Scientists receive $54m boost for research projects

By Craig Borley

Scientists have received a sharp increase in funding for 90 new research projects in this year's Marsden Fund.

More than $54 million will be spent on basic research (as opposed to research aimed at specific economic outcomes) - a $10 million, 23 per cent increase on last year.

Science Minister Pete Hodgson yesterday said the success rate of 11 per cent for applications this year was a jump of nearly 30 per cent on the number of projects funded in 2004.

Of the 817 who applied, 219 were asked to submit full proposals, with the 90 winning entries then chosen.

However one of the Government's critics, Professor Jeffery Tallon of Victoria University, said the extra money was not enough to see New Zealand become a knowledge-based economy.

This year he penned an open letter to Mr Hodgson, signed by 460 of the country's top scientists, calling for the Marsden Fund to be trebled, bringing New Zealand in line with the basic research spending of comparable countries.

Speaking to the Herald yesterday, Professor Tallon acknowledged that yesterday's funding round was "the biggest increase in some time".

But New Zealand needed to become a productive, internationally competitive economy. Remaining agriculturally focused while competitors moved to advanced technology industries did not do that, he said.

The 11 per cent success rate of Marsden Fund applicants was far short of the 40 per cent success rate in Denmark's equivalent scheme, he said.

"The issue is that in New Zealand we face some pretty major challenges. We have some very low productivity and each year we're slipping further and further behind, compared to our competition.

"The only way out of that is to switch to an advanced technology industry."

Professor Tallon said countries which had made that switch, and the scientific investment it demanded, were "leaving us behind in terms of incomes per capita".

WHERE THE MONEY GOES
Scientists aim to answer the questions:

What did moa eat?
A lot, one presumes, but exactly what the 240kg birds ate has never been well understood.

The only conclusive way to find out is to delve into the deposits of fossilised moa dung, called coprolites.

Landcare Research's Dr Jamie Wood had been awarded $768,000 over three years to do just that. He will investigate 1500 coprolites, extracting and analysing DNA. Other extinct birds' coprolites will also be gathered and examined. The research team will also look at how the forest understory composition has changed over the past 1000 years.

Did NZ drown?
Between 34 and 23 million years ago a rapid rise in sea level could have drowned New Zealand and all that lived here. That would make its native species relatively recent arrivals - recolonising after sea levels dropped again.

It is a theory that, if true, would change the way the country's history is understood.

GNS Science researcher Dr Dallas Mildenhall was granted $915,000 to research whether the fossil records backed the theory, or the traditional belief that New Zealand never drowned.

Dr Mildenhall will analyse the fossil plant and sedimentary rock records that span the time of the sea level rise and fall. He will establish how much land actually existed, and how the major habitat change influenced New Zealand plants.

Super-eruptions close to home
Volcanic eruptions are often huge events, but not when compared with "super-eruptions".

Never in modern history has a "super-eruption" been recorded, yet in the past, the Taupo region has been a frequent host.

Two professors, Auckland University's Colin Wilson and Victoria University's Joel Baker, have been awarded $940,000 over three years to research those events.

They will study the Taupo super-eruptions' pumice and ash deposits, aiming to discover where and how the huge volumes of magma were created and stored in chambers below the earth's surface. They will also address questions on the origins, rates and sizes of super-volcanoes in New Zealand.

- NZ Herald

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