Overall, the Marsden Fund awarded 134 grants, with Wellington’s 27 accounting for a fifth of them. From the University’s initial 166 proposals, it had a success rate of 16 percent, compared with a national rate of 11.5 percent.

The Wellington-led projects announced today as grant recipients are the highest number for the University in the fund’s 26-year history and the grants’ total value of more than $16 million is the most the University has received in a round.

The success—achieved in the face of the challenges to researchers posed by COVID-19 and its impacts—reinforces the University’s position as New Zealand’s number one university for research intensity in the last Performance-Based Research Fund (PBRF) assessment, the country’s main measure of research quality. The University also topped the previous PBRF assessment.

“In 2020 of all years, the success of these projects is a great achievement for the researchers involved and the professional staff supporting them in their applications during the upheavals of COVID-19. Two of the projects even tackle issues raised by COVID-19,” says the University’s Vice-Provost (Research), Professor Margaret Hyland.

“It is good to see such a breadth of the University’s extensive research capability represented. More than half the projects are led by women and many incorporate mātauranga Māori and collaborate with Māori to tackle issues of concern to their communities. This is an important focus for the University.

“These grants will help our researchers make a valuable difference in so many fields of New Zealand and global life as they bring their expertise, insights and research skills to bear on some of the greatest opportunities and challenges of our time, be they social, environmental, technological, health-related or economic.”

Among the projects are ones to:

  • Examine how people are finding ways to experience intimacy through dating apps during COVID-19
  • Help young people negotiate the digital marketing of alcohol, tobacco, e-cigarettes and other unhealthy products
  • Explore why bystanders fail to step in to prevent bullying and find ways to teach children how to do so
  • Develop postcolonial understandings of collective maternal wellbeing through following women’s journeys into motherhood
  • Redesign water markets to incentivise the provision of environmental flows
  • Investigate how kaupapa Māori approaches to food might transform what we eat, how we obtain it and how we value it
  • Co-create urban design strategies centred in Indigenous ecological knowledge and nature-based solutions
  • Collaborate with Māori and Native Americans to examine multiculturalism’s impact—helpful or harmful—on Indigenous communities
  • Use novel seismological observations to investigate the factors affecting patterns of ground-shaking in future large Alpine Fault earthquakes
  • Improve knowledge of the atmospheric circulation pattern encircling Antarctica known as zonal wave three (or ZW3) to better understand southern hemisphere climate extremes and how their location and intensity may change over this century
  • Establish the origins of Austronesian, the second largest language family (spoken from Madagascar to Polynesia and including Māori), to better understand the peopling of Southeast Asia and Polynesian and Māori prehistory.
  • Analyse material in primitive meteorites and reconstruct compositions of the earliest planetary ingredients to better understand how the solar system was developed.

The Marsden Fund is administered by the Royal Society Te Apārangi on behalf of the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment.

The University’s researchers are leading 15 Standard grant projects worth up to $960,000 each over three years and 12 Fast-Start grant projects worth $300,000 each over three years.

Many of the projects are collaborations with leading institutions overseas, including Johns Hopkins University, Harvard University and the University of California, Los Angeles, in the United States; the University of Cambridge, Imperial College London and the University of Edinburgh in the United Kingdom; and Australian National University, the University of Queensland and Monash University in Australia.

The University also has eight researchers involved in Standard grant recipients led by other institutions, including Dr Lynda Petherick, who is co-leading Australia burning, NZ melting: impacts of bushfires on NZ glacial environments with Dr Phil Novis of Manaaki Whenua—Landcare Research. The project has received $960,000.

The University’s full list of researchers leading projects supported in the 2020 Marsden Fund round are:


Professor Kevin Burns (School of Biological Sciences), Eusociality in plants, $943,000.

Dr Bruce Charlier (School of Geography, Environment and Earth Sciences), The recipe for our solar system: Investigating the raw ingredients in the oldest meteorites, $624,000.

