Which Scientists Can Spin Big Data into Gold?

It's not a new problem. The volume of data to which science has access now outstrips the mechanisms it uses to make sense of the data. It needs to get better at using this information to make things people need. What is new, however, is that the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation has put a $60 million pot aside for academic research that tips things back in Dr. Frankenstein's favor over the data monster. (See Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation: Grants for STEM in Higher Education.)

The foundation will begin chipping off grants in late 2013. As Xconomy has reported, research universities in New York and Seattle are already banging their forks and knives against the table and exchanging anxious lateral glances.

The bad news: It's hard to get a pointed idea about what exactly the foundation wants. We know Moore is looking for research with tangible application that leverages the latest technology. In its words, it's interested in "unleashing the potential of inquiry and exploration [that] not only leads to scientific progress, but can also deliver important societal benefits." But that's about all we know. (Read Chief Program Officer Vicki Chandler's IP Profile.)

The good news is that there is some precedent for the foundation's project. Moore issued a "request for ideas" a few years back. It invited input from the scientific community on "ways to best combat the growing wave of challenges caused by today's data deluge."

Since the initial foundation feelers came out, several Moore-funded research publications sound suspiciously like the results:

  • International Journal of Remote Sensing published a Moore-funded study this past June that overlays several satellite images of coral reefs located off the coasts of Palau, Fiji, Australia, and the Solomon Islands. The study found a unique method of integrating a combination of existing data to compare and analyze the properties of these reefs with unprecedented accuracy.
  • Moore also funded research published in Global Change Biology that explores correlations between climate change and mortality rates among a specific breed of sparrows in California. This study adds weight to the claim that climate change exerts direct and measurable effects on the ecosystem.

Another potentially useful insight into what Moore will fund through this project is that the foundation is comfortable with high-risk propositions. Chris Mentzel is the program officer in charge of the Data-Driven Discovery initiative at Moore. He spoke this past May at a conference for foundation funders who've agreed to increase their support for basic science research over the next few decades.

Mentzel said that government by its nature must remain conservative in its support of scientific research. It's not terribly interested in sitting around worrying about whether or not the experiments it supports will produce tangible results. This is why the responsibility falls on private foundations to fund more radical, high-risk ideas. "If you're succeeding all the time," he argues, "you're clearly not aiming high enough."