At $66m, this year’s allocation of Marsden funding is the largest since the fund was created. However the success rate remains low – how much new science does this funding increase actually buy?
The Marsden fund supports much of New Zealand’s blue skies research, so it is a vital part of our innovation system. In this year’s budget the Government increased the Marsden fund by $9m. The relative magnitude of this increase in funding is shown in the figure on the left, where the funding allocated each year since 1998 is shown (CPI-adjusted to 2009 dollars). Between 1998 and 2007, growth in the fund shadowed inflation, but in the last few years it has grown substantially. In real terms, this year’s allocation is more than 50% larger than that in 1998, resulting in 109 new applications being funded in 2009, compared to 100 in 1998.
Another pleasing development is the level of funding for emerging researchers. This ‘fast-start’ category, created in 2001, is open to those who obtained their PhDs within the previous 7 years. A fast-start grant allows a new researcher to develop an independent research programme at the forefront of their discipline. Successful proposals build confidence, and attract good PhD students and collaborators. Since the scheme was created, the proportion of money allocated to ‘fast-start’ grants has nearly doubled to 13%.
However, the overall success rate of the fund remains low (right) and selecting the successful proposals is a very difficult job for the Marsden panels. Historically, only 80-90 out of 800 applications have been selected for funding each year – an 11% success rate. As is shown on the right, this year’s 12% success rate is quite close to the historical rate. Australian scientists have been complaining this year about a 20% success rate, although the ARC only funds the marginal costs of research (e.g. the salaries of research assistants, but not the salaries of the principal investigators). Unlike its Aussie counterpart, the Marsden fund bears the costs of the salaries and institutional overheads associated with the principal investigators (known as full-cost recovery).
The figure on the right shows the average funding per proposal in real terms, now just under $600k (roughly $200k per annum). This steady growth in the size of grants explains why, despite the large increase in total funding, the overall success rate remains low. It has occurred despite the introduction of fast-start grants in 2001, which are roughly half the size of the average full grant. While the Government has funded more proposals this year, much of the increase in funding over the last two years has gone into increased proposal size.
The data show that this year has been a very good year for the Marsden fund. However, if trends continue, the fund will need regular increases of this size to keep the success rate at 12%.
(Disclosure: I am a principal investigator on two current Marsden grants, but did not submit a proposal this year.)