[Research] NYTimes: A Philanthropist of Science Seeks to Be Its Next Nobel


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.


"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.

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."


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