From Begging Bowl to Petri Dish

The gauntlet that scientists in New Zealand have to run, in order to get funding for their work

by Cushla McKinney

“Science is fundamental to how we live our lives, and how we address the challenges ahead of us on an increasingly compromised planet” – Professor Sir Peter Gluckman, the Government’s chief science advisor, speech on 21 April, 2010.

Scientists feature prominently on New Zealand’s roll of honour (Ernest Rutherford, Maurice Wilkins, Alan MacDiarmid, Joan Wiffen and Beatrice Tinsley to name but a few), and their present-day contemporaries are equally well regarded both here and internationally. It takes 7 to 9 years tertiary study to achieve a PhD – comparable to the length of time it takes to qualify with a medical degree – and it might be expected that our scientific workforce would be seen as important to the country as our doctors and nurses. Yet even as we celebrate the achievements of ‘our’ scientific heroes, the number of children who aspire to follow in their footsteps is falling. Fewer than 42% of respondents to a 2008 survey of scientists would recommend science as a career. What is wrong with the state of science in New Zealand, and what can be done to improve this situation?

Some of the answers can be found in the recently published of the 2008 Survey of Scientists and Technologists conducted by the New Zealand Association of Scientists (NZAS) under the direction of an American expert in science policy research, Dr Jack Sommer. It asked a random selection of scientists working in New Zealand about their thoughts and concerns about the environment and direction of science in this country. Although factors such as workforce diversity (we now have 3.6% more women and 1% more Maori scientists) and job security (60.9% compared 50.8%) have increased since the first such survey in 1996, there remains a strong sense of dissatisfaction about the way science is managed and funded.

Leaving aside the debate about whether there is an overemphasis on ‘applied’ (commercially or industry-oriented) as opposed to basic research, the greatest difficulties facing respondents were interruptions in funding, and excessive bureaucracy. Much of this can be related back to scientists’ most common affliction, the curse of the three-year grant. But before I delve further into the specifics of this malaise, I would like to give a brief overview of the broader funding environment for science.

According to Statistics New Zealand, $2,140 million was spent on research and development in 2008, which was the last year for which figures are available. The majority (57%) of this money came from government sources – the remaining 43% came from businesses, state-owned enterprises or private not-for-profit organizations such as the Lotteries, Child Health Research Fund and the Cancer Foundation. Although overall there was a relatively even split between basic, experimental and applied research, the different institutions involved have different priorities. For example, basic and targeted research – which is intended to broaden knowledge and understanding – accounted for 53% of University-based investment. On the other hand, applied science – which is directed towards meeting the needs of primary industry – was the research priority for businesses and Crown-owned industries (CRIs).

The Ministry for Research Science and Technology (MoRST) is responsible for managing the government’s investment in science research and development. Research priorities and overall funding are set during the budget. These funds are then ‘invested’ by three separate agencies, the Foundation for Research, Science and Technology (FRST), The Royal Society of New Zealand, and the Health Research Council (HRC).

The prime focus for FRST is research for industry. It disburses three quarters of the government allocation for research and technology (known as Vote RS&T) to that end, with approximately 60% going to CRI’s, 30% to universities and 10% to business/research associations. In the wake of the government’s Budget in May, FRST will also provide funding directly to business either to conduct their own research or to ‘purchase’ research from other organizations. The Royal Society administers the Marsden Fund. It supports basic ‘blue skies’ research and accounted for just under 7.5% of RS&T spending in 2008/9. The HRC is responsible for funding health research, and as with FRST, is allocated according to ‘priority’ areas. Much of this funding from all 3 sources takes the form of 3-year fellowships or project grants.

Most people outside the research world probably wonder what the problem is. FRST was allotted an impressive $483.9 million in the budget, an increase of just under $20 million from last year. Surely, one might argue, three years is more than enough time to complete a project or develop an idea into a practical product.

The trouble is that that science is an expensive and long-term game in which a specific time-line can be difficult to accurately predict, and picking winners can be difficult. Every new and successful piece of applied science, be it a new industrial process, technology, diagnosic tool or drug treatment, is the result of years of work and many dead ends. Take the development of one of the first commercially available chemotherapeutic drugs, taxol.

