Tag Archives: funding

What the HRC should have done

The system is broke.  It is no better than a lottery.  The Health Research Council tacitly acknowledged this last year when they introduced a lottery to their grant funding round.  The lottery was for three grants of $150,000 each.  These “Explorer Grants” are available again this year.  The process went thus: HRC announced the grant and requested proposals;  proposals were required to meet simple requirements of transformative, innovative, exploratory or unconventional, and have potential for major impact;  proposals were examined by committees of senior scientists;  all that met the criteria were put in a hat and three winners were drawn out.

116 grants were received, 3 were awarded (2.6%!!!). There were several committees of 4-5 senior scientists. Each committee assessed up to 30 grants.  I’m told it was a couple of days work for each scientist. I’m also told that, not surprisingly given we’ve a damned good science workforce, most proposals met the criteria. WHAT A COLOSSAL WASTE OF TIME AND RESOURCES.

Here is what should have happened:  All proposals should have gone immediately into the hat.  Three should have been drawn out.  Each of these three should have been assessed by a couple of scientists to make sure they meet the criteria.  If not, another should be drawn and assessed.  This would take about a 10th of the time and would enable results to be announced months earlier.

Given that the HRC Project grants have only about a 7% success rate and that the experience of reviewers is that the vast majority of applications are worthy of funding  I think a similar process of randomly drawing and then reviewing would be much more efficient and no less fair.  Indeed, here is the basis of a randomised controlled trial which I may well put as a project proposal to the HRC.

Null Hypothesis:  Projects assessed after random selection perform no differently to those assessed using the current methodology.

Method:  Randomly divide all incoming project applications into two groups. Group 1: Current assessment methodology.  Group 2: Random assessment methodology.  Group 1: assess as per normal aiming to assign half the allocated budget.  Group 2: Randomly draw 7% of the Group 2 applicants;  assess;  draw more to cover any which fail to meet fundability (only) criteria;  fund all which meet this criteria in order they were drawn until half the allocated budget is used.

Outcome measures:  I need to do a power calculation and think about the most appropriate measure, but this could be either a blinded assessment of final reports or a metric like difference in numbers of publications.

Let’s hope that lessons are learnt when it comes to the processes used to allocate National Science Challenges funds.

Should governments fund science?

Just heard Julia Lane – an expat Kiwi and science economist speaking on Radio NZ about science and the economy.  She’s in Christchurch for a debate “Is Science Good for the Economy?” which can be heard tomorrow night as part of the ice fest – see here.

A few nice points she made (my paraphrasing).

  1. There is a challenge for governments in that returns from basic research are long, complex, and often in unexpected directions.  This is often different from government priorities which are focused on short term benefits.
  2. The principle reason for governments to invest in science is for the public good.  If there are high returns expected, then this is a place for the private sector not the government.  So called “failure” or “dry holes” as she called them are examples of public good.  If a private company invests in science that does not work as they hoped, they have no reason to tell the world.  Government funded science will tell the world, thereby enabling all businesses to make better decisions about where not to invest $.
  3. The reasons for government investment should be (in this order) 1) Formation of more science knowledge, 2) social gains (eg cleaner streams), 3) work force effect (trained in science people entering businesses etc), and 4) economic
  4. A current concern is that there is too much emphasis on bean counting (eg science judged on number of publications, patents etc – Take note HRC, Marsden, PBRF (my comment)).
  5. Better funding models seem to be ones that fund individuals and groups rather than projects.  She mentioned the Howard Hughes Medical Institute which has done this very successfully and talked of ANU and Uni Melb who have upped their game doing this.
  6. Nice phrase was that “Science involves creation, transmission and adoption of knowledge through networks of human beings.”  She thinks science funding should emphasise the people and networks.  An example is TNF alpha which was discovered in the 70’s by Dr Lloyd Olds at Sloan Kettering.  A trace study (no reference, sorry) showed that whilst Dr Olds never produced a drug based on TNF alpha, his networks using the knowledge he gained developed billions of dollars worth which have helped millions of people.


