$60 million in Marsden funding – some highlights

So there are likely to be a number of happy researchers around the country basking in the glow of commitments for years of ongoing funding of their projects.

Unfortunately, there will be many more not as happy because their research proposals missed out on funding – only 9.5 per cent of applications were successful. Still, competition is good and the Marsden round never fails to throw up an eclectic range of research proposals that look fascinating.

Check out the total list of winners on the Royal Society’s nice-looking new Marsden website which was, like Sciblogs, built on WordPress. Here are 20 or so press releases highlighting some of the projects funded.

And here are some of my top picks…

Software projects shine out

Making GUIs easier to get the hang of
Making GUIs easier to get the hang of

With my penchant for technology, it was good to see some science-related software projects getting some funding. Professor Andy Cockburn from the Department of Computer Science and Software Engineering at University of Canterbury picked up $496,000 over three years to work on graphical user interfaces – an area ripe for development in the wake of the iPad, tablet computing in general and the multi-touch screen revolution. Cockburn wants to make computer users more productive using GUIs by making the learning process involved much easier and quicker. With GUIs used on everything from mobile phones to washing machines, there’s plenty of potential here. This also highlights Canterbury’s ongoing leadership in this space, with the HITLab based there working on cutting edge human-computer interaction projects.

Professor Cockburn’s colleague Professor Tanja Mitrovic, also from the Department of Computer Science and Software Engineering at Canterbury was funded to the tune of $830,000 over three years. Mitrovic is working on computer-based stroke rehabilitation. From the Marsden release:

The proposed system will monitor each patient’s cognitive deficit and initiate adaptive strategies, such as providing specific exercises or tailored advice. Such adaptive training is important to countries with an ageing population such as New Zealand, as it decreases the costs of specialist treatment and patient care.

This project will provide a framework for researchers to conduct similar studies into rehabilitative training strategies with other brain injuries, and even degenerative conditions like Parkinson’s disease. It will pave the way for the next generation of human-centred intelligent systems.

Yet another interesting project out of Auckland University’s Bioengineering sees Dr Katja Oberhofer funded to the tune of $300,000 over three years. Her aim is to develop patient-specific gait simulations for improved clinical assessment of children with cerebral palsy. This new form of “gait analysis” using the world-leading modeling techniques already developed by the Bioengineering Institute, “will simulate and analyse patient-specific models during walking, based on external measurements”.

No fault of theirs

Funded: drilling into the fault
Funded: drilling into the fault

Earth science has suddenly become topical – not that these researchers knew it when they submitted their Marsden applications. Two projects, worth a combined total of over $1.2 million in funding over three years are to do with the project to drill into the Alpine Fault – that fault that was expected to cause a big earthquake in the south, but was overshadowed by another previously-unknown fault that proved responsible for the 7.1 magnitude Canterbury quake this month. From the Marsden results:

A full grant  awarded to Dr Rupert Sutherland, GNS Science, and a Fast-Start grant awarded to Dr Jennifer Eccles, The University of Auckland — will support New Zealand’s participation in a new international initiative to drill through the Alpine Fault.

Together, these projects will investigate the structure, mechanics and evolution of the Alpine Fault by drilling four vertical boreholes, the longest to a depth of 1.5 km. Measurements, analysis of core samples and establishing long-term observatories within the boreholes will provide new insights into how large faults operate and provide a basis for future deeper drilling experiments.

Bird BO, spider orchids and spring flowering

The Marsden-funded research getting all the headlines today is that which will look at the scent of birds and in particular birds native ot New Zealand. This from The Press:

Canterbury University associate professor Jim Briskie believes the country’s native birds may not have learnt to mask their smells like their continental counterparts, making them an easy target for predators. The Canadian, who moved to New Zealand 13 years ago, has been awarded more than $600,000 over three years from this year’s Marsden Fund to investigate the theory.

If such research can help protect fragile populations of kiwi, kakapo and New Zealand robin form predators, all the better.

Te Papa’s Dr Carlos Lehnebach also picked up a grant in Marsden – $300,000 over three years to “investigate the fertilisation process in the New Zealand spider orchid and relate this to the evolution of a range of genetically distinct populations”. The Te Papa blog explains what is involved here much better than I can.

Associate Professor Jo Putterill, from the School of Biological Sciences, at the University of Auckland gets $870,000 over three years to look in more depth at the process of vernalisation – which ensures that sexual reproduction and seed development happens in optimal seasonal conditions after winter has passed. From Marsden:

This work will give new insights into how plants control flowering time and may ultimately lead to breeding crop species that are tailored to specific regions and climates.

Promising social science

Dr Rachel Zajac from the Department of Psychology at the University of Otago picks up $796,000 over three years to look at child testimony given in court cases. Children are often called on to give evidence in cases involving serious crime. But how reliable are they as witnesses, especially when children are under cross examination? Zajac will set out to increase understanding of this and has designed a trial she will undertake with children:

Children aged between 7 and 11 will take part in a laboratory-based reconstruction that mirrors typical events in an eyewitness setting. After a surprise visit to a local police station where they will engage in activities like getting their fingerprints taken, they will be interviewed using standard direct- and cross-examination procedures to determine their recall of events.

The performance of children who undergo the programme designed to minimise memory errors will be compared with those who do not. Whether individual differences (such as the child’s self confidence and assertiveness) influences cross-examination performance will also be assessed.

There are many more great projects in the Marsden round this year covering everything from nanotechnology to Maori entrepreneurship – check out the details on the Marsden site.


  1. gordy

    possum, I expect the researchers to have access to all the items you mention. I realise that those resources need paying for. However, I was just curious what size of chunk the university gets from the grant for those overheads.

    I (too) remember a time when that number was 25% and that seemed reasonable to me. I realise that these days the funding systems require full cost recovery and I was curious how big that percentage is now. No doubt the calculation can get complex but I would be happy with a X plus-or-minus Y percent is the going overhead rate.

    I have to admit that a bit of me thinks some institutions may over-egg the pudding to get back some of that money they no longer get via other mechanisms.

  2. Grant Jacobs

    It’ll be (much) higher than 25%, but best to ask those that have it extracted from their grants than me 😉

    They’re full-cost recovery grants. Overheads at the universities and CRIs are higher than (say) my consultancy, but then it pays to remember that business overheads in general (i.e. of any kind of business) are higher than many might think if they’ve never “done the numbers”.

    A quick google shows this from the University of Auckland:

    “In the period 2003 to 2007 The University of Auckland overhead rate has been 121% of the direct salary costs of doing the research. Because salary costs have been increasing at a greater rate than the indirect costs of doing research, the overhead rate for 2008 has been recalculated at 114% of the direct salary costs.”

    Source: http://www.auckland.ac.nz/uoa/re-overheads

  3. Peter Griffin

    You are absolutely right possum, its just a matter of where the lines are drawn – that’s the contentious bit. Scientists are always complaining to me about overhead and how it is calculated.

  4. possum

    Gordy, do you expect these researchers to have no office, no power, no internet, no equipment, to open their own mail and to make out cheques themselves? The NZ science system funding approach is full cost funding, which means that research shouldn’t be subsided, or subsidise, other activities. Overhead costs should be demonstrably fair, but if you want a roof over your head, you have to pay for it.

  5. Peter Griffin

    good point gordy – Grant or anyone else know the going overhead rate? I vaguely remember it being in the region of 25%…

  6. gordy

    The scary bit with these big numbers is how much of the grant money ends up going to the institution as “overhead” costs. What is the going percentage nowadays?

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