Could This Major Grant by Paul Allen Signal Deeper Climate Giving to Come?

 Paul Allen's ship, Octopus. photo:  LongJon/shutterstock

Paul Allen's ship, Octopus. photo:  LongJon/shutterstock

One of Seattle billionaire Paul Allen’s major philanthropic priorities has long been ocean conservation and research. But we’ve also seen an apparent increasing interest in funding climate change work. 

The tech donor’s latest major grant is right in the sweet spot between the two fields, a $4 million commitment that will back the deep ocean probes monitoring how ocean temperatures are changing. 

The funding goes toward the work of Greg Johnson, who works for the NOAA running Argo, an array of nearly 4,000 floating probes that measure ocean salinity and temperature around the world. The sensors currently take measurements from the top 1.25 miles of ocean, and while Johnson has been eager to send probes deeper for years, the funding hasn’t been there. Allen’s people contacted the Seattle oceanographer to invite a proposal, resulting in financial support for the project and the use of a research vessel Allen personally owns. 

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The project is highly relevant to our understanding of the changing climate, as the ocean absorbs massive amounts of increased heat in the atmosphere, which impacts ocean currents and ecosystems. The original Argo project has provided influential data about ocean temperature changes, but by sending sensors even deeper, almost four miles below the surface, Johnson hopes to gather new data about a layer of the ocean that’s difficult to monitor. 

It’s an interesting arrangement, because funding is backing a government researcher conducting an initiative funded by the federal agency, but giving it a nudge past what its current budget allows. In another sense, it’s a pilot project testing a tricky technological feat of sending autonomous robots covered in durable glass into the inky black of the deep ocean. 

While the grant was in the works before the change in federal administration, government funding for science is extremely tenuous these days. Still, you can imagine such a grant proving the concept and, if successful, leading to more funding, public or private.

The grant comes from Paul G. Allen Philanthropies, a catch-all label for the entities Allen uses to channel his giving, including private company Vulcan Inc. and the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation. 

Allen’s philanthropy covers a range of interests, including wildlife conservation, biomedical science, brain and cell research, and even the response to Ebola in West Africa. Not always what you’d call a climate funder, Allen’s collection of giving mechanisms has been taking greater interest in the issue over the past few years, and making some sizable grants. 

    Allen committed $10 million to the U.S. DOT’s Smart City Challenge, a carbon-reducing transportation competition, and even bankrolled a lawsuit against the federal government in 2014 to limit coal mining. Allen’s also funded research on monitoring changes in polar sea ice. 

    Allen’s been expanding its portfolio of climate change grantmaking, but there’s far more cash on hand that the donor can channel into this most important of causes. He’s worth more than $20 billion, and was an early signatory of the Giving Pledge, with climate as one of the priorities named in his letter. At a critical time for climate action, Allen could be a hugely influential donor in the field, a new Mike Bloomberg or Tom Steyer. 

    That’s led to speculation and some early reports that there may, indeed, be a lot more on the way. E&E News reported in March that Allen has been investigating greater climate giving for months, assembling a board of science advisers to guide potentially ramped up funding, with a focus on data-driven research. 

    I asked Allen’s team if the Deep Argo program was the first step of something bigger, and they were pretty tight lipped, saying only that they continue to explore opportunities. “We do not have any other new programs to announce at this time. We’ll keep you updated.”

    As will we, dear reader.

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