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JORDAN WILLIAMS: More ridiculous wastage of taxpayer money

Last week I wrote about some of the ridiculous wastage of taxpayer money by the Health Research Council. We received an absolute barrage of emails in response – with 99% having the same reaction as us: things need to change in Wellington.

I promised you there'd be more to come, and today we're turning our attention to another of the great research quangos that our research team has been looking into: the Marsden Fund, which is managed by the Royal Society of New Zealand.

What's the Royal Society and its Marsden Fund all about?

The Royal Society boasts a long and proud tradition of excellence, tracing its origins to the esteemed English counterpart established in 1660, with the New Zealand branch being founded back in 1867.

By way of example, the New Zealand physicist who split the atom, Lord Rutherford, was one of the original 20 Royal Society Fellows appointed in 1919 and is just one example of the organisation recognising scientific brilliance.

The Marsden Fund is reserved for top-tier research funding. The Fund (according to the Society's website) "Supports excellence in science, engineering, maths, social sciences and the humanities in New Zealand by providing grants for investigator-initiated research".

The Marsden Fund is supposed to support the crème de la crème of New Zealand academia, showcasing the highest standards of scholarly excellence and innovation. Managed (apparently) with the utmost integrity and a steadfast commitment to advancing knowledge, the Marsden Fund stands as a beacon of academic prestige and intellectual rigour.

Although a private not-for-profit body, the vast majority of funding for the Royal Society comes from you, and other humble taxpayers. The Marsden Fund money is all from the Government taxpayers.

Last year, the taxpayer funding amounted to $83.5 million – almost exactly what's needed to fund the 13 cancer drugs that we, apparently, "can't afford" ***(although that could be about to change, if media speculation that an announcement is coming this afternoon is correct)***.

Here is some of the "research" the Royal Society has "invested" your tax dollars in:

First up, let's look at how the guardians of the Marsden Fund are tackling the scourge of crime – crime podcasts that is...

So-called 'sofa sleuths' will love this research grant – as will one lucky academic, who will be paid to listen, and write about, crime podcasts from around the world!

Grant ID: 23-MAU-004 

Recipient: Dr CS Bjork, Massey University

Sound Judgments? Assessing the Rhetorics of Civic Deliberation in True Crime Podcasting

With nearly one billion downloads globally, the skyrocketing popularity of true crime podcasting has sparked intense debate among scholars. Some decry the genre’s perpetuation of racist stereotypes and misogynistic narratives, while others celebrate its potential to advocate for social justice. But true crime podcasting also illuminates important recent developments in the longstanding relationship between rhetoric and civic discourse in democratic societies. Through the lens of rhetoric, Sound Judgments? will explore how true crime podcasting provides significant insights into the perplexing yet fundamental civic process of making collective judgments in a digital age.Approved funding: $360,000

Education is a big focus:

Grant ID: 23-UOA-164 

Recipient: Dr A Pasley, University of Auckland

Co-designing and Decolonising Gender Education: Exploring What It Means for Gender Diverse Students to Thrive in Schools

"Collaborating with gender diverse students, this research operationalises whole-school approaches to gender diversity-affirming education... Fundamentally, this research acknowledges the colonial inheritance of gender norms, providing gender diverse young people with a platform to decolonise conventional approaches to sexuality education and how gendered expectations permeate education"

Approved funding: $360,000

You read that right. Gender norms (i.e. "boys" and "girls") being, in fact, just an inheritance of colonisation is, we understand, a very widely held view by those in charge of New Zealand's premier scientific fund.

Or what about housing? That's an important issue facing New Zealand right now. Especially the "experience of homes"...  

Grant ID: 23-UOO-037 

Recipient: Dr ES Chisholm, Otago University

Making a home in employer-provided housing Across the world, people in a broad range of professions live in housing provided by their employers. Yet little is known about life in employer-provided housing. This project will draw on theories of power to investigate how a single relationship that secures both housing and employment affects experience of homes, and analyse differences over time and between different sectors of working.

Approved funding: $360,000

360 grand to interview people on "their life" and "experience" in an employer-owned home! Crème de la crème research, indeed.

