When there’s only so much money to go around, how do you decide who to give it to?
The question remains the same in any situation, unless you have unlimited money (which has never actually happened), you have to prioritise what is the most ‘worth’ spending it on.
In science this is done by a group of reviewers who determine which of the proposals they receive are worthy of the funding requested. They have a whole lot of criteria that they use to rank each of the proposals and then the top ones get funding to go ahead. The criteria differ depending on the group but often include things like ‘viability’, ‘demand’, and ‘how much will be achieved for the cost.’
Governments allocate a certain amount to science funding and so also go through this selection process. In some countries they’ve now released challenges or focuses for areas that will be funded by their budget. Typically these are of importance or special relevance to the country in question. New Zealand released the National Science Challenges, 10 being announced in May 2013 with an eleventh being released in September 2014.
These challenges are designed to tackle problems or concerns of special significance to New Zealand and in keeping with our reliance on our ‘clean, green’ image are the Sustainable Seas and Our Land and Water challenges. Others such as High-Value Nutrition, A Better Start, Ageing Well, Healthier Lives, and Building Better Homes, Towns, and Cities, are more socially focussed and intend to improve the way New Zealanders live.
This idea isn’t specific to New Zealand, the UK also have their own set of focuses that they are allocating funding do.
These ‘challenges’ or ‘focus areas’ or whatever you want to call them are intended to provide, well, focus to the funding allocation – instead of spending a lot of the budget on something with very theoretical applications, the government has decided that money is better spent on addressing social issues that will benefit far more people.
The New Zealand National Science Challenges: http://www.mbie.govt.nz/info-services/science-innovation/national-science-challenges