Professor Kate McGrath: Time for a change in funding research

Professor Kate McGrath: Time for a change in funding research

This op-ed by The MacDiarmid Institute’s Director Professor Kate McGrath, originally appeared in The Dominion Post and The Press on Monday 1st June 2015.  Success rates of less than 10 percent for competitive government funding programmes are becoming commonplace in New Zealand. Sometimes these plummet as low as 5 percent. This is a matter of great concern, given that these rates are significantly lower than OECD norms. The National Institute of Health fund in the United States for example, has historical success rates in excess of 16 percent, while the Engineering and Physical Sciences and Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Councils of the United Kingdom reach success rates of over 20 percent. It is time for New Zealand to admit that our research funding system is not sustainable. Rather than being confident we are doing what is necessary to deliver the best outcomes for New Zealand, we are moving into the realm of crossing our fingers and hoping for the best. Workable and effective solutions to address this issue are complex—they require much more than making small changes to process and they need to be much more holistic than just asking the Government to hand out more money. Let’s face it, no matter how much money the Government allocates to support research, based on its capacity in the current economic climate, it will never be enough. Every year, thousands of researchers throughout New Zealand each spend tens to hundreds of hours writing grant applications to gain money through government funds. They are hungry for any funding opportunities they might be eligible to apply for in order to support and advance their research programmes. This means that resources like the Marsden Fund, a pool of money allocated through Vote Science and administered by the Royal Society of New Zealand and arguably our most prestigious research fund, receives hundreds of applications. This year, for example, around 1200 proposals were submitted and will go through a two-stage process which involves them being individually considered, evaluated and ultimately ranked. At the end of the process, less than 100 of these research programmes will end up getting money. You don’t have to be a mathematician to work out that there is a substantial investment of time and resources in determining how much the Government will invest into a potential research outcome. Recently, the Marsden Council decided to reduce the number of applications that transition from the first to the second round of its two-stage process. This was based on a combination of factors—a reduction of $3 million in the amount of money available this year and a desire to reduce the amount of time spent writing and evaluating proposals that are ultimately going to be unsuccessful. The thinking is laudable, but it has some consequences. By reducing the percentage of proposals that are invited to be more fully elucidated and considered at the next round, the Council has, in effect, just made it more difficult to get Marsden funding. On one level, maybe that’s okay—after all, Marsden grants carry a lot of mana and gaining one is something to be extraordinarily proud of. On another level however, it raises some serious questions. Although the people who decide which research proposals should go through to the second round are highly skilled and knowledgeable, their combined expertise does not always cover the breadth of research areas they are being asked to evaluate. Only the proposals that make it through to the second round are assessed by national and international experts in the relevant field. My question, and one being asked by others, is whether stage one of that process is where decisions should be being made about which research proposals offer the best outcomes for New Zealand. The problem, however, is bigger than the process for awarding Marsden funding. We also have funding caps, introduced into the regulations of many government funds several years ago, which restrict the amount of money researchers can apply for. These can mean research programmes are not properly resourced. It is important to remember that giving someone only a quarter of the money they need does not necessarily mean they can deliver a quarter of the desired outcome. Whichever way you cut the cake, the heart of New Zealand’s problem is that there is simply not enough research funding in the system. There are solutions, but they will be complicated and challenging to achieve—we have to find more money by growing our economy, we have to connect research providers with the private sector and we need to learn what it will take to get the private sector investing in research. This will ultimately mean that there are more sources of funding to support research and not everyone will be voraciously chasing the limited government research funding. All of this requires hard work, determination and, crucially, a willingness to change. Professor Kate McGrath is Director of the MacDiarmid Institute for Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology and Vice-Provost (Research) at Victoria University of Wellington.