The New Recruits in Moore’s Huge Data Program

Since last year, the Moore Foundation has been at the forefront of large funders supporting advances in data science. Its latest burst of funding goes to 14 researchers—a mix of toolmakers and researchers putting data to use, with an emphasis on open source. 

The Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation has a highly influential science program, giving big money to a spread of topics that includes earthquake detection, quantum materials, and marine microbiology. Oh, and the foundation is also building the world's most powerful telescope in Hawaii, a project that it says "has the potential to transform the study of the universe."

One of its foundation's newest initiatives is empowering researchers to put massive stores of data to work. 

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This is an extremely active field right now in research and particularly in science philanthropy, as we try to catch up with the rapidly expanding body of information in everything from genomics to economics. Moore kicked off its five-year, $60 million program with a bang by establishing with the Sloan Foundation a $37.8 million partnership with three universities, forming a hub for academics harnessing data. 

Its latest move came this month with $21 million in grants to 14 researchers across the country, the Moore Investigators in Data-Driven Discovery. 

The grantees are an interesting mix of academics who deal primarily with data analysis itself, and those developing methods within their own fields of research. 

In the former camp, six of the investigators specialize in developing tools for understanding data, not necessarily for any specific purpose. For example, one grantee is Jeffrey Heer, cofounder of Trifacta, a leading firm that develops platforms to visually interface with large datasets. And Matthew Turk, of the National Center for Supercomputing Applications at the University of Illinois, received support in part for his work on “yt”, a toolkit for analyzing data. 

Regarding researchers in non-data-specific fields, five of the awarded investigators work in biology, most dealing in some way with analyzing genomics or gene expression. For example, C. Titus Brown of UC Davis combines computation with biology experiments to better understand gene function. 

The other, smaller subset of the remaining two researchers involve the environment, not surprising considering conservation is another of Moore’s main programs. Laurel Larson, of UC Berkeley, studies the flow of water and how it influences ecosystems, with past work in the Everglades and Chesapeake Bay. And Ethan White of the University of Florida studies large ecological datasets to understand patterns in biodiversity and population dynamics. 

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One other interesting thread running through the winning researchers' work is the idea of open source programs and open science. This is another trend in science philanthropy, and cuts against the old school tendency to keep the shutters closed until publication time. 

A number of the grantees are active in the open source movement, trying to establish tools that anyone could use, and are scalable and practical for the larger field. In this sense, Moore is not only trying to back the work of a bundle of bright scientists, but also to send out ripples of useful tactics into the greater world of academia as it wrestles with mounting heaps of numbers. 

See bios of all of the Investigators here.