Fred Kavli: He'll Pay for That

The modern world exists because of science, so Kavli hopes his funding of astrophysics, brain research and nanoscience will pave the way to the future

The Kavli Foundation

Editor's note: We are republishing this story, originally posted June 27, 2005, as a tribute to business leader, physicist and entrepreneur Fred Kavli, founder and chairman of The Kavli Foundation, who died November 21. 

Fred Kavli collects Norwegian oil paintings and ornate Asian vases, installing them lovingly around his sprawling, 12,000-square-foot mansion overlooking the Pacific Ocean in Santa Barbara, Calif. But his most heartfelt passion has nothing to do with art or antiques. As he gazes toward an orange sunset, Kavli begins to speak of life's fundamental questions. He wonders about exploring the processes of the universe, generating nonpolluting forms of power and developing lightweight but strong nanoscale materials. Instead of spending his fortune on treasures of the past, he has dedicated it to these, the possibilities of the future.

Over the past five years, the 77-year-old Norwegian-born businessman has funded 10 basic science research institutes, created an operating foundation to explore pet research questions and laid out a plan to offer three $1-million awards biannually that would compete with the Nobel Prizes. "Because I believe in it," this unusual philanthropist explains simply, as if the reasons were obvious. "Life as we know it today would not be possible without science."

The Kavli Foundation began relatively quietly by contributing $7.5 million to a center for theoretical physics at the University of Santa Barbara in 2001 and then to an institute for particle astrophysics and cosmology at Stanford University. A year ago the foundation joined the ranks of notable small grantors by making endowments to eight more institutes at major universities. But instead of following the funding trend toward seeking nearer-term, measurable returns, the foundation pays for nondirected research in its three areas of interest: astrophysics, nanoscience and neuroscience. After Kavli finds the right people and institutions, it's hands-off. He just asks for an annual report and the occasional invitation to a lecture or event.

Kavli, who studied engineering physics at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, says he picked these fields because he personally finds them fascinating--and because he thinks they will remain that way to scientists for many years. Even though he is committed to open-ended inquiry, Kavli takes a practical view of the potential rewards. "As we gain more knowledge about materials and processes in the universe, that could open up benefits that we can't even imagine," he says. "But you have to be willing to fund science without knowledge of the benefits."

Although the number of philanthropic organizations has doubled since 1990, the share for science slipped to 2.4 percent in 2003 from 4 percent a decade earlier, according to the Foundation Center, a New York City-based nonprofit that tracks funding trends. The Kavli Foundation stands out even from the handful of those that do finance basic research, insists James Langer, vice president of the National Academy of Sciences. Kavli's own passion about the fields he sponsors, combined with his willingness to let researchers run with their ideas, sets him apart.

Kavli's approach also diverges from the increasingly utilitarian focus of both academic and government-funded research, points out David Auston, who serves as president of the foundation and its sister organization, the Kavli Operating Institute in Santa Barbara. Both the Department of Energy and the National Science Foundation--long known for their commitment to basic science--have nanotechnology initiatives, for instance. But Auston believes the agencies unrealistically expect these programs to deliver useful tools and applications rapidly. To win funds from any source, scientists must usually frame their ideas in the context of studies already completed and short-term impact. "It's a major impediment to significant discovery," remarks Auston, a former Bell Laboratories physicist. "The really neat things don't come easily--they come with risk."

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