Tech industry leaders slam review of govt's $273m Marsden Fund

Matthews seeks urgent meeting with Goldsmith.

UPDATE 3pm: Institute of IT Professionals boss Paul Matthews says he's disappointed by an MBIE review of the government's $273 million Marsden Fund — whose key recommendation is to have another review.

In August, last year, 11 tech industry groups banded together to claim that the Marsden Fund panel that determines which research to fund is stacked with people from a maths background, leading to structural bias.

The group said this explains why lots of esoteric maths research wins funding, while most ICT-related bids for grants get rejected. 

“This structural bias against tech goes completely against the government’s frequent statements about New Zealand’s future focus and tech-fuelled economic growth," Mr Matthews said in August.

Today, the Institute of IT Professions boss told NBR , "We welcome the report’s findings that the current panel model introduces 'disciplinary bias, which we believe is clearly evidenced in the case of tech-related research through the Marsden Fund.

"But we’re disappointed with the recommendations.

"At the end of a year-long review, they’re recommending another review to look at how to address it.

"The bias against computing and IT-related research needs to be addressed now, not several years from now when another review is held then changes finally implemented."

Mr Matthews in light of the report’s acknowledgement that disciplinary bias exists, "We’ll be seeking an urgent meeting with Minister Goldsmith to address how this bias can be addressed, now, and research funding more appropriately balanced to areas of future growth for New Zealand such as computing and IT."

NZRise was another of the 11 groups behind the August complaint.

It's co-chair, Victoria MacLennan, says "NZRise provided a submission on the Marsden Fund and the appearance of bias resulting in an average of only 17% of the funding panel's approved proposals awarded to researchers in the Computer Science domain over the past decade. We therefore welcome the recommendations of this review designed to increase transparency and provide oversight. 

"But we're disappointed the review failed to recognise the significantly positive economic impact increased research in the digital technology domain will lead to - both as a growing export sector and as a transformative means of raising productivity across all industries."

Marsden Fund to develop investment plan following review
The government wrapped up an assessment of the Marsden Fund with a series of recommendations including the development of an investment plan.

The report found the Marsden Fund is highly-regarded, well-run and effective at selecting high-quality research within its current settings, but a number of improvements are needed to ensure it continues to deliver benefits in the future, Science and Innovation Minister Paul Goldsmith said in a statement.

Goldsmith released the report and endorsed recommendations from the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment. The report was commissioned following a $66 million increase in funding over four years, contained in last year's budget. The funding increases were part of a broader $410.5 million hike in science and innovation spending to grow business investment in research and development to more than 1 percent of the economy.

"Investigator-led science is an important component of the New Zealand science system and it is vital our investment in the fund is underpinned by a clear, cohesive direction that aligns with the government's broader vision for the science sector," he said.

According to the report, the Marsden Fund has delivered a range of novel research with benefits to New Zealand. However, it faces some challenges, including some conflicts of interest stemming from the small size of New Zealand's research sector as well as a need for more comprehensive and in-depth monitoring and evaluation.

The fund's operation is overseen by the Marsden Fund Council, currently made up of 11 domestic researchers. Among other things, MBIE recommends appointing researchers from outside New Zealand to the Council to expand the expertise and experience available for the governance and management of the fund.

"International experts would provide a strong independent voice on the council as they would not be eligible for Marsden funding or hold positions at domestic research institutions," it said.

It recommends developing an investment plan that lays out the fund's strategic direction with respect to its objectives as well as improving the transparency of assessment processes for applicants and developing a performance framework. Another of its recommendations is to appoint an international review board to periodically evaluate the Marsden Fund's performance. Finally, it recommends the council play a key role in implementing the recommendations.

Goldsmith has instructed the Marsden Fund Council to develop the new plan, which will include an implementation timeline. Changes are likely to be put in place gradually and will start to take effect from the 2018 funding round.

In 1995 the Fund had an annual budget of $6 million (approximately $9 million in today's dollars). Following Budget 2016, this will increase to approximately $80 million annually in 2019/20. Overall, it makes up a relatively small part of the public science system, representing approximately 4 percent of expenditure in 2016.


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