National Science Foundation Awards $50 Million for Collaborative Plant Biology Project to Tackle Greater Science Questions
Project will provide greater understanding of implications for environment, agriculture, energy and life-sustaining organisms
The National Science Foundation (NSF) today announced a $50 million award to a University of Arizona-led team to create the first national cyberinfrastructure center to tackle global "grand challenge" plant biology questions that have great implications on larger questions regarding the environment, agriculture, energy and the very organisms that sustain our existence on earth.
Like no other single research entity, the iPlant Collaborative will provide the capacity to draw upon resources and talent in remote locations and enable plant scientists, computer scientists and information scientists from around the world for the first time ever to collaboratively address questions of global importance and advance all of these fields. It will bring together and leverage the resources and information generated through the National Plant Genome Initiative, enabling more breadth and depth of research in every aspect of plant science.
"We are confident in the positive returns of this substantive investment in basic research," said NSF Director Arden L. Bement. "The iPlant Collaborative will harness the best and the brightest scholars and research in plant biology in order to tackle some of the profound issues of our day and for our future. Challenges that may need plants for solutions include addressing the impacts of climate change, dwindling oil supply, decreasing agricultural land area, increasing population and environmental degradation."
The iPlant center will be located in and administered by the University of Arizona's BIO5 Institute. BIO5 was founded to encourage collaboration across scientific disciplines, accelerate the pace of scientific discovery, and develop innovative solutions to society's most complex biological challenges.
"This global center is going to change the way we do science," says UA plant sciences professor and BIO5 member Richard Jorgensen, who is the lead investigator and director of the iPlant Collaborative.
"The iPlant team has a compelling vision for an organization by, for and of the community, that will bring to bear the power of cyberinfrastructure to enable scientists everywhere to take on some of the most important questions in plant science," said Joann Roskoski, executive officer of the NSF Directorate for Biological Sciences.
The cyberinfrastructure and the researchers will rely heavily on computational thinking, a form of problem-solving that assigns computers the jobs they're most efficient at, and in doing so frees up humans to spend more time on the creative tasks that humans do best. The iPlant cyberinfrastructure will serve as a model for solving problems in fields outside of plant biology too.
One feature of iPlant that will be developed is the ability to map the full expanse of plant biology research in much the way Google Earth, Microsoft Virtual Earth or Mapquest utilizes mapping technology. Like users of these applications, users of iPlant may one day be able to "zoom" in and out among various levels of plant biology, from the molecular to the organismic to the ecosystem level. For example, a researcher might "zoom in" to analyze the carbon fixed, oxygen produced, and water utilized by individual leaves, then "zoom out" to analyze how all of these might effect large-scale changes in ecosystems and how that could in turn affect air quality and climate.
Because collaboration among disciplines is central to iPlant's mission, the cyberinfrastructure also will have a strong networking component to facilitate communication among researchers from different fields. It will also conduct research on the effectiveness of social networking in iPlant and in the plant and computer and information sciences generally.
All iPlant projects will have K-12, undergraduate and graduate education components as well, which is co-funded by NSF, BIO5 and Science Foundation Arizona. Students, teachers, and interested laypeople will all have access to iPlant's resources and data, as well as to educational tools designed to help them understand that data and develop inquiry-based learning modules for K through 12, undergraduate, and graduate science education.
The iPlant Collaborative is a five-year project that is potentially renewable for a second five years and a total of $100 million. This award is greater than three times the size of any other NSF award received in Arizona to date.
Other institutions working with The University of Arizona (UA) include Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, Arizona State University, the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, and Purdue University. UA participants in the iPlant Collaborative include the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences' Department of Plant Sciences, the College of Science's Departments of Computer Science, Mathematics and Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, the Eller College of Management's Department of Management Information Systems, the College of Engineering's Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, and the Arizona Research Lab's Biocomputing Facility. The project' board of directors will be chaired by Robert Last, PhD, a Michigan State University professor.
The National Science Foundation (NSF) is an independent federal agency that supports fundamental research and education across all fields of science and engineering. In fiscal year (FY) 2016, its budget is $7.5 billion. NSF funds reach all 50 states through grants to nearly 2,000 colleges, universities and other institutions. Each year, NSF receives more than 48,000 competitive proposals for funding and makes about 12,000 new funding awards. NSF also awards about $626 million in professional and service contracts yearly.
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