Close-up of a mass spectrometer. Intothelight Photography/shutterstock
Close-up of a mass spectrometer. Intothelight Photography/shutterstock

Now just 20 years old, the Kavli Foundation has built a sturdy reputation as a private funder of science research. The Kavli Science Prize, for example, awards a cool $1 million to notable scientists in the fields of astrophysics, nanoscience and neuroscience. The foundation has also endowed a handful of university professorships in science, organizes several symposia, and supports the U.S. and international BRAIN Initiatives.

But the foundation’s largest expenditure, and its defining contribution to the scientific community, are the Kavli Institutes it has been endowing at universities around the world since 2003.

While the majority of science philanthropy goes toward project grants or to fund the work of specific researchers, Kavli establishes new, ongoing streams of funding for research. The institutes are established through a transfer of assets from Kavli to academic and research institutions, and the payout generated by those assets supports the institutes in perpetuity. The centers focus on astrophysics, nanoscience, neuroscience or theoretical physics—the Kavli Foundation’s main subjects of interest.

So it is of some note that Kavli has added a new institute, its 20th overall. The Kavli Institute for NanoScience Discovery will reside in a new building at the University of Oxford, in the U.K., and will house more than 40 faculty and 400 students, postdocs and research staff—making for a total of five nanoscience institutes so far.

The expansion of the program comes after the foundation’s assets roughly tripled in 2017 to more than $600 million, following the passing of founder and donor Fred Kavli. Even as the funder has grown, it has stuck with the same core strategies. Academic freedom and the resources to exercise it are at the heart of the foundation’s institute program, says Chris Martin, Kavli’s director of physical sciences.

“It’s a really interesting exercise in trust,” he said. “We make a gift to the university, and the payout that the university gets from that eternal gift is theirs to control.” In other words, once the institute is launched, the university doesn’t need to write a proposal or get approval from the Kavli Foundation or anyone else to fund this research project or that one. “That trust, and enabling scientists to follow their own curiosity, can make even small amounts of money incredibly powerful.”

Martin also notes that the Kavli Institutes themselves can and do evolve as science, technology and global needs advance and change. For example, Kavli astronomy institutes have been pivoting their emphasis to the relatively new study of planets outside the solar system. “We expect that kind of shift in other fields as well, and we have no idea what they will become,” he said.

The new institute at Oxford will pioneer cross-disciplinary research into the fast-developing field of nanoscience, enabling collaboration between scientists in multiple departments. A new center, operating in perpetuity, takes on an added dimension when you consider that Oxford has been around for something like 1,000 years.

With so many unmet needs and unsolved problems in society, government funding entities that direct public money are understandably conservative. While the big federal agencies do have some funding pools dedicated to exploratory and risky research, most of the time, they play it pretty safe, applying funds to lines of research with reliable track records. But as we have noted before in our coverage of science philanthropy, support that comes from private philanthropy may be a small fraction of public support, but it can play a valuable role in the lifecycle of scientific progress by giving researchers the ability to pursue untested ideas that may carry a high risk of failure. Early study of these novel ideas can produce the initial data researchers need to strengthen their applications for the big government grants.

Kavli’s approach is unique, but other science funders should similarly challenge their notions of risk and failure. It is to society’s detriment that the desire for near-term results drives the majority of science funding. Scientists—just like artists, other academics, and even business people—need the opportunities to go down unproven and uncertain paths. It’s that kind of experimentation that science is actually made of. Avenues that don’t pan out needn’t necessarily be seen as failures, but as steps on the journey. Any philanthropy that better enables experimentation by a scientific field’s leading researchers is going to speed both the basic discovery and the real-world applications that matter to society.

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