Monday, December 03, 2012

People not Projects: the Moore Foundation continues to revolutionize marine microbiology w/ its Investigator program

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:
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 GOS1GOS2 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 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:
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.  


  1. I agree 98% on all your points and think the programs are also great. However, any concern about too many funding agencies going down this road? Seems a bit scary to start basing many grants on who you are and not your ideas. Of course past success has always been an indicator of future success, but maybe it makes it harder for the little guy? Again not looking to disagree with your general post, but some might not agree that in many cases "people not projects" always works.

    1. Well, I did not say it always worked. I said we need more of this kind of thing since right now, most funding is focused on projects and does not provide enough freedom. If we get to a point where even 10% of research funding is going to people to be free to do what they want then I will grant you the ability to complain ...

  2. I don't understand. It's not clear to me how a list of people who received funding because of who they are (?) differs from a list of people who received funding because of what they said they'd do.

    What was different about the application process for these grants? I am passingly familiar with the current dominant method of grant application and decision-making (though I am certainly not an expert!), in which a Principle Investigator, often a university professor or team leader at (for example) a government research agency, writes a detailed description of what they plan to do in the upcoming period (5 years seems a common period), with a budget and details about equipment and consummables needed, personnel to be trained, collaborations with other researchers, etc. Let's call that the "Project Funding" model.

    In contrast, I get the impression from this piece that an alternative model exists, called the "People not Projects" model. What do people hoping to receive such funding do in order to get it? Do they mail in a C.V. with a note that says "Hey, I'm pretty great!"? Do they get nominated by their peers?

    Being given a pile of money and told "Go forth and do science!" sounds very cool, I agree, and must be a wonderful feeling of freedom. But how does that substantially differ from the grants I've seen professors at universities receive, that basically indicate "We don't care what you do with this money, just keep pumping out the good stuff like you've been doing and you can apply to renew this funding next time. Send us a progress report if you feel like it, maybe." The professors I've talked to about this consistently tell me they love the massive freedom of their jobs, that the ability to just follow their curiousity is the most important benefit of the current system.

    What am I missing?

    1. Some comments

      1. People who receive research grants to work on a specific topic and then use the money to do whatever they want are probably breaking multiple laws. Many people still do this - sure - but most of the people I know feel highly constrained in the traditional "project" driven funding. I personally only know 1 or 2 people who have taken "project" based money and used it for very different work than described in the project proposal.

      2. The "people" not projects types of funding initiatives which I have seen tend to review people in a more general way. You still have to propose doing something in the future. But it is much more topic driven than specific project driven. And people are evaluated for more general things like creativity, prior success, etc and not for the specific details of a project.

      3. Most of the programs that provide this type of funding allow self nomination or institutional nominations.


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