10/20/2006 07:00:00

Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation Awards $24 Million to Caltech for Three Projects

PASADENA, Calif.—The Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation has awarded three grants totaling $24 million to the California Institute of Technology for projects in cosmology, experimental economics, and neurobiology.

The largest of the three awards, for approximately $12 million, goes to a program titled "Peering into the Heart of Darkness: Revolutionizing Detectors for Cosmology." The aim of the program is to create a new class of detectors to study the universe for new insights into its beginning, composition, and nature. Led by Andrew Lange, the Goldberger Professor of Physics at Caltech, the six-year program will enable fundamentally new observations of the cosmic microwave background, the birth of the most distant stars and clusters of galaxies, the mysterious dark matter that permeates the universe, and the planets that orbit nearby stars.

The detectors are based on superconducting technology developed in a close collaboration between Caltech and the Jet Propulsion Lab. The superconducting sensors offer potentially large advantages over conventional detectors over a broad range of the spectrum, from microwaves to X rays. The first generation of detectors will be used on ground-based and balloon-borne telescopes, in preparation for future orbital missions.

The second grant is approximately $6 million for a study titled "Experimentation with Large, Diverse, and Interconnected Socio-Economic Systems," and is led by Peter Bossaerts, the Hacker Professor of Economics and Management and professor of finance.

The purpose of the project is to create new methodologies for large-scale experimentation that will yield new insights into social institutions such as money and banking policy, health care, and social security policy.

The work will include Internet adaptation and merging of software for certain types of experiments; expansion software to allow for flexible communications between subjects and experimenters; creation of a means of interaction through recruiting software and commercial payment services; and implementation in a few key projects.

According to the researchers, the project is necessary because of the relative dearth of knowledge about large interconnected socioeconomic systems. Further, field studies are currently difficult because the methodology often requires the researcher to interfere in ongoing social policies or modify ongoing business enterprise.

The third grant, also for approximately $6 million, goes to a project led by Bren Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience Ralph Adolphs and Assistant Professor of Psychology John O'Doherty, and involving a team of faculty from the Divisions of Biology and the Humanities and Social Sciences. The grant will fund a new program entitled "Defining the Neurobiological Foundations of Reward: From Molecules to Systems and Beyond." The purpose of the program is to study the neural mechanisms that underlie the goal of obtaining rewards, such as money and food, and avoiding punishment.

Reward seeking is common to both humans and other animals and is interesting to neuroscientists because of the way that rewards influence learning at multiple levels of brain organization. In order to comprehensively understand the brain, it is necessary to understand the effects of reward at several levels: the molecular (involving neurotransmitters such as dopamine); the subcellular (involving proteins at the synapses); the cellular (the way that individual neurons' firing is modulated); and the systems level (involving different brain regions that implement different aspects of goal-directed behavior).

The grant's specific aims will address the processing of reward in the brain at these levels. The work could lead to new insights into issues such as how drug addiction leads to dysfunction, how goal-directed behavior generally operates in humans, and how people make economic decisions under uncertainty.

The Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation was established in 2000 and seeks to develop outcome-based projects that will improve the quality of life for future generations. It has organized the majority of its grant making around large-scale initiatives and concentrates funding in three program areas: environmental conservation, science, and the San Francisco Bay Area.

 

Written by Robert Tindol