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Caltech to Oversee Brown Investigator Awards Program Following $400 Million Pledge

Published on Monday, November 20, 2023 | 6:10 am
 

In a landmark move, entrepreneur and philanthropist Ross M. Brown, a Caltech alumnus, has pledged $400 million to establish the Brown Institute for Basic Sciences at Caltech. The Institute will oversee the Brown Investigator Awards program, which was initiated by Brown in 2020 to advance fundamental science discoveries with societal benefits.

The Brown Science Foundation and Caltech share a commitment to high-risk, high-reward science, supporting curiosity-driven basic research in chemistry and physics. One of the first recipients of the Brown Investigator Awards was Caltech physics professor David Hsieh, recognized for his research on novel and exotic phases of matter in quantum materials.

The partnership between Brown and Caltech aims to invest in and promote basic science. However, Caltech will not nominate its own investigators or compete for the awards. Instead, it will ensure the program aligns with the founder’s vision. Nominees will be evaluated by an independent scientific review board that will recommend grant winners. A select number of research universities across the country will be invited to nominate faculty members, within 10 years of having received tenure, who are conducting innovative fundamental research in the physical sciences.

“My intent is to support bold investigations with the potential for transformational discoveries that will ultimately benefit humanity,” Brown said.

Under the new arrangement, Caltech will grant a minimum of eight Brown Investigator Awards per year, each providing the awardee with $2 million in research funding over five years. Caltech will also host an annual symposium for the selected scholars.

The Institute will administer the program until 2070, assuming a sufficient return on invested funds. Caltech’s expenses for managing the program will be covered, and the Institute will receive approximately $1 million per year to support its own fundamental research in chemistry and physics.

“The Brown Institute for Basic Sciences will be an important source of support for some of the nation’s most outstanding chemists and physicists,” says Caltech Provost David Tirrell, the Ross McCollum-William H. Corcoran Professor of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering.

Brown spent his career as CEO and founder of Cryogenic Industries, which provided process equipment and services to the industrial gas and hydrocarbon industries. His journey in philanthropy accelerated when he sold the company in 2017 and sought to reinvest much of the proceeds to support fundamental research.

To find the right direction for his philanthropy, Brown began to work with the Science Philanthropy Alliance, whose mission is to increase philanthropic support for basic science. Marc Kastner, first president of the Alliance, now leads the independent science advisory board that reviews the Brown Investigator Award nominees. When Brown saw the many new and existing philanthropic efforts to support early-career faculty members and researchers in the biomedical and life sciences, he decided to take a different approach. The Brown Investigator Awards focus on tenured faculty working in breakthrough areas in the physical sciences, particularly ones that have potential long-term practical applications.

While researchers generally have established their research programs by the time they reach tenure, many do not have access to the financial resources needed to pursue riskier, innovative ideas that extend beyond their existing research efforts and align with new or developing passions, Kastner explains. As a result, there is sometimes a tendency to continue to work on more established, perhaps safer research, which is more likely to garner traditional grants and other forms of funding. Brown hopes the extra support provided by the Brown Investigator Awards will infuse the resources required to spark and encourage the researchers’ creativity during a time when they are poised and prepared to make profound contributions to their fields.

“It’s a period of time where you find faculty have the experience, the intelligence, the creativity, and the knowledge to pursue new, bold areas of research,” Brown says. “The awards program intends to provide these researchers with the financial resources, and the freedom and flexibility that comes with such support, to carry out this work.”

“I’m really interested in getting research done, and I think that this is a way to really make that happen in directed manner,” Brown says.

Previous winners showcase the Brown Foundation’s commitment to basic research in the physical sciences. They include Columbia’s Tanya Zelevinsky, who studies spectroscopy of cold molecules for fundamental physics; Princeton’s Waseem Bakr, who works with ultracold quantum gases to realize scalable architectures for quantum computation; Stanford’s Hemamala Karunadasa, whose research targets materials such as sorbents for capturing environmental pollutants and absorbers for solar cells; and the University of Washington’s Munira Khalil, who is developing a microscopic understanding of how coupled electronic, vibrational, and solvent degrees of freedom optimize charge and energy transfer pathways in molecular photochemistry.

One of Brown’s major priorities is to ensure the foundation and the awards it grants always maintain the core mission of supporting basic research. That is why he took the unusual step of tapping one university, Caltech, to manage awards that will go to other schools. “This is the best choice of institution for management of this awards program,” Brown says, crediting the Institute with its enduring commitment to supporting basic science and the intentionally small and directed focus of the faculty on fundamental science and engineering.

Kastner said that because of Brown’s long-standing relationship with the Institute and the clarity and focus of the Institute’s mission, Brown trusted Caltech to manage this program as a service to the greater scientific community.

“You can be really sure that if there’s one institution that’s going remain committed to basic science, it’s Caltech,” Kastner says. “It is a model for how to give money effectively to science and keep on the same path for a long period of time.”

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