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WHOI multidisciplinary team selected for prestigious National Science Foundation Program

Palmyra Atoll is an uninhabited coral reef ecosystem located in the central tropical Pacific. Palmyra was chosen by the WHOI team as the site for the first coral reef digital twin because a long history of research at the island has amassed a treasure trove of data and models, enabling the team to hit the ground running as they develop the project. Image credit: Michael Fox © Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

October 14, 2021

NSF invests $21 million to tackle complex societal challenges, including the Networked Blue Economy

Woods Hole, MA — Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) has been selected by the U.S National Science Foundation (NSF) for phase one of a two-part Convergence Accelerator Program, a $21 million investment to advance use-inspired solutions addressing national-scale societal challenges. WHOI is one of sixteen teams across the US chosen to participate in Track E: The Networked Blue Economy, which aims to create a smart, integrated, connected, and open ecosystem for ocean innovation, exploration, and sustainable utilization.

The project led by WHOI scientist Anne Cohen, seeks to develop the first Coral Reef Digital Twin, a 3-dimensional virtual replica of the living coral reef built from actual data and model output. Digital Twins are being widely implemented in industry and healthcare, where exact virtual replicas of engines, railway networks and even human bodies are used to understand and test the system, enable collaboration amongst different teams and assist with decision-making.  This project: A Globally Coordinated, Universally Accessible Digital Twin Network for the Coral Reef Blue Economy, will be the first application of digital twin technology to coral reefs. In Phase 1, scientists from four WHOI departments as well as the Marine Policy Center, will collaborate with colleagues at Siemens Corporate Technology, The Nature Conservancy’s Global Coral Reef Program and The University of California, San Diego to begin the task of translating Digital Twin technology into the environmental solutions sphere.

“Coral reefs today face unprecedented threats that are inching them toward extinction, and we have a narrow window of time to do something about it before it’s too late,” said Anne Cohen, the lead scientist on the project. “The exciting thing is that science and technology are making such rapid and transformative advances, that we’re able to do things now we could only dream of just 5 years ago.  What we’re doing with the Digital Twin is harnessing these advances, and we’re bringing people and organizations together that don’t often collaborate, to build something truly transformative.”

Coral reef ecosystems play a central role in the global blue economy. In the US, coral reefs contribute billions of dollars to the blue economy each year, create hundreds of thousands of jobs, and protect valuable coastal infrastructure.  But coral reefs everywhere are under significant pressure from climate change and exploitation, fueling an urgent effort to rethink how we use, manage, conserve and restore them.  The coral reef digital twin will transform the way humans see, understand, and access coral reefs, and bring that knowledge into the homes and lives of people everywhere in the world, anyone with a cell phone.

"We recognize the critical role of technology in preserving and restoring coral reef ecosystems. Use of Digital Twin technology allows us to provide access to data and imagery previously unavailable. Siemens is proud to be part of this team and contribute to one of the most important biodiversity initiatives of our lifetime," said Virginie Mallard, Head of Siemens Technology U.S. and Head of Simulation and Digital Twin field.

The Coral Reef Digital Twin is a virtual representation of a real reef, with all its features, consistently updated with new data from sensors and satellites. The digital twin allows users access to the dynamic, 3-dimensional system from a laptop or cellphone anywhere in the world to get real-time the information needed for sustainable harvesting of reef resources. Image credit: Cohen Lab © Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

Phase 1 of the NSF Convergence Accelerator is just nine months long, during which teams develop the prototype, identify new team members, and participates in weekly NSF-led innovative curriculum.  Phase 1 ends with a formal pitch presentation and Phase 2 proposal, with potential funding up to $5 Million for 24 months. By the end of phase 2, teams are expected to provide high-impact solutions that address societal needs at scale.

“The Convergence Accelerator is a relatively new NSF program, but our unique program model is focused on delivering tangible solutions that have a positive nation-wide societal impact,” said Douglas Maughan, Office Head of the NSF Convergence Accelerator program.

“The Convergence Accelerator program provides a unique opportunity to think big and reimagine coral reef science and conservation in ways only possible with highly interdisciplinary teams. As an early career scientist, the opportunity to work with such a team is very exciting,” said Michael Fox, WHOI postdoctoral scholar and co-principal investigator on the project.

Also participating in the project are The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, The Marshall Islands Conservation Society, University of Guam, University of California Irvine, Stanford University, Johns Hopkins University, and the United Nations Development Program, Caribbean.

“This NSF Convergence Accelerator award reflects a new and important federal funding trend to support deep, intentional collaboration between academia, industry, and NGOs to advance essential research for solutions,” said Peter de Menocal, WHOI’s president and director. “Indeed, accelerating innovation is a foundational principle of WHOI’s new VISION 2030 strategic research plan aligning with the U.N. Decade for Ocean Science, so it’s great to see this early win for the oceans.”


About Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution:

Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) is a private, non-profit organization on Cape Cod, Massachusetts, dedicated to marine research, engineering, and higher education. Established in 1930, its mission is to understand the ocean and its interactions with the Earth as a whole, and to communicate an understanding of the ocean’s role in the changing global environment. WHOI’s pioneering discoveries stem from an ideal combination of science and engineering—one that has made it one of the most trusted and technically advanced leaders in fundamental and applied ocean research and exploration anywhere. WHOI is known for its multidisciplinary approach, superior ship operations, and unparalleled deep-sea robotics capabilities. We play a leading role in ocean observation and operate the most extensive suite of ocean data-gathering platforms in the world. Top scientists, engineers, and students collaborate on more than 800 concurrent projects worldwide—both above and below the waves—pushing the boundaries of knowledge to inform people and policies for a healthier planet. Learn more at