Congratulations awardees – shame on the system

By John Pickering 25/10/2012 31

At 1am this morning (has someone something to hide?) the recipients of Marsden grants were announced.

Congratulations to them all.

$54.6 million was distributed over 86 research projects.  Marsden funds “blue skies” research across a number of disciplines – humanities, science, technology etc. The list of topics reflect the diversity.  I think that they are worth celebrating so I have listed below the projects and awardees mentioned in the media pack (only 30 something, so there must be others).

The awards fall into two categories:  Standard grants of up to $330K per annum for three years (open to anyone) and Fast-start grants of $115K per annum for three years which go to early career researchers (within 7 years of getting PhD:  It used to be 7 years of post PhD research experience which enabled me to get such a grant 3 years ago despite having had a 15 yr hiatus between postdoc and next science position – they changed the rules the following year!).

Shame on the system

While 86 projects were funded, 1113 proposals were made.  This is a success rate of 7.7%.  I have posted before on just what such an appalling low success rate looks like when the Health Research Council funded just 7% of proposals.  This is a crisis.  Successive governments are responsible.  Fellow sciblog bloggers Grant Jacobs and Eric Campton pointed out to me Canadian research which showed the total cost to prepare grant proposals was greater than the amount awarded.  Eric blogged about this in 2009.  When is/was the cross-over point for HRC or Marsden funding?  Was it when the success rate fell below 20% (crisis point according to HRC chief executive Robin Olds).  Is it still viable at 7%.  Minister Steven Joyce needs to put some people onto answering that question straight away.

Colleagues of mine have talked about Marsden and HRC becoming a lottery.  They are not taking away from the tremendous work and great insights grant recipients have shown, only that many others have also shown those attributes without getting funding.  The problem is having to rank a large bunch or excellent applications.  This is not “taking the cream off the top”, rather it is attempting to pick out the tastiest tiny fraction of the cream – an impossible and meaningless task.  Perhaps this is why in announcing the new Explorer grants the Health Research Council have said that any proposals that meet the criteria will go into a pot and the grantees will be decided by lottery.  Quite possibly this may be just as fair as a ranking system.  Quite probably the HRC have been driven to this position because of the unwillingness of researchers to sit on committees and spend many hours shuffling paper making impossible ranking decisions knowing that such a small proportion of applicants will be funded.

(ps – please forget I mentioned the Explorer grants…I may apply for one myself, and I don’t want too many people knowing about it as this will reduce my chances).

The Projects

Ozone’s role in Southern Hemisphere climate change
Dr Olaf Morgenstern
Searching for the tell-tale signs of galaxy cluster formation.
Dr Melanie Johnston-Hollitt
Victoria University of Wellington
Earthquake hydrology gets a shake up
Dr Simon Cox
GNS Science
Clarity vs efficiency in speech
Dr Donald Derrick
University of Canterbury
Gesture, speech, and the lopsided brain. 
Professor Michael Corballis
University of Auckland
Dem bones, dem bones, dem … heavy bones. 
Professor Stephen Robertson
University of Otago
Young cancer researchers get funding boost 
Dr Anita Dunbier and Dr Zimei Wu
Dunbier: University of Otago, Wu: University of Auckland
Kauri and climate change. 
Dr Catriona MacInnis-Ng
University of Auckland
How do birds “tell the time” when migrating?
Dr Phil Battley
Massey University
Unravelling male reproductive responses to social cues. 
Dr Patrice Rosengrave
University of Otago
Pollen key to plant development  
Dr Lynette Brownfield
University of Otago
How does the heart grow?
 Professor Peter Hunter
The University of Auckland
Getting to the heart of heart failure
 Professor Martyn Nash
The University of Auckland
Could tidal power realistically help meet future energy needs?
Dr Ross Vennell
University of Otago
Making a controlled splash. 
Dr Geoff Willmott
Industrial Research Limited
Getting to the heart of dark matter 
Dr Brendon Brewer
The University of Auckland
Criminal minds – the science behind the science
Dr Heather Wolffram
University of Canterbury
Toi Te Mana: A history of indigenous art 
Dr Deidre Brown
The University of Auckland
Cloaked in invisible bending light
Dr Robert Thompson
University of Otago
Laughing gas not so funny on high
Dr Joseph Lane
The University of Waikato
New Zealand Agribusiness investing in rural China
Dr Jason Young
Victoria University of Wellington
Converting microwave photons to optical photons
Dr Jevon Longdell
University of Otago
Identity and wellbeing in Aotearoa New Zealand.
Associate Professor Helen Moewaka-Barnes
Massey University
Corporate community development: harnessing business power in the Pacific. 
Professor Regina Scheyvens
Massey University

