Jamie Morton is the NZ Herald's science reporter.

Millions in funding for new CoREs of learning

The Maurice Wilkins Centre, hosted by University of Auckland, is one of the new winners. File photo / NZ Herald
The Maurice Wilkins Centre, hosted by University of Auckland, is one of the new winners. File photo / NZ Herald

The Tertiary Education Commission has today revealed the six Centres of Research Excellence (CoRES) which will get access to millions of dollars in funding.

The CoREs fund - established in 2001 to encourage the development of excellent tertiary education-based research - provides operating expenditure of just under $210 million over six years, with funding beginning next year and continuing until 2020.

The Royal Society of New Zealand ran the selection process and made recommendations to the TEC Board, which made the final decisions.

The six winners are the Maurice Wilkins Centre, Te Punaha Matatini - The Centre for Complex Systems, and Networks Medical Technologies CoRE, all hosted by the University of Auckland, the MacDiarmid Institute for Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology, hosted by Victoria University of Wellington, the Dodd-Walls Centre for Photonic and Quantum Technologies, hosted by University of Otago, and Brain Research New Zealand - Rangahau Roro Aotearoa, co-hosted by University of Otago and University of Auckland.

"The new CoREs that were successful in this round are for research in areas fundamental to the interests of New Zealand such as health, nanotechnology, photonics and quantum technologies, and working with and exploiting large data sets," Tertiary Education Commission chief executive Tim Fowler said.

"They are world-leading. Take, for example, the Centre for Complex Systems (Te Punaha Matatini). It will focus on harnessing and understanding complex big data sets for economic, social, and environmental benefit.

"As a concept, this barely existed until very recently."

There was also an opportunity to build on established success with the Dodd-Walls Centre, specialising in photonics, he said.

"It is a new CoRE, but has existed for seven years and is already averaging over $8 million a year in research revenue. This CoRE will be able to go to the next level with this additional funding from the TEC."

"It's exciting to see that here in New Zealand we are contributing to the big issues and opportunities of our time, not only globally but for New Zealand's success."

Winners' reactions

The selected hosts responded with delight at this morning's news.

Auckland University Vice-Chancellor Professor Stuart McCutcheon said hosting four CoREs was an "outstanding result" for the university.

"The CoREs are testament to the breadth and depth of research capability at the University of Auckland, and our involvement means we will be contributing to all six of the National Centres of Research Excellence."

Professor Harlene Hayne, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Otago, saying the new CoREs were a "clear indication" of the university's research standing.

"Otago has many research strengths in a diverse range of fields and this strength has been underscored by the CoRE announcement," Professor Hayne said.

"What is particularly exciting is that we have been entrusted with key leadership roles in two very different areas - photonics and quantum science and brain health.

"Both of these CoREs will bring us into closer working relationships with other New Zealand universities and research institutes and the sharing of ideas and energy across the sector will be of great benefit to the country."

The director of the MacDiarmid Institute, Professor Kate McGrath, said the decision also confirmed the institute's importance to research.

The MacDiarmid Institute is a national network of seven organisations - five universities, one crown research institute and Callaghan Innovation - bringing together researchers who develop and apply cutting-edge techniques in physics, chemistry and engineering and partner with business to take innovative new technologies to export markets.

Professor McGrath said the institute was also making a significant contribution to mentoring emerging entrepreneurial scientists and training the next generation of science teachers, who would motivate young New Zealanders to pursue science-based careers.

"Our focus is on delivering excellent research and education, inspiring New Zealanders, training New Zealand's future leaders and advancing this country's future," she said.

"Continued support for our work shows we are on track to progress this programme."

Selection "pretty positive" - scientists' association

Dr Nicola Gaston, president of the New Zealand Association of Scientists (NZAS) and speaking independently of her successfully funded institute, MacDiarmid, saw the selection as "pretty positive".

"It always looked like they were running a robust process with a clear focus on research excellence, and there is no doubt that the six funded CoREs are excellent."

She noted there was a mixture of well established centres, such as her own, and new ones, such as Te Punaha Matatini.

"What has changed is perhaps the overall scientific distribution - there is a clear shift towards the inclusion of more physical sciences and away from the primary industries that were previously well represented," she said.

"This is well justified in my opinion, since we recently lost the main Crown Research Institute that did work in the physical sciences (Industrial Research)."

But Dr Gaston said it did create the question of how these funding decisions were affected by the ongoing funding processes within the Government's recently established National Science Challenges.

And she said the loss of the only Maori CoRE - Nga Pae o Te Maramatanga - was "still remarkable".

"I'll be interested to see if there is more explanation forthcoming now that the final results have been announced - it is absolutely clear that Maori research qualifies as 'research in areas fundamental to the interests of New Zealand', as Tim Fowler puts it."

The removal of the only Maori CoRE also prompted a blog post by prominent Maori researcher Dr Leonie Pihama, who among other concerns wrote that Maori research needs and aspirations had "been made invisible".

Other notable CoREs to not make the cut this time around were Gravida, the National Centre for Growth and Development, and the Riddet Institute.

At the time of learning the institute's CoRE funding would not be renewed, in March, Gravida director Philip Baker expressed his surprise and disappointment.

"The decision to discontinue support was unexpected as Gravida's performance has never been criticised; indeed it had been described as an exemplar of good practice," Professor Baker said at the time.

"The external reviews of the application for renewal were assessed by the external referees as very strong, and were recognised as addressing a very important health issue facing New Zealand."

But while the change was a "serious short term setback", Professor Baker said it could acclerate progress towards a secure financial model independent of funding cycle.

The winners

*The Maurice Wilkins Centre, hosted by University of Auckland

*MacDiarmid Institute for Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology, hosted by Victoria University of Wellington

*The Medical Technologies CoRE, hosted by University of Auckland

*The Dodd-Walls Centre for Photonic and Quantum Technologies, hosted by University of Otago

*Te Punaha Matatini - The Centre for Complex Systems and Networks, hosted by University of Auckland

*Brain Research New Zealand - Rangahau Roro Aotearoa, co-hosted by University of Otago and University of Auckland

- NZ Herald

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