$6,126,820 has been sitting on my fridge for the last two years. I aim to raise this over 20 years so as to continue my research.  Yes – I confess, I am the Six million dollar man (Historical reference for those over 40).  Sounds a lot of money, but let’s put this in context.  Because I am “research only” staff, I must raise all my salary and expenses, so the calculation was the sum of my salary, a salary for a part-time research assistant (2 days a week), overheads on both our salaries at a rate of 108% (the rate my university expects from me) and about $20,000 a year for a few research expenses.  In other words, about $300,000 p.a.

A few comparisons from government funding

Teacher: $164,000 p.a.   New Zealand spends about $7000 per secondary school pupil.  Apparently there are 23.5 pupils per year 9 student.

 Olympic athlete:  $150,000 p.a.  According to Prime TV, the NZ government spent $108,000,000 sending ~180 athletes to the current Olympics.  Assuming this was spread over 4 years, then this is about $150,000 p.a per athlete.  Of course, many also have corporate sponsorship.

I wonder what a mid level manager with a part-time secretary in the ministry of housing costs?  I can well imagine it passing $300,000.

The Six Million Dollar Fridge

The Six Million Dollar Fridge

Is what I do worth two athlete’s olympic performance?  Is it worth more than an average year nine teacher.  Perhaps not for me to say. This is not to say the government should not put money into the athletes or teachers, merely to point out that if I were to raise the money from government science funding such as the HRC or Marsden, then this would be my relative value to NZ according to the politicians who divide up the budget.  The reality is that I am very unlikely to raise this money from government sources.  In the last two years I have raised about $420,000 dollars of which $300,000 is from governement funds via the Marsden fund (thank you) and a little from the University of Otago Research Grants. The rest is from the Australia and New Zealand Society of Nephrologists. Unfortunately, it is about $200,000 under budget, so I no longer have a research assistant (she was very good and is sadly missed). If I were to reach my goal via governement funding I will need to get a gold medal (an HRC grant or Marsden grant) every two to three years.  As these have success rates of about 7 and 12% respectively, this is a very big ask.  So, how shall I raise the dollars?

The Plan

First and foremost I shall continue to put the bulk of my time into being the best scientist I can, otherwise there is no point! My skills are in science not fund raising.

Second, and despite what I just said, I shall look for innovative ways to raise money.  Siouxsie Wiles sojourn into the world of crowd source funding was inspiring, if not a little daunting. Perhaps this sort of innovation on a larger scale?  For that I need to find the right people – entrepreneurs and fund raises who will help me find the people looking to donate to a good cause.  Maybe I will write Apps or ebooks? No stone shall be left unturned.

Third, expand my connections to other research groups here and overseas.  I’ve already begun this – I now have an honorary position with UNSW in Sydney.  So far, no money has come with the extra work, but it is worthwhile work and I certainly would like to contribute to more such projects.  As I am a data analysis person the mantra is –give me your data and I shall massage it into a story worth telling.

Fourth, corporate sponsorship.  Yes, I will wear their jacket and paint my car if they so desire.  In medicine corporate funding is a tricky business.  It is important not to be seen to be biased.  As I am not a medical doctor, I have the advantage that any sponsorship could not influence my clinical practice (I don’t think it does for most medical people anyway). However, because I am not a medic, pharmaceutical companies and the like are probably less likely to sponsor me. But if I don’t ask I won’t know!  So far I have had a good relationship with three biomarker companies who have measured specific protein concentrations for myself and my colleagues using their own assays – no strings attached.  Essentially, I contribute to their knowledge base and they contribute to my research.  Unfortunately, there is no cash flowing for salaries yet.

Fifth, I shall remind the university that my contribution to their PBRF funding is substantial and some kind of retainer wouldn’t go amiss.

Sixth, I shall continue to talk with politicians about the lack of public funding for science.  I began this in 2008 and have had several good discussions.

Finally, I shall not totally give up on grants just yet, but I shall be judicious about which ones I spend time applying for.