from experiencing the “fascinating complexity and depth to all of the various constructions”, they were “amazed by how much breadth mathematics encompasses”, and have now come to realise that “Fractals are EVERYWHERE” and “Geometry is way cool.” And perhaps most heartening of all, that “Maths is exciting” and “maths can be fun!”
The Festival has proved to be so popular that Auckland Museum have asked for it to be run again next year – in their Events Centre, the copper dome on the roof of the museum with a 360-degree view over Auckland and space for 500 people. Plans are also underway to take Maths Craft on the road in 2017, and run events in other parts of New Zealand.
For more information on the Maths Craft Festival, or in case you’re yearning to fold an origami dodecahedron or crochet a hyperbolic plane, please visit mathscraftnz.org.
The Maths Craft Festival couldn’t have happened without the help and support of Shaun Hendy, Kate Hannah, Sarah Hikuroa, Danene Jones, Nicolette Rattenbury, Sarah Mark, Andrea Webley and the Auckland Museum, and our generous sponsors Te Pūnaha Matatini, the University of Canterbury, the University of Auckland, the New Zealand Mathematical Society, the Dodd-Walls Centre and Ashford.
Archaeology and modern network science are combining to investigate the development of Māori social networks over time as part of a new three year $705,000 Marsden-funded project.
The research draws upon the skills of archaeologist Professor Thegn Ladefoged and network scientists Dr Dion O’Neal and Associate Professor Marcus Frean from Te Pūnaha Matataini, a Centre of Research Excellence in complex systems and networks. The research team also includes Associate Professor Mark McCoy from the USA’s Southern Methodist University, and Alex Jorgensen from the University of Auckland who will use portable X-ray fluorescence to characterize and source obsidian artefacts. Assistant Professor Chris Stevenson from Virginia Commonwealth University will develop obsidian hydration dating of artefacts to establish tight chronological control of changing levels of interaction.
Professor Ladefoged from the University of Auckland explains that over centuries relatively autonomous village-based Māori groups have transformed into larger territorial hapū lineages, which later formed even larger iwi associations.
Information passed down through generations by word of mouth has traditionally provided the best evidence of these complex, dynamic changes in Māori social organisation. The research group’s novel combination of archaeological and network science skills aims to provide new insights into these social changes.
“By researching ancient obsidian tools and their movement across New Zealand we can reconstruct historical systems of inter-iwi trade,” Professor Ladefoged says.
The research group will then combine this archaeological and location data with social network analysis modelling and local iwi input to provide new insights into how Māori society was transformed from village-based groups to powerful hapū and iwi.
Network analysis will enable the group to look for patterns of how archaeological sites, artefacts and obsidian sources relate to one another, and how those relationships have changed over time, explains associate investigator Dr Dion O’Neale.
“Based on those changing relationships we can put forward hypotheses about the roles played by geography or social groupings in producing the distributions of obsidian that we observe,” Dr O’Neale says.
The collaborative research project also aims to connect or reconnect Māori with their taonga held in museums and university archaeology collections.
Te Pūnaha Matatini Director Professor Shaun Hendy says the project demonstrates the ability of New Zealand’s Centres of Research Excellence to connect and amplify the efforts of researchers across a wide range of fields and locations.
“We all know that research needs to become more interdisciplinary, but we also know that this is easier said than done,” Professor Hendy says.
“I am really pleased that Thegn and his team have taken advantage of Te Pūnaha Matatini’s diverse network of researchers to tackle such an exciting project.”
Associate Investigator Professor Murray Cox is applying the tools and methodologies of complexity science to explore some of the enduring mysteries of human and agricultural genetics. His transdisciplinary DNA detective work could lead to new health treatments or the development of green pesticides.
“I find it really interesting that complex systems or complexity science has such a wide scope,” says Professor Murray Cox, a computational biologist based at Massey University’s Palmerston North campus.
