The MacDiarmid Institute turns 20

News & events

The MacDiarmid Institute turns 20

24 March, 2023

To celebrate our 20th anniversary, we took a look back at how we began and found it all began with a napkin. 

Prettily situated at the edge of the Christchurch Botanic Gardens, the Category II English-style two-storey house, with its steep pitched slate roof and gables, had opened as a restaurant just a year before. The night we’re there, the dark wood and ornate upholstery absorb any early evening light filtering in through the leadlight windows. Clustered around a dark wooden table in an upstairs alcove, are five people apparently deeply intent on a paper napkin. 

The five are Professor Paul Callaghan, Dr Maan Alkaisi, Dr Simon Brown, Dr Steve Durbin and Dr Roger Reeves (all themselves now Professors) and the understandings being worked out on the paper napkin become the basis of the MacDiarmid Institute.  

Picture1 v2

Curator‘s House (photo credit Simon Brown)

But it might not have been so.  At the time of this 2001 meeting at the historic Curators House, there were two competing bids for the government’s newly announced ‘Centres of Research Excellence’ (CoREs) funding, both in the materials science space. The stakes were high: the funding was new and significant and would provide the successful bidder with the security of funds to set up an entirely new iInstitute. Sir Paul Callaghan was leading the Victoria University of Wellington (VUW) bid and the team from the University of Canterbury (UC) team the other. Only one bid (if any) would be funded.  

One of the five sitting around the table that night, Simon Brown, says he remembers he and his UC colleagues were expecting a very tense meeting: “But Paul Callaghan cut straight to the chase and offered us a very good deal to merge with the VUW bid, and everything was okay from then on.” 

“That will stick in my mind forever as a pivotal moment.”  

Maan Alkaisi says he remembers the meeting well.  

“Paul proposed we join efforts to increase our chances of getting funded. It was about how to collaborate and not compete.” 

Untitled design 19 v2

(Left to Right) Professors Paul Callaghan, Maan Alkaisi, Simon Brown, Roger Reeves, and Steve Durbin.

In a conversation recorded in 2012, just a month before he died, Sir Paul Callaghan (as he was by then) recalled the meeting: “I’d got on a plane, flown down to Christchurch and met up with all the Canterbury players apart from Richard (Blaikie) who was abroad. I remember being driven out there to this restaurant where they gathered after work. We got a table napkin out and we drew up the deal.” 

Simon Brown says he remembers clearly the earlier announcement of the new government funding. He says it was a significant new tranche of funding and that the Canterbury team sprang into action: “We were always going to put in a bid.”  

Simon says the Canterbury crew had already set up a Nanostructure Engineering, Science and Technology (NEST) group at UC and several researchers had shared a $1m Marsden Grant in 1998:  “In those days that was a lot of money.” He says the Canterbury team had already set up what is now the University of Canterbury’s ‘Electrical Engineering Nanofabrication Lab’ and had, as early as Feb 2001, run an ‘Advanced Research Workshop on Semiconductor Nanostructures’ in Queenstown. We realised that getting a hundred top people, including a Nobel Laureate (Klaus von Klitzing) to come to a meeting on nanotechnology in NZ was quite a milestone– we take them for granted now, but I don’t think such meetings had ever happened before.” 

The UC registration of interest was called ‘New Zealand Centre for Nanoengineered Materials and Device Research’. 

Steve Durbin (now Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Western Michigan University) recalls his surprise at receiving the call from Paul Callaghan.  

“I was a lecturer at the time, wondering how I ended up in a position that Professor Paul Callaghan was calling me! I had just gotten done pitching our bid to the University of Canterbury's research committee - Roger went along, but they made me go in and present alone. I was told NOT to do PowerPoint, so I used - believe it or not - an overhead projector.”  

Untitled design 20

A selection of the slides Steve Durbin presented to the University of Canterbury’s research committee in 2001

“Two bids were going in at the same time, one from Canterbury and one from Vic. The Vic team had strong reputations and Canterbury had what we believed was a strong case for high risk/high payoff in a field that was just starting to catch large-scale, world-wide attention (nanotechnology). Paul (and others, I'm sure, including Joe Trodahl) was concerned we'd end up cancelling each other's bids out, and he reached out to see if we could join forces. Simon said the VUW and Canterbury teams had known about each other’s bids. 

Steve says he remembers collecting Paul at Christchurch airport for the crucial meeting at the Curator's House. 

