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Set for success: researchers receive 54 million

Set for success: researchers receive 54 million from the Marsden Fund

A total of 92 research projects have been allocated $53.54 million (excl.GST) of funding in this year’s Marsden Fund grants, which support New Zealand’s best investigator-initiated research in the areas of science, engineering, maths, social sciences and the humanities.

Marsden Fund Council chair, Professor Juliet Gerrard, says the Fund encourages New Zealand’s most talented researchers to explore their most exciting ideas. The Fund is administered by the Royal Society of New Zealand on behalf of the government.

Highlights from the 2015 funding round include projects that will investigate the thermodynamic properties of pyroclastic flows during volcanic eruptions; the role of zoos and wildlife sanctuaries in shaping current sustainability practices; geochemical links between Māori paru pits and heritage textiles; the evolution of an acute ‘smell’ sense in insects; and establishing electrically-conducting materials that can stretch, stick and self-heal.

The grants are distributed over three years and pay for salaries, student and postdoctoral scholarships and research consumables.

“While receiving slightly fewer proposals than the record number last year, the Fund continues to be extremely popular with New Zealand researchers. This year we received 1201 preliminary proposals, down by 21 from last year. A subset of 208 proposals progressed to the second round, with 92 selected for funding. The overall success rate was 7.7%.”

A recent evaluation conducted by researchers at Motu – an economic and public policy research institute – has found that Marsden funding significantly increases the scientific output of the funded researchers. Compared to similar groups that do not receive funding, a team that is given Marsden funding showed a 6-12% increase in their academic publications and a 13-30% increase in the papers that cite their work.

“It is great to have some quantitative data to confirm the beneficial impact that receiving a Marsden grant has on researchers. We look forward to seeing these new projects take shape over the next three years and learning what the researchers discover and how this might benefit New Zealand in the long term.”

Two types of grants are awarded each year: Fast-Start and Standard. Fast-Starts enable emerging researchers to develop their own interests in the research community.

“The Fast-Start scheme is an important mechanism to enable emerging researchers to develop their own research niche and we continue to see a strong career progression, with a number of PhD and post-doctoral researchers who have worked on Marsden Fund grants previously going on to receive Standard grants as Principal Investigators.”

Professor Gerrard says that it is especially pleasing to note that the number of women as Principal Investigators of successful proposals rose from 39% last year to 44% this year. Women andMāori Principal Investigators had higher success rates in the second round.

“Thirty three percent of Principal Investigators in the preliminary proposals were women. In the successful projects, 44% of Principal Investigators were women. Māori Principal Investigators made up 4.1% in the preliminary proposals and 5.3% in the successful proposals.”

“The increase in the number of Māori involved in successful proposals reflects the capacity building that has been under way for several years and, in particular, the emphasis on encouragingMāori to study right through to the PhD level. The proposals involving Māori researchers have been judged by top international referees as highly novel. In many cases, the proposals are multidisciplinary, use Mātauranga Māori, and confidently incorporate scientific and other disciplinary knowledge.”

Professor Gerrard noted that all proposals were judged by ten subject-area panels, informed by international referees, and chosen purely on merit.

Overall she says the Marsden Fund is a long term investment in New Zealand. “By supporting New Zealand researchers to carry out research without a view to how it might be applied, the Marsden Fund helps to build a strong research base for New Zealand which will benefit us all in time."

View list of all projects funded.

2015 Funding Highlights

Here are a selection of projects funded in each panel:

Biomedical Sciences (BMS):

• Dr June-Chiew Han (University of Auckland) aims to use a unique piece of equipment to develop better mathematical models of how the heart contracts. This will have implications for understanding how heart disease can develop and the effects of high blood pressure.

• Dr Peter Jones (University of Otago) will investigate how oxidative stress in heart muscle cells adversely affects the way that the heart contracts and can ultimately lead to heart disease.

• Dr Deborah Williamson (University of Otago) will investigate how the increasing use of antiseptics for handwashing could actually be contributing to a rise in antibiotic resistance.

Cellular, Molecular and Physiological Biology (CMP):

• Dr Natasha Grimsey (University of Auckland) is investigating how specialised receptors in brain cells move to the cell surface to become active. As they play a vital role in transmitting signals though the nerve cells, this could help pave the way to develop new therapies in immune and inflammatory disease.

• Dr Martin Fronius (University of Otago) will investigate how changes in blood flow can be sensed by blood vessels and lead to changes in blood pressure through altering the amount of salt in the blood. This has implications for how blood pressure is regulated by the body.

• Professor Kevin Gould (Victoria University of Wellington) and Dr Kathy Schwinn (Plant and Food Research) will investigate how a native iceplant can withstand salt stress; this has implications for the development of salt tolerant crops in a world where salinity levels are increasing. Read in te reo.