It’s a statement that easily embodies Murray’s own work: half of his research looks at human DNA to help determine historical migrations around the world, and the other half investigates agricultural genetics to explore the differences between pathogens and beneficial organisms. It’s the kind of research that’s not necessarily mainstream to complexity science but, as Murray points out, a lot of his work is interested in transitions or feedback mechanisms – things that pop-up regularly in complex systems.
Murray initially trained as a biochemist at the University of Otago before venturing overseas to study for a PhD in Norway. After a stint at the University of Cambridge, he moved on to the University of Arizona and held an adjunct position for two years at the Santa Fe Institute, a world-renowned complex systems research centre.
Working at the Santa Fe Institute proved influential to Murray’s work and he has maintained his international connections. It was the advent of Te Pūnaha Matatini, though, that had him excited about the future of complexity science in his home country.
“There really wasn’t a lot happening in regards to complex systems in New Zealand until Te Pūnaha Matatini came along.
“Te Pūnaha Matatini is not only driving a lot of new professional connections, but it’s also introducing many underexposed fields, like genetics and anthropology, to the powerful tools of complex systems to help solve some really challenging problems.”
Studying human DNA
It’s a combination of genetics, anthropology and computational biology that has enabled Murray and an international team of researchers to investigate the origins of the first people to settle in the Pacific. Their findings confirm Asian farming groups were the first to reach Pacific Islands, with later migrations bringing Papuan genes into the region.
The really interesting part of the findings, explains Murray, is the feedback between social dynamics and demography: “Farmers move into the environment but they don’t mix with existing people, often for one to two thousand years. Then society changes and all of a sudden mixing occurs.”
The research, says Murray, demonstrates an interesting dynamic between how society operates and how genes respond – a case of social norms determining who can marry whom and therefore influencing genetic mixing. “That’s obviously a complex system, although geneticists probably wouldn’t have naturally thought of it in that way.”
The international study, recently published in Nature, also gave the first basic picture of the genomic make-up of Pacific Islanders. Unlike European New Zealanders, where scientists can leverage off research done in the UK and USA, very little was known about the genomes of Pasifika and Māori.
“We knew that they had a mixture of both Asian and Papuan ancestry, but had no idea how this came about or when,” Murray says.
“Knowing this is important because some of the genetic variations caused by this population mixing will likely be linked to health outcomes. Ultimately, understanding this DNA may give us new ideas for health treatments.”
The other side of Murray’s work explores the interactions between the environment and agricultural genes to explain the spectrum of beneficial and non-beneficial pathogens. For instance, the Epichloë fungus found inside some grass species can produce compounds to deter insects, preventing the need to spray insecticides.
Ordinarily the grass might attack such a fungus, deterring it from taking hold inside the plant. “Complex feedback systems where chemicals signal between parties may explain how the symbiotic interaction between the grass and the Epichloë fungus arose, and how it is maintained,” Murray says.
Investigating those complex interactions and underlying genetics could lead to the development of new natural pesticides. “We spray lots of quite nasty chemicals to get rid of pests,” Murray says. “But there are some natural pesticides already developed by microbes that we can perhaps co-opt.”
Whether he’s studying human or agricultural genomes, or combining anthropology with biology, mathematics and statistics, a common thread in Murray’s work is a complex systems approach.
“Sometimes researchers such as biologists are working on complex systems but they’re not trained in it so they don’t see it when it’s right in front of them.
“When complex systems approaches are applied to many of these questions, it’s exciting to see how those approaches can drive science in completely new directions.”
Professor Murray Cox is a computational biologist in the Institute of Fundamental Science at Massey University and an Associate Investigator of Te Pūnaha Matatini.
In 2015, he was awarded the Association of Commonwealth Universities Titular Fellowship to spend three months in early 2016 at St John’s College, University of Oxford. Professor Cox has also received a 2016 Fellowship from the Humboldt Foundation for sabbatical visits in 2017 and 2018 to the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany.