Alan MacDiarmid“It was just as Simon said. Paul was open, friendly, and sincere - and was very keen to ensure Canterbury's ideas didn't disappear in a joint bid. He was suggesting that VUW lead the CoRE and I suggested that Canterbury put forward a deputy director for balance (it ended up being Richard Blaikie). Paul agreed on the spot, without a moment's hesitation. We talked about the name and he was 110% adamant that it be named after Alan MacDiarmid (I didn't know Alan at the time). Paul was right. Alan was a true gentleman and a strong supporter of our efforts."

Shortly before he passed away Paul asked me if any of us had kept the napkin, but I guess none of us did - after all, we weren't sure we'd get funded, and I don't think any of us ever dreamed of the size or scope the Institute would eventually reach!

Professor Steve Durbin

In the 2012 recording, Sir Paul Callaghan, who had in early 2001 moved from Massey to VUW to take up the position as Alan MacDiarmid Professor of Physical Sciences, speaks of being asked to lead the VUW bid: “I guess it would have been about August, September 2001, that somehow or other, I got asked to lead a bid from Victoria University. Jim Johnston was Head of School at the time said, “Paul why don’t you do it,” Jim was no doubt busy enough and it seemed like a tall order that we would get the money, a long shot just like Marsden grants and all these other things. But I didn’t have any major administrative responsibilities, I wasn’t a Head of School, I was a professor teaching at University, I had time on my hands, and I thought why not that would be fun.  

“And so we put together an EOI and we called it ‘The MacDiarmid Institute for Advanced Materials’.”  

Having seen the round of bids that had come through to the Tertiary Education Commission in the first EOI application process, Paul says his VUW colleague Joe Trodahl said to him Paul, why don’t we get together with the Canterbury lot and form a joint bid?. Paul says it just seemed such an obvious thing to do. “I’m very grateful for Joe’s suggestion. Many of the people involved were erstwhile collaborators of ours, people like Steve Durbin, like Roger Reeves, Simon Brown and others. And the bid from Christchurch was led by a man called Richard Blaikie.”   

Richard Blaikie is rather humble on this point: “It’s a fairer reflection to say the NEST group was a true collective, not so much that the bid was led by me.” He smiles: “Because I was overseas at the time of the meeting, I was nominated to lead the Canterbury bid in my absence.”  

He says there had been a building of capacity at Canterbury across physics, chemistry and electrical engineering for some time: “We had a group of young and up and coming people, and had run the Queenstown founding event, which I like to call AMN0, organised by Simon and Joe (Trodahl), so there were already good connections between us and the VUW material scientists.” 

Simon Brown says he always had the sense that the Canterbury researchers were the new arrivals compared with the Wellington crowd who were well established names such as Paul Callaghan and Jeff Tallon. “So it was natural thing to bring together the heavy hitters and the young upstarts.” 

Richard Blaikie says that although the Canterbury researchers were younger and more junior than the VUW team, they had an advantage

“We were the real exciting nanotechnologists in the country. They needed our vibrancy and the nano side of things. But if Canterbury had stuck to a separate bid, we’d have been going up against the leadership of Sir Paul; it would likely have been mutually assured destruction.”  

Like any birth, it wasn’t entirely straightforward. Richard said the University of Canterbury leadership took quite some convincing that Canterbury should give up its EOI and join forces as junior institute partner to the VUW-led bid:  

“As Paul said, bragging rights are ultimately what universities care most about and these were not easily given up by the Canterbury leadership who were really wanting a Canterbury-led bid. Paul Callaghan was very persuasive, but ultimately the decision was an internal Canterbury one.”  

Richard says once the decision had been made to join forces, there were multiple hurdles: further months of showing the government that this combined bid was a genuine collaboration: 

“We had to show a united front to the panel led by (former Governor General) Sir Paul Reeves. It was clear our combined bid would be a partnership with full collaboration. There was always a double-act kind of approach in the presentations. I had the privilege to lead many of the presentations for example to Michael Cullen and others.”  

Richard says that as a result, a lot of his time on sabbatical leave (at MIT) was spent on phone calls: “I was taken to meetings ‘in a box’ – one of those early black polycom speaker phones - and I’d dial in.” 

Fellow founding Investigator (and now Emeritus Professor) Alison Downard, who was brought into the Canterbury meetings at that time, recalls Richard dialling into meetings on the polycom speaker phone. “Richard was definitely a major driver of the bid development.” 

