The Latest Billionaire to Plunge into Saving the Oceans

The Simons Foundation, one of the country’s largest science research funders, has a mission of promoting a deeper understanding of the world. About four kilometers deep, to be exact, since the foundation just launched a huge new initiative to advance knowledge of the ocean's microbial ecosystems. 

The funder just announced the Simons Collaboration on Ocean Processes and Ecology, its first foray into marine microbial ecosystems, which will house a cross-disciplinary effort to study the biological activity of the tiny organisms populating the ocean. SCOPE is already staffed by eight founding Simons Investigators, and is currently inviting applications for additional researchers. The center is based at the University of Hawai’i, and will conduct its experiments in a research-dedicated ocean ecosystem about 60 miles north of Oahu. 

It’s a new field for Simons, but it fits into the overall themes of the foundation’s other giving. Simons backs a lot of basic science, including theoretical work in mathematics and physical sciences, but also life science research on the origins of life on earth and how the brain functions.

An initiative to use multiple disciplines to unlock the secrets of complex ocean ecosystems is right in Simon’s wheelhouse, continuing the funder’s work to delve into the big mysteries of life using both theoretical and empirical research.

Tiny microbes form the most basic biological building blocks of the ocean biome, forming the basis of the food web, producing about half of the planet's oxygen, and offering insights into the conditions that started life on Earth. But scientists have limited understanding of how microorganisms in the ocean behave on a large scale, including their crucial role in capturing and processing energy and atmospheric gases.

The basis of SCOPE will be to study and gain deep knowledge of how microbial groups interact, from the surface to the deep sea, using a live, representative ecosystem as a model for a large portion of the North Pacific Ocean. Rather than the piecemeal approach that dominates our knowledge of the subject, SCOPE will pursue many aspects of biological behavior at once, at the site of the ecosystem, as they happen.

The project’s overarching goals include creating cross-disciplinary interactions, gaining an understanding of emergent properties in ecosystems, and testing hypotheses on matter and energy transformations as microbes interact. 

The initiative calls to mind another large marine microbiology program at the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation. One of Moore’s research priorities has been studying these ecosystems as well, in part using satellite imagery to understand it on a broad scale. 

As for who is already on board with SCOPE, the eight founding researchers mostly hail from oceanography departments, including from MIT, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, and UC Santa Cruz. The two co-directors are David Karl and Edward DeLong from University of Hawai’i, Manoa, the hosting institution, which has already received $40 million from Simons to lead SCOPE. 

SCOPE is currently accepting applications for Simons Investigators to join the program, with a deadline of August 14, 2014. Grants are investments of between $100,000 and $300,000 a year for three years, with an opportunity to renew. Scientists must be tenure-track, tenured or equivalent, but preference is given to junior or mid-career researchers. 

Read the request for applications here, and more about the program here.

Simons Foundation: Grants for Science Research