The successful Marsden Fund applicants were announced on Thursday after what might have been the toughest round ever. Although the total number of proposals received in the first round this year was slightly down, the overall success rate plummeted to just over 8%, the lowest in the data series I have*. The overall success rate since 1998 has been 10.5%, but to achieve that rate this year the Royal Society would have needed to fund another 25 proposals, requiring approximately $15 million more than the $53 million available.
The number of applications received has stayed close last year’s historic high, quite possibly because the new Engineering and Interdisciplinary Sciences panel continues to attract proposals on subjects that previously would not have received Marsden Funding. Unlike the mid-2000s, where success rates fell at the same as the funding per proposal rose, this year saw a continuing erosion of the average amount of funding per proposal as total funding fell dramatically.
We have now had two consecutive years of sub-10% success rates. In a recent PLoS article, Paul Roebber and David Schultz used game theory to model the optimal strategy for researchers in a competitive funding environment:
’Once available funding falls below 10—15% in our model, however, submitting many proposals, despite the tax that this represents on both individuals and their scientific communities, appears to be the only recourse if the goal is to maintain research funding.’
Of course, the Marsden Fund limit the number of proposals that applicants can submit, and one should note that we have a two round system which probably encourages higher submission rates than the single round systems used, for example, by the Australian Research Council.
The only advice I can offer to unsuccessful colleagues is to keep trying and to remember that under these circumstances panels are often forced to make quite arbitrary decisions when ranking proposals.
In the last year, we have seen the loss of the FRST post-doctoral fellowship scheme and more recently the International Mobility Fund. Both schemes which were important to me early on during the establishment of my research career. This makes the Fast Start scheme even more important for young scientists. From this point of view, the one piece of good news from this year’s round then is the continued growth of the share of the pie going to Fast Start applicants. This year it reached 20% partly due to an increase in the value of a Fast Start grant from $300000 over three years to $345000.
However, last year I suggested that it may be time to cap growth in the share of funding allocated to fast start grants, in order to ensure that full proposals are large enough to fund post-doctoral fellows. A post-doctoral fellowship will consume nearly 50% of the funding of the average full proposal. I think it is clear now that the Marsden Fund will simply need new money or a new way of awarding funding to remain viable.
* Unfortunately I don’t have the data prior to 1998.
(Disclosure: I am a Principal Investigator on one current Marsden funded project awarded in 2008. This year I also served on the Physics, Chemistry and Biochemistry Marsden panel).