Friday, April 4, 2008

Science accolades...more Nobel-like awards?

Fred Kavli's proposal for an "alternative" to the Nobel Prize is fundamentally good, but to rank it along with the Nobel Prizes may be misplaced. Why not consider it just another homage to the disciplines of science such as the "Templeton Award" or many, many others?

From The New York Times:

"A Philanthropist of Science Seeks to Be Its Next Nobel"


Dennis Overbye

April 19th, 2005


The boys were halfway across a snowfield when the German airplane appeared. Their rifles, clumsily camouflaged, were sticking out of their backpacks.

They stood frozen as the plane buzzed in tighter and tighter circles around them, wondering if they should run for the only possible shelter, a large boulder in the middle of the field.

It might finally have been curtains for the Kavli boys, Fred and Aslak.

"If we'd run, we would have been done for," Fred Kavli, 77, recalled recently, his head thrown back as he communed with memories of an adventurous youth in wartime Norway. "That was very dangerous, yah," he said, recalling expeditions to steal fuel oil from the Germans.

Mr. Kavli survived his boyhood, much to the retroactive relief of scientists worldwide.

A year ago, Mr. Kavli stood up in front of a group of the nation's scientific elite at a dinner at the Carlyle Hotel in New York and announced that he was in the process of spending $75 million to endow 10 scientific research institutes, all bearing his name, at colleges around the country and the world.

In a ringing Norwegian accent, Mr. Kavli, a recently retired engineer and businessman, invoked his boyhood adventures skiing across the mountains.

"At times," he said, "the whole sky was aflame with the northern lights shifting and dancing across the sky down to the white-clad mountaintops. In the stillness and loneliness of the white mountains, I pondered the universe, the planet, nature and the wonders of man.

"I'm still pondering."

The world found out what a sophisticated shopper Mr. Kavli was when scientists affiliated with his institutes won three of the eight Nobel Prizes given for science in 2004: Dr. David Gross, director of the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics in Santa Barbara; Dr. Frank Wilczek of the new Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; and Dr. Richard Axel of the equally new Kavli Institute for Brain Science at Columbia.

Now Mr. Kavli is planning his own version of the Nobel Prizes.

Starting in 2008, and every other year afterward, the Kavli Foundation will be sponsoring three prizes worth $1 million each in the fields of astrophysics, neuroscience and nanoscience.

By comparison, last year's Nobels were worth about $1.3 million each.

"The point is to create visibility for science," Mr. Kavli said. "The Nobels do a good job. It might take us 100 years to catch up." Mr. Kavli says he is in it for the long term.

Some universities, he pointed out, have lasted 500 years. Mr. Kavli is not alone in the good fight.

Another newcomer is Michael Lazaridis, whose company Research in Motion invented the BlackBerry, and who founded the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, Ontario, his hometown. Paul Allen, co-founder of Microsoft, is supporting the search for extraterrestrial intelligence.

Meanwhile, longtime philanthropies like the Rockefeller, Sloan, Carnegie and Keck have supported basic research and built telescopes.

Scientists say they need all the help they can get as federal support for fundamental scientific research gets squeezed by the deficit. "I think this guy has done a service to the country at a time when there is a constriction in research support," said Dr. Eric Kandel, a professor of neuroscience at Columbia and director of the Kavli institute there.

Mr. Kavli grew up on a farm at the end of a fjord in Eresfjord in southwestern Norway, hiking, skiing and riding motorcycles with his older brother, Aslak.

His career as a capitalist began early. During the war, when oil and gas were scarce to nonexistent in Norway, he and his brother had a business supplying lumber for furniture manufacturers and making and selling wooden briquettes for burning in automobiles. When Aslak went off to Oslo to college, Fred ran the business by himself. "That was how I financed my education," Mr. Kavli recalled. "That gave me confidence in business."

After getting a degree in applied physics at the Norwegian Institute of Technology, Mr. Kavli took a boat to America, following the example of his father, who spent 13 years in San Francisco before returning to Norway and marrying.

In Los Angeles he got a job with a small company with a contract to make sensors for the control systems on Atlas missiles, something Mr. Kavli says he knew nothing about, at least at first. "In America, you don't have to know anything; you just have to ask the right question," he said.

Two years later, he put an ad in The Los Angeles Times looking for financial backing for his own company.

"I was ambitious, face it," Mr. Kavli said.

A few weeks later, he made a sales pitch to General Electric, which was looking for sensors for the engine on an atomic-powered airplane, a crazy-sounding idea, Mr. Kavli admits. They were sitting in the lobby because Mr. Kavli's security clearance had not yet caught up to him, and he did not think much of his chances.

But when he returned to Los Angeles, the order - his first - was sitting on his desk. That was in 1958.

By 2000, when Mr. Kavli sold the company, Kavlico had grown to 1,500 employees and was doing $67 million a year worth of business making sensors for airliners and military aircraft, including the legendary SR-71 Blackbird and the space shuttle, and, more recently, for automobile engines. Mr. Kavli, who is divorced with two grown children, also accumulated real estate throughout Southern California.