Now for this one, the only explanation is that someone has selected the random words "sexuality", "food", "identity", and "socialisation" and, somehow, by putting it in a word blender (AI perhaps?) submitted it for a grant.

And for the effort, they won a 360 grand grant! Creative, yes! Worthy? Scientific? Enlightening? You be the judge.

Grant ID: 23-MAU-082 

Recipient: Dr HL Black, Massey University

Kua kī taku puku, ko te waha o raro kei te hiakai tonu: The de-sexualisation of te reo Māori domains

"...founded on tikanga Māori and kaupapa Māori, this research will identify how sexuality was traditionally expressed and defined by examining... harihari kai (happy eating), pao (singing), haka, pūrākau (legendary, mythical stories), ngeri (chanting) and idiomatic expressions... contribut[ing] to a body of mātauranga on te reo Māori and sexuality by investigating how sexuality, food, identity, and socialisation are all part of a complex and interwoven Māori cultural worldview."

Approved funding: $360,000

Here's another one also involving food, which is pretty critical for New Zealand's economy, right?

Grant ID: 23-VUW-122  

Recipient: Associate Professor JT Smith, Victoria University of Wellington

Seeding Hope: The Diverse Roles of Indigenous Women in Food Systems

"Women are the key seed savers, knowledge keepers and advocates in Indigenous food systems which acknowledge the sovereign capacities of nature, treat food as medicine, as a teacher and a relative. Yet there is little research that investigates the work Indigenous women do within these food systems. We develop a mana wahine analysis that draws on kōrero from Indigenous food growers and advocates across five diverse Indigenous food systems (Aotearoa, Hawaii, India, Peru and Turtle Island). Our global approach offers a new Indigenous-to-Indigenous framework to more deeply understand Indigenous women’s roles, values and practices regarding food, seed and soil sovereignty."

Approved funding: $861,000

Before you say $861,000 is too much, remember that this research will necessarily involve having to (God forbid) travel (business class, of course) to India, Hawaii, Peru, and Turtle Island (Fiji) to speak to indigenous woman and try their food.

Let's turn to a more respectable subject. Like legal research:

Grant ID: 23-UOO-218 

Recipient: Professor BJ Schonthal, Otago University

Mapping Buddhist Law in Asia 

"Despite decades of scholarship documenting the influences of Christian law on Western legal culture, scholars have ignored... Buddhist law on legal cultures in Asia. This project... produc[es] the first comprehensive account of Buddhist law as a complex transhistorical, transregional legal tradition... [and] will yield crucial new knowledge about a tradition of law that has shaped human societies..."

Approved funding: $660,000

Who knew Buddha had in mind New Zealand's taxpayers when he said "Give, even if you only have a little."

Okay, more serious now. Let's turn to kids' books – surely they can't screw that up, right? Right?!

Grant ID: 23-UOW-011 

Recipient: Associate Professor N Daly, University of Waikato

Picture Books in Aotearoa: The design and content of picture books reflecting indigenous language, culture and evolving national identities

"Picturebooks are a powerful form of children’s literature... Our project... explor[es] best practice for authentic respectful representations of Indigenous languages and identities throughout the publishing process. Our interdisciplinary team will... undertak[e] a Kaupapa Māori driven investigation, to document and explore the ways in which Indigenous voices are and can be authentically represented in picturebooks."

Approved funding: $660,000

So indigenous language but in picture books? The poor Associate Professor got $660,000 to discover that there are not a lot of words or language in picture books (that's kind of the point, eh?)


We looked up the Associate Professor, and according to her bio: 

I am a sociolinguist interested in the language hierarchies present in children's literature. I am also interested in the pedagogical potential of picturebooks for social justice in educational contexts from early childhood settings through to tertiary contexts. I teach courses in children's literature and supervise Masters and PhD students in children's literature and language-related topics.

You'd think if anyone knew picture books lack language, it would be the good Associate Professor.

And, just like the Health Research Council, you can't do science anymore without religion... (and any views to the contrary are hate-speech).

