The orgasmic work of the Marsden Fund

Alf takes it back. The research into moa and crows he was banging on about yesterday at least is the stuff of what he reckons is proper science.

Some projects being financed by the Marsden Fund have a much stronger whiff of misapplied science money around them.

Example: “Young adults, drinking stories and the cult of celebrity”, the work of one Dr A.C.Lyons at Massey University. Good grief. The Marsden Fund has dished out $864,000 for it.

Then there’s “Beethoven’s middle period string quartets in context: ideology, performance, reception ”. Dr N.R.November, at the University of Auckland, is being given $285,000 for that lot.

Mind you, so far as Alf can see, none of the money this year has gone to lesbian writers for research involving orgasms.

Orgasms? Yep.

In recent years the Marsden Fund has announced payments of $140,000 for a study of “Women’s Poetry and Politics in England. 1603-1688”; $858 000 for “A History of Art in Oceania”; $140,000 for “Literary Authors as Parliamentary Reporters”; $140,000 for “Groups, Art & Interpretation”; $140 000 for “The Arts and Architecture”; $140 000 for “NZ Citizenship in the Context of Neoliberalism” and – ha, this one will give you a buzz – $465 000 for Auckland lesbian novelist Annemarie Jagose to spend three years writing about “Acts and Identities: Towards a new Cultural History of Sex” (which is where orgasms come into the picture).

Alf was dipping into his Hansard when reminded of those fund winners. His memory was jogged by a nice line of questioning of Steve Maharey, who was Minister of Research, Science and Technology at the time.

Dr Paul Hutchison asked if Maharey was satisfied with the administration of the Marsden Fund; if not, why not?

Hon STEVE MAHAREY (Minister of Research, Science and Technology): Yes. Established in 1995 by the Hon Simon Upton, the Marsden Fund supports groundbreaking research initiated by New Zealand’s top scientists across the full range of disciplines. Administration involves comprehensive peer review and strict conflict of interest procedures.

Applications must be based on excellent ideas, have an innovative design, and build on a track record of achievement. An evaluation in 2004 reported that the fund is administered in a highly professional manner and aligned to international best practice.

Dr Paul Hutchison: Why has he failed to act fully on the 2005 report into the Marsden Fund that found, among other things, that there was doubt about the allocation process, there was doubt about priorities, and “there appeared to be some confusion in the sector about what the Marsden Fund should properly be funding.”?

The member will know that the Marsden Council has indeed been busy implementing reports about its practice. One of the things that it has done more recently, which I applaud, is that although in actuality there is no conflict of interest, there has been a perception of that, and it announced recently prior to the questions raised here that it would be changing the way it sets up its panels to assess funding applications, and I think that is a move that is applauded by everyone.

A few other MPs popped up to ask questions, then Hutchison popped up for another go.

Dr Paul Hutchison: Does he agree with Bob Brockie from the Dominion Post who says that at the very least the Marsden Fund should have the word “science” in its mission statement, and that some previous grants for studies, such as on women, poetry, and politics in England, 1603-1688, the literacy and cultural significance of the piano, and the editing of Jane Austen’s would be better funded by Creative New Zealand?

Hon STEVE MAHAREY: As the member will recall, when the Rt Hon Simon Upton set up this fund under the National Government of the 1990s, it was applied to all forms of research, which includes humanities, social sciences, and the sciences that the member appears to want to favour. I would point out that Mr Brockie’s research, which was largely based upon animal roadkill, or road deaths, might also be seen by people as somewhat marginal to other forms of research that could be done on road deaths, but the member has to remember that this fund funds all forms of research. It is driven by the researchers themselves. I think the most insulting thing the member has said is the implication that he wants to be the one who will decide what the country’s top scientists will do.

Dr Paul Hutchison: Does he think that ordinary New Zealanders reacted in the same questioning way as he and the Prime Minister did when they learnt that nine members of the selection panel appeared to have $6 million out of a total of $38 million to fund their own project, and when will the reports that both he and the Prime Minister called for be released?

I will start with the end of that question. I made it clear I had not called for a report. I regard the Marsden Fund as a well-run body. The Prime Minister is able to access, and is accessing, directly from the Marsden Fund its reports on how it is run. She understands that it is well run. I cannot remember the first part of the member’s question, because it was probably as silly as the rest of it.

Madam SPEAKER: No, that comment was not acceptable. I remind members that if they include in supplementary questions more than one thought or statement, then the Minister has to address only one of them.

Dr Paul Hutchison:
Does the Minister agree with me that in a democracy such as New Zealand, it is absolutely appropriate to have open debate about our most prestigious science fund—particularly over the issues of quality, good process, and adequate funding—and does he commit himself to championing science at a time when the total science investment in New Zealand is less than half of the OECD average?

Hon STEVE MAHAREY: Yes, it is appropriate to have open debate; and yes, I intend to champion research in this country. But I would say to the member opposite, who is the research, science, and technology spokesperson for National, that the chief researcher of the research that he chose to criticise was not the associate professor whom he singled out—because of her lesbianism, no doubt—
Madam SPEAKER: Would the member please refrain from such comments.

Hon STEVE MAHAREY: The researcher is Professor Barry Reay DPhil, University of Oxford, BA (1st Class Hons), University of Adelaide. He is someone the member may like to pick up the phone and ring. That person is an expert in the cultural history of sex. He is a gynaecologist; perhaps he and the member could have a good conversation.

Annamarie Jagose – by the way – is a professor in the Faculty of Arts at Auckland University.

She tells us about herself on the university website.

My research comes out of the intersection between queer and feminist theory and, since 1994, I have published three monographs and a number of essays in this area.

Since 2003, I am co-editor of GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies (Duke University Press). I am also an editorial or advisory board member of three other international peer-reviewed journals in feminist and sexuality studies—Australian Feminist Studies (Routledge), Feminist Theory (Sage and University of Leeds) and Genders (

My current research project is “Orgasmology,” a cultural history of the unique compactions of cultural meaning that have accrued to orgasm as well as the wide repertory of narratives that have taken orgasm as their figural vehicle across the twentieth century. In 2004, I was awarded a Vice-Chancellor’s Strategic Research Development Award (2005-2006) to advance this research. Also as part of this work, I am currently a member of a collaborative UoA team funded with a Marsden Fund Grant from the Royal Society of New Zealand to work on a collaborative three-year project “Acts and Identities: Toward a New Cultural History of Sex” (2007-2009).

I am also a novelist and have published three novels in alternation with my scholarly monographs. My latest novel, Slow Water, is a work of historical fiction about an Antipodean same-sex sexual scandal and won major literary awards in both Australia and New Zealand: the Vance Palmer Prize for Fiction at the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards and the Deutz Medal for Fiction at the Montana New Zealand Book Awards.

Alf has no interest in the cultural history of sex, the study of which secured Jagose her Marsden Fund dosh. Indeed, as he gets older, he is losing his interest in sex, full stop. It gets in the way of his whisky tasting.

He is interested in seeing public money properly spent and he does wonder about the Marsden Fund’s ideas of a worthy project.

Oh, and maybe a phone call to Prof Jagose is timely, for a progress report on how she has spent our money.

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