Tag Archives: grants

Congratulations awardees – shame on the system

At 1am this morning (has someone something to hide?) the recipients of Marsden grants were announced.

Congratulations to them all.

$54.6 million was distributed over 86 research projects.  Marsden funds “blue skies” research across a number of disciplines – humanities, science, technology etc. The list of topics reflect the diversity.  I think that they are worth celebrating so I have listed below the projects and awardees mentioned in the media pack (only 30 something, so there must be others).

The awards fall into two categories:  Standard grants of up to $330K per annum for three years (open to anyone) and Fast-start grants of $115K per annum for three years which go to early career researchers (within 7 years of getting PhD:  It used to be 7 years of post PhD research experience which enabled me to get such a grant 3 years ago despite having had a 15 yr hiatus between postdoc and next science position – they changed the rules the following year!).

Shame on the system

While 86 projects were funded, 1113 proposals were made.  This is a success rate of 7.7%.  I have posted before on just what such an appalling low success rate looks like when the Health Research Council funded just 7% of proposals.  This is a crisis.  Successive governments are responsible.  Fellow sciblog bloggers Grant Jacobs and Eric Campton pointed out to me Canadian research which showed the total cost to prepare grant proposals was greater than the amount awarded.  Eric blogged about this in 2009.  When is/was the cross-over point for HRC or Marsden funding?  Was it when the success rate fell below 20% (crisis point according to HRC chief executive Robin Olds).  Is it still viable at 7%.  Minister Steven Joyce needs to put some people onto answering that question straight away.

Colleagues of mine have talked about Marsden and HRC becoming a lottery.  They are not taking away from the tremendous work and great insights grant recipients have shown, only that many others have also shown those attributes without getting funding.  The problem is having to rank a large bunch or excellent applications.  This is not “taking the cream off the top”, rather it is attempting to pick out the tastiest tiny fraction of the cream – an impossible and meaningless task.  Perhaps this is why in announcing the new Explorer grants the Health Research Council have said that any proposals that meet the criteria will go into a pot and the grantees will be decided by lottery.  Quite possibly this may be just as fair as a ranking system.  Quite probably the HRC have been driven to this position because of the unwillingness of researchers to sit on committees and spend many hours shuffling paper making impossible ranking decisions knowing that such a small proportion of applicants will be funded.

(ps – please forget I mentioned the Explorer grants…I may apply for one myself, and I don’t want too many people knowing about it as this will reduce my chances).

The Projects

Ozone’s role in Southern Hemisphere climate change
Dr Olaf Morgenstern
Searching for the tell-tale signs of galaxy cluster formation.
Dr Melanie Johnston-Hollitt
Victoria University of Wellington
Earthquake hydrology gets a shake up
Dr Simon Cox
GNS Science
Clarity vs efficiency in speech
Dr Donald Derrick
University of Canterbury
Gesture, speech, and the lopsided brain. 
Professor Michael Corballis
University of Auckland
Dem bones, dem bones, dem … heavy bones. 
Professor Stephen Robertson
University of Otago
Young cancer researchers get funding boost 
Dr Anita Dunbier and Dr Zimei Wu
Dunbier: University of Otago, Wu: University of Auckland
Kauri and climate change. 
Dr Catriona MacInnis-Ng
University of Auckland
How do birds “tell the time” when migrating?
Dr Phil Battley
Massey University
Unravelling male reproductive responses to social cues. 
Dr Patrice Rosengrave
University of Otago
Pollen key to plant development  
Dr Lynette Brownfield
University of Otago
How does the heart grow?
 Professor Peter Hunter
The University of Auckland
Getting to the heart of heart failure
 Professor Martyn Nash
The University of Auckland
Could tidal power realistically help meet future energy needs?
Dr Ross Vennell
University of Otago
Making a controlled splash. 
Dr Geoff Willmott
Industrial Research Limited
Getting to the heart of dark matter 
Dr Brendon Brewer
The University of Auckland
Criminal minds – the science behind the science
Dr Heather Wolffram
University of Canterbury
Toi Te Mana: A history of indigenous art 
Dr Deidre Brown
The University of Auckland
Cloaked in invisible bending light
Dr Robert Thompson
University of Otago
Laughing gas not so funny on high
Dr Joseph Lane
The University of Waikato
New Zealand Agribusiness investing in rural China
Dr Jason Young
Victoria University of Wellington
Converting microwave photons to optical photons
Dr Jevon Longdell
University of Otago
Identity and wellbeing in Aotearoa New Zealand.
Associate Professor Helen Moewaka-Barnes
Massey University
Corporate community development: harnessing business power in the Pacific. 
Professor Regina Scheyvens
Massey University


$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.