Outgoing Kavli Foundation President and CEO Bob Conn.
Outgoing Kavli Foundation President and CEO Bob Conn.

Bob Conn assumed the role of president and CEO of the Kavli Foundation back in 2009, when the science funder was less than a decade old. It was, roughly speaking, Conn’s third career, starting with many years in academia as a theoretical and nuclear physicist, followed by a stint in business and venture capital investing. Along the way, he also advised the U.S. government on technology and energy issues.

But when businessman and philanthropist Fred Kavli invited Conn to lead the science-focused foundation, the appeal for Conn was in Kavli’s organizing tenet: that scientific research will eventually get you somewhere valuable and important—even if you have no idea in advance where that will be.

“What was important about [Fred Kavli’s] vision for me, and still is, is that it wasn’t about solving a disease or developing a better mousetrap,” said Conn, who recently spoke with Inside Philanthropy about the foundation’s legacy and what he sees as the growing importance of philanthropy in scientific research, both in the U.S. and internationally.

“The core principle for basic science—whether you do it because you want to solve a problem or you do it because you just need to understand the world around you—is that from that understanding will come consequences. You cannot predict the consequences and you cannot predict the time scale of getting it back. Fred was able to take this long view, and I think that’s truly distinctive.”

Last year, Conn announced his retirement from the Kavli Foundation, which grew significantly under his tenure. The foundation is a unique one, known for two main funding strategies—annual science prizes awarding $1 million to winners every two years, and establishing endowed research institutes within universities. While there are several private philanthropies supporting fundamental research, Kavli’s endowment approach, in particular, is notable for providing funds to be used largely at the discretion of the recipient, with each institute working in one of the foundation’s core interest areas of astrophysics, nanoscience, neuroscience and theoretical physics.

Kavli passed away in 2013, upon which another substantial segment of his wealth went into the foundation’s endowment. The organization has since expanded into a new headquarters (which continues to expand), and has increased Kavli Institute endowments and added new institutes. The foundation also supports science communications work through science journalism workshops and the endowment of the AAAS Kavli Science Journalism Awards.

Conn has been succeeded by new President and CEO Cynthia Friend, who had served on the Harvard University Faculty since 1982, where her roles included chair of the Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology, and director of the Rowland Institute.

Conn’s tenure at Kavli also came during a time of significant developments in the science funding space, including the emergence of major science philanthropies like the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and the Heising-Simons Foundation. Some of that expansion tracks with the growth of high-dollar philanthropy overall, but research funders have also cited concerns over stagnating funding levels at federal agencies as at least part of their motivation.

While the approximately $40 billion in basic science funding that flows from the federal government is the foundation of research in the U.S., Conn notes that other governments around the world, including the E.U. and China, are on track for similar levels of funding. In fact, while the U.S. has devoted approximately the same percentage of GDP to the funding of scientific research, other nations have increased their relative investment in science. Venture capital has also shifted significantly to other countries. As a result, the U.S. is not the dominant leader in science that it was in the late 20th century, Conn said.

“Government funding is very large and we absolutely need it, but budgets are not rising at the federal level,” said Conn. The U.S. can only continue to regain and hold a leadership role in science and research if it makes smart use of its secret weapon and unique advantage—philanthropy. “Nobody anywhere in the world has the assets we have—of very large government funding, but also extraordinarily, relative to anybody else, philanthropic giving.”

Conn believes the wealth behind private philanthropy—generated as a result of regulatory changes dating back to the 1970s that enabled the creation of an expanding class of billionaires—will only continue to grow. Some of these billionaires, like Bill Gates, deepened their philanthropy after essentially retiring from their initial careers in business; others, like Mark Zuckerberg, have been ramping up their philanthropy while still busy with their careers.

Either way, says Conn, a great quantity of dollars, billions, can be expected to cycle into philanthropy in the coming years and decades. “America needs to recognize and look at the future with this (philanthropic money) in mind, and look at its policies with all this in mind,” Conn said. “Philanthropy will have a much bigger role to play in the coming years than it has ever had.” And that role needs to function in synergy with public funding, he said. Such an approach is embodied by Kavli’s support for the U.S. BRAIN Initiative, a public-academic-private plan announced by President Barack Obama in 2013 to drive understanding of the human brain.

In its 20 years of operation, the Kavli Foundation has developed and expanded the key elements of its grantmaking style, now with up to 20 science institutes around the world, all with endowments designed to support them essentially in perpetuity. Taken together with its prize funding, says Conn, these initiatives offer a look back at past science research that has happened during his tenure, and a look forward at those unknown benefits that will eventually unfold.