The 2010 Marsden fund results were announced by the Royal Society last week. The Marsden fund supports much of New Zealand’s blue skies research and is one of the most prestigious grants available to New Zealand scientists. In total this year, 102 proposals were awarded just under $60m to be spent over the next three years. How does this year compare with previous rounds?
Well, this year’s success rate of 9.4% is lower than usual, closer to the low of 8.8% achieved in 2005 than the long run average of 10.5%. This seems to be mostly due to the large increase in proposals received, up from 934 last year to 1089 this year, rather than a drop in the number that were funded.
This large increase in proposals may be due in part to the introduction of a new panel in Engineering and Interdisciplinary Sciences. This panel includes areas that may have been underrepresented in the past such as:
materials science; engineering (including bioengineering and other cross-disciplinary research activities); operations research; nanotechnology; engineering aspects of computer science, software and hardware engineering; applications and robotics; and engineering aspects of information science.
With this new panel, the Marsden fund has probably tapped into a more applied sector of the research community that previously had some difficulty in fitting into the old panel structure.
However, the total funding allocated declined this year, from more than $65m last year to just under $59m (in CPI-adjusted 2009 dollars). This reverses a steady increase in total funding that began in the middle of the last decade. Funding per proposal also declined slightly this year, with proposals this year receiving $575k in 2009 dollars on average, or approximately $190k per year for three years. As I discussed in a post last year, grant sizes have grown substantially over the last decade. This small reduction in funding per proposal does not reverse the long term trend upwards.
Finally, the share of funding awarded to fast-start proposals continues to grow, with nearly 17% of the pool awarded to early career researchers. This fast-start category is open to those who obtained their PhDs within the previous 7 years. A fast-start grant can be a particularly important step in a young scientist’s career, although the funding received (capped at $100k p.a. for 3 years) is really only sufficient to support some salary buy-out for research time (typically 25%) and a graduate student. Nonetheless, the prestige associated with a fast-start award is high and I can think of several examples amongst my colleagues where such an award has led to the offer of a permanent position.
However, there is now a substantial overlap between the fast-start category and the new Rutherford Discovery Fellowships, open to early career researchers 3 to 10 years from their PhD. The latter runs for 5 years rather than 3, providing a much more substantial salary buy-out and the opportunity to support several graduate students. With the creation of this new scheme and the disappearance of the NZ S&T post-doctoral fellowships, I think there is now an argument to be made for capping the growth in fast-start funding. To fill the gap that must surely now exist for our best and brightest immediately post-PhD, the community will need to fund more post-doctoral fellowships out of full proposals.
(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 and Physical Sciences, Engineering and Mathematics panel for the Rutherford Discovery Fellowships).