Microsoft has awarded 12 grants to scientists studying various aspects of search-engine technology, in an attempt by the company to foster research in this area, Microsoft announced on Friday.

Along with a grant of between $30,000 and $50,000 (about £16,000 to £27,000), each award gives the scientist access to more than 15 million queries and accompanying click-through data culled from Microsoft's MSN search engine. Winners also get permission to use the MSN Search API (application programming interface) more extensively than regular developers.

"The results of the research we're funding are intended to be totally open to the public," reads a posting on the MSN Search official blog, announcing the winners. "Nothing about this is proprietary."

The queries from the MSN search engine have been "carefully scrubbed to be completely anonymous" and queries containing data such as credit-card numbers, phone numbers, Social Security numbers and email addresses were filtered out, according to Microsoft.

The selected research projects touch on a variety of hot topics and offer a peek at the search-engine problems and opportunities Microsoft is interested in, as it wages what has so far been a losing battle against market leader Google. Microsoft officials are fond of saying that these are early days in the search-engine space and that many improvements can be made, so the company that delivers the next big breakthrough could speed ahead.

Although the scientists can freely publish findings from these projects – so Microsoft competitors could benefit from them – Microsoft clearly stands to gain from this initiative.

The program de facto establishes a collaborative relationship with these research scientists, who will no doubt appreciate Microsoft's monetary and technical assistance. And their findings necessarily will shed light on the strengths and weaknesses of Microsoft's search engine, since scientists will be using the company's query data and API technology, information Microsoft will be able to use to fine-tune its technology.

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