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March 10, 2008 | by  | in News |
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Eggheads to cueball, scientists can’t live on scraps

An open letter to Research, Science and Technology Minister Pete Hodgson warns that New Zealand faces losing its next generation of brainiacs unless independent research is given a massive injection of funds.

The focus of the letter is the Marsden Fund, which provides grants for investigator-driven research. Hundreds of top scientists from around New Zealand put their weight behind the letter, which stresses the significance of basic research and how lack of funding has generated “deep cynicism” in young researchers.

The Marsden Fund is allocated around $40 million out of the government’s science budget of $700 million. It is intended for research of international standard in a wide range of fields from biology to engineering to humanities. It specifies excellence of research as its main criteria rather than targeting priority areas favoured by the government.

But Professor Jeffery Tallon, of Victoria University, has written the letter to warn that there just isn’t enough gruel to feed a viable research community. The 460 scientists who signed the entreaty agree that New Zealand is falling behind in its incentives for innovative research. Without money from Marsden, many new researchers hit a brick wall in funding before their careers have even begun.

Only seven percent of applicants to the Marsden grant are successful. Scientists say that it is now practically impossible to maintain a career with such a low chance of success. The letter states that funds must be trebled before New Zealand will be up to standard.

Tertiary Education Minister Pete Hodgson was in Germany when Dunedin student magazine Critic tried to contact him. Hodgson, who holds the portfolios for Tertiary Education and Economic Development, has responded to the current concerns by drawing attention to the hundreds of millions of dollars funding independent and targeted research: “It can’t be that bad,” his office commented.

However Peter Dearden, a senior biochemistry lecturer at the University of Otago, thinks things are that bad. Although he believes the Minister genuinely cares about science and is sympathetic towards the funding worries, the current political environment does not place science high enough on the agenda.

“Unless the voting public want this to be an issue, I don’t think that the parties are going to respond with any enthusiasm.”

According to the scientists backing the recent letter, the Marsden Fund is crucial if New Zealand is to have any future is science, especially because it creates stable career paths for new researchers. The Fund supplies grants for PhD projects and first funding opportunities, so underfunding it means that the money is not available for fresh blood to begin in science. “As an early career researcher you can’t get into the system,” Dearden says. “That means that you sort of stifle new ideas.”

“Unless governments think about putting money into the Marsden fund and into science in general then it’s going to become worse,” Dearden warned.

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