Why Google's Schmidts Back Ocean Research

Most philanthropists ask scientists to submit their research proposals in hopes of getting ahold of a pot of funding. Former Google CEO Eric Schmidt is taking a different approach (read Eric Schmidt's IP profile). He and his wife, Wendy, want to hear your pitch for how you'd use a different kind of resource — the 83-meter former fishery protection vessel they have retrofitted with state-of-the-art ocean research capabilities.

Through their eponymous Schmidt Ocean Institute, the couple obtained the German vessel and spent $60 million turning it into a mobile research lab. They named it R/V Falkor, after the "luck dragon" from The Neverending Story films, and plan to let it wander the oceans on a wide range of research missions.

The Schmidt Ocean Institute accepts proposals from all scientists who might be interested in taking the rudder for a few weeks or months at a time. Using a panel of experts, the institute narrows the list to the proposals most likely to make a long-term impact and expand our understanding of Earth's oceans.

For example, University of Victoria professor Kim Juniper will use the Falkor's resources later this year to examine oxygen-poor water that sometimes enter coastal waters from deep in the ocean. This water can damage ecosystems close to shore, and Professor Juniper will use the vessel's cutting-edge technology — it was funded by a former Google executive, after all — to track the phenomenon.

The winners must still find funding for salaries and other related expenses, but they gain access to a myriad of research vessels and support, not to mention the Falkor itself. The assortment includes a crew of 21, wet and dry labs on board, and even a helicopter landing pad that accommodates occasional visits from the Schmidts themselves.

"Our hope is to accelerate the pace of research," Wendy Schmidt told the journal Nature. "It's not science as usual." (Read Wend Schmidt's IP profile).

But if you’re interested in the Falkor, it's best to get your proposal organized well in advance. The vessel is booked through 2014, and the Schmidt Ocean Institute is already reviewing the second round of proposals for the boat's 2015 research cruise. You can even up your chances by tailoring your proposal to a geographic location that is near the Falkor — applicants for 2015 were advised that it would end 2014 in the western Pacific Ocean near Guam.