Ecology, Evolution and Behaviour (EEB):

• Dr David Hayman (Massey University) will develop better mathematical models to pinpoint exactly when a disease-causing bacterium or virus crosses to a different host species. This will have implications for global health and early detection of future disease epidemics. Past spillover diseases include HIV and Ebola.

• Assoc Professor Richard Newcomb (Plant and Food Research) is investigating the evolution of the sense of smell in insects: why do some species have an exquisite sense of smell and others do not? This will answer fundamental questions about mechanisms of evolution.

• Dr Sheri Johnson (University of Otago) will examine whether older males can pass on better genes to their children. Life experience can make structural changes to DNA (epigenetics) which might make offspring better suited to the environment.

Economics and Human & Behavioural Sciences (EHB):

• Dr Isabelle Sin (Motu Research) will investigate financial incentives and brain drain. How much do economic considerations such as student debt influence people's choices to move countries?

• Associate Professor Hallie Buckley and Professor Charles Higham (University of Otago) will investigate how social inequality was generated among the ancestors of the civilisation of Angkor, by combining archaeology with human biology.

• Professor Ted Ruffman, (University of Otago) will look into how babies learn it's not "all about them". How do infants learn to become socially adept by "reading" the behaviour of those around them?

Engineering and Interdisciplinary Sciences (EIS):

• Dr Colm Carraher (Plant and Food Research) will explore if receptors responsible for the acute sense of smell in insects can be incorporated into an artificial nose; this will enable a multitude of volatile sensing applications in the future.

• Dr Frederique Vanholsbeeck (University of Auckland) will enhance the tools used for imaging the eye; this can lead to new therapeutic applications for the leading causes of blindness.

• Dr Charles Unsworth (University of Auckland) will build a network of electronic neurons in a dish to provide an exciting way of exploring how the behaviour of nervous systems emerge from the behaviour of their neurons. This research is a step towards the diagnosis and repair of nervous systems.

Earth Sciences and Astronomy (ESA):

• Dr Natalie Robinson (National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research) will investigate the paradox of expanding Antarctic sea ice cover in a warming ocean in which glacial-driven ice shelves are increasingly melting. This research will help computer models more accurately predict future climate change.

• Dr Gert Lube (Massey University) will simulate volcanic eruptions in order to understand the fundamental thermodynamic effects of pyroclastic flow behaviour. This information will advance computational flow models towards minimising the destructive potential of these super volcanoes.

• Professors Paul Kench and Shane Cronin (University of Auckland) plan to reconstruct pH in the Pacific Ocean over the past 3,000 years using boron isotopes from tropical corals. This research will allow computer models to better forecast changes in ocean acidification with changes in greenhouse gases.

Humanities (HUM):

• Dr Anna Boswell (University of Auckland) will look at the role of zoos for protecting and promoting action to save threatened species in Australasia.

Mathematical and Information Sciences (MIS):

• How does an epidemic spread across a county over time? Dr Tilman Davies (University of Otago) will develop statistical methods to provide a clearer understanding of how the uncertainty in estimating the spread of disease affects the overall conclusions; this will lead to improved methods in disease mapping.

• Professor Andy Philpott (University of Auckland) will investigate the mathematics of how to make the best decisions in situations when there isn’t much data available; this will be used to answer questions about water flow in hydroelectric reservoirs, such as when to save water for future use.

• Associate Professor Eibe Frank (University of Waikato) will develop methods for improving computational "deep learning", which allows computers to recognise spoken words, classify visual information, or recommend products to consumers.

Physics, Chemistry and Biochemistry (PCB):

• Dr Thomas Fallon (Massey University, Albany) will make and explore the properties of fluctional molecules that are highly unusual as they constantly change their molecular structure. This research can lead to the invention of new chemical devices for practical use, such as new types of sensors.

• Professor Jadranka Travas-Sejdic (University of Auckland) will explore the development of electrically conducting plastic materials that are self-healing and easy to make, which will open unprecedented opportunities in the fields of medical devices, health monitoring, prosthetics and soft robotics.

• Dr Jevon Longdell (University of Otago) will explore methods to improve the current problems with "qubits", which can be used to successfully build quantum computers that will be considerably quicker at processing data than classical computers.

Social Sciences (SOC):

• Dr Jay Marlowe (University of Auckland) will be looking at refugee social integration. If a refugee can stay in constant contact with their family they have left behind with social media and Skype etc, does this affect how well they integrate into their new country.

• Dr Karyne Rogers (GNS Science) and Ms Rangi Te Kanawa (Te Papa) will use cutting-edge science and traditional Māori knowledge to determine the geographical origins of traditional dyes used in kākahu (cloaks), which may allow taonga to be returned to iwi. Read in te reo.

• Professor Dame Anne Salmond (University of Auckland) will explore the unique intellectual history of Māori from 1900-1950, where Māori and European ideas, institutions and technologies were interwoven.

ENDS

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