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Costly science funding applications still the elephant in the room

Wednesday 21st June 2017

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Funding remains the elephant in the room for the scientific community and while the end point of research is positive, there is a need to keep a close eye on the cost of getting there, says New Zealand Association of Scientists president Craig Stevens.

Tight funding across the board means many scientists are competing for funds in a time-consuming process and “we are throwing scientists' time away,” he said at the association's annual conference in Wellington.

Stevens pointed to the Catalyst Fund where the government is committing $4.46 million for three new New Zealand-Australia research projects. The funding – announced late last week – is positive, said Stevens, but only three of more than 100 proposals were funded.

"That means 97 or more failed," he said. A back of the envelope calculation, based on the premise that each proposal takes around 10 days to put together, means scientists spent five working years drumming up ideas for one funding round.

Stevens also pointed to New Zealand's Endeavour Fund, which received an additional $81 million over four years in this year's budget, noting that the fund used to be very narrow with few applicants but today the opposite is true. "We have opened it up and we can get fantastic ideas in but the money hasn't necessarily changed dramatically. It has increased somewhat, but there is an incredible loss to the community of effort being put into proposals."

"We don't have a lot of money, we want to make sure we don't throw stuff away," he said. There is a need for greater accountability, so scientists can have a better idea of how decisions are made and “the community needs to know why their idea wasn't good enough and that needs quality in reviewing,” he said.

Stevens said it was good that the government carried out a review of the Marsden Fund, but “there was some sort of disturbing language in the review around needing to do more about aligning the Marsden fund with excellence and impact, so basically trying to get these ideas and short circuit them to the output,” something he said “misses the point” of the fund.

"We are hoping this will be utilised in a constructive way," he added.

Stevens also noted that while spending on research and development has increased, New Zealand is still spending a lot less than many of its peers.

He said while many scientists see funding as the elephant in the room it is essential that the government and country as a whole talk about it.

"It's about pushing out the worth of science to New Zealand and the worth of scientists," he said.

Science and Innovation Minister Paul Goldsmith told the conference that the government is "very focused on ensuring the science system in New Zealand is sustainable" and is very aware of the “power and significant contribution” that science makes to what it seeks to achieve, including raising living standards and better quality public services.

He underscored the government's ongoing commitment to funding science, pointing to “very substantial extra investment” that brings the total to $1.6 billion a year in science.

"Some of you might not think that is enough but if you look at the tough decisions governments have to make about where to put extra resources every year for the last few years there has been consistent and substantial new investment in science and it's been right across the board," he said.


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