Moore’s Flexible Pot of Funds Aims to Accelerate an Entire Field

The quantum materials program at the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation funds some dizzying science with huge potential in tech advances. While it mostly backs researchers, the program occasionally throws a big chunk of money at a high-risk opportunity for the whole field. The funder recently did so twice, for nearly $4 million. 

It’s easy to overlook the Moore Foundation’s Emergent Phenomena in Quantum Systems initiative (EPiQS) because, frankly, it’s pretty confusing stuff. But it’s the kind of work that can, over time, shape what the future of electronics and computing looks like on a fundamental level. So it’s no wonder this foundation, built on the fortune of the guy behind Moore’s Law, which predicts advances in computing power, would be sending big funds in this direction.  

One cool component of the program is that, while it funds a bunch of individual investigators, it also has a pool of money set aside for rapid response projects where an injection of funds could open doors for the whole arena.

The Flexible Funding portfolio has only made four grants, but they are usually pretty big—one in 2013 was for $4.1 million. And it just made two of those grants this year. One was awarded to the University of British Columbia for $1.4 million in March, and another recently announced grant sent $2.4 million to a Berkeley lab. Both support new techniques for studying quantum materials. 

Why exactly is this such a big priority for Moore? EPiQS funds work in quantum materials, a field of physics that cooks up and studies mysterious compounds that display odd properties, such as superconductivity and powerful forms of magnetism.

Related: A Foundation's Big Hunt for Weird New Materials That Could Change the World 

It’s also highly fundamental research, meaning there’s not a lot of direct application anytime in the immediate future. It’s more about understanding basic properties of these systems. Combine that with the fact that we still don’t know much about them—so research is very hit or miss—and you’ve got a field that needs some generous and trusting benefactors.  

Luckily, it has one in the Moore Foundation, which has set aside $90 million for this work. In particular, the advancement of new techniques for observing these weird materials has been a major catalyst for physics developments in recent years. Hence the combined $3.8 million Moore gave to kickstarting such techniques just this year. This is something we've seen elsewhere in Moore's giving. The foundation is a big supporter of individual researchers, but also puts a premium on developing tools and techniques to boost a field.

Related: The New Recruits in Moore’s Huge Data Program

Scientists working with these materials are always quick to point out the theoretical nature of their work, but their findings could revolutionize electronics and computing. And the Moore Foundation knows it. 

The program has already backed more than 30 individual researchers with substantial, long-term funding. But the Flexible Funding is another interesting aspect of the program that really lets it quickly flex Moore’s muscle to nudge the work forward.  

Related - Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation: Grants for Science Research