Magazine article New Zealand Management

Murray Bain: Championing Tomorrow's Science Heroes: Science, Systems and Stories Form Part of the Daily Lexicon of FRST Chief Executive Murray Bain

Magazine article New Zealand Management

Murray Bain: Championing Tomorrow's Science Heroes: Science, Systems and Stories Form Part of the Daily Lexicon of FRST Chief Executive Murray Bain

Article excerpt

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 a 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 a 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 a company that a 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: a 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 a 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 a 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 a 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 a 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 a 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 a 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. …

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