Schmidt Ocean Institute: Grants for Marine and River Conservation

OVERVIEW: The institute accepts applications to use its state of the art ocean vessel and its equipment to advance ocean research and exploration through innovation, technology, and open sharing of information. 

IP TAKE: As the U.S. research vessel fleet shrinks along with federal research funding, what SOI offers is perhaps more valuable than even unrestricted funds—a fully outfitted  scientific research boat, equipment, and technical support. The institute accepts pre-applications, which it whittles down to a handful of winners each year. Preference is given to high-risk research and scientists willing to make their data public.

PROFILE: Unlike most ocean philanthropists who invite researchers and NGOs to apply for funding, the Schmidts 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 Schmidts named the boat the RV Falkor, after the luck dragon in the book The Neverending Story. The Falkor spent its first full year as a research vessel for in 2013, coming at a time when the available fleet of research boats was (and still is) dwindling. In 1995, there were 26 federally funded research vessels, but that’s now down to 19. Federal support for ocean research in general is down, leading more scientists to seek out private funds to carry out their research. 

At the same time they bought the Falkor, the Schmidts founded the Schmidt Ocean Institute, which would 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. And aside from providing the boat itself, the cost of using this research vessel is $30,000 or more a day.

The ship itself is decked out and even a bit posh. It has dry lab facilities, two cranes, acoustic research equipment, water sampling tools, and is set up to deploy other institutions’ remote operated vehicles (ROVs). It also has a sauna, lounge, and helipad.

How does one land a much-sought-after spot on the Falkor? The vessel is in high demand, and interest looks to be growing, but getting onboard is a fairly open and egalitarian process. The institute starts by inviting applicants to submit a one-to-two page Expressions of Interest, much like a letter of inquiry. Then non-conflicted experts and advisers narrow down the inquiries to 25 to 30 candidates invited to send full proposals. Inquiries are evaluated on the probability of long-term impact, alignment with the institute’s interests, and the target regions for the upcoming year. Full proposals are evaluated by independent, field-specific experts, and a review panel of broader experts convene and rank the proposals.  

The Institute is looking for projects that are higher risk than those federal funding might tend to support. It also gives priority to researchers who are willing to make the data and results from their studies available to the public, a nod to Google’s ethos of open communication and data sharing. 

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 far, the Falkor has facilitated several compelling projects, including these: 

  • Dr. Daniel Barshis studied how coral reefs cope with the effects of climate change in American Samoa. 
  • Dr. Chris German led a team from WHOI to explore the planet’s deepest mid-ocean ridge, a chain of undersea volcanoes called the Mid-Cayman Rise, with a remote submersible.
  • Dr. Kim Juniper led a team of Canadian researchers to study the effects of hypoxia, low-oxygen waters associated with so-called “dead zones,” off Vancouver Island. 
  • In 2012, while mapping the ocean floor near Greenland, the Falkor discovered the wreckage of the Terra Nova, the ship famous for carrying Scott’s deadly expedition to Antarctica. 

To see a full rundown of its past grantees and financials, click here.