In 2010, Professor Cox was awarded an inaugural Rutherford Discovery Fellowship by the Royal Society of New Zealand. The five-year Fellowship enabled him look both at human prehistory in the Pacific and gene regulation in fungi, which are important for controlling insect pests in New Zealand’s pastures.
Professor Murray Cox’s work has appeared in two Nature publications and a number of media articles in September and October 2016.
Genomic analyses inform on migration events during the peopling of Eurasia, Nature 538, 238–242 (13 October 2016).
Genomic insights into the peopling of the Southwest Pacific, Nature (Published online 03 October 2016)
In the media
NZ Herald: DNA detectives rewrite human history
NZ Herald: Skeletons reveal ancestors of Maori
TVNZ: Study of ancient DNA finds first Pacific settlers were Asian
Stuff.co.nz: New research on ancient Pacific skeletons reveals Maori ancestors
Radio NZ: Ancient DNA shows Asian farmers first Pacific people
The Guardian: DNA shows first inhabitants of Vanuatu came from Philippines and Taiwan
ABC News: DNA reveals Lapita ancestors of Pacific Islanders came from Asia
Meet Professor Tava Olsen from the University of Auckland. Tava is a Director at the New Zealand Centre for Supply Chain Management and was recently appointed Deputy Director – Industry and Stakeholder Engagement here at Te Pūnaha Matatini. Tava brings with her a wealth of experience in supply chain management and operations research. We recently caught up with Tava to find out more about her work and what she hopes to achieve in her new Te Pūnaha Matatini role.
Tell us about your research, including projects aligned with Te Pūnaha Matatini
My research is generally in the area of mathematical modelling applied to operations and supply chain management. For example, I am interested in how contracts can be set up in the red meat industry that create win-wins for both farmers and processors in what is a very fragmented industry. I use tools such as game theory to approach this problem. Most of the problems I look at involve randomness in some form and I am very interested in modelling risk and uncertainty.
What attracted you to the role of Deputy Director – Industry and Stakeholder Engagement?
There are large synergies between this role and another of my currently roles, director of the Centre for Supply Chain Management (CSCM). In both roles I seek to build links between industry and the university, although CSCM is focussed around supply chain and Te Pūnaha Matatini is broader. I very much believe in the importance of industry engagement with academia and vice versa. We have a lot to learn from each other. Also, I would like to see the University become the first place industry looks to get their difficult problems solved. This is often the case in Northern Europe but in New Zealand industry often doesn’t think of coming to us.
What role do you think Te Pūnaha Matatini can play when working with industry?
Te Pūnaha Matatini should be able to facilitate networks and connections. I would love to see us getting teams of cross-disciplinary students working with industry and supervised by Te Pūnaha Matatini staff to solve challenging problems. I think this could add significant value to both industry and to our staff and students. I saw something like this working very well at the University of Michigan when I was there and I would very much like to get a programme similar to theirs started here.
Meet Stephen Marsland – a professor of scientific computing in the computer science cluster of the School of Engineering and Advanced Technology (SEAT) at Massey University. Stephen is also Te Pūnaha Matatini’s new Theme Leader: Complex Data Analytics. “Data is cool at the moment… but it would be nice to see people using it well and understanding what they can and can’t infer from analysis,” Stephen says. Find out more about Stephen’s research and what he hopes to achieve in his new role in the below Q&A.
Tell us about your research, including projects aligned with Te Pūnaha Matatini
My first area of research is the mathematics of shape analysis. This is primarily concerned with geodesics on the diffeomorphism group, which is a mathematical way of describing how flows of smooth, invertible transformations can deform one shape into another in the shortest possible way. I also study invariants to the actions of the groups that can deform images.
More related to Te Pūnaha Matatini is my work in machine learning, which has two parts at the moment: I’m thinking about manifold learning, where we try to find low-dimensional representations of high-dimensional data, and I’m also thinking about dealing with learning about multiple sources of data where all that you see is the combination of the sources. The first is a popular question, but I’m thinking about it very much from the point of view of differential geometry, and how that can help. I’ve got multiple projects going on there with collaborators in England and China.
