Research institute misses CoRE funding shortlist

Last updated 12:00 14/03/2014

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A Palmerston North research institution ranked one of the best in the country may miss out on millions of dollars in government funding.

The Riddet Institute at Massey University's Manawatu campus has been cut from the Tertiary Education Commission's shortlist for renewal as a Centre of Research Excellence (CoRE).

CoRE funding is designed to bring together leading scientists across institutions to deliver strategically-focused research.

The latest round saw 27 applications for an almost $35 million annual funding pool out to 2020, with eight shortlisted.

The Riddet Institute was one of four dropped from the list and site visit agenda, alongside Gravida National Research Centre for Growth and Development at Auckland University, the Bio-Protection Centre at Lincoln University and Nga Pae o Te Maramatanga at Waikato University, the country's only Maori CoRE.

Palmerston North's other CoRE, the Allan Wilson Centre for Molecular Ecology and Evolution, remains on the list.

Riddet co-director Distinguished Professor Paul Moughan said it was a dismay to not be included but the final decision was not yet in. "It is hard to believe - we're down but not out."

The institute, considered a world leader in food science, has had a string of successes since being set up in 2003, including co-directors Dr Moughan and Distinguished Professor Harjinder Singh being awarded the Prime Minister's Science Prize in 2012, the country's top nod for scientific work impacting New Zealanders' lives.

"There's no question about the science excellence at Riddet, or our international and national reputation," Dr Moughan said.

"There's always hope [we'll remain a CoRE] and all we know at this stage is we're at risk.

"It would not be the end of the Riddet Institute, we're not going to disappear off the landscape but our job would be made hard for us if the final outcome for us is negative."

Since the 2006/07 selection round, Riddet has received about $3.2m a year in CoRE funding, which makes up a third of the institute's annual income drawn from national and international partners.

The institute's management has not been told why it was not included on the shortlist.

Commission chief executive Tim Fowler said the selection process was competitive and feedback would be given to the CoREs when the final decisions were made.

"No decisions have yet been made . . . it is still in the middle of the contestable process."

The Royal Society of New Zealand is contracted by the commission to run the selection process and provide recommendations on which CoREs should be funded, with the commission's board making the final decision.

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The existing CoRE grants would last until December 2015, so there was opportunity for institutes that missed out to find additional funding sources or make other arrangements, Mr Fowler said.

Critics have raised concerns about the process used to assess funding bids.

Maori Party MP Pita Sharples said he had "serious misgivings", with no Maori, social scientists and only one woman on a six-person selection committee.

"That's hardly a diverse group of people sitting at the top making decisions on behalf of our diverse and culturally rich nation," he said.

Tertiary Education Union president Lesley Francey said the union would be talking to politicians and tertiary sector leaders to find out how the funding decisions were made and what New Zealanders could do to protect "endangered centres of excellence".

- Manawatu Standard

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