Marsden Fund not just play money

Researchers are this week celebrating the 20th anniversary of the Marsden Fund, New Zealand's largest sponsor of leading-edge, fundamental study projects in many areas. New Zealand Herald science reporter Jamie Morton explains its importance to New Zealanders.

Jane Allison's work could help us control disease. Photo by The New Zealand Herald.
Jane Allison's work could help us control disease. Photo by The New Zealand Herald.
One day in the 1980s, a scientist took a bizarre phone call about a sheep in Canterbury that couldn't stop having triplets.

By the time the baffled Akaroa farmer phoned, this strangely productive ewe had given birth to 33 lambs in 11 years.

Scientists were eventually able to use the sheep to create a herd of champion breeders, holding the key to astonishing scientific breakthroughs in human biology.

The mutation and growth factor found in the sheep's eggs themselves sparked the realisation that eggs control their own environment: changing how cells surrounding the egg behave, determining the number of offspring and even keeping a check on ovarian cancer.

''We actually found that the protein from the fertility gene was being produced by the female egg, which was a total paradigm shift in reproductive biology,'' Prof Ken McNatty said this week.

''At the time, everyone thought fertility came almost exclusively from hormones produced by the brain, but we found this was equally important.''

Over time, this research has led to a new technique that helps humans.

By measuring a few key genes in the discarded cells next to IVF fertilised eggs, the best eggs can be chosen for implantation, dramatically increasing fertility clinic success rates.

In future, these insights may also help limit reproduction in mammalian pests such as wild deer, wild dogs or even possums.

Prof McNatty said these advances would not have been possible without support from the Marsden Fund.

For Prof Juliet Gerrard, the chairwoman of the fund council, the tale of the woolly wonder is a favourite example of what a grant from the fund can achieve.

''Who would have thought that finding a sheep that kept on having triplets would result in better IVF treatment for women?''This week, scientists, researchers and politicians gathered in Parliament to celebrate the more than 1200 projects that have benefited from at least $600 million in grants since the fund's inception 20 years ago.

The research community looks upon the fund, the brainchild of former National Party minister Simon Upton, as our main supporter of investigator-initiated research and the jewel in the crown of our research-funding system.

Each year, hundreds of researchers pitch proposals

spanning sciences, technology, engineering, maths, social sciences and the humanities.

The task of whittling the applications to a final pool, numbering less than 10% of all proposals, falls upon a council of 11 eminent researchers.

Competition is intense.

Last year, of 1157 proposals vying for a share of a $59 million pot, just 109 - or 9.4% - received funding.

''We've got a very rigorous process, and there is always lots of agonising because there is a lot of excellent research we can't fund each year,'' Prof Gerrard said.

''But on the flip side, it means that everything we fund, we know is of really excellent quality.''

The projects that received funding last year covered a healthy spread of topics, among them an investigation into whether the southern edge of the Hikurangi Plateau controlled Otago tectonics, research on zinc therapy for autism-related disorders, a look at sex-based song traditions in New Zealand bellbirds and a Victoria University study on whether ice sheets in the Antarctic could stabilise themselves.

Another explored how television could shape perceptions about Maori identity, particularly among Maori themselves.

''Looking back over the past two decades, it becomes clear how Marsden-funded research has benefited all New Zealanders,'' Prof Gerrard said.

''Many projects have a long lead-in time, but increasing our basic understanding of the world has now brought improved environmental outcomes, new technologies and better medicines and healthcare.

''Especially important, it gave our best and brightest researchers the freedom to explore their most exciting ideas.

''This is how important breakthroughs are made.''

Prof Peter Hunter has a special perspective on the fund, having successfully pitched proposals to the council, and later finding himself chairing it.

He said one of the beauties of the fund was its independence from policy of governments of the day.

Administered by the Royal Society of New Zealand under terms of reference agreed by the Government, the fund council was effectively given freedom in its selection of proposals.

''It's different from Australia, where a minister can decide he doesn't want to fund a grant because he doesn't like the look of it - that can't happen here, which is something we should value,'' Prof Hunter said.

''You can imagine that people might look at Marsden and say it's a fund that is giving scientists play money, in a way, to do their favourite task.

''But the reality is you get huge opportunities and economic outcomes that develop later.''

Royal Society president Sir David Skegg said the fund supported much of the best research going on in our universities and institutes.

''If the Marsden didn't exist, we would lose even more of our brightest young scientists and scholars to overseas institutions.''

He saw a need to boost the fund considerably. Doing so would be the simplest and most affordable way to boost the reputation and quality of universities, he said.

Ranking systems were dominated by research reputation and research citations, and were also big factors in determining our ability to attract international students and staff.

But he was delighted the Government had invested a further $20 million in the fund over four years as part of its last budget.

''The current Government is clearly aware we have fallen behind most other OECD countries in our investment in research and development,'' he said.

''They seem to be attacking this problem in a careful and considered way, and I am hopeful this trend will continue.''

Science and Innovation Minister Steven Joyce said the Marsden Fund had increased by 37% since 2008, over a time when cash had been tight.

Apart from education and health, science had been the only sector that had received regular, if not huge, increases, he said.

''In terms of Marsden, I wouldn't expect it to go up immediately again - I think there are other areas that would need attention first.''

This year, the Government will release a national statement on science priorities.

Mr Joyce, however, saw the Marsden Fund, while smaller than other pools, as a crucial part of the system:''It's the one that researchers chase because of its prestige.

''I just think it's wonderful to see it come this far. There have been people at times who have criticised individual projects, but overall, it's done a very good job for developing New Zealand science.''

Dr Jane Allison considers herself something of a film director.

But instead of actors, the players in her CGI movies are proteins, whizzing about in our cells, sometimes clumping together to create diseases."I use massive computing power to make movies showing what happens to proteins in our cells, just like how they make the computer-generated scenes in movies like The Hobbit,'' the Massey University Albany researcher said.

''We normally think of protein as being something we should eat, like meat, eggs and cheese. But inside our cells, proteins are buzzing around like little robots to carry out the work that keeps us alive.''

Dr Allison has won a Marsden FastStart grant that will help her to better understand problems that arise with these proteins, causing them to clump together.

''An increasing number of diseases, including Parkinson's, Alzheimer's and type-2 diabetes, are now known to be caused by this protein clumping, but we don't fully understand why they stick together,'' she said.

''I am using my movies to find out why, and to find ways of preventing it from happening.''

Unlike most biologists, Dr Allison is not in a lab working with test tubes and petri dishes.

Instead, she combines computer science with mathematics and chemistry to reveal more about what causes disease.

''Computer-based biological research is an exciting new area because of the incredible advances that have been made in computing technology recently, and I want to push the boundaries of what can be achieved.''

Dr Allison is also an example of someone reversing the Kiwi brain drain.

''I spent seven years learning about science from world experts, first while studying at the renowned Cambridge University, and then later in Switzerland,'' she says.

''I think it's really important for New Zealand scientists to get exposure to the top research going on internationally.''

She will keep her connections with the scientists she worked with in Europe during her Marsden-funded research, and some of the students working with her will also have a chance to visit these scientists.

But she hopes they will come back.

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