"The Role of Foundations and Scientific Societies in Supporting Frontier Research at Disciplinary Boundaries”

Robert Conn, Kavli FoundationRobert W. Conn
President & CEO
The Kavli Foundation

"The Role of Foundations and Scientific Societies in Supporting Frontier Research at Disciplinary Boundaries”

Abstract: Scientific societies have historically played a central role by enabling scientists to share and discuss discoveries and by providing major channels such as journals for the dissemination of scientific results.  These roles are being affected by the amount of cross-disciplinary work now characteristic of so much science, and by the new means enabled by the Internet for communicating and discussing the latest scientific results.   After an introduction to The Kavli Foundation, I will discuss how we approach supporting basic research in emerging, interdisciplinary fields, particularly ones where the physical sciences play a critical role.  As a foundation, we have found methods that are working well and some of these may be appropriate for scientific societies.  Finally, I will describe an initiative, the Science Philanthropy Alliance, recently established by a group of private foundations to enhance philanthropic support of basic science.  The scale of philanthropy in supporting science within and across disciplines exceeds $6 billion per year, making it an important partner to the scientific community. Philanthropy is also an important source of support for early, higher risk research and for early and mid-career scientists. 

Biography: Robert W. Conn is President and CEO of The Kavli Foundation, joining the Foundation in 2009. The Kavli Foundation is dedicated to advancing science for the benefit of humanity, promoting public understanding of scientific research, and supporting scientists and their work.  The Foundation awards the Kavli Prize biennially, has established twenty endowed Kavli Institutes in the fields of astrophysics, nanoscience, neuroscience and theoretical physics, and has played a seminal role in several major science initiatives, most particularly the U.S. BRAIN Initiative. The Kavli Foundation, along with five other foundations, formed the Science Philanthropy Alliance to increase philanthropic support for basic science.  Dr. Conn serves as Board Chair of the Alliance.

Dr. Conn is recognized for his academic achievements, his leadership in education and research, and for his experience in the private sector.  He began his academic career at the University of Wisconsin-Madison where he became Romnes Faculty Professor of Engineering Physics and served as founding director of the University’s Fusion Technology Institute. He moved to UCLA as Professor of Engineering and Applied Science and there led the formation of UCLA’s Institute of Plasma and Fusion Research.

Dr. Conn has been a leading researcher in plasma physics, fusion energy, energy policy and materials science. He pioneered, beginning in the 1970’s, the study of fusion systems as potential power reactors, identifying the major physics and engineering challenges facing the development of practical fusion energy. His theoretical and experimental research focused on plasma physics, the plasma boundary layer, surface science and chemical physics. He was elected to the National Academy of Engineering in 1987 for his pioneering research contributions to the fields of plasma physics and fusion energy.

Dr. Conn left UCLA in 1993 to become Dean of the Irwin and Joan Jacobs School of Engineering at the University of California, San Diego and Walter J. Zable Professor of Engineering Science. While Dean, he led the School through a unprecedented period of growth in faculty, students and reputation, resulting in its current ranking among the top twelve engineering schools in the country. He worked closely with student groups to help ensure that all students gained the best possible experience while at the campus. Research centers established during Dr. Conn’s tenure include the Center for Wireless Communications and the Whitaker Institute for Biomedical Engineering.  He led a partnership across the UCSD campus to establish the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology (Calit2), which in 2001 received $100 million from the State and $160 Million from industry and private donors. Dr. Conn built partnerships between the university and industry and established the von Liebig Center for Entrepreneurism and Technology Transfer.

Dr. Conn’s experience in the private sector includes co-founding Plasma & Materials Technologies, Inc., a company that developed etching and thin film deposition equipment used to manufacture semiconductors.  PMT had its initial public offering on NASDAQ in 1995. He has also served on the Boards of two public companies in the semiconductor space, Intersil and STATS-ChipPAC, Inc.  Dr. Conn was from 2002 to 2008 a Managing Director at Enterprise Partners Venture Capital (EPVC), a VC firm specializing in early-stage high tech and life science companies.

Dr. Conn is a member of the National Academy of Engineering and a Fellow of both the American Physical Society and the American Nuclear Society. Awards for his research include the Ernest O. Lawrence Memorial Award, presented on behalf of the President by the Secretary of Energy; the McGraw Research Award of the American Association of Engineering Education; the Distinguished Associate Award of the U.S. Department of Energy; and the Distinguished Alumni Award of the California Institute of Technology. He has served on committees for the U.S. Government, the University of California, the National Research Council, the National Academies, and several national laboratories. Dr. Conn received his B.S. in Chemical Engineering from Pratt Institute, and he M.S. in Mechanical Engineering and Ph.D. in Engineering Science from the California Institute of Technology.