Mr. Kavli Goes to Washington

Recipients of the annual Kavli Prize always receive a generous helping of accolades for their work, but the most recent crop got special recognition: the decorated group of scientists was treated to a meeting with President Obama at the White House.

The Kavli laureates were invited to Washington as part of the kick-off of the president's BRAIN Initiative — Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies. The goal is to pump an annual $100 million in federal funding — to be matched by contributions from foundations like Kavli, the Obama Administration hopes — into research that helps expand our understanding of the human brain.

"As humans, we can identify galaxies light years away," President Obama told the group. "We can study particles smaller than an atom, but we still haven't unlocked the mystery of the three pounds of matter that sits between our ears."

It would be tough to find a better group of advisors for the president than the new crop of Kavli Prize recipients. The prize goes every even-numbered year to scientists that have made notable advances in the fields of astrophysics, nanoscience, and neuroscience. The recipients accept a scroll, medal, and cash award worth $1 million at a ceremony in Oslo, Norway.

Given the nature of the prize, most of the scholars selected are well into their academic careers. Mildred S. Dresselhaus, who received the 2012 Kavli Prize in Naoscience, was selected for her decades of work examining the way atoms or molecules are arranged to form various materials. (See the Kavli Foundation: Grants for Science Research). The astrophysics winners — David C. Jewett, Jane X. Luu, and Michael E. Brown — were all recognized for producing a volume of work on the Kuiper Belt, a disk of rock and ice that orbits the sun beyond the planet Neptune. The selection in each field are made by a group of well-regarded scientists.

The Kavli Prize is not the only support the foundation gives to science, but it is an apt indicator of its big-thinking style. Founded in 2000 by wealthy businessman and physicist Fred Kavli, the foundation's chief aim is to support good research in the basic sciences. Since then, the foundation has steadily increased its influence, giving mostly to boost faculty resources at institutions like the founder's hometown University of California-Santa Barbara or to create centers of research like the Kavli Institute for Brain Science at Columbia University. (Read Kavli Vice President Miyong Chun's IP profile).

With a $150 million endowment and the president's imprimatur on brain research issues, it's likely that the trend will only continue.