Professor Martyn Coles (School of Chemical and Physical Sciences), Activating Substrates for Chemical Synthesis with Reactive Aluminium Reagents, $941,000.

Dr Julie Deslippe (School of Biological Sciences) co-leading with Professor Aimee Classen (University of Michigan), Changing climate and biodiversity in mountains: understanding the interactive effects of warming, species extinctions and invasions on ecosystem function, $960,000.

Professor Rodney Downey (School of Mathematics and Statistics), New initiatives in the Theory of Computation, $718,000.

Professor Vanessa Green (School of Education), The development of the bystander: A socialisation oversight?, $870,000.

Professor Noam Greenberg co-leading with Dr Daniel Turetsky (both School of Mathematics and Statistics), Computability, Reverse Mathematics, and Effective Descriptive Set Theory, $718,000.

Associate Professor Gina Grimshaw(School of Psychology),Attentional Control in Emotional States: Insights from Virtual Reality, $869,000.

Professor Antonia Lyons (School of Health) co-leading with Dr Ian Goodwin and Professor Tim McCreanor (both Massey University), Limbic capitalism and the digital landscape of young people’s lives, $870,000.

Associate Professor Rachel McKee (School of Linguistics and Applied Language Studies), Signs of development: Sociolinguistic variation and change in New Zealand Sign Language in times of status change and globalisation, $778,000.

Professor Ken Ryan (School of Biological Sciences), Energiser microbes: shedding new light on rhodopsin bioenergetics, $960,000.

Associate Professor Jo Smith (Kāi Tahu, Kāti Māmoe, Waitaha) (School of English, Film, Theatre and Media) co-leading with Dr Jessica Hutchings (Ngāi Tahu, Gujarati), Kai Ora: Food of Hope and Wellbeing, $638,000.

Professor John Townend (School of Geography, Environment and Earth Sciences) co-leading with Dr Caroline Holden (GNS Science), Fault slip and ground-shaking in the coming Alpine Fault earthquake, $960,000.

Professor Colleen Ward (School of Psychology), Is Multiculturalism Helpful or Harmful to Indigenous Peoples?, $870,000.

Dr Maibritt Pedersen Zari (Wellington School of Architecture), Wellbeing through Nature-based Urban Design: Co-designing Climate Adaptations in Oceania, $870,000.

FAST-START (all $300,000)

Dr Nick Brettell(School of Mathematics and Statistics), Matroids representable over GF(4) and other fields.

Dr Corinne Bareham (School of Psychology), Neural mechanisms underlying the interaction of consciousness and spatial attention: a brain stimulation approach to assess the effects of alertness on attention.

Dr Qi Chen(School of Engineering and Computer Science), Genetic Programming for Evolving Interpretable Models for Symbolic Regression.

Dr Victoria Chen (School of Linguistics and Applied Language Studies), Mountain or coast? Solving the Austronesian homeland puzzle.

Dr Kyle Clem (School of Geography, Environment and Earth Sciences), Understanding Zonal Wave Three and Its Impacts on Southern Hemisphere Climate Extremes.

Dr Jianzhao Geng (Robinson Research Institute), Ultra-precise control of magnetic flux quanta in high-Tc superconducting magnets.

Dr Alexandra Gibson (School of Health), Shifting intimacies: Navigating the ‘game’ of mobile dating.

Dr Lujia (Luke) Liu (School of Physical and Chemical Sciences), 3D Covalent Organic Frameworks: Potential Materials to Break the Porosity Record?

Dr Eva Neely (School of Health), Where is my ‘village’? Building a theory of belonging, place and wellbeing in contemporary motherhood.

Dr Andrew Rees (School of Geography, Environment and Earth Sciences), Warmth, wind, and wanderers: how abrupt climate change and the southern westerly winds shaped the colonisation of New Zealand.

Dr Julia Talbot-Jones (School of Government), Fresh ideas for water economics and policy.

Dr Fang-Lue Zhang (School of Engineering and Computer Science), Reconstructing Dynamic Panoramic Scenes in Mixed Reality.