Quality control and contestable funding

By Guest Author 12/10/2010

by Dr Prue Williams

When the Foundation for Research, Science and Technology announced the recipients of its major public good science funding round in July, people mostly wanted to know ‘who?’, and ‘how much?’

These essential questions were answered, incisively, through media coverage and through direct communications between the Foundation and the research community.

But although on the tip of many tongues, the question of science quality (the ‘how good?’) played wallflower to the more boisterous public discussions of dollar figures and winners.

This makes sense; people can confidently assume that research funded by the Government’s largest science funding agency, through a rigorous two-stage contestable process, meets a high standard of quality.

And people may be interested to note the increase in the average quality scores for successful research proposals this year compared with those from the previous round.


¹ Comparative figures do not exist for this round because in previous years freshwater proposal were part of a larger environmental research round

² Leveraging New Zealand’s Natural Resources

³ New Materials, Technologies & Services

The ‘RS&T Benefit’ and ‘Benefits of New Zealand’ criteria are two of four criteria applied to all research proposals and assessed by independent advisory panels.

The first criterion asks applicants to demonstrate high science quality and the way their project will build or retain capabilities of future benefit for New Zealand. The second asks applicants to describe the opportunity or need their proposal addresses, and how it is being beyond ‘business as usual’–unlikely to be undertaken by others in the near future.

So what, or who, is behind the improvements to these quality scores?

The higher-quality proposals received, and subsequently funded by the Foundation this year, reflect the research organisations’ proficiency in applying for contestable funding.

After all, excellent proposals lead to excellent projects being funded. The work our scientists at the CRIs, universities and private research organisations are doing is regarded internationally–not only among scientists, but among companies, students, and postdocs. We can pick from the best.

But a heap of excellent proposals stacked alongside a limited pool of total funding available creates its own challenge–which is where the selective expertise of our independent advisory panels comes in.

For those readers unfamiliar with the independent advisory panel process, the size and composition of each advisory group is tailored to the particular funding round under consideration. Where appropriate, we include overseas experts. Between 2007 and 2009, 30% of the members on our advisory groups came from outside New Zealand.

Going back to the topic of science quality, Foundation research contracts also contribute to building national science capability. It makes sense that good quality science includes a component of developing future capability and investing in postgraduate students

One measure of capability is the number of emerging scientists, and one way the Foundation measures the impact of its investments on capability is by reporting on the number of full-time PhD students in public-good science and technology contracts.

Over the past four years, the Foundation has invested in an average of 750 full-time PhD students. It will continue to invest in students as the new Ministry of Science and Innovation that will be established through the Foundation’s merger with the Ministry of Research, Science and Technology.

Dr Prue Williams is Chief Science Adviser with the Foundation for Research, Science and Technology

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