The Marsden Fund was established by the government in 1994 to fund excellent fundamental research. It is a contestable fund administered by the Royal Society of New Zealand on behalf of the Marsden Fund Council. It operates under the Terms of Reference issued by the Minister of Science and Innovation.

Marsden Fund research benefits society as a whole by contributing to the development of researchers with knowledge, skills and ideas. The research is not subject to government’s socio-economic priorities, but is investigator initiated. The Fund supports research excellence in science, engineering and maths, social sciences and the humanities. Competition for grants is intense. Marsden is regarded as the hallmark of excellence for research in New Zealand.

A Marsden Fund Council of 11 eminent researchers, chaired by Professor Juliet Gerrard, is appointed by the Minister of Science and Innovation to make recommendations for funding. Selection criteria focus on the research merit of the proposal, the potential of the researchers to contribute to the advancement of knowledge, and the enhancement of research skills in New Zealand, especially those of emerging researchers. Ten panels have been established to help the Marsden Fund Council assess proposals. These are:

Each year, the call for proposals is made in November. The deadline for project proposals follows in February. Initially, applicants submit a short preliminary proposal. These are assessed by the appropriate panel, and the highest ranked are invited to submit full proposals. Each full proposal is scored by external referees – in 2010 approximately 750 referees were used to assess potential Marsden projects. In August of each year, the panels meet to decide their preferred projects. Referee reports, as well as feedback from the applicants about their referee reports, are used in the final panel discussions. The recommendations of each panel are confirmed by the Marsden Fund Council, and ratified by the Royal Society of New Zealand Council. The results of the funding are announced near the end of September.

The Marsden Fund takes its name from physicist Sir Ernest Marsden (1889-1970) who made a remarkable contribution to science both in New Zealand and overseas.  For more details about his life see Biography of Sir Ernest Marsden.