Marsden Fund sprinkles $83.6m of funding on NZ science projects but it’s hard to spot the ag/hort beneficiaries

Uh, oh. It looks like the ag/hort science sector has secured precious little – if anything – from the Marsden Fund’s 2019 grants.

The fund is managed by Royal Society Te Apārangi on behalf of the government and presumably its decisions reflect government policy.

This week the allocation of $83.671 million (excluding GST) to 125 research projects across New Zealand was announced.

The society says the 2019 grants support excellent New Zealand research in the areas of science, engineering, maths, social sciences and the humanities

Two large interdisciplinary projects this year received inaugural Marsden Fund Council Awards worth $3 million (excluding GST) each.

One project will contribute to knowledge about predicting the behaviour of biological systems and their response to shifting temperatures, as might occur with climate change. Fair to say, the ag/hort sector may benefit from this.

The other is investigating genetic markers associated with metabolic diseases (like diabetes and gout) in Pasifika populations and how these diseases might have evolved.

Established researchers were awarded 74 Marsden Fund grants. The research projects address a range of problems and questions of both local and international interest, such as the role of rimu fruit in the conservation of kākāpō.  The application of this to our horticultural members is – well, we can always hope.

Other projects to benefit are measuring Antarctic glacier melting rates in the Ross Ice Shelf, examining how rangatahi young people in New Zealand react to debates about sexual harassment in social media and identifying earthquake hazards in hidden faults in the Waikato region.

Te Pūtea Rangahau a Marsden Fast-Start grants support early career researchers to develop independent research and build excellent careers in New Zealand.

This year there were 49 recipients of Fast-Start grants. Projects focus on topics such as understanding the molecular underpinning of Alzheimer’s disease, studying how body-snatching parasites manipulate their hosts to enhance their own survival, looking at the 1918-19 influenza pandemic through children’s eyes, and analysing how different types of river science are valued by institutions around Aotearoa.

Whether the money is being invested in the best projects or has been allocated on the basis of other considerations is open to question.

Royal Society chair Professor David Bilkey, significantly, noted that Research, Science and Innovation Minister Megan Wood

“ … is a strong supporter of equity, diversity and inclusion in research and the Marsden Fund Council is right behind her on this. Our figures show that there is equity in funding decisions. For example, success rates for applicants identifying as wāhine female or Māori are the same as those for applicants identifying as male or non-Māori.

“The Marsden Fund Council has also observed increasing engagement with mātauranga Māori across discipline areas.”

Professor Bilkey cited as examples a project investigating kaitiakitanga over the Kāwhia, Manukau and Whangārei harbours, another that uses Māori oral history of seafaring and wayfinding to understand low-altitude clouds and their link to surface meteorological variables, and another revitalising whai Māori string figures, which he described as “the unique, complex mnemonic system that documents and transmits Māori knowledge and practice.”

AgScience did detect two projects of relevance – more or less – to a primary-sector readership.

The sum of $300,000 has been granted to a project labelled Staying on the land? Surviving the reform of New Zealand Agricultural 1984-1987. This looks like it will contribute something to our understanding of Rogernomics and how it affected rural land use.

The sum of $960,000 has been granted to a project labelled “fruit body differentiation in mushrooms and truffle-like fungi.”

Some of the other winning projects which the Royal Society has highlighted on its website may give NZIAHS members an idea of what they must do to winkle out a bigger portion of the fund next year.

Understanding the 1918-19 influenza pandemic through children’s eyes

Dr Charlotte Bennett, University of Auckland, will gather children’s written eye-witness accounts of the 1918-19 flu epidemic to understand how they experienced and responded to widespread illness and loss. Encompassing children’s experiences from Aotearoa, Ireland and Canada, the project will enhance understandings of childhood across the former British empire

• Never, never ever feed them after midnight: does sleep loss in children lead to unhealthy eating?

Associate Professor Barbara Galland and Professor Rachael Taylor, from the University of Otago, will lead a team of researchers in a large scale study of sleep loss among children. Their aim is to uncover how this may lead to unhealthy eating

• Is #MeToo part of a wider cultural shift?

Associate Professor Sue Jackson from Victoria University of Wellington will lead a team to examine how rangatahi young people in Aotearoa make sense of online discussions about sexual harassment and gender inequality

• Problems of having a sweet heart

Dr Kimberley Mellor of the University of Auckland will investigate the mysterious nature of glycogen in the heart, revealing its impact on hauora health and disease. (Hauora is a Māori philosophy of health which incorporates spiritual well-being).

• The Voices of our Harbours: Kāwhia, Manukau and Whangārei

Dr Marama Muru-Lanning and Dr Keri Mills from the University of Auckland are collaborating with flaxroots Māori to investigate kaitiakitanga over Aotearoa’s harbours. This Marsden Fund project will reveal, for the first time, the complex relationships that Māori have with local harbours and emphasise the work of Māori activists in the use of kaitiakitanga in law and policy.  This research focuses on the stories Māori tell about harbours, how kaitiaki understand these places, and how best to use or care for them.

• Investigating the impact of religion on cooperation and inequality in Fiji

Dr John Shaver from the University of Otago will be investigating the effects religion has on power structures in Fiji.  The pervasiveness of religion implies it is useful, but who benefits, and how? The questions of how religion affects people and how it shapes social relationships are fundamental to the study of human societies.

• Whose science is privileged in the protection of our rivers?

Dr Marc Tadaki from the Coastal and Freshwater Group at the Cawthron Institute will investigate what kind of river science is privileged by environmental decision makers. The project will investigate how different types of environmental knowledges, specifically mātauranga Māori and western scientific knowledges, are valued in decision making. Dr Tadaki will examine how river science is valued in the courts, in regional planning, and in freshwater monitoring. By identifying which knowledges are dominant and which are marginal, Dr Tadaki will consider the consequences of these arrangements for ecosystems and communities.

Source: Royal Society Te Apārangi

Author: Bob Edlin

Editor of AgScience Magazine and Editor of the AgScience Blog

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