How a Major Research Funder Decided to Wrap Up its Longest-Running Science Initiative


In 2004, a young West Coast foundation had taken an interest in oceans, and in one research niche in particular that seemed to be falling through the cracks in terms of funding. Marine microbiology was showing a lot of potential based on work by the creative scientists in the field, and new technology that had emerged from the Human Genome Project and had not yet been tapped. 

That was the beginning of the Moore Foundation’s Marine Microbiology Initiative, which has been running for over 15 years now to the tune of more than $240 million. MMI is an example of a private science funder using highly focused grantmaking to give a boost to a promising field of research. Now, as Moore generally adopts targeted, finite support, the foundation has made the decision to wind the initiative down, phasing out grantmaking and closing the doors in 2021. 

“Our approach has been to really get in early into an area of science and to see if we can accelerate the rate of discovery in an important and an exciting area. And in some sense, the way I think about that, it's like adding gasoline to the kindling to really ramp up an area of science,” Program Director Jon Kaye says. The expectation is that after achieving certain outcomes, the foundation will move on to other opportunities.

That means the next few years will be “bittersweet” for the foundation, Kaye says. A recent outside evaluation found that the initiative was highly successful in reaching its goals, and the foundation has some big new plans with an upcoming initiative on aquatic symbioses. But Moore’s still making the tough call to leave behind a field where there’s more room to build on its successes, and shutting off the tap for some great scientists. 

It’s a move that sheds some interesting light on philanthropy’s role in the ecosystem of science funding, how the sector can complement government funding by taking targeted risks, and a foundation’s limits. 

‘Underfunded Relative to Potential Impact’

Marine microbiology is an important niche in oceanography, in that the microorganisms that populate the oceans—bacteria, fungi, algae, and other single-celled organisms—ultimately support all life on earth. They serve a major role in the planet’s nutrient cycles and flows of elements like carbon, oxygen and nitrogen that are crucial to life. 

It’s also an interdisciplinary area of science, which means it can be challenging for researchers to find money, sometimes bouncing between different pots of funds at government agencies, and competing with a wide range of other ocean scientists and biologists. When Moore first approached the field, it was lacking a dedicated funding stream.

“It was under-appreciated not just how interesting those organisms are, but also how much, sort of, untapped creativity was there in the field,” Kaye says. “I think what the foundation did was to identify an area that was underfunded relative to potential impact.”

The program went on to fund individual investigators, team projects, new tools and more across two phases. An independent, external evaluation commissioned by Moore and completed in early 2018 states that the foundation’s approach greatly contributed to the field and produced high-quality science, emphasizing the initiative’s flexibility, convening of researchers, and willingness to engage in long-term and high-risk commitments. 

Dreaming Big

One of Moore’s ambitions in its science funding is to back work that carries some technical or conceptual risk that an idea won’t bear fruit, but which, if it did, could really move things forward.

That was the experience for Virginia Armbrust, an accomplished professor in biological oceanography at the University of Washington, who has received long-term support from Moore, along with funding from the Simons Foundation, NSF, NASA, and other government agencies. 

“What Moore Foundation funding did for me as a scientist was, it allowed me to dream big. And actually, dreaming big is not easy,” Armbrust says. Grants from Moore gave her the ability to try risky things she otherwise wouldn’t have been able to find funding for, including experimenting with new sequencing technologies. “Some of my most fruitful and novel projects have come through foundation funding.”

This raises a much-discussed dichotomy between public and private science funding, and one that foundations often cite as a motivation in their giving. Government agencies supply the lion’s share of basic research funding in the United States, far more than philanthropy. So philanthropists try to find gaps or complementary ways to fund science. One such approach is to support untested subject matter that might have a hard time landing other backing. Government supports lots of innovative work, and even has its own funds for explicitly high-risk research, but its main approach is judiciously spreading taxpayer dollars broadly across core research areas. 

“What the foundations are able to do is to target a particular area where they see a need and a potential and then put in the significant funding to try and push things over that edge, push things beyond,” Armbrust says.

A Velvet Rope?  

