Billionaire Ed Bass is giving $30 million to Biosphere 2, the massive, futuristic earth science project he helped create in Arizona’s Sonoran Desert more than 30 years ago.
The University of Arizona announced the gift Wednesday, saying it is the third major commitment Bass’s Philecology Foundation has made to support the 40-acre campus in Oracle, Ariz. The latest donation will be gifted to the university by the end of the year.
Besides establishing a faculty endowed chair, the commitment from the Fort Worth investor and developer will create the Philecology Biospheric Research Endowment Fund, which will be used to maintain, operate and improve Biosphere 2 in support of its research programs on environmental change and management of resources.
“We’re very excited, as you can imagine,” said John Adams, deputy director of Biosphere 2. “Ed Bass has been involved since Day One and this gift will provide financial support well into the future.”
The university operates the facility, located 20 miles north of Tucson, as a large-scale laboratory for controlled scientific studies and a formal and informal science education center. It also is a major regional attraction that has been visited by more than 900,000 people since 2007.
Bass was praised by university officials not only for his generosity, but for being a visionary who understands the importance of research that looks to mankind’s collective future.
“This work is directly applicable to successful crop growth, water conservation and energy security, and even growing food on other planets,” University of Arizona President Robert C. Robbins said in a prepared statement. “I am very grateful to Mr. Bass for his generosity and for what this gift will help the University of Arizona accomplish.”
Biosphere 2 could not be in “better or more committed hands,” Bass said.
“The University of Arizona is ideally suited to make the most of Biosphere 2’s resources,” Bass said in a prepared statement. “I’m confident in its ability to benefit our planet’s long-term well-being and excited about what we will learn.”
Biosphere 2 includes a 3.15-acre glass-and-steel geodesic dome that acts as a terrarium, a student village, administrative offices and a power plant.
Biosphere 2 — so-named because the Earth is Biosphere 1 — houses the Landscape Evolution Observatory, the world’s largest experiment in earth sciences. LEO includes three, 100-foot-long hillslopes where scientists study the physical and biological processes of flowing water and how time and climate change because of it.
Researchers also use the Biosphere’s simulated rainforest to study how plants cope with high temperatures and drought to better understand how climate change may affect forests from the Amazon to Arizona.
“It is a unique laboratory because of its size and how you can manipulate conditions to then look at system responses,” Adams said. “That is really the key. We can turn up and turn down the thermostat and change conditions on a large scale.”
Biosphere 2 has had a colorful past. While it has been around since the early 1980s, it came onto everyone’s radar screen in 1991 when eight people were sealed inside for a two-year experiment in self-sufficiency. Bass spent about $200 million to build the facility.
But scientists questioned the validity of their research and, after losing millions of dollars on the project, Bass sought managerial assistance and academic respectability by bringing in a university partner to transform it into a research center.
Originally, Columbia University managed the facility starting in 1996. But that relationship ended in 2003. Four years later, the University of Arizona assumed management.