Among his other loves, like travel, tennis and skiing, is his house, expanded and renovated, in nearby Goleta, a 12,000-square-foot labor of love, perched sensibly back from a cliff overlooking the Pacific.

Some of Mr. Kavli's reserved demeanor begins to melt at the front door. Inside the visitor is greeted by a row of statues. "I call these my ballerinas," he said.

Mr. Kavli, who counts architecture as one of his passions, said he had designed much of the house himself, including the mahogany ceiling panels in the three-story living room, and traveled the world scouring materials like the pink Italian marble for his bar, antiques and artwork.

One long hallway leading to the bedroom and a guest wing was lined with photographs of friends, family, adventures and presidents, including one of him with President Ronald Reagan and Mikhail S. Gorbachev in front of a piece of the Berlin Wall. There is the old farm, perched between a fjord and a lake. Here is Mr. Kavli on a balloon trip in South Africa, and touring Mongolia. Here he is on a motorcycle trip with his brother, lounging with a pair of young women.

Asked about the women, Mr. Kavli smiled shyly, the points of his cheeks flushing red. "Those are some girls," he said.

The sale of his company for $340 million in 2000 gave Mr. Kavli both the time and the money to return to his boyhood roots. "My interests are now back full circle to where I started," he said at the Carlyle dinner.

"Starting a company and making a lot of money are O.K.," he said in a recent interview. "But they are not a satisfactory accomplishment when it comes to benefiting humanity."

A resident of Santa Barbara since 1974, Mr. Kavli had already been involved with the University of California, Santa Barbara and had endowed a couple of chairs there. His first thought was to do more of the same, but, Dr. Gross, director of what was then the Institute for Theoretical Physics, had another idea.

"I think in fact that some of our friends put us together," Mr. Kavli said.

Dr. Gross convinced Mr. Kavli that helping expand the physics institute, supported by the National Science Foundation, would be a more effective use of his money.

In 2001, Mr. Kavli agreed to give the institute $7.5 million, which was more than enough to pay for a stylish addition to their Michael Graves building. In 2003, the institute was renamed in honor of Mr. Kavli.

The $7.5 million became the template for further giving.

Scientists agree he has invested it shrewdly in order to get the maximum impact from his donations.

"I'm looking for highly leveraged situations," Mr. Kavli agrees, his face lighting up, "where institutions are putting in a large share."

The deal is basically the same for each of the new institutes. The foundation agrees to pay $7.5 million, typically over four years, to the university, which adds the money to its endowment.

The interest from that money, about $400,000 per year once all the money is in place, goes to the institute.

That might seem like small change compared with the millions a university department or research institute spends in a year or the billions the government disburses, barely enough to keep a tenured professor in cappuccino and chalk. But because it is discretionary, with no strings or government agencies involved, the Kavli money is especially useful in an era of declining research budgets.

David Auston, president of the Kavli Foundation, said, "There is a real concern that the federal government is growing more conservative and more bureaucratic - less willing to take risks."

"What the money buys is flexibility," said Dr. Kandel, of Columbia. He said Mr. Kavli was providing seed money that could be amplified by the recipient.

Both the M.I.T. and Chicago institutes, for example, have used Kavli money to investigate novel ways to detect and study dark matter, the mysterious and elusive particles that seem to make up most of the matter in the universe. The Chicago group also took $1 million off the top of the grant to pay for an instrument for a telescope being built at the South Pole to study dark energy. The telescope itself and its main instrument are being paid for by the National Science Foundation.

Last year's Nobels were a nice surprise. "We were very fortunate," Mr. Kavli said. "We're not promising to do that every year."

It had finally stopped raining in Southern California. Out over the ocean, a sheet of gold was peeking out from under banks of dark clouds. In the foreground, as he settled into an easy chair, silhouetted by the light from the west, Fred Kavli was far away thinking about the future.

He and Mr. Auston plan to take a break from creating institutes soon, when the number has reached 12 or 13 so they can concentrate on setting up the Kavli Prizes.

The plan, whose details will be formally announced at a news conference in Oslo next month, is to have them awarded by the Norwegian Academy of Sciences in collaboration with the academies of other countries. The ceremonies would take place in Oslo in September, starting in 2008.

That's a nice time of year in Norway, Mr. Kavli admitted. It would also be strategically timed, just a month before the You Know Who Prizes are announced in early October.

Mr. Kavli professed to be unconcerned about the possible competition between him and other prizes. Besides his own and the Nobels, there are, among others, the Crafoord Prizes, awarded, like the Nobels by the Swedish Academy of Sciences, worth $500,000; the Gruber Prizes, worth $200,000, and the Templeton Prize, worth $1.5 million, given for research in spiritual matters, which is often given to a scientist. They all have their own agendas, he said.

Besides promoting science, Mr. Kavli said, "The main thing is to create networks of support for the institutes," he added. "We intend to be international, worldwide."

"Anyway," he said, stretching out his arms against the sunset, "money is not everything."

What do you think...more prizes?

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