When entrepreneur, philanthropist, and Caltech alumnus Ross M. Brown established the Brown Investigator Awards in 2020, one of the first honorees was Caltech physics professor David Hsieh. It was a natural fit.
Hsieh’s research, which seeks to uncover novel and exotic phases of matter in quantum materials, demonstrated how Caltech and Brown share a common purpose: advancing fundamental science discoveries with the potential to seed breakthroughs that benefit society.
Caltech’s commitment to high-risk, high-reward science is mirrored in the Brown Science Foundation’s support for curiosity-driven basic research in chemistry and physics.
Now, Brown and Caltech will become official partners in this effort to invest in and promote basic science. With a $400 million pledge, Brown is establishing the Brown Institute for Basic Sciences at Caltech and entrusting the Institute with oversight of the Brown Investigator Awards program. Caltech will not nominate its own investigators or compete for the awards but will ensure that the program remains true to the vision of the founder.
Nominees will be evaluated by an independent scientific review board that will recommend grant winners. A select number of research universities from across the country will be invited to nominate faculty members, within 10 years of having received tenure, who are doing 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 says.
Under the new arrangement, Caltech will grant a minimum of eight Brown Investigator Awards per year, each of which will provide the awardee with $2 million in research funding over five years. Caltech also will host an annual symposium for the selected scholars.
The Institute will administer the program until 2070, assuming 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.