More money for science in the Budget – but is it being fairly allocated?

Is competitive funding working?

Not according to Kate McGrath, director of the MacDiarmid Institute.

On the institute’s blog, she says scientists are having to function in a seemingly ever-tightening resource environment.

She took particular aim at the Marsden Fund, saying it needed to be restructured.

Recently the RSNZ has released Invitations to the second round of Marsden, and proposals for MBIE contestable funding and for the EQC have been submitted. For each of these three there are aspects of the processes that have led to considerable discussion within different parts of the sector. Listen to these concerns and you see that there is some validity to them.

Commenting on the Marsden results from the first round, McGrath congratulated those who have made it through to the second round.

But she asked:

Should we be reviewing the Marsden process? Is a two stage process the right way to go and at what cost; how we do it now vs. another option? What is the opportunity cost? Difficult questions to answer but surely worth consideration.

McGrath has raised different questions about the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment system for considering contestable grants.

She concluded:

The pie is limited, and in the university sector, for example, considering external research income, most of it is paid for by the New Zealand tax payer … In real dollar amounts, actually, the pie may even be shrinking.

McGrath’s post prompted an interview on Nine to Noon.  You can listen to her here ( 12 min 57 sec )

Radio NZ later reported:

The fund distributes about $55 million a year and this year 1200 people applied for funding. The success rate usually sits at about 7 percent.

Dr McGrath’s comments are unusual, because those in top science roles do not often criticise the model, for fear it will affect their funding.

Scientists put forward an expression of interest, and then, if a local panel likes the idea, they will be asked for a more thorough application, viewed by international experts.

This year 200 proposals have been selected for the final round – about 50 fewer than last year.

Marsden Fund chair Dr Juliet Gerrard told Radio NZ  changes this year were because of a slight drop in applications, and $3 million less to hand out.

“There was a strategic decision to reduce the burden on the community and referees on the second round because that it where all the work comes in.

“There is about a 10 percent decrease on those going through to the second round, or approximately two proposals per panel. ”

The Marsden Fund estimated the saving in wasted time at $200,000.

Science Minister Steven Joyce is reported to be happy with the way the fund works and said criticism would likely be similar if it were a one-step process.

He also said science funding was increasing and has increased faster than inflation.

“The amount the fund has been allocated has gone up 40 percent in six years, while the overall science budget has increaed by $1.5 billion.

“On top of that, the number of people working in science in the public and private sector has also increased significantly.”

Anthony Scott, chief executive of Science New Zealand, agrees this year’s Budget strengthens areas critical to a productive, competitive economy: capability development in science and engineering, and supporting science and innovation investment into areas that will make a difference for New Zealand.

“The Government has carried through its election commitment to consider regional research institutes. Government is setting aside up to $25 million over the next three years for one to three new privately-led regional research institutes for possible establishment over the next four to five years.

“CRIs will be keen to work with government on this process. Any new institutes should complement the CRIs and other existing providers’ extensive existing regional networks and presence.

“The business case process is the place to ask the hard questions of each proposal. Criteria should include adding value over and above well-established regional capability, avoiding duplication of facilities and capability or adding complexity to the system.

“Crown Research Institutes employ 3600 FTEs staff around New Zealand, across some 50 sites from Kerikeri in Northland to Lauder and Invermay in Otago. Many are co-located with other CRIs and/or universities and private sector companies to form critical mass. They are well-established integral elements in the local economies, linked with sectors, economic agencies and Maori, and bring national and global networks to the local region.

 “The R&D eco-system overall is moving towards greater sector and regional collaboration across research organisations and government, which CRIs are actively encouraging. In doing so it is important that the amount of funding going into front-line science is maximised.

Scott said his organisation looked forward to the release by the Minister of his National Statement of Science Investment.

It supports science research funding being flexible, less complex and more closely focussed on research that is excellent and relevant to New Zealand.

“We are hopeful that the current review of CRI Core Funding will also support the substantial value it adds to the national system, ensuring connectivity to sectors, international linkages and science diplomacy and attention to current needs and developing new opportunities for New Zealand from our science.”

“The 14 per cent increase in grant funding available through Callaghan Innovation will encourage more businesses to grow through innovation. This follows on from other changes such as deductions for black-hole R&D spending and allowing start-ups to cash out tax losses from R&D spending.

“The number of businesses investing in R&D has been growing in recent years, as they see that companies with R&D-led products or services have higher earnings and greater competitiveness in world markets. They are now spending over $1m a week more on R&D than in 2012, and spending twice as much as government on R&D.

“Businesses are also looking externally for expertise which can have an impact. More than 3 out of four dollars spent externally by business on R&D is spent with CRIs, and this has been increasing in recent years.

Scott also welcomed further increases in tuition subsidy or places for tertiary training in science, agriculture and engineering and the commitment to increase New Zealander’s engagement with science and technology.

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