TR: Was there any particular event that spurred your thinking along these lines?Moore: Nothing in particular. But, for example, I’ve given small amounts of money to the Division of Geological and Planetary Sciences at Caltech. For a few tens of thousands of dollars, some professors there have been able to try something that would have been hard to fund conventionally, and get some very interesting preliminary results that they can use as a basis to get more conventional funding. One was wanting to study the dust coming in from outer space. Evidently a moderate amount of the dust that falls around is that, and it can be determined by looking at the ratio of the helium isotopes. This professor [Kenneth A. Farley] started out to collect the crud falling in Pasadena to see if he could separate out the dust coming from outer space as opposed to local sources. And he was very successful. It certainly led to enough preliminary information that he had the ability to go in for a federal grant, and I believe he got one.
I think similar kinds of things can happen pretty broadly at any of the good schools. I’ll have to admit to being a bit of an elitist. I think the elite institutions do a disproportionately good job with their research and education. And if anything, the government would like to make things more uniform-to try to spread funds fairly uniformly across the country. There’s probably a very important social aspect in doing that. The federal government clearly can’t give all of its support to Caltech and MIT. But I lean toward making the best even better. We don’t want to build the infrastructure necessary to give away $100 million in $20,000 grants. We would be much more likely to look at the needs of an entire school, rather than trying to do individual projects.
TR: What has you concerned about the environment, and how do you plan to address those concerns?
Moore: Ed Wilson [Edward O. Wilson of Harvard University] tells me that species are disappearing faster now than they have at any time since the demise of the dinosaurs. You can just see whole areas, whole ecosystems being destroyed. This will make the world a very much less interesting place, and very likely a much less resilient place. We won’t be able to recover from some of our disasters, perhaps.
The world is changing rapidly, and wild places are disappearing. For example, I used to go to Baja California a couple of times a year when it was remote and unspoiled. Now you see what’s happened to Cabo San Lucas compared to what it was like in the early ’60s. It’s a lot of hotels and golf courses. It’s Cancn on the end of Baja.
I’ve been involved in an organization called Conservation International that focuses on preserving biodiversity. Where people are not especially well established, getting major areas set aside as preserves is one thing they’re doing. There are really a few major tropical wildernesses left, and that’s appropriate there. But in the so-called hot spots-the Atlantic Forest in Brazil, the Mayan area in Guatemala and Mexico, Madagascar-they work a lot with the local people. Getting local interest and local capacity in conservation is extremely important. But we have to help develop ways to get as great or greater economic value for the local people from leaving the forest standing-say for harvesting Brazil nuts-than chopping it down for a one-time benefit.
In Peru, Conservation International worked with Mobil, which was exploring there, to come up with best practices that would have a minimum impact on the forest and the native people. Such things as instead of building roads, you fly in with helicopters, because roads turn out to be the source of a lot of the destruction of the forest. Once there’s a way in, it’s a route that people tend to migrate out and cut things down next to-the culture just spreads in. So flying in with helicopters avoids that. And it made a significant contribution, so that the exploration was carried out with really a minimum impact.
We will certainly look more broadly than one organization. So far Conservation International has been confined mostly to terrestrial ecosystems-that’s looking at something less than a third of the world. There’s a lot of oceans out there that could benefit from a similar approach, and we’ll have to see how else we can get ahold of the problem. But the idea of biodiversity is a pretty good peg to hang the program on.