We want to share with you the results of an external evaluation of the Gordon
and Betty Moore Foundation Marine Microbiology Initiative (MMI). The external
evaluation was conducted by the American Association for the Advancement
of Science (AAAS) and a summary synthesis of the detailed 165-page AAAS report
can be found here. The summary was prepared by the Moore Foundation’s evaluation
consultant. The major findings and recommendations of the evaluation from
the perspective of MMI—the primary target audience for the evaluation
results—are listed below, along with an update on recent actions we
have taken that respond to the recommendations.
The Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation launched the Marine Microbiology Initiative
in 2004 to significantly increase resources and effort to delve into the “who,” “how” and “where” of
major marine microbial processes. Initially authorized for 10 years (2004–2013)
and $145M, MMI defined as its ten-year objective:
“Marine microbiology is transformed into an integrated field of marine
microbial ecology by applying novel molecular technologies and instruments
with the goal of monitoring, modeling and generating new fundamental knowledge
about representative microbial ecosystems in the ocean.”
To achieve this objective, during the period 2004–2010 MMI granted approximately
70 awards supporting individual researchers, development of methods and formation
of community resources. An external evaluation of the first three years of
the program was conducted in 2007.
Prior to approval of a second phase of MMI (2011–2019), the Moore
Foundation commissioned AAAS to conduct an evaluation of 1) the strategic
focus and design, 2) deployment, and 3) results of the initiative’s
first phase. AAAS also was asked to weigh in on the forward direction of
Phase II, both in light of learning and recommendations stemming from Phase
I, and based upon broader knowledge of the field. Phase II objectives of
MMI are to uncover the principles 1) that govern the interactions among microbes
(who interacts with whom, how, when, where, and the consequences thereof)
and 2) that influence the microbially mediated nutrient flow in the marine
environment (who consumes and excretes what, where, how much, when, and the
Four Major Findings
1) MMI-supported grants made between 2004–2010 transformed significant
aspects of marine microbiology that may ultimately help to transform the
field of marine microbial ecology more broadly.
- The most transformative aspect of the MMI funding was bringing “omics” techniques
(genomics, metagenomics and metatranscriptomics) to the forefront of
marine microbial ecology and to support major breakthroughs in microbial
- Before the MMI was founded, many were skeptical that these approaches
could successfully advance and refine knowledge of marine microbes. The
pioneering work of the MMI grantees transformed methodologies and approaches
deemed high-risk only eight years ago to routinely used tools and methods
today, and are now part of the canon of marine microbiology.
2) A critical contributing factor to MMI’s success in transforming
significant aspects of the field was the creation of an investigator program,
which provided remarkably generous funding to a small and highly select
group of established and emerging leaders in marine microbial ecology.
- Although there is not a way to determine whether the advances they
achieved through MMI awards might have occurred without MMI funding,
there is little doubt that the program significantly accelerated the
rate of discovery on some of the major questions they addressed.
3) New tools developed by the MMI may well represent one of the most significant
and enduring legacies of the program.
- MMI invested heavily in equipment infrastructure to ensure that scientists
could work with cutting edge, high quality facilities. That strategy
worked well, with genomics investments showing significant early returns
and others showing great promise.
- The ability of MMI to respond quickly to evolving technologies and
take higher risks than traditional funding agencies in providing new
instrumentation significantly helped bring advanced, diverse technologies
to the marine microbial world and to the scientific community.
4) The detailed assessment of CAMERA found that it has offered a range
of unique services including exceptionally well curated datasets, capability
for large BLAST searches (unavailable elsewhere due to excessive computational
intensity), customizable workflows for making sophisticated data queries,
and expert consulting services to help microbiology researchers.
- The vision for MMI-supported CAMERA was to create a central data repository
together with bioinformatics tools to serve the needs of the marine microbiology
community and other users.
