Marsden Fund under the microscope

October 2015

New Zealand’s leading ‘blue skies’ research fund, the Marsden Fund, boosts our science, but could be adjusted for greater efficiency, says a new study by researchers at Motu Economic and Public Policy Research.

“What we found is that the public expenditure on the Marsden Fund is effective in increasing scientific outputs. A team that is given Marsden funding shows a 6-12 percent increase in their academic publications and a 13-30 percent increase in the papers that cite their work,” says Dr Adam Jaffe, lead researcher and Director of Motu.

Before a decision is made to fund a project, it must go through two rounds of evaluation. An initial one-page proposal is reviewed by a subset of the appropriate panel and given a preliminary score. At this stage most proposals are rejected. In the second stage, longer proposals are submitted and sent to external anonymous referees for review. Applicants are given the chance to respond to referee comments before the panel scores and ranks the proposals.

But the researchers found no evidence that the selection process was able to meaningfully predict the likely success of different proposals – indicating that the funding process could be tweaked.

“Interestingly, we didn’t find a link between a project’s future success and the rankings given to it by the second-round panel,” said Dr Jaffe. “This means there is no reason to expect diminishing returns if Marsden funding were increased. It also means the significant resources devoted to the second round evaluation could be reduced without degrading the quality of decision-making.” says Dr Jaffe.

At present, New Zealand spends less money on research, relative to its size, than three-quarters of the countries in the OECD.

“The government is considering expanding public funding to narrow this gap, but very little has been known about the efficacy of existing funding mechanisms until now,” said Dr Jaffe.

The Marsden Fund is the premiere funding mechanism for blue skies science research in New Zealand. In 2014, $56 million was awarded to 101 research projects chosen from among 1222 applications from researchers at universities, Crown Research Institutes and independent research organizations.

Dr Jaffe featured on Radio New Zealand's Our Changing World, How best to invest in science, and in a panel discussion with Katherine Asare on Radio New Zealand’s Nine To Noon, Science funding under the microscope. The report also received extensive coverage in the mainstream media: Marsden Fund comes under the microscope - Media Coverage | Motu including NZ Herald's Jamie Morton and NBR’s Pattrick Smellie.

For more information about the Motu study please see:

Evaluation of Marsden Fund shows Scientific Output Increased | Motu