Dept. of Niche Threats: The Surprising Logic of Giving Big for Volcano Research

Mount Rinjani eruption in 1994, in Lombok, Indonesia. Credit: Oliver Spalt via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0)We’ve not seen much private funding for study of volcanoes, but the Northwest sure is an appropriate place for it, and UO just landed $10 million. 

The Moore Foundation has been a big backer of work on earthquake early warning systems. There’s quite a lot of disaster response philanthropy. There are even some donors on high alert for asteroids. 

Related:Earthshaking Support from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation

But the recent $10 million grant to the University of Oregon is a rare, big private gift to the study of volcanic activity. The grant comes from Gwen and Charles Lillis—one the former chair of the UO Foundation Board and the other the current chair of the school’s Board of Trustees—who have been longtime donors pushing to secure UO’s prominence. 

The university has been a leader in volcanology since the 1960s, which is fitting, considering that there are four volcanoes in the region with potential for eruption. But developing a “volcanology cluster of excellence” is one tenet of the university’s $2 billion funding campaign—one of many such large funding drives happening at schools across the country. The Lillises’ grant moves the university closer, funding two new faculty positions and issuing a $2 million challenge. 

The couple’s wealth comes from telecommunications, and both are currently in investing. They’ve given to universities in the region before, including $12 million toward a new business complex at UO in 1999, and $8 million to the University of Puget Sound in 2011. 

While I struggled to come up examples of other private philanthropy to volcano research—the USGS, NASA, and the NSF do fund the subject—it’s a more pressing cause than you might initially assume.  

Volcanoes, particularly in the U.S., don’t often erupt—hundreds or even thousands of years can pass between events. These spans can lull our human-scaled minds into denial. Bobby Jindal famously mocked volcano research spending in a national speech, sending geologists and Northwesterners alike into a fury. 

Related:Why Keck is Funding Green Architecture at a State University

But according to head of the volcanology cluster at UO, 600 million people are at direct risk from eruptive activity, especially in developing nations where farmers are often drawn to soils near volcanic activity. There’s also potential for global economic impacts—the closing of airports in Europe cost $1.7 billion after Iceland’s volcanic eruption in 2010.

And let's not even contemplate the climate changes and widespread famine that could be caused by another eruption on the scale of Mount Tambora in 1815 or Krakatau in 1883. 

Population growth and globalization makes the risk increasingly severe. Improving monitoring technology means longer time to prepare for activity. The research center will also study the potential for geothermal energy. The field seems to be ripe for an opportunity in which attention from private donors can kickstart larger funding, either from other private or public sources. Aside from the matching element, part of the intent of the recent gift is to make the school more attractive for government grants. 

So while the gift came from a drive to boost the university, maybe it will also nudge forward other funding to make the world, and all those living in the shadows of rumbling giants, a little safer.