The second project is with Marcus Frean, another Te Pūnaha Matatini principal investigator. So for example, you might see images of an object on different backgrounds, and you want to work out that the object and the background are different pieces of information.
I’ve got a very big project called AviaNZ going on that combines the shape analysis and machine learning, which is looking at birdsong recognition, in the hope that we can develop algorithms that will recognise birds from their calls and then infer the number of birds from how they are calling.
Finally, I’m interested in complex systems in their classic sense, both complex networks (which are networks with properties such as scale-freeness, or that are small worlds) and also systems where the interactions between agents cause the emergence of high-level properties. I’ve got a variety of projects with students looking at this, including in health, marriage systems, and soon, the evolution of barter (this last one will be funded by Te Pūnaha Matatini).
What attracted you to the role of Theme leader: Complex Data Analytics?
Data analytics underlies everything that we are trying to do in Te Punaha Matatini, but it isn’t really getting the recognition as a subject in its own right. I’m hoping that by exploring more of the links with the other themes I can make people more aware of how much data analytics there is going on, and what tools are available.
How can complex data analytics benefit New Zealand?
Data is cool at the moment (big data is mentioned everywhere) but it would be nice to see people using it well and understanding what they can and can’t infer from analysis. We collect data everywhere on everything, but lots of it doesn’t actually get used for much. For example, there are thousands of automatic recorders around New Zealand recording birdsong. But unless you have tools to analyse the data, you’ve just got a lot of memory used up storing sound that nobody will ever pay any attention to. Turning data into information isn’t easy, but it has to be done, and done well, to make the collection of the data worthwhile.
We recently caught up with Principal Investigator Dr Michael Plank, a senior lecturer in the School of Mathematics and Statistics at the University of Canterbury. Mike has taken on the role of Theme Leader: Complexity and the Biosphere while Alex James is on hiatus. As a research theme leader, Mike will be steering Te Pūnaha Matatini’s research projects that build a better understanding of New Zealand’s environment and the interactions between biodiversity, the economy, and human decision-making.
Tell us about your research, including projects aligned with Te Pūnaha Matatini
My research is in biological modelling and ranges from the very small (intracellular dynamics) to the very large (marine ecosystems). A common theme in my research is investigating how collective phenomena emerge from interactions among individuals, whether on the scale of single human cell, or the scale of an ocean. I am interested in the insights that relatively simple mathematical models can give into the ways these complex systems function – and why they sometimes go wrong.
One of my projects aligned with Te Pūnaha Matatini is modelling the emergent behaviour of fishers stemming from their decisions about which species or sizes of fish to target. Principles from ecology suggest that natural predators tend to spread their effort according to the productivity of their prey. So why shouldn’t humans behave like natural predators and spread their fishing efforts according to the productivity of the fish? If this really happens, it could change the way we design fishing regulations from top-down control to a bottom-up approach that recognises the effect of the fish stock on the behaviour of fishers as well as the other way round.
What attracted you to the role of Theme Leader: Complexity and the Biosphere?
We have some really exciting projects going on in the Biosphere theme. I’m really looking forward to a new project that will look at the interplay of ecological dynamics, geospatial data, and social attitudes to map the effectiveness of large-scale predator control. Other projects include investigating the effects of social contact networks on epidemic spread, and harnessing the huge potential of citizen science to enhance conservation projects.
We have some amazing scientists and students involved with these projects and I’m excited to work with them and see how we can turn the scientific results into real impacts for New Zealand’s unique ecosystems.
How can research using complex systems, networks, and data assist New Zealand’s environment?
New Zealand is facing a range of pressing environmental issues, including loss of our endemic native flora and fauna, agricultural pest invasions, and management of our fisheries. We have a large amount of data relating to these, for example the Department of Conservation’s tier 1 monitoring programme, and catch data from our Quota Management System. At the same time, we’re investing substantial money and resources into these areas, but we’re not always making full use of the data that are available. Te Pūnaha Matatini’s research programme has the potential to really add value to our conservation dollar by helping us target our resources to areas where they will have the most impact.
