Controversy over NZ grant panel process

October 13, 2006

A leading New Zealand research fund is to bar members of its grant-awarding panels from receiving its cash after complaints that NZ$6 million (£2.1 million) of this year's NZ$39 million went to projects with which panellists were associated.

Don MacRaild, professor of history at the Victoria University of Wellington and one of several unsuccessful applicants who criticised the fund, described the panel process as "absolutely appalling". "If I were marking their performance, I'd put 'come and see me' on their work," he said.

"There's this idea of abjuring yourself when you leave the room, but I just don't think panels should be awarding themselves money."

Opposition Science Spokesman Paul Hutchison described a NZ$465,000 project to research the cultural history of sex and the orgasm as "nebulous sex studies" and demanded scrutiny of the "disturbing" grant to a lesbian academic and fund panellist. His claims prompted Prime Minister Helen Clark to request a report on the fund's procedures.

The Marsden Fund was set up in 1994 to support ideas-driven research on the basis of excellence rather than potential socioeconomic benefits. Citation rates for Marsden research are significantly higher then average, and an Auckland University study indicated that 44 per cent of patents over a three-year period (2000-02) at the university came from Marsden-funded research.

Of 932 proposals this year, 78 were given the go-ahead.

Garth Carnaby, chair of the Marsden Fund council, said robust systems were in place to ensure that panellists took no part in decisions on their own applications. He acknowledged that they could mark down competing proposals, but said analysis showed that if applicant panellists'

contributions were ignored, it made no difference to the final outcomes.

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