The Marsden Fast-Start scheme was established in 2001, in response to feedback from the research community that more support was needed for young researchers. The scheme funds emerging researchers to lead their own projects, supporting them to establish independent careers and create research momentum. Eligibility is restricted to those with:
- no more than 7 years’ research experience since completing their PhD;
- no prior history as a Principal Investigator on a Marsden grant;
- a staff position at a New Zealand Institution (excluding postdoctoral researchers).
Fast-Start grants are small in comparison to standard Marsden grants; restricted to a 2 year duration and a maximum funding level in 2001-2003, of $50,000 per annum. In 2004, the funding cap was raised to $70,000 per year.
This report describes the results of a survey of 2001, 2002 and 2003 Fast-Start recipients. The survey focussed on:
- research and career development outcomes from the grants;
- barriers faced by recipients, and;
- recipients’ priorities for the development of the scheme.
58 (89%) of the 65 recipients responded. There was good representation of recipients from different award years, subjects, and institution types.
The scheme has been successful in enabling emerging researchers to establish research momentum. Grants had led to further work for 13 out of the 14 recipients who had completed their grants. One third stated that they had gained further funding to extend their Fast-Start research, and 5 of the 19 2001 recipients and 1 of the 18 2002 recipients have gone on to become principal investigators on standard Marsden grants.
Most recipients applied for Fast-Start grants instead of standard Marsden grants because they felt it gave them a better chance of success. Some had traded off the higher chance of success in the Fast-Start scheme against the larger sum of money available in standard grants. Others said that the grant size and duration were adequate for their project and/or that they had not wanted the burden of managing a larger grant.
Three quarters of recipients said that the grant had influenced their career progression, while the remainder said that it had not, or had not yet. It affected career progression by:
- raising the researcher’s profile or prestige;
- enabling researchers to establish their own research base;
- giving recipients an opportunity to generate publications and networks, and;
- assisting with gaining promotions, further funding and improved Performance Based Research Fund rankings.
21% said that the grant had contributed to a promotion or a new job, some experiencing accelerated promotion to professor or associate professor.
An important way in which the grants influence recipients’ careers is through the prestige associated with the Marsden Fund. Comments indicated that gaining a grant with the “Marsden” name attached was viewed as particularly prestigious.
Conversely, only just over half of recipients believe that the grants provide adequate support to “launch” independent research careers. The small size and two year duration limit the extent to which a Fast-Start grant alone can support the transition to established research leader. Recipients had mixed feelings over whether or not this is a problem; some thought that the necessity of gaining extra support was a positive aspect, motivating young researchers to take the initiative in building their careers, while others thought that too much time was consumed by making further grant applications, and that the grant’s small size and duration limited research achievement.
Two thirds of recipients said that the two year duration and $50,000 funding cap had restricted their progress. Of most concern was the funding cap, but the 2 year duration also drew criticism. Several felt that they had been restricted by the inability to support PhD students on their 2 year grant. Institutional overheads are a concern for many recipients as they can cut a considerable swath from a $50,000 grant.
Recipients were asked to rank the importance of funding different items with a Fast-Start grant, and although some differences between subjects were seen, the overall average rankings of different items were, from highest to lowest:
- principal investigator time;
- travel/conference attendance;
- technician/research assistant;
- PhD students;
- in last-equal place: outsourced services and Masters students.
The fact that PhD students received a higher average ranking than Masters students is interesting as the grant duration allows Masters students (1-2 year course) but not PhD students (3 year course) to be supported
When asked to choose between more grants, larger grants or longer grants, if the scheme were to be enlarged, the largest group (nearly half of respondents) chose more grants. This is surprising given that two thirds of recipients found the small size and short duration of their grant restrictive. However it is in line with some of the comments in which recipients stated that although they had experienced difficulties with the size and duration of the grant, they nevertheless thought that it was more important to give small grants to a greater number of emerging researchers than to give more resources to a few.
Differences between subjects existed in the responses to some questions. The most striking difference was that researchers in the field of biomedical science were more likely to have experienced restrictions due to the small size and short duration of the grants. These researchers overwhelmingly thought that the scheme should fund larger grants if it were expanded, and put a high priority on the funding of consumables/equipment.
Three recommendations arise from the survey findings:
1. Enlarge the scheme to fund more Fast-Start grants
The Fast-Start scheme is highly valued by recipients; it has seeded ongoing research programmes and had a significant impact on recipients’ career progression. Interest in the scheme has grown, with a 77% jump in Fast-Start applications in 2004. More recipients chose the funding of more grants as a priority, than chose either longer or larger grants.
2. Monitor the effect of increasing the size of grants to $70,000 per annum
Many of the recipients had found it difficult to carry out their research on $50,000 per year. Since they were awarded their grants, the maximum size has been increased to $70,000 per year. The effect of this increase in grant size should be monitored to ascertain whether it is redressing the issues raised in this survey.
3. Consider introducing some flexibility with respect to grant size, particularly in expensive subject areas such as biomedical sciences
Given that responses varied across subject as to the effectiveness of the scheme in launching careers, and the extent to which the rules of the scheme had restricted progress, a case can be made for introducing the capacity to tailor grant sizes to the requirements of individual subject areas. One possibility would be to bring in funding level guidelines, but abolish the absolute funding cap.