Grand ideas often start with simple actions.
The idea for the Deep Carbon Observatory (DCO) was initiated with an email in 2007. Jesse Ausubel, a faculty member at Rockefeller University and Project Officer at the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, contacted Robert Hazen, a Senior Staff Scientist at the Carnegie Institution’s Geophysical Laboratory in Washington, D.C. Three months earlier, Ausubel heard Hazen lecture at New York’s Century Club on research related to understanding life’s geochemical origins, including the possibility of a deep subsurface origin of life. After reading Hazen’s book, Genesis: The Scientific Quest for Life’s Origins, Ausubel approached Hazen about a possible Sloan-sponsored initiative on deep origins of life.
Recognizing that the problem of deep biogenesis is only a part of the much larger question of Earth’s poorly understood deep carbon cycle, Hazen responded with a counterproposal: a broadly interdisciplinary, international effort to characterize Earth’s carbon from crust to core, at scales from nano to global. In response, Ausubel invited Hazen to prepare a two-year exploratory proposal to determine the feasibility of a major ten-year effort. The proposal, “The Deep Carbon Cycle: A Proposal for Interdisciplinary Study” was submitted to the Sloan Foundation in July 2007, and was approved for funding commencing November 2007.
The major effort supported by this initial grant was the Deep Carbon Cycle Workshop, held May 15-17, 2008. More than 100 scientists from a dozen countries participated, collectively developing scientific objectives related to the major themes of deep carbon reservoirs and fluxes; deep microbial life; deep abiotic organic synthesis; and other cross-cutting issues related to energy, climate and environment. Workshop participants agreed that a coordinated study of deep carbon represented a major scientific opportunity.
By summer 2008, the Sloan Foundation invited Hazen and the Carnegie Institution to submit a proposal to initiate the Deep Carbon Observatory, and a draft proposal was submitted in December 2008. Following external reviews, a revised $4 million, three-year proposal was submitted April 2009, and funding for the initial three years of the proposed ten-year project commenced that next July.
The Deep Carbon Observatory (DCO) was officially launched in August 2009 when its Secretariat office was established at the Geophysical Laboratory of the Carnegie Institution of Washington. A Founders Committee guided the DCO in its early stages, especially regarding the Observatory’s organization and long-term governance. During the DCO’s first year, three workshops were held to define the science communities. During the third workshop, it became clear that a fourth community should be created. The DCO is currently composed of four science Communities: Extreme Physics and Chemistry; Reservoirs and Fluxes; Deep Energy; and Deep Life.