University of Otago researcher Keith Gordon, who was involved in the VUW bid, says it was interesting to see how Sir Paul couched it:  

“The mentality of how to work collaboratively with people didn’t exist much in NZ, because you needed to move from a to b to do that. Interacting within NZ wasn’t valued. This had created a certain culture that Paul pretty much didn’t agree with. He managed to convince the government that these people really did want to work together, which they did. And when promoting the Institute in later years, he would be adamant that the success of someone in Auckland or Canterbury was success of the Institute.”  

Untitled design 21 v2

(Left to Right) Professors Richard Blaikie, Jeff Tallon, Alison Downard, Keith Gordon and Joe Trodahl

Simon Brown adds, “it was a real credit to Paul that he went out of his way to make sure that Canterbury, as a co-host of the Institute, shared the limelight as much as possible. For example, it was very common in those days for politicians to be pointed towards the Canterbury nanofabrication facilities.”  

Jeff Tallon who wrote the first half of the combined bid recalls that David Bibby, who was Pro Vice-Chancellor of Science, Engineering, and Architecture and Design at VUW at the time, had been working to bring together the chemists and the physicists:  

“David had been speaking with me about my coming to VUW, which I eventually did, and the two of us then convinced Paul Callaghan to come to VUW about six months later. All these movements were directly around the planned establishment of a new materials science institute at VUW that bridged chemistry and physics. Jim Johnston (who was head of chemistry at the time) and I had been drafting a document of establishment for this – the ‘Rutherford’ Institute was a working title.”  

But then, he says, the government announced the invitation to establish CoREs and invited bids:  

“It was obvious this was a better thing and better funded, so we switched to drafting the CoRE bid. When we were about halfway through, Paul Callaghan came onto the scene. To me it was very clear that if Paul was around, the bid would be better led by him with his political name and whole approach with the public – it was just what we needed.”    

Jeff says Paul Callaghan then took over writing the bid: “He came back to me and asked me to draft the final closing statement, which was incidentally used by the Minister of Science on a number of occasions to articulate the vision for CoREs:” 


(final para of the combined bid)  

Ngā tapuwae 

We close with a few general observations. Scientific advancement is not fundamentally predicated on the breakthroughs of a few elite individuals but is a collective movement of peer understanding. We build on ngā tapuwae o ngā tupuna - the footsteps of our intellectual predecessors. We build for ngā tapuwae o ngā mokopuna – the footsteps of our intellectual descendants. Though we honour the famous, find inspiration in their tenacity or insight and perhaps model our own ideals on theirs, no individual is indispensable to the progress of science. The absence of a Newton may have tethered the march of science for a mere ten years or so and made little difference to its current state. No individual captures knowledge as his exclusive domain nor should the resources used in the pursuit of knowledge be subject to exclusive capture. Scientific endeavour and technological application are social activities that work best when organised so that the total is much more than the sum of the parts. The challenge of organised science is to harness the champions, use them as mentors and guiding lights but within a team context where individuals may come and go but the peer unit advances from strength to strength. These principles are fervently espoused by the MacDiarmid Institute. We acknowledge ngā tapuwae o ngā tupuna and commit to establish on a sure footing ngā tapuwae o ngā mokopuna o Aotearoa. 

Keith says Paul led the change in the culture: “Someone had to pull it all together and convince the more senior university staff to take the chance and convince government to shell out a ton of money.”  

Joe Trodahl agrees: “The bid was successful in no small part to Paul’s personality. He connected very well with everyone. He could speak just as easily to politicians as to the whole country. That’s what made the big difference.” 

So an Institute was born, on 1 July 2002, beginning as it meant to go on as a true partnership, initially between researchers at VUW, Canterbury, Industrial Research Institute Limited (now Callaghan Innovation), Otago, Massey and GNS, and later extending to include Auckland and Callaghan Innovation. The genetic pedigree was clear, building on ‘Ngā tapuwae o ngā tupuna’- the footsteps of our ancestors - or in this case, intellectual predecessors - much like any new life. And like any new creature, the total was immediately more than the sum of its parts.

No one has been able to describe exactly where they were when they heard news of the success of the bid, beyond saying that it was likely that bottles of champagne were bought. Simon reckons they were pretty confident: “By the time the bid went in, there was a sense we’d nailed it. We knew what the panel was looking for. We benefited enormously from Paul’s understanding of politics and sense of what was needed to make this an outstanding bid. It was very clear the director had to have mana, as Paul did, as well as Jeff (Tallon) and others involved.  

“Richard, Jeff and all the others made an excellent team. And we were just so fortunate to have Paul Callaghan as our figurehead.” 

Read next in the MacDiarmid Institute Annual Report 2022

First Director's piece 2003