Grant ID: 23-VUW-025 

Recipient: Dr AZ Arkilic, Victoria University of Wellington

Embracing Islam: Conversion, Identity, and Belonging in Aotearoa New Zealand

Conversion to Islam in Aotearoa remains under-researched… Co-designed by a born Muslim and a Māori Muslim convert... The study will challenge prevailing political interpretations of Islamic conversion that emphasise radicalisation. Ultimately, by improving our understanding... and exploring the role of religion in a decolonising, post-Christian Aotearoa, it will offer novel insights into national identity, demographics, and citizenship.

Approved funding: $360,000

How did this rot set in? You can thank our old friend, Grant Robertson

The problem with the Marsden Fund can be traced back to a bill introduced in 2010 when a (then) little known Labour MP, Grant Robertson, put up the rather innocuous-sounding Royal Society of New Zealand Amendment Bill.

Eventually unanimously passed in 2012, the main thing it did was to change the Object of the Royal Society from "the advancement and promotion of science and technology..." to "the advancement and promotion in New Zealand of science, technology, and the humanities."

It defined "humanities" to include "languages, history, religion, philosophy, law, classics, linguistics, literature, cultural studies, media studies, art history, film, and drama”.

That change has given tofu-munching, climate-striking, purple-haired academics carte blanche to get funding for all manner of 'research' projects that simply don't bring any return on investment to the taxpayers who pay for them.

The National Party can't escape blame for this. Despite MPs expressing doubts about the Robertson-sponsored law-change, the then John Key Government backed the widening of the scope which has seen science money diverted more and more into ridiculous humanities projects like those listed above.

With the new Government, we can get them to see sense and repeal the changes. 

National, ACT, and NZ First promised to get a handle on wasteful spending. Here's an excellent opportunity for them walk the talk!

Jordan Williams is a constitutional and commercial lawyer who is Executive Director & Co-founder of the Taxpayers' Union. You can support the Taxpayers' Union to uncover, publicise and advocate against waste here

4,049 views106 comments


The main problem here, now that this sort of blatant abuse of taxpayer funds is firmly entrenched, is that it will continue and get worse unless enough people show outrage. That won't happen because the MSM will never spread this story. Our only recourse in a supposed democracy, is the will of the majority. It seems to me that most people would be outraged by this if they knew about it, and enough would complain to tip the balance, and get something done. The media of today can't even spell 'journalistic integrity'. Until they are made to rely on their own resources and quickly go broke, we are stuck in this quicksand of corruption.


Peter Y
Peter Y
Jul 01

After the Listener 7 debacle, wherein the RSNZ made a true ass of itself and many distinguished members distanced themselves from it by resigning, I hope that this latest affront to commonsense encourages more to pull away from an outfit that has truly lost sight of its purpose.

As for the squandering of taxpayer money on what is arrant bullshit, it clearly has incensed many of you to comment. I hope you have all posted a link to this site and the earlier HRC one (or  TPU one direct) to Nicola Willis and the heads of the coalition that their efforts to find waste were obviously feeble if this is an example of what we can expect from a Government…


I gave up reading about halfway through. I'd got the picture. Money to find answers to bullshit questions nobody ever asked.


National are sitting in the middle of road fiddling around the edges - the will get run down by the left and the right like Sunak's Tories in the UK. They need to stand for something as currently they are falling for everything

Replying to

Absolutely brilliant well put sir. 👏


Jun 24

the National led Government is on a tightrope with this pandering to a minority, and there is a rising sense of disquiet festering in the minds of average NEW ZEALANDERS, that they are being ignored.

The LAST (hopefully) Labour Government has laid a pathway that must be terminated by the Coalition Government very quickly, otherwise there will real trouble, particularly for the National party.

Replying to

So very true. !!!!! As I commented earlier LACK LUSTER LUXON. Had better OUT OF his CORPORATE STYLE. Of leadership. Has he forgotten that it is the large majority of NEW ZEALAND. He is running now NOT A BOARDROOM FULL OF YES SIR PEOPLE And Winston and Seymour better STEP UP TO THE PLATE

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