Volume 28 | 2005 | Number 2

Getting Research Funding in New Zealand

Michael Davison, Ph.D., The University of Auckland, New Zealand

If you read JEAB, it may appear that funding for behavioural research is plentiful in New Zealand, but sadly this is not so. Indeed, funding for research equipment is very hard to come by. I’ll come to sources later, but first it’s important to explain the cultural milieu, which itself provides quite a bit of support for research. I’ll explain the situation at the University of Auckland.

Staff at New Zealand universities are expected to spend, usually, 40% of their time on research, and we see university education as research-led. As a result, university money – which comes from student fees, the government, and research contracts – is used to support research. By research, we mean both research done for higher degrees and research done on a more individual basis by academics, though it is generally easier to get continuing funding for graduate students (both from faculty and from departmental coffers) than for individual research. Because of the general level of research support, most departments supply considerable technical support for IT, electronics, mechanical engineering, and animal care, no grant required. Equally, our computers are supplied, one per academic and one per Ph.D. student, 0.5 per Masters research student, and, being leased, these (and their software) are naturally replaced every three years. Our other research equipment resides on an Assets Database, and again becomes liable for replacement after an agreed life – so, for instance, some of the MED-PC interfacing equipment in my lab is currently being replaced (after a lifespan of 10-15 years – that long simply because it was still doing great service). Many other facilities such as space and library access, do not have to be paid for by researchers. Thus, doing research is, here, rather easier in many ways than doing research in the US.

On the other hand, here are really no governmental or private agencies in New Zealand that seem willing to provide equipment for purely behavioural research which, as you will all realize, is about the least sexy research that can be contemplated. We have to gain most of our equipment from within-university funding rounds, and the amounts are rather limited (and greatly oversubscribed). I did, some years ago, manage to get two years of funding for equipment and personnel from the Foundation for Research, Science, and Technology (see below), but only before the ring-fence around university research funding was in place. Now, this source has become difficult for me to use as it is also used by government research organizations (agriculture, conservation, and so on), and some reasonably immediate benefit to New Zealand needs to be agued. I find that hard to do. Thus, it is difficult to build a lab: the best way seems to be to be a combination of within-university research grants and being given second-hand equipment (or build it yourself, as we did), and sneak it onto the asset databases so that it can be replaced.

Obtaining money for people to do purely behavioural research – graduate support, postdocs, and salary – is probably slightly easier than money for equipment, but not much easier.

The most effective way of getting research money generally is to snuggle up to sexier areas of research – particularly, here, neuroscience, medical science, agricultural science, and applied research. I did this by joining the National Research Centre for Growth and Development. This organization, which consists of many different researchers from agricultural to genetics to neurochemistry to, indeed, behaviour, is one of a small number of government funded Centres of Research Excellence (CoRE) that were set up a few years ago. This particular one, which is multicentre, was funded at about $36 million for an initial six years, including considerable amounts of money for research infrastructure. From this, I get 10% salary and 10% overheads, plus a large new rat lab with all new equipment located in the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences. This lab focuses on the effects of fetal nutrition on choice and learning over the lifespan. However, when applications for CoREs were sought, a number of us experimental behaviour analysts from different New Zealand universities tried to put together an application for basic behavioural research – but none of the universities had the political will to agree to house the focus of such a CoRE, and we never were able to complete the application.

Further CoREs may occur someday, but it seems unlikely that behaviour analysis will be able to gain much there.

Another major source of funding is the Marsden Fund, again a government fund administered by the Royal Society of New Zealand. Applications are called yearly for “blue skies” research proposals, and usually funded proposals are $100,000 to $400,000 per annum (1 NZD buys 0.71 USD) for three years inclusive of overheads (which are 120%). This fund only supports people, consumables, and equipment depreciation. The selection process is unusual (to put it nicely) – an initial one-page application that is assessed by the committee without referees being called. There are separate committees for areas – for instance, a Social Sciences Committee and an Ecology, Evolution, and Behaviour Committee. About 10% of initial applications are selected for a further round of applications, this time both extensive and refereed. I think I have tried nine times for purely behavioural research without getting past the initial stage, and I don’t believe that any purely behavioural research has ever been funded. The criteria seem very unclear to me. However, the next time I apply it will be with medical researchers, and I am hopeful, because others (Geoff White, Brent Alsop, Mike Colombo) have gained grants from this source for research with clinical or applied or neuroscience partners.

Other options are: (1) Lottery Health Research ($2 million in 2004), which supports health-related research from the profits from government lotteries. This agency does not support overseas travel or conference attendance, and they do not pay overheads (which means what you get, you can use). “Health” is interpreted quite widely, but applications need to be relevant to the health of New Zealanders; (2) the Health Research Council (“To improve human health by promoting and funding health research”) supports Partnership Initiatives, annual research contracts, career development, conferences, and seeding grants. Again, it is government funded. (3) The Foundation for Research, Science and Technology funds research that is generally germane to New Zealand and is focused on attaining government-defined outcomes. Of the five areas supported, the one most germane to behavioural research is probably Environment & Biodiversity, in particular Animal-Based Industries, Families, Hazards and Sustainable Management. As an example, they support a lot of research on possums, a serious pest in New Zealand. Behaviourally, this is quite interesting and, for example, behavioural research done at Waikato University is looking at food preference in possums, the better to attract and eliminate them (e.g., Bron, Sumpter, Foster, & Temple, 2003).

Other sources of funding that New Zealand behavioural researchers use are Dairy Industry Funding (for example, applied topics on animal stress and welfare – a happy cow is a succulent cow), the Animal Health Board and the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry for applied topics on animal stress and welfare (Waikato University has the Animal Welfare and Behaviour Research Unit). Because New Zealand is an agricultural country (our beef is in your Big Macs), many sources of funding are animal and agriculture focused; being a very small country, we don’t have a great deal in the way of funding. But, traditionally, New Zealanders do a lot with string and sealing wax and No. 8 wire and certainly contribute a lot of new ideas and inventions to the world; unfortunately, we also provide educated people to the world.

Finally, there is funding for specific private and public sector contract research from many different organizations and companies. For example, Max Jones is currently carrying out one of these projects involving teaching hunting dogs not to chase and kill Kiwi, which are endangered. The funding is from a regional office of the Department of Conservation.


Bron, A., Sumpter, C. E., Foster, T. M., & Temple, W. (2003). Contingency discriminability, matching, and bias in the concurrent-schedule responding of possums (Trichosurus vulpecula). Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, 79, 289-306.