Tagged: grants, Health research council, Marsden, Steven Joyce

31 Responses to “Congratulations awardees – shame on the system”

  • Having seen enough of the projects that are funded and knowing a bit about colleagues’ whose applications didn’t make it, Marsden really really seems a tournament game that is not at all worth playing.

    A tournament game is one where there are a small number of large winners; the general finding in game theory is that people overinvest in effort in tournament games relative to the rewards.

    Having failed three times in Marsden applications (last time was three or four years ago), I ran the effort/return/probability calculus and decided never again to have anything to do with it. A serious application is a week’s work. Never ever ever again. Fool me four times, shame on me.

  • I agree that when the success rate in a research grant round falls to low levels, the results will become capricious and the effort to prepare a bid will look too high.
    However, the solution isn’t necessarily to increase the amount of funds available, which I think the poster is implying. There is a great deal of capacity to bid to the Marsden fund, and if the size of the fund was predicated on the number of bids it would spin out of control.
    We do not underfund basic research in NZ. 28% of our gross expenditure on research is basic, the fourth highest in the OECD. Our output of citable scientific papers per 000 population is well above the OECD average.
    By far the biggest problem we have in NZ science is that the business sector doesn’t spend nearly enough. The Marsden Fund is a sideshow.

    • Agree business underfunds research. However, business will not fund blue skies research out of which comes knowledge available to all, well trained minds, and sometimes commercial products. So, no, the Marsden Fund is not a side show. As someone whose own production of scientific papers is well above average but who is looking down the barrel of unemployment because of a lack of grant funding I take no comfort from being compared to the OECD average. By the way, where did the 0.28% of gross expenditure in basic research come from? Is this govt funding? What is counted as “basic”?

  • John
    It’s 28%, not 0.28%.
    In 2010 (latest data), NZ spent $2444M on research, of which 28% was basic, according to Stats NZ.
    The funding came from both government and business.
    Stats NZ use the Frascati Manual definitions of basic, applied etc.

  • 28% expenditure on basic research doesn’t really mean anything by itself. If the total expenditure is 50% of the OECD average then 28% could still be seriously underfunded.

    Not saying I know the numbers here, just that a figure of 28% of $2444M doesn’t tell us much when comparing with OECD averages. More numbers would be welcome.

    • FYI a report on R&D spending which came out yesterday suggests an increase of 8% in R&D spend by NZ companies. I got the figure off the radio, the report can be found at behind a paywall!

      Ben has a point with respect to the numbers. I’d go a bit further and suggest the discussion should not be whether we are above or below an OECD average, but what level of government funded research 1) reflects the investment in education 2) reflects the size and structure of our economy now, 3) reflects the quality of life desired by New Zealanders etc

  • John: the 8% rise was for the ‘TIN100’ companies, who make up our high-tech sector.
    Ben and John: you are right in one sense. There is no objectively ‘best’ level of expenditure on basic research for a country, just as there isn’t a best level for total research.
    I remember Sir Ian Axford saying in the 1990s that NZ’s basic research should be 10% of the total; this was in the days when we didn’t know how much it was.
    But if you look at the development of countries who were low spenders but are are now high spenders eg Korea, Japan, you will find that their growth of basic research lagged their growth in applied research and development. They had to earn the money first, as it were.

