Students working on some of New Zealand's most important "blue sky" research projects are having to support themselves with second jobs – prompting more than 700 scientists to call for a funding boost.
The Marsden Fund, managed by Royal Society Te Apārangi on behalf the Ministry for Business, Innovation and Employment, remains the country's premier pool for investigator-initiated research.
Among the 134 projects funded in last year's $84m round were studies exploring everything from mixed reality and biodegradable polymer electronics, to natural hazards and climate change, to transracial adoption and falling rates of teen smoking, drinking and drug use.
Under the fund, students working on such studies are supported with stipends on a fixed-rate basis.
Per year of scholarship, and plus fees, that's set at $27,500 scholarship for PhD students and $17,500 for Masters students, assuming that postgraduate students are assigned to the research full-time.
Dr Lucy Stewart, a senior scientist at Toha NZ, said it was "flatly embarrassing" that researchers were being paid well below minimum wage to work on such crucial projects.
"Postgraduate researchers are in many ways the engine of our research system."
She said she was "gobsmacked" at current stipend rates, which weren't always so low.
"Twenty years ago this simply wasn't the case - working fulltime as a postgraduate researcher on a Marsden project was financially possible, even attractive, as well as prestigious."
In 2003, a full-time Marsden PhD stipend was approximately 25 per cent above minimum wage – and as of 2010 it was about five per cent above minimum wage.
But, as at 2021, the stipend had fallen to 20 per cent below the minimum wage, which itself was now still below the cost of living in major centres, having increased by a quarter over the past decade.
That meant that, to support themselves, students often had to work second jobs which could affect their health and ability to assist with the research.
"Given that most of them will never find long-term jobs in the research sector post-PhD, it's outrageous that we also expect them to live in poverty while they're in it."
Because Māori and Pasifika students often weren't able to rely on financial support from family, the rates also raised issues around equity, and barriers to diversifying our research sector.
The concerns led Stewart to draft an open letter to the 11-member Marsden Fund Council calling for the minimum payable stipend for full-time work on grants to match that of the living wage after tax – currently annually around $39,000.
The letter also asked for Masters' students stipends - now functionally equivalent to the Jobseeker allowance – to be lifted to the PhD rate.
It's since been signed by more than 700 scientists: among them prominent figures like New Zealander of the Year, Associate Professor Siouxsie Wiles, Covid-19 modeller Professor Shaun Hendy, climate scientist Professor James Renwick, MacDiarmid Institute co-director Associate Professor Nicola Gaston, and cosmologist Professor Richard Easther.
Stewart said PhD stipends varied a lot between countries, and also within New Zealand, where the lowest rates were around $20,000 per year.
"In many European countries PhD-level researchers are considered employees - thus getting associated benefits like maternity leave - and become eligible for higher wages as they go through the PhD and gain experience."
In the US, PhD stipends from Nasa were for around NZD$42,000 for 10 months, while National Science Foundation fellowships came with a rate of around NZD$48,000.
"Unfortunately, Australian fellowships are more similar to New Zealand fellowship levels, at around AUD$29,000 (NZD30,000)."
In emailed statements, Marsden Fund Council, and its chair Professor David Bilkey, said a response to the letter would be prepared.
The council had already made "significant internal progress" in addressing the value of scholarships, and had committed to change its current levels of support.
"The level of this change is yet to be fully determined, but will not be decided until after the next time the council meets, in October 2021," the council said.
"It is expected that the outcome will be incorporated in the fund's guidelines for 2022."
MBIE was also aware of the letter and was considering "workforce issues across the sector", a spokesperson told the Herald.