UI receives $22.5 Million to continue study of evolution in action

The University of Idaho, along with four other universities, has received a new $22.5 million, five-year grant from the National Science Foundation to continue studies in real-time evolution.

This new award brings total funding for this project to $47.5 million from 2010 to 2020. The funding supports students and faculty in projects as varied as developing cooperating robots, understanding viral evolution and exploring how biological species diversity arises.

The project, known as the Bio/Computational Evolution in Action Consortium, or BEACON, is one of 14 national Science and Technology Centers supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF). The Science and Technology Center program is highly competitive, with the objective of establishing enduring projects that will have a significant global effect on research, education, and social understanding of science and technology.

Over the past five years at UI, BEACON has supported more than a dozen faculty members from across campus, more than two dozen graduate students and postdoctoral researchers, and many undergraduate students, with a total of over $3 million in funding. Researchers who participate in BEACON compete with other consortium members for funds. James A. Foster, UI’s lead for the BEACON project, said he expects UI researchers to receive another $2.5 million over the next five years.

Foster, a professor of biology, bioinformatics and computational biology, said UI faculty and students have been doing the sort of interdisciplinary work BEACON sponsors for years, primarily in the Institute for Bioinformatics and Evolutionary Studies, or IBEST.

“This award recognizes the great work the University of Idaho has done in the past and the work we will continue to pursue,” said Foster. “Idaho was a natural choice as a member of this collaboration from the beginning. This five-year continuation confirms, again, our international leadership role in real-time evolution at the University of Idaho.”

“Involvement in BEACON has brought new ideas and collaborations to the University of Idaho and contributed to the strong growth experienced by IBEST,” Jack McIver, UI vice president for research and economic development. “We look forward to a stimulating and productive next five years as a strong contributor to this dynamic and evolutionary project.”

BEACON has five participating institutions: the University of Idaho, the University of Texas at Austin, the University of Washington, North Carolina A&T State University and Michigan State University. Each institution receives significant funding and administrative support. BEACON’s physical and administrative headquarters are at MSU in East Lansing, Michigan, and each participant has a local BEACON administrative core.

BEACON director Erik Goodman said the world-class faculty members working together within BEACON enable scientific innovation and attract excellent graduate students and postdoctoral researchers.

“Researchers are drawn to BEACON because the frequent exchange of ideas makes it worthwhile for their research, energizing everyone involved,” Goodman said. “NSF’s renewal of BEACON will enable continuing breakthroughs in our understanding and harnessing of evolution in action.”

National Science Foundation program director George Gilchrist also praised BEACON’s work.

“In the first five years, BEACON has changed the landscape of evolutionary computation, creating a set of multidisciplinary scientists making strong contributions in both biology and engineering,” Gilchrist said. “The second five years promises new advances in taking inspiration from the algorithmic nature of the evolutionary process to deliver robust solutions to some of the most difficult problems in both science and industry.”