In 1962, a USDA botanist was dispatched by the National Cancer Institute to collect plant samples to be screening for anti-cancer activity. He returned with material for over 200 different species, of which only 1, the bark of the Pacific yew, Taxus brevifolia was found to have cell-killing (cytotoxic) potential. The active ingredient was isolated within a year of the original discovery, but it then took medical chemists 10 years to extract and purify sufficient quantities of taxol for in-vitro testing to be carried out, another 4 years before its mode of action was elucidated by Dr Susan B Horowitz, and the results of the first phase II trials on melanoma and ovarian cancer were not published until 1988.

Although it showed considerable promise, especially for ovarian and later breast cancer, it was estimated that up to 360,000 yew trees would need to be harvested annually to provide sufficient quantities of the drug to meet demands in the US alone. It was not until the end of 1995 that the original isolation procedure was replaced by a semi-synthetic manufacturing process that could utilise needles rather than bark (thus sparing the tree). Taxol is now produced by cell-based fermentation.

Overall, then, the path from the collection of the first biological samples to the full realisation of taxol’s medical (and profit) potential took over 30 years. It also followed a familiar pattern of development, from basic, government-funded research through industrial partnership and later (when Bristol Myers Squib gained exclusive marketing rights to the drug) full commercialisation. If the chemists originally trying to isolate the active compound from processed yew bark had been reliant on 3-yearly bites of funding, it is unlikely that their initial grant would have been renewed; they had only isolated 10g of purified taxol from about 12,000 kg of bark, and their findings were not published until 1971, 6 years after their research began.

It could be argued that with today’s technology and expertise, such a project would take far less time. Twenty years ago a PhD could be awarded for sequencing a single gene, while we can now sequence a person’s complete genome (~24,000 genes) in a month. In practice, ‘cutting edge’ research still takes many years to progress from initial experiment to practical application.

AgResearch for instance, has just announced that it is working on producing a variety of white clover with increased concentrations of condensed tannins in its leaves. Condensed tannins are a biological defence against herbivores, reducing the digestibility of plants that produce them by binding to proteins and preventing their break down in the gut. As such they are frequently described as ‘anti-nutrients’, but forage crops containing moderate levels of these compounds not only decrease methane emissions, they increase the absorption of amino acids (the building blocks of protein) in the intestine, improving animal performance.

The first papers reporting decreased methane production in cows fed on lotus were published (by researchers at the New Zealand Dairy Research Institute) in 2001. Since then AgResearch scientists have identified the gene responsible for producing condensed tannins in two other clover species (neither of which is a good pasture crop), and have now discovered that this gene is present, but inactive, white clover. The next step is to find ways of turning this gene on, with the hope of replacing current clover crops with this new, improved variety, a process expected to take at about 15 years. Once again the transition from preliminary experiment to (projected) practical application will be at least 25 years.

Of course, as the above example illustrates, it is certainly possible to successfully carry out long-term research in this country. There are moves towards more stable funding environment with the creation of ‘strategic research platforms’ where complex projects will receive funding from MoRST for up to 10 years (this is currently being piloted with a natural hazards research programme involving GNS Science, NIWA, Opus International and both Auckland and Canterbury University). Similarly, CoREs are provided with establishment funding and 6 years operational support, and contracts for 5 of the original CoREs were renewed in 2007/8.

The HRC, too, is moving towards longer-term funding, with the establishment of ‘Programme Contracts’ for established research groups or collaborations between 3 or more researchers with a track record of funded research. These contracts provide a 5-year research budget of up to $5 million, and as with CoRE funding are intended to promote research with ‘strategic, long-term vision.’

While such initiatives are very welcome and allow in addition to providing opportunities for longer-term and more complex projects to be undertaken, can provide a nurturing ground for early or mid-career scientists. Judging from the number of applications made relative to the funds available, demand far out exceeds supply. Only 6 of the 35 full proposals for CoRE funding submitted in the 2007/8 round were successful, and only one new CoRE was approved (at the expense of a preciously funded group). Although 6/16 applications to the HRC programme grants made in 2009 were successful, 75% of the contracts funded were by the HRC were for 3 years, and Marsden grants are for 3 years.

There are certainly good arguments to support 3-year funding cycles. Science is expensive, and reducing the overall allocation to any individual researcher or group means that more projects can be supported. It also (at least in theory) provides a form of ‘quality control’ and holds researchers accountable to the taxpayer, Scientists under this regime, cannot pursue ‘pet’ projects that don’t produce results, and dead-end projects can be dropped in favour of those with greater potential for success. In practice, however, the process can stall or completely kill good science.

