People not Projects.
It is such a simple concept. But it is so powerful. I first became aware of this idea as it relates to funding scientific research in regard to the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Investigator program. Their approach (along with a decent chunk of money) has helped revolutionize biomedical science. And thus I was personally thrilled to see the introduction of this concept in the area of Marine Microbiology a few years back with the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation’s “Marine Microbiology Initiative Investigator” program. Launched in 2004 it helped revolutionize marine microbiology studies in the same way HHMI’s investigator program revolutionized biomedical studies.
The first GBMF MMI Investigator program ran from 2004 -2012. And the people supported were pretty darn special:
- Dr. E. Virginia Armbrust, University of Washington
- Dr. Sallie W. Chisholm, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
- Dr. Edward F. DeLong, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
- Dr. Stephen J. Giovannoni, Oregon State University
- Dr. David M. Karl, University of Hawaii
- Dr. Nicole King, UC Berkeley
- Dr. Jennifer Hughes Martiny, UC Irvine
- Dr. Mary Ann Moran, University of Georgia
- Dr. Victoria Orphan, California Institute of Technology
- Dr. Forest Rohwer, San Diego State University
- Dr. Alexandra Z. Worden, Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute
- Dr. Jonathan Zehr, UC Santa Cruz
Now I am I suppose a little biased in this because at the same time GBMF launched this program they also put a bunch of money into the general area of Marine Microbiology and I have been the recipient of some of that money. For example, I got a small amount of money as part of the GBMF Funded work at the J. Craig Venter Institute on the Sargasso Sea and Global Ocean Sampling metagenomic sequencing projects and also had a subcontract from UCSD/JCVI to do some work as part of the “CAMERA” metagenomic database project. I ended up being a coauthor on a diverse collection of papers associated with these projects including Sargasso metagenome and this review, and GOS1, GOS2 and my stalking the 4th domain paper.
I am also a bit biased in that I have worked with many of the people on the initial MMI Investigator list some before, some after the awards including papers with Jen Martiny, Ed Delong, Alex Worden and Ginger Armbrust, and Mary Ann Moran.
But perhaps most relevant in terms of possible bias towards the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation is that in 2007 my lab received funds through the MMI program for a collaborative project with Jessica Green and Katie Pollard for our “iSEEM” project on “Integrating Statistical, Ecological and Evolutionary analyses of Metagenomic Data” (see http://iseem.org) which was one of the most successful collaborations in which I have ever been involved. This project produced something like a dozen papers and many major new developments in analyses of metagenomic data including 16S copy correction, sifting families, microbeDB, PD of metagenomes, WATERs, BioTorrents, AMPHORA. and STAP. This project just ended but Katie Pollard and I just got additional funds from GBMF to continue related work.
So sure – I am biased. But the program is simply great. In the eight years since the initial grants the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation has helped revolutionize marine microbiology. And a lot of this came from the Investigator program and it’s emphasis on people not projects. I note – the Moore Foundation has clearly decided that this “people not projects” concept is a good one. A few years ago they partnered with HHMI to launch a Plant Sciences Investigator Program which I wrote about here.
It was thus with great excitement that I saw the call for applications for the second round of the MMI Investigator program. I certainly pondered applying. But for many reasons I decided not to. And today the winners of this competition have been announced and, well, it is an very impressive crew:
- Andrew Allen, J. Craig Venter Institute
- Ginger Armbrust, University of Washington
- Kay Bidle, Rutgers University
- Edward DeLong, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
- Curtis Deutsch, University of California-Los Angeles
- Nicole Dubilier, Max Planck Institute for Marine Microbiology
- Michael Follows, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
- Jed Fuhrman, University of Southern California
- David Karl, University of Hawaii
- Victoria Orphan, California Institute of Technology
- Ann Pearson, Harvard University
- Forest Rohwer, San Diego State University
- Mak Saito, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution
- Roman Stocker, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
- Matthew Sullivan, University of Arizona
- Alexandra Worden, Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute
Some of the same crowd as the previous round. Some new people. Some people not there from the previous round. All of them are rock stars in their areas especially if one takes into account how senior they are (the more junior people are stars in development). And all have done groundbreaking work in various areas relating to marine microbiology. The organisms covered here run the gamut including viruses, bacteria, archaea, and microbial eukaryotes. The areas of focus covered range from biogeochemistry to ecosystem modeling with everything in between. It really is an impressive group. Delong pioneered metagenomics and helped launch studies of uncultured microbes in the oceans. Karl has led the Hawaii Ocean Time series and done other brilliant work. Sullivan and Rohwer and pushing the frontiers of viral studies in the oceans. Allen, Armbrust, and Worden are among the leaders in genomic studies of microbial eukaryotes in the marine environment. Dubilier, Bidle, Fuhrman and
Follows Stocker (double listed Follows in original post …) – though they focus on very different aspects of marine microbes – are helping lead the charge in understanding interactions across the domains of life in the marine environment. Orphan, Saito, Deutsch, Follows and Pearson are on the cutting edge of biogeochemical studies and trying to link experimental studies of microbes to biogeochemistry of oceans.
The great thing about the “people not projects” concept is that the people funded here get to follow their own path. They are not going to be constrained by the complications and sometime idiocy of the grant review process. They in essence get to do whatever they want. Freedom to follow their noses. Or their guts. Or whatever. It is a refreshing concept and as mentioned above has been revolutionary in various areas of science. There has been a slow but steady spread of the “people not projects” concept to various federal agencies too but it seems to be more of a private foundation type of strategy. Federal Agencies are so risk averse in funding that this type of concept does not work well there. I wish there was more. But I am at least thankful for what HHMI and GBMF and Wellcome and Sloan and other private groups are doing in this regard. Now – sure – all of these private foundations do not do everything perfectly. They have blunders here and there like everyone else. But without a doubt I think we need more of the People not Projects concept.
Oh – and another good thing. GBMF is quite a big supporter of Open Science in it’s various guises. So one can expect much of the data, software, and papers from their funding to be widely and openly available.
It is a grand time to be doing microbiology largely due to revolutions in technology and also to changes in the way we view microbes on the planet. It is an even grander time to be doing marine microbiology due to the dedication of the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation to this important topic.