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.
One day in the 1980s, a scientist took a bizarre phone
call about a sheep in Canterbury that couldn't stop having
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
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
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
''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
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
''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
''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
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
''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
''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.