Do Funding Agencies Favor Collaboration?
It’s an interesting question, and certainly one scientists need to think about. In a recent conversation a science colleague said, “I think in science right now, all the funding agencies are recognizing that to answer the problems that matter, you need to bring in people from different disciplines and even industry. If you look at the major funding focus of the National Science Foundation, when they consider bio-complexity, they’re not looking for a group of people with the same perspective. Science questions are becoming more complex, so you need to get input from people with varied backgrounds.”
Examples of this are two projects that METER has collaborated on recently: the Specialty Crops Research Initiative – Managing Irrigation and Nutrients via Distributed Sensing (SCRI- MINDS) and the WSU Cook Farm project, both of which were able to get funding based in part on the use of METER’s technology, and both had a high-level of multidisciplinary involvement.
We got involved in the Cook Farm Project seven years ago because another scientist and I had an idea that fit in the context of a hot topic of the time which was to create a wireless sensor network that was densely populated in a relatively small area. We did this because at that time, scientists were recognizing that many of the processes they were interested in were occurring when they were not out in the field measuring. In order to understand these processes, we needed in situ measurements collected continuously over a long period of time.
What we were trying to do is show that you could create a wireless sensor network in a star pattern, where you have a central point collecting data from a host of nodes surrounding it. Our questions were: can we create a sustainable star network in the field to get consistent and continuous measurements over several seasons, while densely populating the study area with sensors? The measurement network that we designed allowed us to investigate how topography, slope, and aspect interact to determine the hydrology of the soil in this intensely managed agronomic field.
Decagon collaborated with scientists at Washington State University, working with twelve sites across a 37-hectare field. We installed five ECH2O-TE (now 5TE) sensors at 30, 60, 90, 120, and 150 cm below the soil surface.
What we learned was that when wheat plants grow, their roots follow the water down a lot deeper than you might imagine. We observed considerable water loss even 150 cm below the soil surface. Data on soil water potential suggested that, as water was depleted to the point where it was not easily extractable, plant roots at a given level would move deeper into the soil where water was more easily accessible. Soil morphology also came into play as hardpans occurred at several measurement locations and water uptake from layers above and below them showed amazing differences.
It was a really exciting thing scientifically, but also technologically. We learned that the star network was easily possible. It ran autonomously and was very successful, in spite of the fact that the cell phone we used to get the data back to the office never worked very well.
So it was the science question and the technology question together that was able to secure the funding. With those twelve sites WSU was able to secure a grant from the USDA for 4.2 million dollars and the research is still ongoing today. In fact, recently Cook Farm was established as one of the National long-term agroecosystem research sites (LTAR) which will help continue this kind of research well into the future.
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