Schmidt Ocean Institute: Grants for Science Research

OVERVIEW: Founded in 2009 and backed by the wealth of Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt and wife Wendy, 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: Ocean conservation is far from a unique cause for West Coast philanthropists. But the way Eric Schmidt and his wife Wendy decided to go about supporting this work is rare and ambitious. Unlike most oceans philanthropists who invite researchers and NGO’s to apply for funding, the Schmidt’s decided to buy a boat.

But not just any boat - a massive, steel-hulled German fishing boat, which they spent three years and $94 million rebuilding for research. The Schmidt’s named the boat the RV Falkor, after the luck dragon in the book The Never-ending Story.

At the same time they bought the Falk or, the Schmidt’s founded the Schmidt Ocean Institute to operate the ship and whatever other facilities they add over time. 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 spent its first full year as a research vessel in 2013, and it comes at a time when the fleet of research boats and federal support for ocean research in general are both dwindling. The ship itself 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).

While gaining access to the facilities was quite competitive already, in December 2013, the institute announced that it would be teaming up 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 Falkor could already tote around other institutions’ submersibles but it wasn’t always a smooth fit).

In terms of its priorities, the institute is looking for projects that are higher risk than those federal funding might tend to support. 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.

For those just starting out on their academic voyages, 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.

How does one land a much-sought-after spot on the Falkor? The vessel is in high demand, but the application process is fairly open and egalitarian. The institute starts by inviting 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 convene and rank the proposals. The research staff then select 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 expect to submit your inquiry far in advance, and be sure to check the application deadlines.

PEOPLE:  

  • Eric King, Director of Marine Operations
  • Stian Alesandrini, Science Services Manager
  • Leonard Pace, Science Program Manager
  • Allison Miller, Research Program Manager
  • Victor Zykov, Director of Research

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