Nano’s answer to the Nobel
A Small times Q&A with Fred Kavli

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July 27, 2005 — Fred Kavli has done a lot with the money he made as founder and former chief executive of the sensor company Kavlico Corp. in Moorpark, Calif. He established one chair in MEMS technology and another in nanoscience within the University of California system. He funded 10 research institutes in the United States and Europe, with three devoted to nanosciences.

But that is not enough for Kavli, who as a teen in Norway dreamed his name would be associated with world-changing scientific advancements. His Kavli Foundation announced earlier this year that it was establishing the Kavli Prizes, three $1 million awards to be given in a biennial ceremony in Oslo to scientists in astrophysics, neuroscience and nanoscience. In an interview with Small Times’ Candace Stuart, Kavli explained his motivations.

Q: Was there anything related to your work in sensors at Kavlico that contributed to your scientific interests?

Certainly we were involved in MEMS at Kavlico. That had something to do with it, but I think it is more basic than that. I graduated in physics from the Norwegian Institute of Technology, so that is really where my interest in science came from.

Q: Is there a connection among nanoscience, neurosciences and astrophysics for you, or is it the disparateness that attracts you?

Yes, there is a connection in several ways. First of all, they are connected because I am looking at the benefit to mankind in the long run as we look far into the future. But secondly, I think there is quite a bit of potential benefit between neurosciences and nanoscience in particular. And then we have the biggest laboratory of all out there in outer space, so astro science may be known to be connected (through future discoveries).

Q: Are these sciences that you wish you had pursued?

I’m happy with what I have done and I think I have probably accomplished more by supporting science this way than by being a scientist, although that wouldn’t be so bad, either.

Q: How did you develop your interest in philanthropy?

It really started in gymnasium, which is high school-junior college. I really wanted to do something that benefited mankind. So in a sense I’ve come full circle from where I started.

Q: When you were a teen-ager you had this dream?


Q: Did you have this dream as being a scientist or an engineer or as being a philanthropist?

I didn’t know which way I was going to do it, actually. I don’t think it was developed that way. I think it might have been more in the way of the sciences at that time.

Q: Can you recall how you first became aware of nanoscience?

I don’t really recall that, to tell you the truth. I think it developed gradually. It just becomes more exciting as we learn more and more about it. It is starting to see some of the potentials and, of course, it is very hard to say in advance what the future is going to be like, as you know. We couldn’t predict at all 50 or 60 years ago what it is like today.

Q: What compelled you to create the institutes?

The creation of the institutes is a good way to support sciences. That’s what we’re doing. We’re trying to create a national network, if you will, which will to some degree support each other. Of course, they are working independently, but they will also interchange information and scientists.

Q: Do they provide something you think we’ve been lacking in our research community?

I think there is always a need for cooperation and for working together and exchanging information. I think we are doing a lot better in the United States than in Europe in some respects in this way. Yeah, I think we hope to contribute somewhat in that.

Q: Why did you decide to devote three of the institutes specifically to nanosciences?

We feel that each is a very good institution. They are great science teams supported by the best institutions.

Q: Did you see them as complementary?

We think there is going to be an exchange of information. I think there will be some complementary benefits between them, definitely.

Q: In your non-nanoscience institutes, you had three Nobel Prize winners in 2004.

That’s right. (Richard Axel, a biochemistry and molecular biophysics professor and investigator in the Kavli Institute for Brain Science at Columbia University; David Gross, a physics professor and director of the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics at UC Santa Barbara; and Frank Wilczek, a physics professor and Kavli scholar in the Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.) We are kind of proud of that, but we can’t promise that every year in the future (laughs).

Q: Are your nanoscientists thinking they are in a good position to win a Nobel?

You know, nanoscience is a relatively new science and I’m not sure that the Nobel committee is moving too fast in that direction. They usually take their time. But we will have prizes in these three fields and we hope to find good candidates for prizes.

Q: What gave you the idea to establish the Kavli Prizes?

The way I look at it is that prizes are very important in that they raise the public awareness of science. I think that is important. I think the Nobel Prizes have done excellent in that regard.

Let’s face it. Most of the funds for research come from government. In order for the politicians to support spending the funds there has to be public awareness and public support. That’s primarily where we come from. In addition, of course, we’d like the scientists to really work hard and to make new discoveries.

Q: What do you hope to achieve once you’ve created these awards?

We just thought of creating a network with the institutes, and we have the prizes and we have the chairs. We hope to be a significant factor in supporting sciences in these three fields.

Q: Do you envision them having a different impact from the Nobel Prizes?

Not necessarily. We think that we have specialty fields, and smaller fields, than the Nobel Prizes have, and we’re going to have the prizes distributed every two years. We don’t want to run out of good candidates.

We think they are complementary to the Nobel Prize. We are basically trying to do the same, that is, gain more support for science and more visibility.

Q: Why three years between your announcement and the first awards?

We want to use the city hall in Oslo, and in 2007 and every odd year they have an election. They use the city hall, which is where we want to have the prizes. That’s why it starts in 2008.

Q: What needs to be done between now and 2008?

I think we have enough time. We need to organize more. We need to become better known, probably, because prizes are no good if you aren’t known. We need to set up the prize committee (involving the academies of science in Norway, the United States, the United Kingdom and elsewhere.)

Q: How will you go about setting up the nomination process?

It’s going to be an open nomination in accordance with certain procedures. That’s a little different from the Nobel. I think the Nobel has certain people who nominate.

Q: Who will choose from the nominations?

That will be the prize committee that will be headed up by the academies of science.

Q: Will you have any say in who is nominated or who might get the prizes?

Absolutely not. We are entirely removing ourselves. The Kavli Foundation will have nothing to do with that, and that’s very important because (we don’t want) the Kavli Institutes to in any way be hindered from participating. It will be completely out of our hands.

Q: The Kavli Prizes will precede the Nobel by a month. Is that a coincidence or deliberate?

We didn’t think about that at all. The thinking is, I’d rather go to Norway when the weather is good, and that’s in the summer.

Q: Will your face be in the medal?

No. We haven’t decided what it will be yet. It hasn’t been designed.


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