At the same time, the ways in which foundations’ science funding differs from government agency funding can also open them up to criticism and negative perceptions among the research community. While philanthropy often gives researchers more leeway in what they pursue, it also has a tendency to focus on a limited number of leading scientists or institutions.

Moore has run into such critiques more than once in the evaluations of its science initiatives. As the latest MMI evaluation puts it, there’s a “well-founded perception of exclusivity in the allocation of grants.” Similar criticism came up in a previous MMI review, and in a review of the foundation’s quantum materials funding initiative. 

Related: What a Top Science Funder is Learning From Its Deep Dive Into a Risky Area

The latest MMI evaluation references complaints about insufficient transparency and communication with the broader community in the selection process, the relatively large dollar value of awards, and high rate of repeat grants. Some interviewees were concerned that these factors “split the community into the funded ‘haves’ and the unfunded ‘have-nots.’”

Moore seems to chalk this criticism up to the nature of its giving, stating that by choosing specific topics and subsets of researchers, the foundation has been more effective at moving the field than if it were to fund more broadly. Kaye says one way the foundation is trying to respond to this criticism is by clearly communicating this approach to the research community. 

“We tell them that our mandate is different, for example, than some other funders who may be focused on supporting an entire research community, which is a really important thing to do,” he says. “At the end of the day, it means that we can't support everyone.”

Closing Time

Another tension that faces all foundations is the decision of whether to stay the course with an existing funding strategy, or free up money for something new and exciting. After all, two self-proclaimed strengths of philanthropy are its abilities to provide a source of patient funding, and to be nimble and responsive. Can it do both? 

In the case of the Marine Microbiology Initiative, foundation staff launched the program with the expectation that at some point, it would sunset. In making a decision about when, the main motivation was whether it had hit its goals. That was informed by the evaluation, which included a review by a panel of experts, and found that MMI had achieved what it set out to do, with very high marks. That said, the expert panel also recommended that the foundation continue to build on the important advances achieved. 

Another factor in the decision was the fact that, since 2004, other funders—including Simons and the Schmidt Ocean Institute, as well as some new, relevant NSF programs—have emerged in the marine microbiology space.

“The Moore Foundation was the only funder in this area back at the beginning in 2004, and for many years thereafter. So it's been really exciting for us to see how other philanthropies have come in to support this area. And we take that as a wonderful sign for the field,” Kaye says.

Of course, it’s still no doubt disappointing for researchers, some of whom have enjoyed funding from Moore for many years, now. 

“I had a long time with them, and it was very formative for me. At the same time… they can't do this forever,” says Armbrust, noting that grantees were given plenty of warning. Moore informed them of the decision in December, giving a few years’ notice before funding stops. “I think as researchers, we're always aware that the funding's not going to last forever.”

In general, she says, funding in environmental research is tough to come by, but you “just have to remain hopeful” that others will recognize the need and potential in oceans research. Armbrust does say that the support from Moore helped build up a track record and advance marine microbiology work in ways that will help scientists land other resources in the future.

New Waters

The third big factor in deciding whether to close a long-running program is assessing what other opportunities the foundation might pursue. Here’s where that tension comes in, which Kaye acknowledges, and considers constructive. “We want to evaluate the potential of a given funding stream on its own merits and come to a decision and a conclusion about that informed by, but separate from, other opportunities,” Kaye says. 

So the foundation judges each initiative independently, he says, but also needs to consider the tradeoffs and opportunity costs of what they’re currently funding relative to other possibilities. 

The latest such opportunity the foundation will be pursuing is a new, $140 million initiative that will fund research into aquatic symbioses over nine years. This funding stream looks at one particular aspect of the study of marine and freshwater ecosystems—the importance of interactions among microorganisms and between microbes and multi-cellular life forms in ecosystems and in evolution.

So it’s not all that big of a diversion, and clearly builds on the Marine Microbiology Initiative. That underscores a big truth about scientific research—no one endeavor is isolated from the other. It’s a process of iteration, learning, trying new things. That goes for science funding, too.