The Kavli Foundation: Grants for Science Research

OVERVIEW: Since its launch by the late scientist and businessman Fred Kavli in 2000, this foundation has burst onto the science research scene, founding several Kavli Institutes across the world, million-dollar Kavli Prizes, and Kavli Professorships. The foundation supports work in astrophysics, nanoscience, neuroscience, and theoretical physics.

IP TAKE: Kavli is extremely selective about who receives funds, but those awarded enjoy tremendous freedom and often long-term support. All Kavli programs are elite and by invitation only. While Kavli himself passed in late 2013, the foundation shows no signs of slowing down.

PROFILE: The Kavli Foundation caught the eye of the science community when, four years after its start in 2000, three of the researchers on its payroll won Nobel Prizes in one year. But racking up a few of the world's most prestigious science awards through his Kavli Institutes was not enough for the Norwegian-born philanthropist. Soon after, he decided to create his own version of the Nobel Prize, which he dubbed the Kavli Prize.

Since then, the foundation has become well known as a major funder of science research. Fred Kavli passed away in 2013, but the foundation's mission of “advancing science for the benefit of humanity and promoting increased public understanding and support for scientists and their work” continues.

The Kavli Foundation's approach focuses on making a splash with big sums, while bringing major visibility to science. Specifically, the foundation backs work that goes after some of the ‘big’ questions in the fields of astrophysics, nanoscience, neuroscience, and theoretical physics.

Awards are given through a series of high-profile, highly exclusive programs, whose small number of beneficiaries win an impressive combination of cash and are given a lot of discretion in their research.

The signature program has become the Kavli Prize, made to researchers in astrophysics, nanoscience, and neuroscience every other year, with a cash award of $1 million. Anyone is able to present a nomination, as long as the nominee is still living and the person is not nominating him/herself. Previous awardees can be seen at the prize’s website.

But the foundation’s largest expenditure is for the Kavli Institutes, a high profile series of research centers at universities across the globe. The foundation initially established each institute with a $7.5 million grant to a university's endowment, matched by the university, then provides annual interest toward the center. The endowments yielded about $400,000 annually. In 2013, the institute announced that it would increase the contribution to each future institute up to $10 million, which is expected to provide about $1 million a year in unrestricted funds when matched. Funds are fully discretionary, with no strings attached.

In contrast to program-specific funding, the idea behind the Kavli Institute strategy is to leverage the resources of an existing university with a respected staff and its own core funding, but add some extra fuel to explore edgier projects that are more ambitious or might not yield any short-term results or applications.

For most grantseekers, the downside is that funding is highly concentrated at Kavli Institute universities. But the institutes have boosted some groundbreaking research in a short amount of time. And the centers can support multiple scientists over time at the universities, instead of specific individuals or projects.

The other Kavli outlets for science research are a series of symposia and meetings (by invitation only) that gather thinkers from these same fields to share ideas and begin collaborations. Separately, there are seven Kavli Professorships established at six universities. The foundation was also one of the early supporters of the BRAIN initiative, a combined government-foundation-private-sector-funded initiative “focused on revolutionizing our understanding of the human brain.”

While access to funding is clearly restricted, interested parties can contact the foundation for more information about its programs here.


  • Miyoung Chun, Executive Vice President of Science Programs
  • Christopher Martin, Science Program Officer