  • I need to correct my prior comment: I’d mistaken the press release’s listing of projects for the full listing of projects. There are a couple of nice Econ Marsdens in there. I’m not going to change my strategy though.

  • Heh, this remind me of Julia Lane’s comments at MSI recently, about funding of science and also metrics which may help people make more informed choices about things like granting funds :)

  • For the last wee while the NZ government has funded research at around 80% of the OECD average as a proportion of GDP. NZ business funding was less than a third of the OECD average but rising steadily – if slowly – since 2000 or so. Which begs the question as to whether the OECD average is the optimum level and whether recent falls in GDP are the best way to increase the ratio.
    However, funding has been more or less stable and the number of researchers as well, so to my mind the big falls in success rates of applications have more to do with pressure to bid than anything else. I think the answer lies in looking at full cost funding by MSI, the HRC and Marsden, the rise of the soft-money researcher and research career continuity within institutions.

  • National Radio have been in touch. They are trying to put something together for tomorrow on this topic. Stay tuned :)

  • The cover story of the latest Humboldt Kosmos (99/2012) of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation is entitled “The Winner Takes It All – An Economic Take on Science” by a professor of economics and microeconomics ( He makes a few interesting points one of which is that knowledge is in high demand and is like a public good that, however, does not follow the market rules (laws?) of supply and demand. He therefore argues that the “production” of knowledge has to be funded by the state.

    The First Principle of the Magna Charta Universitatum (http:/ reads:

    The university is an autonomous institution at the heart of societies …; it produces, examines, appraises and hands down culture by research and teaching. To meet the needs of the world around it, its research and teaching must be morally and intellectually independent of all political authority and economic power.

    I interpret this, and particularly the last two words, as meaning that market forces should never be allowed to dominate the production of knowledge per se. The corollary is that the state should not only fund basic research such as the Marsden Fund but also increase this; very few companies invest in basic research nowadays (even less so in NZ!). Anything that does not meet a 6 to 12-month milestone is canned.

  • George
    Are you saying the principle of full-cost funding is wrong? Wash your mouth out!
    Beware of transporting principles from large economies into NZ. It will get us into trouble.
    BTW about 6% of the business sector’s R&D spend is on basic research- not too bad.

  • kemo sabe, these are universal academic principles; the Magna Charta Universitatum has been signed by 752 Universities from 80 Countries but interestingly none from NZ ({8e9114fe-86db-4d26-b9d7-167c03d479aa}#n). Why and how would this get us (?) into trouble?

    You claim that “about 6% of the business sector’s R&D spend is on basic research” and suggest that this is quite o.k. However, in an earlier comment you wrote “By far the biggest problem we have in NZ science is that the business sector doesn’t spend nearly enough [on basic research]”. Aren’t you contradicting yourself?

  • George
    No. Part-cost research funding is ultra vires in New Zealand and extremely distortionary. The main victims would be university undergraduates. It is also very bad business practice.

    No. The business sector doesn’t spend nearly enough on (all) research. Most business sector research is development, followed by applied, followed by basic. This is quite normal.

    Your other point is more complex. I agree that universities should be able to do research of their own choosing. Our problem here is that university researchers are strongly incentivised through the PBRF to do research which is irrelevant to New Zealand. This has always seemed rather perverse to me (as a taxpayer).

  • kemo sabe, I am puzzled by your comment that university researchers are strongly incentivised through the PBRF to do research which is irrelevant to New Zealand; I have never heard of this. I think that with the ‘market forces’ becoming more and more influential time lines have shortened. Drug development, for example, from early stages to registration is not only very risky but takes many years. It seems that the powers that be in NZ don’t have the patience for this anymore or the risk appetite. Unless you can demonstrate that there will be an economic pay-off within an extremely short (unrealistic) time frame (a couple of years) you’re not even in the race (for funding). I can only assume this is even worse in companies. Basic research does not meet these time lines; it has no known application in the foreseeable future but this does not mean it won’t have an application ever. A nice example of this is cloning and stem cell research; John Gurdon’s research had no direct application at the time – it was quintessential basic research. At least, that’s what he said in his first media appearance when he had been awarded the Nobel prize (“no obvious therapeutic benefit at all”; “a purely scientific question”; “no prospect of that being useful to people”; “it’s crucial in this country [UK] that we are able to support basic research”; Because the outcome of research is unpredictable there is no strong argument to fund so-called applied over basic research. I see nothing perverse in this.

