Knight Backs a Science Barge in Miami. Wait, a Science What?

Among the 32 winners of the Knight Foundation’s latest grant competition, there are, as usual, some pretty wild ideas. One in particular: a 120-foot barge to be repurposed into a floating science lab. And sustainable farm. Also, it’s powered by renewable energy.

It sounds like a somewhat preposterous idea, but the Miami Science Barge is on the way to becoming a real thing. Its planners are aiming for a 2016 opening of the floating marine laboratory, which will teach hands-on lessons about climate change, renewable energy, and sustainable agriculture. The barge, which the science nonprofit CappSci is negotiating to purchase now, will host field trips, tours, and citizen science projects on board to better familiarize the public with these concepts. Now it just needs to buy the barge, retrofit it, and obtain permits to operate.

It’s that level of ambition (or perhaps quirkiness) that likely caught the eye of the Knight Foundation, which awarded it nearly $300,000. The funder runs rolling competitions on rotating subjects, open to widespread participation that its judges ultimately narrow down to a short list of projects that range from more standard stuff to pretty offbeat projects.

For example, in a health-focused competition, Knight backed a framework for patients to share their personal health data, including their genomic data, with researchers and the public. And the foundation is regularly trying to inject game-changing ideas and vitality into news media and civic engagement. 

Related: These Two Funders Want to See Your Genome in the Spotlight

Despite the fact that the barge promises to offer so much in the way of science and sustainability education, neither subject was the focus of this latest Knight competition. The barge was actually one of the winners of the foundation’s very first Knight Cities Challenge, which invited ideas to make 26 cities more successful, either by improving economic opportunity, attracting and keeping talent, or spurring connection.

Subject matter in the more than 7,000 proposals included a lot of revamping of public and vacant spaces, and trying to change the stories people tell about their cities. You can see why the judges liked the Science Barge. For one thing, it seeks to change the story of Miami as a superficial, glitzy place to one with a tangible connection to science and the environment, as a Knight VP has said about the project. It also allows people, including youth, to experience more interaction with the city’s natural surroundings, its food and energy needs, as well as just to spend some time on the bay. 

And it’s not actually the first Science Barge to carry out this multi-layered, farm-on-a-boat mission. New York City has had its own for a while now, developed by the same group in 2006. It went on to become the No. 1 field trip destination in the city, as well as a tourist draw. 

The Miami Science Barge is a match made in heaven for a Knight Challenge, but the team also received a grant from Allen Family Foundation and continues to send out proposals. It will very likely pull in more supporters, after all, as audacious as it is, it's a hell of a lot more fun to be a part of than your typical museum exhibit.