Craig Stevens: Crazy science - but is it crazy enough?

The Marsden Fund for research spends millions of tax dollars on ‘the weird stuff’ and that’s how it should be.
It's a fair question to wonder why research is so expensive. Photo / 123RF
It's a fair question to wonder why research is so expensive. Photo / 123RF

• Craig Stevens is president of the NZ Association of Scientists

The Marsden Fund results have been released. And it's crazy - millions of dollars to fund ideas about parasitic puppets, ocean vacuum cleaners, planet counting, the list goes on. But this craziness may be exactly what the doctor ordered.

The Marsden Fund is precious taxpayers' money awarded to some of the nation's cleverest minds, for ideas that have the potential to be simply brilliant. Sometimes the ideas help solve a problem we can all identify with, but more often they seem plain crazy. And that's the idea.

Five years ago in this newspaper, Sir Paul Callaghan asked us to "value the weird stuff", arguing that we needed to walk a line between something that the world needed, but remained niche enough that it wouldn't just disappear overseas. This perfectly weird stuff must come from somewhere.

Your favourite champion rugby team doesn't just focus on the split second the ball goes over the line. They put endless hours into defence and midfield training in order to make that happen. Ideas and research skills can have the same bumpy road where they get knocked around and maybe only one or two finally get over the line.

In science and humanities, "the line" is not a single thing. Yes, it is about generating wealth, but it is also about healthy and happy kids, a liveable climate, a valued environment, an understanding of our place in the world and more besides.

It's a fair question to wonder why research is so expensive. Two reasons. First, it's expensive to do anything the first time, and pretty much every aspect of Marsden-funded research is "the first time". Second, in today's world of fully costed, corporatised science, lots of that cash goes into overheads - everything from building maintenance, running the organisation, all the way through to supporting top scientists to write the next proposal.

There has been some pretty blunt criticism suggesting that this moneymight be better spent on, for example, roads. In which case a year of Marsden funding would get us about 2km of Transmission Gully, at the cost ofgetting dumber as a nation.

Only around 10 per cent of ideas get through and studies have shown another 10 per cent are just as good.

Cynics, and applicants who have just missed out, sometimes describe Marsden funding as a lottery. If it is, it's a pretty brutal lottery, as a ticket requires a decade or more of training, and an idea so good that reviews from very clever people around the world give it two thumbs up.

It's not perfect by any means. The system is self-replicating in that it struggles to value areas it doesn't already support, and past success is the best indicator of future success. The Government has expanded the fund in recent years, but still only around 10 per cent of ideas get through and studies have shown another 10 per cent are just as good.

Unlike every other aspect of New Zealand research funding over the past two decades, it has remained consistent in its approach and intent. Despite the failure rates that would have overseas researchers up at the barricades, the tenacity and stubbornness of the Kiwi researchers has seen the fund flourish and become a foundation for science and humanities ideas.

In this regard New Zealand has something special going for it. In bigger research systems, where, yes, there's more money, you will find yourself specialised and working on one thing, at one stage in the idea development. As with most aspects of Kiwi life, the scale of things means we have to muck in on all aspects of the idea.

The other thing about the funding is, in some ways it is not even about the idea. It is about giving a home to people who have those kinds of ideas and nurture them so they can have more, and teach others how to think up their own off-the-wall ideas that may just be the next big thing.

Next time you read of some crazy research idea, ask yourself: "Is it crazy enough?"

- NZ Herald

Get the news delivered straight to your inbox

Receive the day’s news, sport and entertainment in our daily email newsletter

SIGN UP NOW

© Copyright 2017, NZME. Publishing Limited

Assembled by: (static) on production bpcf05 at 28 Mar 2017 02:01:46 Processing Time: 601ms