In 2004, our board of trustees approved the Marine Microbiology Initiative – the first initiative of our foundation’s Science Program. The first phase of the initiative focused on answering the question of “who’s there?” among the microbes in the sea and incorporating the functions of diverse microbial groups into models of the ocean’s elemental cycles. Substantial support was targeted toward metagenomics, technology development and computational modeling.
In 2010, our board approved a second phase, with work continuing through 2019. The focus of the initiative’s second phase is to advance understanding of marine microbial communities by enabling researchers to uncover the scientific principles that govern the interactions among microbes and microbially mediated nutrient flow in the ocean.
To achieve this goal, the initiative adopted three strategies:
- Overcoming interdisciplinary barriers
- Developing new technologies, methods, computational modeling techniques and theory
- Broadening adoption of genetically manipulable experimental model systems
In this phase of the initiative, support focuses on individual investigators, multidisciplinary team projects, community resource projects, and development of tools and technology.
An external independent evaluation of the initiative’s second phase was conducted by Science-Metrix from February 2017 through February 2018. The purpose of the evaluation was to provide an objective assessment of the Marine Microbiology Initiative’s degree of success in achieving its desired outcomes, an analysis of the design and implementation of its strategies and an analysis of risk-taking across the interventions. In addition to the evaluation by Science-Metrix, a panel of scientific experts also assessed the initiative’s scientific impact and offered future opportunities for the foundation. The expert panel’s findings were integrated into Science-Metrix’s evaluation report.
Lessons from the external evaluation and expert panel report include:
- A grantmaking portfolio that is both diverse and synergistic can amplify an initiative’s impact. Both the evaluators and the expert panel commented on the synergies between the initiative’s grantmaking approaches, noting that this synergy enhanced interdisciplinarity and created a holistic effect with the “whole greater than the sum of its parts.” For example, grantees benefitted not just from support to pursue specific scientific questions, but also from community resources such as genome sequence datasets and broadly-relevant methods created through foundation support.
- There is high value in engaging both professional evaluators and independent expert panels. The evaluators highlighted the value of engaging expert scientific panels and recommended that the initiative continue to engage experts to assess outcome achievement and future opportunities. Foundation staff found that having Science-Metrix and the expert panel work in an integrated manner yielded a more comprehensive review of the initiative.
- Investing in methods and technology can be instrumental for enhancing the initiative’s impact. The evaluators noted that the development of new technologies, techniques, tools and methods was visible across all grantmaking approaches and contributed to the overall effectiveness of the initiative. These developments helped strengthen the achievements of many grantees, including those who were not actively developing new tools and methods.
- It is important to take a flexible approach in managing and adapting strategies. Evaluators reported evidence that the initiative was flexible and refocused its investments on strategies as needs emerged or became less prevalent. For example, the initiative continuously reflected on the needs of the scientific community and adjusted its goals based on the scientific areas that were gaining or losing traction. Both the evaluators and expert panel noted the value in adaptively managing the initiative such that its efforts remained relevant and responsive to the needs of the field.
- Developing a clear theory of change and robust monitoring framework can be challenging but is important for adaptive management. The evaluators highlighted the importance of developing an explicit theory of change and a standardized performance measurement system. While this can be challenging, it allows for continuous monitoring and assessment that is critical for a funding program’s management approach.
The external evaluation and expert panel reports were useful in identifying both successes and challenges of the initiative’s work, as well as providing recommendations for future investment. Both reports validated the effectiveness of the initiative’s strategies and the significant impact that the initiative has had on the field of marine microbial ecology to date, as well as lessons that can be applied for future work within our Science Program.