Taking a complex systems and network approach also gives us opportunities to look at environmental issues at a larger spatial scale, rather than focusing on projects in isolation. As a simple example, a predator control programme in an area of Department of Conservation land might reduce or even eliminate the possum population in the short-term. But if there is adjacent, privately owned land without any control, the possums are likely to re-invade in the long-term. Viewing the whole country as an interconnected network gives us a better ability to predict long-term outcomes, and therefore a better chance of eliminating possums for good.
By Dr Rebecca Ford
Last week I attended the Te Pūnaha Matatini Investigator Hui in Christchurch. While this is not the first time the group of academic investigators have come together at such events since the launch of the new Centre of Research Excellence in February 2015, it was my first time meeting the full team of Investigators and Whānau since joining Te Pūnaha Matatini earlier this year. So, on Thursday 3rd December, a group of over 50 academics and students descended on Canterbury University (who graciously hosted our rowdy crew – thank you!) for two days filled of intellectual stimulation, innovation, networking, debate, fun prizes, and good food and beer!
Although I came to the hui with some ideas about the work being conducted by Te Pūnaha Matatini investigators, I left with a much richer appreciation of what makes it pretty unique in today’s world and the opportunities afforded by being part of Te Pūnaha Matatini.
I have been an academic (post PhD) for nearly 5 years and one of the main issues I have noticed during this time is that, as academics, we are often constrained in our thinking and research by the disciplinary boundaries within which we are employed and evaluated. These boundaries are artificially constructed – nature does not operate within disciplines – and can be troublesome when trying to tackle some of the key environmental, social, and economical problems we’re seeing in the world today.
Interdisciplinary and integrative research is absolutely vital if we are to better understand and guide socio-technical and socio-ecological transitions toward more sustainable futures, and a key part of Te Pūnaha Matatini’s uniqueness is that the academics involved have interests and expertise spanning various aspects of the environment, economy, and society – from knowledge and innovation in business to the evolution of the universe, from environmental management to bed-bugs. And more so, these creative minds are actively seeking out conversations, research topics, and methodologies that span the traditional disciplinary boundaries that so many shy away from.
In my own research I am lucky enough to work with an interdisciplinary research team, inclusive of engineers, computer scientists, physicists, sociologists, psychologists, economists, and modellers. Since our research program kicked off just over three years ago, I have observed our team go through the four stages of development – forming (transitioning from individual to team member), storming (intra-team conflict and resistance of self-change), norming (acceptance of team norms, personal roles, and idiosyncrasies of fellow members), and finally performing (diagnosing and solving problems, making decisions).
All too frequently teams try to rush through the non-productive form, storm, and norm stages. While this may be a seductive idea to get to the performing stage more quickly, it is ultimately dysfunctional. Groups, just like people, need time to develop and find maturity to tackle complex problems. The Investigator Hui allowed Te Pūnaha Matatini’s teams to share concerns, ideas, and expectations; providing the space needed to develop trust, and gain individual and interpersonal insights – key building blocks to establishing highly performing research groups. And while perhaps not much work was directly achieved, the time spent together engaged in team conversations, celebrating each other in the award ceremony, drinking and eating, and learning about patent data, sexism in science, and bed-bugs in New Zealand Department of Conservation huts has served to strengthen our relationships, provide an opportunity to network, and enabled future planning; ultimately creating the space for the magic to happen.
As I reflect back on our two days in Christchurch, I am grateful to be part of such an engaged, interesting, and open community; Te Pūnaha Matatini really is ‘the meeting place of many faces’ from many backgrounds and with many interests, and I look forward to observing and contributing to the unfolding future of the Centre, working together to tackle some of New Zealand’s (and the world’s) complex problems across environmental, societal, and economical issues.