How $82m of Marsden Fund dosh is being spent – on spatters, structure theory, sea ice, sex-changing fish and black holes

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The Government is investing $82.345 million over the next three years in 120 projects focused ( for example) on infectious diseases, wellbeing, climate change, natural disasters, and space.  We can’t wait for the research results, enabling us to assess how well this money has been spent.

The announcement of Marsden Fund grants was made by Research, Science and Innovation Minister Megan Woods, who said:

“This funding will help address real world problems that people in Aotearoa are facing right now, as well as drive New Zealand’s ambitions in pioneering research.” 

A mind-boggling list of projects – or rather, a list of projects with mind-boggling titles – can be checked out on the Royal Society of New Zealand website

The average Kiwi – we suspect – may wonder about the real-world problems being tackled and the pioneering research that is being undertaken with the aid of government funding.

For example:

  • $360,000 – Do endangered languages get simpler under threat? Young people’s language use in urban and rural communities in Vanuatu. Dr E C Ridge, Massey University
  • $360,000 – Eye movements in three dimensions. Dr P R K Turnbull, the University of Auckland
  • $916,000 – Keeping spatters at bay and in situ synthesis. Associate Professor P Cao, the University of Auckland
  • $685,000 – Establishing a structure theory for C*-algebras of non-Hausdorff groupoids. Associate Professor L O Clark, Victoria University of Wellington
  • $939,000 – How does allostery modulate bacterial pathogenesis? Dr G Bashiri, the University of Auckland

Our attention was drawn this year to one large interdisciplinary project, which has received the prestigious Marsden Fund Council Award worth $3 million (excluding GST). This project will investigate ways to decipher gravitational waves – ripples in space-time caused by accelerating massive objects.

No, this won’t help us get on top of Covid-19 or substantially reduce our methane emissions. At least, not that we can see at first blush.

But we are sure it has a purpose that will greatly boost our general wellbeing in one way or another.

Most certainly the grant will generate more than a few jobs, because the extensive collaborative team led by Professor Renate Meyer from the University of Auckland will be bringing together expertise in mathematics, computational science, fundamental physics, and novel statistical methodologies from across New Zealand

“… to make core contributions to gravitational wave science and facilitate participation in the international LISA (Laser Interferometer Space Antenna) mission.”

In her press statement, Woods didn’t specify this project, but she did mention projects delving into coronavirus genomes, black hole ecology, changing sea ice conditions, improving on-line learning, and sex-changing fish.

“We know the fight against COVID-19 and climate change hasn’t finished, that’s why we’re keen to support high pay-off research that ensures we’re doing the best we can for the future of our country.

“The successful applicants are doing, and continue to produce excellent science through a global pandemic. I want to congratulate everyone involved for their impactful work that will benefit this country’s long-term future, and transform people’s lives for the better,” Megan Woods said.

The Marsden Fund, promoted as New Zealand’s premier fund for investigator-led research, started in 1995. It supports excellence in research across science and the humanities and is administered by the Royal Society of NZ.

Proposals are evaluated by independent assessment panels and the final recommendations for funding are made by the Marsden Fund Council, which is chaired by Professor David Bilkey.

The different funding categories include:

  • 75 Standard proposals
  • 44 Fast-Start proposals
  • 1 Marsden Fund Council Award

A total of 1152 applications was received for the 2021 funding round

The Marsden Fund – oops, sorry, the boffins who run the Royal Society want us to call it The Marsden Fund Te Pūtea Rangahau a Marsden –  supports research across a wide range of disciplines from biomedical sciences, engineering, mathematics, physics and chemistry, through to social sciences including Māori studies, public policy, social linguistics and the humanities.

Marsden Fund Fast-Start grants support early career researchers to develop independent research and build exceptional careers.

In 2021, there were 44 recipients of Fast-Start grants for a total of $15,840,000 (excluding GST). The success rate was 10.8% for these awards.

The Royal Society website says projects for funding this year cover a broad range of topics that include an investigation of conspiracy theory beliefs; Cook Islands Māori language; young onset Parkinson’s disease; the effects of climate change on the kuku green lipped mussel; more sustainable South Pacific tourism in a COVID-19 world; and how girls deal with the potential dangers and potential social benefits of online media.

Established researchers and their teams were awarded 75 Marsden Fund Standard grants with a success rate of 10.2%. These research projects will address a wide range of issues of both local and international importance; from how we age; understanding the mechanism of an artificial nose; how body temperature is regulated during pregnancy; through to investigating whether the building blocks of life can form in the atmosphere of Titan, Saturn’s largest moon.

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