- The assessment found that CAMERA faces several important challenges
with regard to future scale-up and continued service to its targeted
Four Major Recommendations
1) The External Advisory Committee (EAC)
suggests that MMI prioritizes the following opportunities as essential
to attaining its Phase II objectives and define a strategy to address
them: i) MMI consider expanding to address other environments (coastal,
deeper waters, sediments, etc.); ii) extend microbial interactions with
other organisms up the food chain; iii) support study of changing oceans
and impact of human and natural perturbations
MMI Program Director Response:Precisely because MMI cannot encompass all
aspects of marine ecology, we have developed our Phase II focus areas to
emphasize new knowledge of microbial interactions and microbially mediated
nutrient flow. The overarching goal of MMI during Phase II is to uncover
generalizable ecological principles and they will be pursued in the environments
most appropriate for the questions being addressed. Further, by supporting
a deeper understanding of important ecological principles, the new knowledge
gained will enhance the research community’s understanding of all
marine environments, many ocean processes and many if not all types of
2) The EAC recommends that workshops are more extensively used to bring
together PIs, post docs, and students with the MMI investigators to promote
cross-fertilization among and synthesis across projects and to add value
to individual projects.
MMI Program Director Response: We recognize the need for further integrating
all our grantees to promote cross-fertilization and synthesis across projects,
not just the investigators as was done in the first years of the Initiative.
We also recognize the value of convening workshops. We have begun deliberate
efforts to incentivize interactions and collaborations using multiple mechanisms.
As one example we convened a modeling workshop last spring that included
seventeen PIs from nine different projects and about fourteen additional
scientists. We are also planning a symposium later this year that will
bring together just postdocs and research associates from all the projects
3) The EAC does not recommend continuing CAMERA in its present form and
suggests considering the possibility of evolving CAMERA into an entity
that collaborates with other federal and foundation-funded projects for
developing and managing databases. This strategy would deliver an
extremely valuable contribution to the field as the size and types of data
sets continue to increase.
MMI Program Director Response:CAMERA’s goal -- to create a cyberinfrastructure
to enable researchers to query genomic and metagenomic data within an appropriate
environmental context -- was visionary when it was established in 2004.
Eight years later, there are few comparable entities that provide the exceptionally
well-curated metagenomic datasets found within CAMERA and thus it continues
to be a valuable resource to the community. Since CAMERA’s inception,
sequencing and computing technologies have changed dramatically, requiring
a greater diversity of bioinformatics tools and computing needs to address
questions that were unimaginable only a few years ago. We agree with the
EAC’s recommendation and will seek to encourage the development of
a diverse and durable ecosystem of marine metagenomics cyberinfrastructures
through partnerships with multiple grantees and funders.
4) The EAC recommends that the Moore Foundation find ways to bring the
broader marine community into their advisory process. The broader marine
microbial community needs to understand MMI’s decision-making process
and how this tracks with the initiative’s long-term, targeted time-phased
outcomes. In addition, the program staff ought to engage researchers
from other areas such as biogeochemistry and nutrient dynamics.
MMI Program Director Response: We recognize the need for the community
to better understand what MMI does and how we do it. Therefore, we
are implementing ways for improved and increased communications with the
community. As an example, we have started sponsoring social gatherings
and town hall meetings at appropriate venues such as the Ocean Sciences
meeting where we create opportunities for two-way conversations with the
community about our activities. We engage with and use the multiple external
advisors who assist us in grant reviews and provide us guidance in designing
and managing our portfolio, although as with any grant review process,
the identities of reviewers and contents of proposals are held strictly
confidential. We see value in cultivating our grantees to be ambassadors
of MMI to the science community and in maintaining close communications
with other funders about our goals and processes.
A summary of the AAAS 2012 evaluation of the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation’s
Marine Microbiology Initiative can be found here. Please note that
the 20-page linked document is a summary prepared by the Moore Foundation
of the 165-page final report submitted by AAAS in 2012.