Fort Worth businessman Edward P. Bass has donated $30 million to the University of Arizona to support Biosphere 2, a laboratory for controlled studies of earth sciences.
This gift is the third major commitment by Bass’ Philecology Foundation to support the university’s research and operations at Biosphere 2’s nearly 40-acre campus and 3-acre research facility in Oracle, Arizona, north of Tuscon in the Sonora Desert. Investments in 2007 and 2011 benefited Biosphere 2 and surrounding facilities and research. The University of Arizona has operated the facility as a laboratory for scientific discovery, a formal and informal science education center and a major regional attraction. More than 900,000 people have visited Biosphere 2 since 2007.
“Biosphere 2 could not be in better or more committed hands,” Bass said in a news release. “The University of Arizona is ideally suited to make the most of Biosphere 2’s resources. I’m confident in its ability to benefit our planet’s long-term well-being and excited about what we will learn.”
Bass financed the original construction of the Biosphere in the late 1980s. Experiments in Biosphere 2 took place from 1991 to 1994. The University of Arizona took over management of the facility in 2007 and acquired it in 2011.
Joaquin Ruiz, director of Biosphere 2 and UA vice president for innovation, said, “The world needs people like Mr. Ed Bass, with his unique vision and passion to make a positive impact on our world. With this generous gift, Mr. Bass enables us to continue to address grand scientific challenges, such as global climate change, that impact our daily lives in profound ways.”
Bass’ gift establishes an endowed faculty chair, the Philecology Chair for Biospheric Research, which supports two positions and is amplified through the state-funded Eminent Scholars Program. The commitment also establishes the Philecology Biospheric Research Endowment Fund, which will be used to maintain, operate and improve Biosphere 2 in support of its research programs.
Peter Troch, Biosphere 2 director of science, and Kevin Bonine, Biosphere 2 director of outreach and education, have been appointed to the positions funded by the Philecology Chair for Biospheric Research.
“This commitment is among the largest in the University’s history and will have tremendous impact on environmental science,” said John-Paul Roczniak, president and CEO of the University of Arizona Foundation. “We are grateful for Mr. Bass’ continued investment in the University and look forward to stewarding his endowment so that it supports the vital research of Biosphere 2 in perpetuity.”
Biosphere 2 houses the Landscape Evolution Observatory, or LEO, the world’s largest laboratory experiment in earth sciences. LEO consists of three identical hillslopes, each measuring 100 feet long and 40 feet wide. A network of more than 1,800 sensors embedded in the soil tracks the flow of water, helping scientists answer questions about how physical and biological processes control the evolution of landscapes and how time and climate change affect water flowing through landscapes.
University of Arizona researchers also are using Biosphere 2’s simulated rainforest to study how plants cope with high temperatures and drought to better understand how climate change may affect forests.
Other work includes experimenting with agrivoltaics, which involves growing plants beneath solar panels, pairing renewable energy with agriculture to increase energy efficiency and reduce evaporation. Biosphere 2 researchers recently found that growing native grasses under the solar panels stabilizes dust production and enhances energy output by up to 4 percent during midday, prompting scientists to explore the possibility of growing food crops rather than native grasses.
In 2016, the University of Arizona reaffirmed its commitment to Biosphere 2 as a university-wide hub for cutting-edge environmental research and engagement when the facility and its operations were moved to the Office for Research, Discovery & Innovation.
“As one of our nation’s top 25 public research institutions, we are poised to take Biosphere 2 to new heights in the coming decade,” said Kimberly Andrews Espy, the university’s senior vice president for research. “We are committed to its continuing success, the place where researchers from a variety of disciplines at the UA and across the world will come together to uncover the systems-level mechanisms that support complex ecosystems to evaluate new solutions for adaptation to the changing conditions.”
Biosphere 2 employs 55, including research faculty from across the world. Its annual budget is about $8 million. Biosphere 2 also receives funds through federally-funded research grants from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, National Science Foundation, and the U.S. Department of Energy.