Firstly, as mentioned earlier, a 3-year turn around time may be too short for research to produce results, particularly for new projects. Suppose I want to investigate the genetic basis of an illness that is a particular problem for New Zealand, particularly for Måori and Pacific Island communities. If I can identify genetic variations that make people more susceptible to disease, this could provide new targets for therapeutic intervention, or mean lead to a genetic test to identify those at risk of disease.

The first step in the process would be to find genetic variations that are more common in patients than in healthy controls, and then to determine whether these have any effect on cellular function. Therefore, I would submit a funding proposal to the HRC outlining this project, asking for enough money to cover part-time salaries for myself and a research nurse (to collect blood samples), plus the equipment and materials I need to carry out the experiments.

If the project was approved, the first thing the claimant would need to do is recruit enough patients in the study for any results to be statistically significant. This takes most of the first year. The second year would be spent carrying out tests and analysing data. About the middle of the year, the scientist would also have to start writing a new proposal so the project can continue, because there is a 9-month delay between the start of the application process and the announcement of results. They would also have to try and get what research they have have done published, in order to prove that the project has produced measurable outputs (all the while hoping that the goalposts have not moved in the interim, and that the work is still regarded as being in a ‘priority area’). None of this assists the quality of the science. It also does a disservice to the people most in need of the research and who, by enrolling in the project, become stakeholders in the work. Researchers asked patients to contribute genetic material to the study on the understanding that it will benefit them or their communities. Not only does this place a moral obligation on scientists to honour such promises, people will become reluctant to take part in future studies if there is no certainty that meaningful research will actually take place

Meanwhile, of course, there are other alternatives sources of funding that are potentially available. A range of other charitable organizations and industry groups support research into specific areas of interest. Unfortunately many of these are more focussed on providing money for equipment and materials rather than on salaries. This means that although the applicant may find enough money to support lab personnel, they must cobble my own salary together from multiple grants and/or work full time for part-time pay. If this is what it takes to keep a project alive, I suspect many scientists would forgo financial remuneration. By and large, financial reward is not why we do science. However, all of these things further exacerbate job insecurity, and increase the amount of time spent looking for sources of money. This remains a considerable problem even for institutions with a reputation of doing well at attracting funding. For example in the 10 months since September 2009, researchers within the Division of Science and Medical School at Otago University have submitted 503 grant proposals. Of the 449 for which results are available, only 148 were successful, meaning 2/3rds of the applicants have to continue to search for money rather than do the job for which they were trained.

All of these – sometimes desperate – activities take time away from benchwork, research slows and it becomes harder to justify ongoing funding. If the scientist employs additional technical staff, and/or postgraduate researchers the work will go faster, but they will need to find money for their salaries and suddenly they have other people dependent on them for their employment. If more funding can’t be secured, these staff too are suddenly faced with an uncertain future. Once again scientists find themselves moving further away from hands-on science, and into management.

Although this career trajectory is not inevitable, there is certainly an expectation that after a certain point a researcher trades the bench for the computer. Although this may be more prevalent in the University system – where teaching and supervision of PhD students is often a core part of a research leader’s role – I have heard similar accounts from colleagues working in CRIs. Some people thrive in this environment, but for a new graduate with rosy expectations of spending their life doing hands-on science, finding there is a built-in ceiling to career progression if they choose this option this can be a massive disillusionment. Perhaps there is a need for the opportunities and challenges of working within different sectors (Tertiary, Government or industry) to be built into the undergraduate curriculum. Advice on how to write funding applications is offered to postgraduates, but perhaps this, too, should also be covered as part of degree training.

Another difficulty arises for researchers who, for whatever reason, have a period of research inactivity. One of the factors used to assess the scientific merit of the proposal is the track record of the researcher, measured mainly by the number of peer-reviewed articles published in the previous 3-5 years. A good, productive scientist should be publishing regularly, and success feeds upon success, but it is equally easy to end up in a negative spiral. If you are unable to get funding for your research, you are unable to publish results, therefore your next application is even less likely to be successful.

