Microsoft’s Paul Allen considering millions for climate research

By Scott Waldman | 03/15/2017 06:59 AM EDT

A Microsoft co-founder is considering a major boost to climate change research that could be worth tens of millions of dollars and increase the use of data-driven climate modeling.

Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen is considering spearheading a multimillion-dollar boost to climate change science research.

Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen is considering spearheading a multimillion-dollar boost to climate change science research. Photo by Elaine Thompson, courtesy of AP Images.

A Microsoft co-founder is considering a major boost to climate change research that could be worth tens of millions of dollars and increase the use of data-driven climate modeling.

Paul Allen has spent months exploring how to improve the modeling used to make climate change predictions, according to multiple researchers who have participated in talks surrounding the project, including some only willing to speak on background.

Under discussion is a plan to increase the use of computers in climate modeling, said Kevin Trenberth, a distinguished senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Colorado. The plans are in the preliminary phase but advanced enough that they have a board of science advisers making recommendations, he said.


"It’s nontrivial, but it’s not the sort of thing that replaces an agency or anything like that," Trenberth said.

The potential investment comes as federal climate research faces unprecedented cuts. The Trump administration has already proposed gutting climate research at both the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and U.S. EPA. Congressional Republicans have pushed for further cuts at NASA and the National Science Foundation.

Allen has been interested in climate issues for years, and his company, Vulcan Inc., has a long track record of investing in projects, said Spencer Reeder, senior program officer for climate and energy at Vulcan. Reeder, who did not confirm or deny the proposed project, said Vulcan is constantly looking for ways to improve our understanding of climate.

"Paul is very committed to filling important gaps in science that are data-driven issues where philanthropists can make an investment and fill a gap that wouldn’t otherwise be addressed by the National Science Foundation or by NOAA or NASA, for example," he said. "We’re constantly scanning the horizon for those opportunities, and within the climate portfolio, we’re looking at a number of things."

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It’s unclear whether federal science cuts will spur a wave of private investment into climate research from industry, philanthropy and universities. Still, experts say donations could never replace even a small fraction of what would be lost under the proposed federal reductions.

Some Republicans have pushed for private industry to fund more of the satellites that provide valuable weather and climate information. However, Europe has already proved this is a failed model, with essential data locked off from the public because it becomes unaffordable for most, said Jane Lubchenco, a former NOAA administrator under the Obama administration.

The data now collected by NOAA is distributed throughout the world, and losing that would have considerable risks for public safety as well as the economy, she said.

"There are things that are, in my view, appropriate for the government to do and that it’s highly unlikely that any business or foundation is going to take over," Lubchenco said. "We’ve seen this play out in very real terms in the satellite world. Because satellites are very expensive, a number of other countries have gone to prioritize them, and what happens typically is that the countries that are flying the satellites sell the data, which means they are not publicly available to citizens; they are not typically affordable by the people who need them."

Donors have already begun to target climate research, but the expenditure pales in comparison to federal money. In 2016, $2.3 billion in private funding went to basic science, and just $292 million of that went to climate and energy research, according to the Science Philanthropy Alliance. For comparison, federal funding of basic research at universities was $25 billion.

"Given the difference in scale, private giving is unlikely to replace any significant decline in government funding to basic science," said Marc Kastner, president of the Science Philanthropy Alliance. "Philanthropy can certainly help, but government continues to play a critical role in basic science support and in climate research."

The effort by Allen’s group began before the election and is not in response to the Trump administration’s rejection of mainstream climate science. Instead, Allen’s effort would be intended to fill in gaps that already exist in climate science and not to replace the work of any federal agency because of any reductions, according to those involved in its conception.

It would intentionally try to avoid replicating the work of federal agencies and could instead operate as a kind of institute or cooperative agreement. Vulcan already has institutes for artificial intelligence and brain science.

AAAS: Philanthropy can’t make up for cuts

Vulcan already has a number of climate and environmental projects underway. It has also invested in climate efforts including an ice float to measure Arctic sea ice, educational outreach about climate change and land preservation projects.

In addition, the company recently collected data on African elephants and conducted a census to show the population had declined 30 percent.

Still, the effort is advanced enough to have an advisory board and to be considering whether to use grants to boost climate research or to create a separate center, according to those involved with the project. One proposal that has been discussed would locate a research center at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder. Other options that have been discussed including giving out grants to researchers or bringing scientists to Seattle, where Vulcan is headquartered.

In particular, Allen’s group is considering how to boost climate modeling with a focus on ocean modeling and improved analyses, according to those involved in the talks.

Science philanthropy is already increasing, but it will not even cover a small fraction of the proposed reductions to federal research, said Rush Holt, CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Holt, a former House member, noted that Congress has the final say over spending and predicted that the White House proposals will be significantly reduced during the appropriations process. He said his members expect some degree of climate research cuts but also expect aggressive pushback against the White House from lawmakers.

"Philanthropic organizations and wealthy individuals are increasing their support for science, but even what would be a very large percentage increase there would be a very small fraction of what the government does, so making up for what might be lost is not in the cards," he said.