Schmidt Ocean Institute: Grants for Science Research

OVERVIEW: This organization accepts applications to use the Schmidt Family Foundation's 272-foot ship and its research equipment for oceanographic research. The institution also has programs for undergraduate and graduate students as well as an artist residency program.

IP TAKE: As the U.S. research vessel fleet shrinks along with federal research funding, the boat and equipment that SOI offers is perhaps more valuable than even unrestricted funds. The institute accepts pre-applications, and preference is given to high-risk research and scientists willing to make their data public.

PROFILE: Founded in 2009 by Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt and wife Wendy, established the Schmidt Ocean Institute to operate the RV Falkor ship and whatever other facilities they add over time Unlike most oceans philanthropists who invite researchers and NGO’s to apply for funding, Eric Schmidt and his wife Wendy decided to buy a boat - a massive, steel-hulled German fishing boat, which they spent three years and $94 million rebuilding for research. The institute selects researchers to come aboard for its research cruises, with no cost to the applicants other than salaries of their teams.

The Falkor has dry lab facilities, two cranes, acoustic research equipment, water sampling tools, and is set up to deploy other institutions’ remote operated vehicles (ROVs). Other on-board technological advances include initiatives in robotic platforms, advanced systems for seafloor mapping, the ability to conduct at-sea data analysis, and high speed internet connectivity (it also has a sauna, lounge, and helipad).

In December 2013, the institute announced a partnership with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution to build the world’s most advanced remotely operated, robotic submersible, rivaling the vehicle James Cameron took down the Mariana Trench in 2012.

The institute prioritizes projects that are higher risk than those federal funding typically supports. Inquiries are evaluated on the probability of long-term impact, the target regions for the upcoming year, and alignment with the institute’s strategic focus areas. These include improvements in oceanographic research, technology and infrastructure development, collaborative research with a potential real-world impact, and a willingness to publicize one’s work through efforts like outreach, presentations, public education, and making the data and results from your studies publicly available.

SOI offers undergraduate and graduate students the opportunity to engage in research as part of an existing research team. The goal of the student program, similar to many in the STEM field, is “to support training of the next generation of ocean scientists and technology developers and ignite the spark of passion for ocean exploration.”

The institute also has an interesting Artist-at-Sea program, which seeks artists who can cross disciplines and translate their onboard experiences and the ship’s scientific endeavors into artistic pieces that will help publicize the work being done on the Falkor. Applicants who “incorporate elements of technology or cutting edge method[s] into their techniques or medium” and work collaboratively with the research teams are given special consideration.

So far, the Falkor has facilitated many compelling projects, which it terms “cruises.” The institute also maintains a running list of all participants in past “cruises” on its alumni page.

The application process to secure a spot on the Falkor is fairly open and egalitarian. The institute invites one-to-two page Expressions of Interest, much like a letter of inquiry. Then “non-conflicted experts” and advisers narrow down the inquiries to the candidates who will be invited to send full proposals, which in turn are evaluated by independent, field-specific experts, and a review panel of broader experts who convene and rank the proposals. The research staff then selects the researchers who will join the team using the priority rankings and chart a course for the year’s cruises.

The ship facilitates around seven projects a year and planning starts well ahead of schedule, so grantseekers should expect to submit an inquiry far in advance.