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Renaissance man

open this image in new window: Clive Stirling

This article was published on 6 July 2018

Senior research scientist Clive Stirling has reinvented himself many times over half a century of working for the government’s evolving innovation agency.

Clive Stirling is a rare beast in the modern workplace. Few people can say they have worked for the same employer for 52 years, particularly one that has changed shape multiple times.

The Auckland senior research scientist is retiring after more than half a century of service with the government’s science agencies – first the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research (DSIR), then Industrial Research Limited (IRL), and more latterly Callaghan Innovation.

In his career Clive has tested everything from car seat foam to equipment on the Navy’s Anzac frigates. He has even tested the testers.

He is a specialist in polymers, and his team’s research into polymer composites – which they dubbed ‘synthetic engineering materials’ to get around a ban on cross-disciplinary work – was ahead of its time and was a forerunner of many technologies in use today.

David Clarke, Team Leader Coatings and Polymers, says Clive’s experience and know-how will be a huge loss.

“We get a lot of inquiries, ‘how could I do X, or how could I do Y’. Clive has a lot of background knowledge and contacts and can point you in the right direction, and save a lot of time,” he says.

“He’s always been a team player and willing to embrace new things.”

Such is the respect for Clive that guests at his farewell included Rocket Lab founder Peter Beck, a former IRL colleague who worked with him on the Defence Testing team.

Bright-eyed cadet

It was Clive’s Mum who suggested he apply for a cadetship at the DSIR. As a 17-year-old fresh out of Takapuna Grammar School all he knew was that the job sounded interesting.

He was soon put to work in the Auckland Industrial Development Division in Albert St. The idea was that cadets were shifted around to try out different sections, but he got so busy in mechanical engineering that he didn’t move too far. “I became a jack of all trades, doing engineering design product development, and materials testing,” he says.

“At that time ferrous and non-ferrous products were being replaced with plastic. The manager suggested I should specialise in that area of work. That’s led me to were I am now, in the Advanced Materials team.”

While many of today’s scientists begin their careers with postgraduate qualifications, Clive spent five years studying at night school including sitting exams at the end of a day’s work.

Times have changed in many ways. While Clive always worked with industry some of his DSIR colleagues were only allowed to conduct research for other government departments. The idea of multi-disciplinary teams was yet to hit: the polymers specialists weren’t allowed to work on composites because that was seen as straying into chemistry. “I would get the chemistry division to ‘help me out’, to help customers out. It sounds archaic now,” he says.

Clive Stirling testing seat foam
Clive Stirling testing seat foam

Man of many talents

Another string to Clive’s bow was becoming an assessor for the Testing Laboratory Registration Council, TELARC – in effect testing the testers. This also involved working with Australia’s National Association of Testing Authorities. “It got you in the back door of a lot of companies, which led to commercial projects later on,” he says.

The variety of work is one of the reasons Clive has stayed with the government science agencies. He also led the team which shock-tested the New Zealand-designed and manufactured equipment on the Navy’s Anzac frigates – initially when the ships were built, and later as they were upgraded.

“It was a win-win situation, where we got the commercial work, the Navy got equipment tested locally, and New Zealand manufacturers and suppliers got a contract. I got quite a buzz out of that,” he says.

Working with smart people also kept him going. The DSIR was like the “human internet”, he says. “If you wanted to know something there would be someone somewhere who would be able to tell you.”

He has reinvented himself many times as his employer has morphed into other entities, and it is yet another change that has prompted Clive to make his next move. His team has been relocated to Wellington, and while 10 years ago he may have considered a shift to the Capital at this stage of his life it’s time to take it easier and pursue other interests, such as his “closet enthusiasm” for steam trains.