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This year’s Marsden Fund results were announced this morning.  The full list of successful proposals is available on the Royal Society of New Zealand website, or, if you prefer, you can get a sampling of what the media made of the lucky winners via the Dom Post and the Herald.  This year the success rate has dropped  to 7.7%, a half percent lower than last year and the first time it has been below 8%.

Although many of us would like to see the Marsden fund substantially increased, the figure below shows that the historically low success rates of the last three years have been driven by a large increase in the number of proposals received rather than a loss of funding. This increase in the number of proposals may reflect a reduction in the amount of funding available for investigator-led research across the system (note to self: see if it’s possible to use http://www.msi.govt.nz/update-me/who-got-funded/ to get some hard numbers on this!). However, I think we have also seen an increase in research activity within the scientific community, possibly driven by the Performance Based Research Fund.  A successful Marsden grant is now worth more to a university than its nominal book value.

While the number of applications has increased from last year, the total amount of funding available has remained essentially the same (see below). In fact, in real terms, the total funding awarded is about 16% more than it was a decade ago. However, over this decade, the amount of funding awarded for a full proposal has increased by 22%.  Although there are more of them, the Marsden fund’s dollars buy less science these days.

The last decade has also seen a steady increase in the proportion of funding awarded through the fast-start scheme for early career researchers (defined as those who were granted their PhD in the last seven years).  However, the share of the funding allocated to the fast-start scheme flattened off this year as is shown below.  As I noted last year, the loss of the FRST post-doctoral fellowship scheme and the International Mobility Fund means that young researchers are even more dependent on fast-start funding as they establish their careers.  I suspect the Marsden fund is now playing a much bigger role in supporting the vitality of the science system than it did a decade ago.  Is the drop in success rate over the last few years a sign of other stresses in the science and innovation system?

This year was my last as a panellist on the Physics, Chemistry and Biochemistry panel.  Being a panellist is hard work.  Reading on the order of 100 proposals in the first round (and later another 20 or so in the second round) is a time consuming process, and of this 100, less than 10 will eventually be funded.  As an applicant, you can do both yourself and the panel a favour by making your proposal as readable as possible – make use of your colleagues to help you do this, but not just those closest to you.  Perhaps try to select a spread of proof-readers that reflects the expertise of the panel. In the end, however, it is always very evident that there are more great proposals than there are dollars.  If you were unsuccessful this year, see if you can obtain internal funding to develop your ideas further.

(Disclosure: I was a Principal Investigator on one Marsden funded project that finished this year).