An ambitious grant proposal that may have benefitted the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) was recently turned down in the early phases of an application process that involved research communities in the United States and China.

The preliminary grant proposal, submitted by Northeastern University to the National Science Foundation in October, aimed to study “the genetic underpinnings” of marine bivalves, in terms of their vulnerability to climate change. A number of field sites would have been located on Wampanoag tribal land in Aquinnah.

The tribal council unanimously endorsed the proposal last fall, agreeing to serve as a partner in the five-year endeavor. In addition to potentially improving shellfish aquaculture in New England, the program would have provided training and research opportunities in the U.S. and China, including for Wampanoag students enrolled in tribal colleges.

“We are acutely aware of the potential impacts of climate change on our environment and way of life,” tribal chairman Tobias Vanderhoop wrote last fall in a letter to Brian Helmuth, director of the Sustainability Science Policy Initiative at Northeastern, who was the primary applicant. Mr. Vanderhoop also pointed out that shellfishing has both historical and cultural significance for the tribe, and that the tribe’s water quality monitoring lab “would serve as an asset to this project.”

The National Science Foundation recently rejected Mr. Helmuth’s pre-application, but Bret Stearns, director of the tribe’s Natural Resources Department, whose name is included in the application, was hopeful that other opportunities would arise.

“We are in communication with Northeastern, so we are always looking to find ways to partner as long as it works well for both agencies,” he said this week.

Mr. Helmuth said in an email Tuesday that funding in the area of earth and environmental science at the National Science Foundation has nearly dried up. Criticism of the proposal had focused on how it fit in with its competition, he said, and panelists had felt that its scope was too narrow for the funding program. He said the average expected award size was $4 million over five years.

“In terms of next steps, we are definitely not giving up the ship yet and are hoping to continue our discussions and collaborations with the Wampanoag tribe . . . for this and other grant proposals and projects,” Mr. Helmuth said.

The project would have included 12 domestic partners, including the Wampanoag tribe, and four oversees partners in China, including Xiamen University, Zhejiang Mariculture Institute and the Beijing Genome Institute.

“The coasts of China and the Gulf of Maine are among the most rapidly changing environments in the world and marine animals on both coasts are undergoing severe declines,” according to the proposal. And while China produces more than 70 per cent of the world’s aquaculture products, New England’s bivalve industry “is promising yet still comparatively nascent.”

Working with BGI would have lowered the cost of processing samples, the application states, and the Chinese partnerships would have added to the body of aquaculture knowledge in New England.

A central feature of the project was a series of annual summer institutes, alternating between the U.S. and China, in addition to year-round research by students and faculty. Students and instructors were to have been drawn from all of the partnering institutions.

Mr. Vanderhoop believed the project could have created jobs and many educational opportunities for tribal members. “The research on our local shellfish would have benefits across the board — not just for the tribe, but for the entire region,” he added.

“The big question is, if temperatures do change, how does that affect spawning rates,” said Mr. Stearns, who is involved in aquaculture research in Aquinnah. “If all of your shellfish spawn at a different time, is that going to mean that you have successful fertilization in your pond complexes?

“It’s always something that is on the back of my mind. As things change, are the things that you hold so dear going to stick it out?”