Marsden 2012: Success rate continues to fall

By Shaun Hendy 25/10/2012

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 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).

0 Responses to “Marsden 2012: Success rate continues to fall”

  • So the headline is in fact ‘Marsden 2012; Application rates continue to increase.’ Can we accentuate the positive? Looking at your chart there seems to be around a 40% increase in applications since 1998 and a 40% fall in success rate. The money has gone up a little but so have the researcher numbers (he guesses) so the big change is the enthusiasm for making proposals. This took hold in a big way in 2008, five years after the introduction of the PBRF. Was this when the two stage process came in?

  • Interesting post, thank you.

    Two observations:

    Given the low success rate and increased number of applications, the opportunity cost created by the Marsden Fund are substantial. The time and resources spent on over 1,000 proposals are largely wasted; this is not only limited to the applicant but also includes colleagues who read the proposal, research office staff, and the Marsden panel members.

    My research interests are in economics / management. The EHB panel supported only one project that falls into this category and also awarded only one FastStart (but not in economics or management). The SOC panel, in contrast, awarded five projects that, arguably, can be attributed to economics or management. And seven out of 13 projects in SOC were FastStarts. This suggests to me that the idea of discipline-based panels failed in the case of economics and management, and the very low number of FastStarts in EHB is not an encouraging signal to early-career researchers.

  • It would be interesting to know what the true cost of administering the Marsden fund is, e.g. flying panel members around, the amount of time they spend reading them as opposed to doing research, the cost in costing to co-ordinate all the paperwork, lost time by researchers writing applications, particularly the second round proposals?
    Indeed I wonder how much researcher time could be saved if the first cut was much harsher?

  • To the first – it would be interesting to see the accounting.

    To the second – my impression was that the first cut is already (much) harsher than the second.

  • Michael – my experience and others I have talked too is that the the production of a good first round proposal takes considerable time. It is almost like writing a full proposal and then “trimming it down” to fit page limits.

  • OK, so I got out an envelope and turned it over.
    Let us say there are 11,000 applicants and it takes two weeks (as I recall that is what it would take me – who ever said it took a week was obviously much smarter) to fill out a preliminary application form, That is around 420 years FTE of form filling.
    I don’t have the numbers but let us say that 1000 are asked to make full applications and it takes four weeks. That’s another 75 or so FTE. Shall we say 500 FTE all up?
    Clearly complex maths isn’t my strong point – I was an organic chemist after all- so call it $100,000 per FTE. That means the bidding cost $50m. The Marsden awarded $54m this year.
    If it was a Meat Company you’d say the profit looks pretty healthy. For a bank; not so. I think tinkering with the assumptions would make it look better or worse but it still looks close to a zero sum game.

  • George – Most applications in the Health Sciences have multiple people involved. I’m not sure about other fields. Also, you need to take into account overheads (at a rate of 1.06 of salaries in my institution). I can see this pushing things out to $20M easily enough. Furthermore, and this is tricky, is there loss of productivity involved? (WIth Form filling I’d say yes, with some of the thinking around the project, perhaps not). Finally, we are not dealing with one company, but many research groups where most groups are losers and a few are winners as in a lottery.

  • Great post Shaun. Victoria University seems to have consistently performed very well under the Marsden scheme. Probably due to a constructive feedback environment that it sounds like you have there.

    1. I wonder how effective PBRF is at converting dollars into research. Unfortunately the way it has been set up makes it very difficult to find this out. The $’s don’t go to researchers, instead they go to institutions.

    2. In fact, it’d be nice to know overall, what is the optimal way to fund research. NZ researchers are fantastic at converting small pots of money into high-impact research. But can we make our research machine even better?