I have been keeping track of the Marsden fund for a few years now over on A Measure of Science at Sciblogs New Zealand. As we wait for the results from the first round in 2015, let’s reflect on last year’s results. 2014 was another tough year for applicants, with the success rate falling to just 8.3% – well below the long run success rate of 10%. As the figure below shows, this was the fifth year in a row that the success rate has been below 10%.
The figure also shows that this is because the number of applications has risen considerable in these last five years, while below, we see that the total funding awarded has not kept pace. There was a big injection of new funding in 2009 after the National government came to power, but this only seems to have coincided with a large increase in the number of applications.
So if there is no more funding available, why are we writing more applications? The plot below shows that this increase in preliminary applications submitted has come from the universities, while the number of applications coming out of our Crown Research Institues has actually declined. This growth has not been driven by a growth in university research staff. Statistics New Zealand’s R&D survey suggests that these numbers have, if anything, declined over the last decade: in the 2004 survey, the universities reported 3300 FTE researchers, while in 2014, they reported just 3100
There certainly seems to have been a change in behaviour amongst university staff in the last few years. A decade ago there was one preliminary application for every five FTE researchers from universities, while last year this had risen to one for every three FTE researchers. It is tempting to suggest that this is in response to the increase in funding in 2009, but then one might have expected a similar response by CRI researchers, whereas the opposite has happened.
I think that this may have something to do with the pressure that university researchers are now under to measure up for the Performance Based Resarch Fund. University researchers are expected to be applying for external research funding, and for many, the Marsden fund is the only option. While we might welcome the growth in research activity in universities, this is evidently placing a signficant strain on an already stretched science and innovation system.
Finally, the other feature that caught my eye in the 2014 round was a small drop-off in proportion of funds awarded to fast-start applicants. The share of funds awarded to fast-starts has levelled off since 2011. This had to happen at some point after a steady growth in its share since the fast-start scheme was introduced in 2001.
Fast-start applicants have a slightly higher chance of success than standard applicants, with a long run success rate of 13% (c.f 9% for standard applicants). Last year though this dropped to 11%, in line with the success rate for standard proposals (7% in 2014).
From within a CRI, there is an increasing perception that Marsdens are a waste of time and energy and they all go to University labs anyway.
That is a false perception of course.
What is true is that progressively the CRIs have been pushed by the ministers and by their own (business focussed) boards to concentrate on their target industries and strive to have commercial products as the outcomes of their work. That has led to research projects that don’t lend themselves well to pure science grants and a lack of practice at writing a Marsden style grant. That leads to a low success rate which in turn leads to a reduced desire to submit Marsden proposals.
To me that is a pity, abandoning basic science in the CRIs would be a terrible mistake, forcing our industry focussed research to rely solely on applying discoveries made (and owned) elsewhere in the world.
Sadly the only thing that is likely to change that is an increase in Marsden funding. Quadruple the fund seems a reasonable first step.
Nice figures Shaun. My own take is that with such a low success rate I don’t think Marsden is acting as a proper scientific fund at all. We have all joked about a lottery however somehow we seem to be edging closer and closer to it becoming a truism. 114% overheads on salary is a disaster for the postdoc arena and that will have a significant effect on our scientific output over the next decade. I can understand a two round system but having played a part in both rounds as a reviewer I know that with the first round a lot of excellent science is being thrown back simply because we (as reviewers) don’t know enough of the subject. SO what to do next ? More money? (that will only annoy politicians and get more academics fighting for an effectively reduced fund.Get rid of the first round and let everyone play in the same pit? Too much work for the reviewers maybe? I am just about to review a UK MRC grant. No first round (as far as I am aware) and it’s a big grant. Maybe we should take a leaf out of other (to be honest more experienced) funders.