Similarly, if you take time out (for example to have a family), your publication record suffers and it can be very difficult to break back into the competitive funding market. If you have a tenure position, periods of ‘down-time’ can be weathered (although it may stall research and result in the loss of experienced staff), but for a scientist dependent entirely on ‘soft’ money (either as a research-only principal investigator or as an employee in a grant-funded lab), job insecurity is a major incentive to change career.

In the 2008 survey, this was a major concern for scientists in Crown Research labs (although this will hopefully be ameliorated by the base-line funding provided to CRIs in this year’s budget), and anecdotal evidence suggests that particularly for those with young children it remains a contributing factor in people’s decision to move out of science. Science teaches people problem solving and analytic skills, as well as training in how to learn. There are many other opportunities outside research and teaching that may seem more satisfying or stable (as far as I can tell, Treasury employs more physicists than many University labs), as well as a constant demand from overseas for their skills.

A third problem is that there is simply not enough funding to go around. The HRC aims to maintain an over-application rate of 5-8 unsuccessful applications per funded project (although, to their credit, they actually funded just under 1 in 4 second-round proposals in 2009). Success in the Marsden Fund stood at 11.7%. Figures for FRST are not available. There is also a substantial perception that when peer-reviewed grants submitted to these bodies, many proposals are given only perfunctory analysis, and that project funding is determined on the basis of cronyism rather than scientific merit. In the 2008 survey, more than a quarter of respondents cited this as a major concern in both the FRST and Marsden process.

Such concerns are understandable given that the small size of New Zealand means that a researcher could potentially be sitting on a review panel, refereeing a proposal for somebody submitting to another panel, and have their own funding proposal assessed in a third. There is no clear way around this problem – but the perception would be likely to lessen if more applications actually made it through the process successfully.

One final point that needs to be made concerns a unique aspect of working in the new Zealand environment, and that is the need for researchers to develop relationships with Måori and Pacific Island communities. Establishing and maintaining these links take time and patience, and place an obligation on scientists to work toward long-term partnerships.

From the outside, many of these concerns might appear to be special pleading. After all these are economically difficult times, and the Government is entitled to expect accountability and economic return on its investment. It is tempting to brush the sort of complaints outlined above as the dissatisfied mutterings of the unsuccessful, or to retort that the main thing pushing up the price of science is the unreasonably high salaries that researchers expect. If a research proposal is rejected, must it not therefore have been unproductive, too expensive or both?

Such a response fails to take into account a number of important factors, however. Although there will always be a few who aspire to the lofty heights of Craig Venter or Bill Gates, the majority of us do what we do not because we want to become famous or rich. Nobel prizes are notoriously hard to come by, and pay rates for scientists vary depending on the field of research and seniority. While some, particularly men in Health Sciences, earn over $100,000 per annum, more than half of those working in the biological sciences earned under $70,000 a year according to the 2008 survey. Well above minimum wage but not stratospheric, and less than what could be earned overseas. The two most important motivations for a life in science are an insatiable curiosity about the nature of the world around us, and a desire to do something to improve things for humanity (and the planet).

I would be the first to admit that being allowed to spend the rest of my life making new discoveries and learning new things is a privilege. I also hope that what I do will help other people, and this is why I continue to work in the field. But if we are to continue to attract young people into science, or bring people back from overseas, the concerns of scientists need to be heard. A climate in which scientists feel valued and trusted, and is compatible with research is necessary conditions for a strong science workforce. Yet for all the rhetoric about the need for science and scientists (not to mention the puzzlement with which the exodus of researchers overseas is debated), it is easy to become cynical when forced to justify ones existence to a grant body over and over and over again.

The appointment of a Governmental Science Advisor is certainly a step forward in addressing low morale in the field, and the move towards a more stable funding environment is welcome. More ideas may also be found by looking at overseas models. Although other countries can be seen to ‘poach’ our best and brightest, we can also learn from them. For example an interesting British initiative is the Newton Fellowship. This enables early-career postdoctoral researchers from around the world to work in a British lab for 2 years, and ongoing funding of £6,000 a year for up to 10 years to maintain research links with the UK. This will inevitably require more investment up front, but needs to be balanced against the potential benefits to economy and society at large.

