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Blue sky funding worthwhile, selection process costly: Motu

Blue skies funding worthwhile, selection process has needless costs, Motu says

By Pattrick Smellie

Oct. 2 (BusinessDesk) - Government spending on 'blue skies' research could be increased without lessening the value of the increased output, but current funding selection processes are almost certainly adding cost for no good outcome, economic consultancy Motu says in a report.

Motu researched the outcomes from some 1,263 research projects that went to second-round evaluation while seeking financial support from the Marsden Fund between 2003 and 2008.

Marsden is the government's primary fund for pure, or 'blue skies', research projects without a commercial aim, and saw $56 million allocated last year to 101 projects, culled from an initial 1,222 applications.

The Motu research was intended to help the government as it evaluates how to narrow the gap between New Zealand's pure research spending, which is lower than three-quarters of the countries in the OECD, which covers the world's most developed and wealthy economies.

"Very little has been known about the efficacy of existing funding mechanisms," Motu director Adam Jaffe said in a statement. "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."

Both measures are proxies for the significance of the research, he said.

However, the study found no link between the likely success of failure of the funded projects and the resources spent on the costly second round of evaluations to which applications are put once they have made it through the first round of culling.

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

The researchers had "tested many different versions of how that selection might operate", he said. "There really seems to be nothing there. Given the significant researcher and Royal Society of New Zealand (the funding decision-maker's) time and resources that are devoted to second-round selection, this suggests a potentially large misallocation of resources."

The study also found a propensity for younger researchers, who received around a quarter of the funding in the study sample, to be more productive, as measured by citations.


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