  • Frederik
    Basic research: I agree that big countries like UK and USA should do a lot of basic research. Other countries can benefit from what they do. What is the justification for little New Zealand doing it?

    Incentives created by the PBRF system: please read the information provided by TEC on their website.

  • kemo sabe, there is too much information on the TEC website so could you please be a little more specific?

    I could turn around the argument by suggesting that “little New Zealand” is better off doing basic research of its own choosing than competing with the “big countries” for success in relatively low-risk areas of applied science with pre-set targets, goals, and outcomes. Would it not be preferable to be the best over trying to secure a few crumbs dropped by the big ones? If NZ were to merely follow the big countries we would always play catch-up and have little hope of being leaders. Currently, we are world leaders in certain areas and this we did not achieve by playing second fiddle but by being original, inventive, innovative, and smart. We have brilliant people here in NZ and although we cannot dream to be among the best at everything we surely can be the best at some things. As John Gurdon and many others have shown today’s basic research is tomorrow’s hot topic.

  • on PBRF. In my experience most researchers only think about PBRF when it comes time for the painful process of filling in forms to justify one’s existance. I know none who make research decisions based on PBRF. In my uni researchers have no direct access to PBRF funds – ie there is no incentive. Grant funding bodies have much more impact on the direction. Many (e HRC) incentivise research directed to solving probs for NZ popoulations/sectors.
    Also, let’s not be naive. Many global issues are NZ issues. In health, perpahs most NZ issues are global ones. We have an ethical responsibility as humans first, NZers 2nd, to contribute to the solutions.

  • This blog has legs!

    Look at the PBRF material on the website, or download the 2006 report of the lat round.
    What you say is akin to buying lottery tickets. NZ has many applied research problems of its own, which nobody else is going to work on.

    But university staff are highly motivated to improve their individual PBRF ranking.
    To do so you have to publish in international journals, which are less likely to publish work which is particular to NZ.
    Try trawling through the annual research reports of the universities. I have done so and constantly asked myself: why are we doing that work here?
    I have to say however that health/medical research is an exception. Much of that is NZ-focussed, and heaven knows we have plenty of health challenges here.

    Like it or not, we have to ration research funds in a way that makes sense to the people footing the bill. Otherwise there won’t be any funds.

  • “But university staff are highly motivated to improve their individual PBRF ranking.”

    Not in my experience. University management is highly motivated for individuals to improve their PRBR ranking. Most researchers I know see it negatively. PBRF is a consequence not a driver of the research.

    I don’t think NZ is so unique that there is a great deal of research that is very particularly to NZ. Possibly some research into NZ specific plants and animals? The answer to yr qn “Why are we doing that work here?”, then, is because most issues being researched are broader than our borders alone and require minds cooperating around the world. Why don’t you approach some of the researchers who are doing stuff that prompted you to ask the question in the first place and see how they justify it?

  • John
    “Why don’t you approach some of the researchers who are doing stuff that prompted you to ask the question in the first place and see how they justify it?”

    Oh I have, I have. I got roundly abused for even asking the question.

    Thanks for the insight about the way the PBRF is viewed. (That has not been my own experience, nor did it surface in the 2007 review.)
    What would you think about research which was only, or mainly, relevant to another country?

  • kemo sabe, unless you can pinpoint the relevant section I’ll give the PBRF/TEC argument a miss; time is too precious.

