6 Sep 2014

Alan Cooper: exploring human history

From Saturday Morning, 8:15 am on 6 September 2014

ALAN COOPER smlNZ science “too corporate” says pioneering biologist

Expatriate evolutionary biologist Alan Cooper doesn’t mince words about what he sees as misguided science funding in New Zealand.

“It’s not getting to the people who are doing the science.”

Professor Cooper is director of the Australian Centre for Ancient DNA at the University of Adelaide.

His work as an Australian Research Council Federation and Future Fellow, from 2005-2010 and 2011-2014 saw him specialise in the genetic analysis of evolution, biodiversity, climate change, paleoecology and microbiomes.

He was in New Zealand in late August for Queenstown Research Week, speaking at the Queenstown Molecular Biology Conference on the evolution of human and Neandertal microbiomes.

After the conference, he gave an interview to Kim Hill for Radio New Zealand’s Saturday Morning programme of 6 September, about the Laureate Fellowship he has just been awarded by the Australian Research Council, which will provide $A2,775,898 for a five-year project using ancient microbiomes and genomes to study human origins, disease and Aboriginal genetics.

During the interview, Professor Cooper was critical of how funding for science in New Zealand has developed during the ten years since he left the country.

“It’s corporate – it’s become all managerial and almost like group think, there’s these government-led targets that you’re all going to work towards.”

When asked by Kim Hill if he was trying to steal New Zealand early career researchers who he says can’t survive in that environment, he admitted that he was open to the idea..

“I’ve got (funding for) six post-docs and six PhDs, so come on over to Australia.”

Professor Cooper traces the perceived problem back to the Crown Research Instuitutes.

“I think it came of the CRIs. That whole logic… seems to have spread like a cancer across all of science. And the trouble is, I don’t think you do get a bang for a buck that way.

“The Americans did this a while back… they decided they were going to put money into big teams and answer big questions, and a whole bunch of small people who weren’t involved said ‘hold on, let’s do some surveys on whether that works, whether you get research outcomes that would justify funding in that way’. And they showed very effectively that it didn’t, necessarily.”

Cooper is a proponent of ‘investigator-led’ science, researchers who are having ideas, “pitching them to the government and get a grant and do the work and find something amazing. Darwin is an example, the kind of completely idiosyncratic, challenging everything we know, type of ideas.”

He blames an environment reliant on key performance indicators.

“If it’s high-risk, it’s not going to go anywhere. Because KPIs – we have to justify every minute of what we’re doing. And it’s groupthink – if we all work on this and we all think the same way it must be true.

“What I think New Zealand’s always been good at is that kind of… idiosyncratic… iconoclast…  I’m going to think completely different, I’m going to make it out of make it out of wire, and pieces of cardboard, I’m going to be cutting edge with the rest of the world, but I’m going to make it out of an old washing machine or whatever…. That kind of can-do character…. That was where we were, I feel, when I left.

“I come back now, and I look at, for example, next-generation sequencing, this new era of genomics. And New Zealand looks to me to be to be ten, fifteen years behind… and the field is changing so fast.

“It’s a small country, and you’ve got a small amount of money, but that doesn’t mean you’ve got to put it all into these centres and drown them with paperwork and management, because that’s where I think you’re losing your money.

“Corporatisation… has its place, but when you let it run as wildly as it seems to have run here, you lose the power of the individual saying, I think you’re all wrong, and I think I’m going to show you you’re wrong using X or Y… and you need to  balance it, you need to have both. And to me, looking from the outside, it looks like New Zealand has gone way too much on the managerial, group led thing.”

Alan Cooper talks to Kim Hill

Professor Alan Cooper established his first large research facility, the Henry Wellcome Ancient Biomolecules Centre at the University of Oxford. He directed the centre from 2001-2005 during which it published a series of ground-breaking studies in ancient population genetics and evolutionary research.

He moved to the University of Adelaide after being awarded an Australian Research Council Federation Fellowship in 2004, establishing the Australian Centre for Ancient DNA, the first large scale international standard ancient DNA research centre in the Southern Hemisphere. Opened in 2006, the facility provides the specialist equipment and sterile working environment required for the study of minute traces of preserved genetic material from hundreds of thousands of years ago.