Perhaps we scientists too need to look at alternative opportunities to stay engaged ourselves. Ray Avery, the 2010 New Zealander of the Year, is a good example of a different way of doing (and supporting) research. He himself has developed and gifted technologies to the poorest communities in the world. He has also founded a charity, Medicine Mondiale, staffed by a network of scientists who volunteer their time to develop a range of low-cost medical devices that are affordable in Third World. These products are of use around the globe, and the organization is funded by intellectual property and sales in developed countries. Taxpayers also have a right to demand accountability in turn for their support, particularly because science and scientific discoveries can have profound social implications. We must continue to talk to the general public about our work and why we do it, rather than hide away in ivory towers. The way forward is going to require compromises and innovative thinking on all sides. Hopefully the dialogue will be a productive one.

By way of a concluding footnote, I would like to outline in greater detail some of the other streams of science funding – many of which demonstrate the same features I’ve discussed above.

Two thirds of FRST funding is provided on a contestable basis. This means that researchers and research groups submit research proposals to panels of reviewers who determine which will be funded based on the scientific merit of the proposal, the quality of the primary investigator(s) and whether it targets a government-designated ‘priority’ area.

Among the several contentious issues with this framework is the short-term nature of so many of the contracts. Potentially, funding can be either for 1-3 year short-term projects for independent researchers, or for medium (4-6 year) or long term (7-10 year) program funding for research groups. Although there are moves towards long-term, negotiated investments that would enable stable funding platforms for complex, multi-centre projects, and for research consortia that entail government/industry funding partnerships, information on the exact breakdown between short and long-term funding is not available

Health Funding. The Health Research Council allocates the majority of public-good health research, with funds coming from both the Vote RS&T and Vote Health. The grant process is a two-stage one, with an preliminary round for ‘expressions of interest’ (short summaries of proposed projects) from which a selection will researchers will be selected to make full submissions. Applications are peer-reviewed and assessed on both scientific merit and whether they are focussed on an area that the Government has deemed to be a priority. In addition to providing emerging researchers with funds to further their research for up to 3 years (although not salary), the HRC provides 3-year Project grants for individual researchers and research groups, and a small number of 5-year Programme grants; focused, longer term contracts for either an established research group or a group of established researchers with a track record of funded research. Competition is likely to increase with $2.15 million reprioritized away from health into industry-focussed research over the next 4 years.

Marsden Fund The Royal Society administers the Marsden Fund, also from Vote RS&T. Unlike the ‘targeted’ research supported by FRST, Marsden grants are intended to support ‘blue skies’ projects intended to gain knowledge without a specific application in mind. There is considerable debate about whether basic or applied research is more likely to achieve measurable short-term outcomes (either in terms of publications or practical application), but the types of research supported by the Marsden fund are the ‘idea generators’ for the applied science of the future.

For example: New Zealand and Australia are collaborating in a bid to host the Square Kilometer Array (SKA) radio-telescope. Although the SKA itself could be considered basic research (intended to gain information about the birth of the universe), it will also require the development of new telecommunications technology, thus providing a ‘spill-over’ benefit to areas completely unrelated to astronomy. Another advantage of Marsden funding (from a scientist’s point of view) is that it allows researchers to follow lines of research that fall outside the specific ‘target areas’ set by the Government for other sources of publicly-funded science.

Many scientists are inherently uneasy about politicians setting research agendas – not surprisingly, such sentiments are more evident in University-based scientists than those working in CRIs. Whilst Marsden grants account for just over 7% of the RS&T budget, it is probably the most oversubscribed area of government funds for science research, receiving 900 more applications than it was able to fund in 2009.

The Marsden funds are not the only game in town. Since 2001, the Tertiary Education Commission has provided funding for six University Centres of Research Excellence (CoREs) – which are inter-institutional networks involving tertiary institutions, independent research centres, CRIs and community groups. These centres carry out research into a variety of areas ranging from human growth and development to nanotechnology.

Universities also provide support for research out of their own budgets, although the money available is limited. Whilst there is a move towards ‘research based funding’ via Performance-Based Research Funding (PBRF) this is provided to tertiary institutions as a bulk fund to be distributed at their discretion. Again, direct support tends to be relatively short term – consisting for example, in providing bridging grants for established staff with a funding shortfall. The purposes for the remainder can be indirect – employing technical staff, absorbing overheads, providing PhD scholarships (PhD students do the bulk of university research), maintaining a Research Office to facilitate researchers to prepare grant applications. Science is, by and large, not cheap, and the main focus of the Universities remains as it ought to be, on education.

Adapted from the FRST Annual Report 2008/9