    You suggest that I proposed buying a lucky dip. I find this mildly amusing because I was merely responding to your statement and associated question:

    “Basic research: I agree that big countries like UK and USA should do a lot of basic research. Other countries can benefit from what they do. What is the justification for little New Zealand doing it?”

    This implied that you agree that basic research can be beneficial but only when it’s done by big countries; when NZ engages in basic research it is “akin to buying lottery tickets”!?

    Sound basic research is worth doing regardless of the immediate outcome. I work in biomedical research and I cannot fathom why basic research is or should be less justified and/or valuable. Sometimes the answer is there in search of a question. A classic example of this is the invention of Post-It notes by 3M; all the ingredients were there but it took a while before somebody connected the dots. Apparently, even the yellow colour was an “accident”. They are so popular that there are now even virtual desktop sticky notes; my wife’s laptop has got it (don’t ask).

    It concerns me that basic (or fundamental) research seems to be getting a bad rap, and it is getting worse, because of the purported (“perverse”) waste of precious resources (e.g. taxpayer’s money or funding, time, lab space, etc.). This seems to go hand-in-hand with the dubious practice of only publishing so-called ‘positive’ results. These are scary things and have very little to do with Halloween.

  • Frederik
    I am not against NZ doing basic research; I am just saying we are doing plenty of it already, in relation to our size and our total R&D budget. There is a vocal lobby which says we should do much more, but I don’t buy it. The fact that the Marsden Fund is oversubscribed is not a rational reason for increasing it.
    I find it ironic that EVERY given example of basic research which has had a spectacular payoff, has occurred overseas, usually in the USA.
    The lottery example is relevant because if you are rich enough to buy lots of tickets (ie the USA), you will find that some of them win prizes.

  • kemo sabe, I disagree; NZ should increase its R & D budget across the board, but particularly for basic research.

    The Marsden Fund is not the only one that is oversubscribed; they all are. You may not see this as a rational reason for increasing the budget but these numbers are telling us something. If anything, it shows that the supply & demand rule (law), which this government holds in high regard, is not working. This raises an interesting question whether this should or should not be applicable to science funding. I have already given my opinion on this.

    I cannot provide any examples of basic research conducted on NZ soil that has had “a spectacular payoff”. As John Pickering pointed out scientists have an obligation to contribute to global issues and we do. Maurice Wilkins contributed to the elucidation of the DNA double helix, admittedly not in NZ, and got the Nobel Prize for it in 1962. Many NZ scientists have made and are making contributions to ground breaking research. It has become a global team effort and NZ must play its part. Basic research, by definition, takes time to ‘pay off’. However, these pay-offs should not and cannot be measured by financial/economical instruments alone (see Magna Charta Universitatum).

    Many people have written about the possible reasons why NZ does not capitalise as much on its high-quality research base. More funding is not necessarily going to address this issue per se but this is not a rational argument for not increasing the R & D budget. Companies & industry rather than universities need to take the lead on this although they should work together.

    Lastly, buying lots of lotto tickets to win a prize is inefficient use of resources; if it jackpots somebody else with minimal ‘investment’ may take all. This mentality is unhealthy and counter-productive because it encourages competition rather than fostering a collaborative spirit.

  • Frederik
    I don’t think the law of supply and demand applies when people are asking the government for money.

  • I wouldn’t be proud of Maurice Wilkins ( especially wrt Rosalind Franklin ), besides he left NZ at age 6, probably a little young for a Marsden grant. Returns on investment must be pretty dire if we have to dredge up research from over 60 years ago performed by somebody who left as a child.

    Just because a lot of people apply for funds doesn’t mean that submission quality justifies more funds. There’s little reason to keep funding proposals that don’t deliver a useful return, other than keeping researchers employed. Maybe the govt should follow NZ industry practice and only invest in strategic research as a distress purchase.

    They could also dump the Royal Society as Marsden fund administrators as well, perhaps replacing them with the Lotteries Commission. Taxpayers currently get minimal return for their $500pa “investment” in research, and Lotto at least provides some big winners.

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