This morning, the University of Arizona’s soft spoken Dean of the College of Science, Joaquin Ruiz, stood outside Biosphere 2, the 3.15-acre miniature world-under-glass just north of Tucson. He announced to a small crowd of well wishers and press that the University is taking over. With a new battle cry ‘Where Science Lives’ emblazoned on signs, a team of roughly 50 hopes to perform world-class science relevant to today’s grand challenges and inspire and educate people about them.

“Unique” was the word most uttered by this morning’s speakers when referring to the glass and steel structure.

“Bad science” is what a number of scientists have said over the 15 plus years of the project’s career. Travis Huxman, the building’s new Director, understands what those scorners haven’t, that “Biosphere 2 bridges the gap between lab and field experiments.”

Laboratory experiments don’t always apply to the real world, and ecosystem research in nature is not always very controlled – after all, who can control the weather? But Biosphere 2 has some of the complexity of the real world, while being much more controllable. You want a flood? You’ve got it right on time. Need a four year drought? No problem.

The University of Arizona was not the first institution to recognize this “unique” attribute. Columbia University ran the place from 1996 – 2003 and did some ground-breaking research there. Most notable was a study that was the first to measure the effects of rising CO2 on coral growth. The research confirmed what marine biologists suspected they saw in natural reefs – rising CO2 was damaging the corals, and the other many organisms made of calcium carbonate.

In 2003 Columbia pulled out because the school leadership changed, and the new President wanted to focus efforts on the east coast. After that, the project sat more or less purposeless, showing up more in travel blogs than research papers, until today.

Now, the University of Arizona will use Biosphere 2 for research that can loosely come under the umbrella of global climate change, including the interactions of elevated CO2, water and ecosystems. They will be accepting research proposals, hoping to pique the imagination of talented researchers around the globe.

There will also be an interdisciplinary think tank called B2 Institute hoping to attract international scientists to tackle big subjects like sustainable development and energy, astrobiology and the origins of life, quantum science, and science education. Pierre Meystre, a physicist with an endearing French accent who will run the B2 Institute, even talked about artists in residence. “Artists speak to a very important and different part of the population.”

Visitors will still be able to go inside the rainforest, savannah and desert ecosystems, and peer over the ocean and marsh. But rather than touring a museum, as it has felt for the past few years, “People will see science in the making.” Said Dr. Meystre.

Funding isn’t a problem for now – the University has received “a generous gift from the Philecology Foundation,” said Dr. Huxman. The amount was not disclosed, but will cover operations and research for three years, and possibly as long as ten.

It warmed the cockles of my heart to hear so much enthusiasm for a project that I still feel is my baby – as everyone does who was part of creating it.

But I couldn’t help getting a queasy feeling as I listened to this morning’s ‘historic announcement.’ I’d been there before, twice in fact. Fifteen years ago, the first group (which included me) that built and ran the first crewed experiments, talked about bringing together art and science, interdisciplinary think tanks, and addressing global science challenges. Our reign ended in a cloud of controversy. Columbia had similar grand schemes in mind. They quit.

I hope the oft-repeated phrase from this morning is true: “Third time’s the charm!”