Government funding… Tight, tighter, tightest!

Government funding… Tight, tighter, tightest!

We keep trying to get ‘it’ right: Government funding in a limited resources environment. Some recent things have highlighted just how tight things are really getting in the area of Government funding; reviews and refreshes are taking place, but meantime we all have to deal with functioning in a seemingly ever tightening resource environment. With some of the changes it almost seems as if the Ministries believe that research providers are over inflating the cost of undertaking research as a pure revenue raising exercise and so the restrictions and changes are just their way of redressing that and really pricing their purchase of research at the “real” cost. 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. Consider first the Marsden results from the first round. Firstly of course congratulations to those who have made it through to the second round. The number of proposals progressing to the second round have been decreased by about fifty to just over 200 across all panels compared with the number that progressed in 2014. While this means that those who do get into the second round have a higher chance of getting funded, the overall proportion that will be successful in the end will be about the same (~7%). Why would this change, a reduction in how many go into the second round but overall no change in success rate, cause concern? For a start it has just been made more difficult to get your foot in the door of arguably the most prestigious grants in the country. While it is true that once you have made it through the Marsden second round door the success rate is higher, the question that has been raised is, is this two stage process, where the first stage is decided by a relatively small number of people considering proposals over a broad range of discipline areas delivering us the best outcomes as a country? And this is not questioning the integrity and experience of those on the panels, just that the panels are perhaps not sufficiently expert in the full breadth of first round proposals that they consider. 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. For the MBIE contestable grants, like for Marsden grants, HRC and the like, there is a dollar cap. Additionally MBIE introduced this year the condition that a named investigator must be included at a minimum of 0.15 FTE pa, it is the pa requirement that makes this one tough. There is now a high floor as well as a low ceiling leaving little money to spend on doing the research, particularly for those research programmes that are people rich. What happens therefore is that the home institutions cover the full unfunded costs, they become, in a very real way, coinvestors, with investment decisions occurring at point of source. Through this process the capacity of the home institutions to strategically invest has been significantly reduced. And the funding agency gets essentially more research than they are paying for. Other funding agencies do the same but they do it by stating, for example that they will not fund the full costs, paying only for the time of the researchers and the direct research costs, but not the labs, the infrastructure physical and virtual that are collectively required to enable the research to be undertaken. If you are only paying for the people and the chemicals, what exactly is it that can be done? Nothing! 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 – the above is reshaping of the pie and cutting the pie into smaller chunks, moving the cost of research around the place. And in real dollar amounts actually the pie may even be shrinking. So tighter… Can we afford to get to tightest? I hope you all have a fantastic weekend Kate