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$400 million pledge from philanthropist Ross M. Brown advances fundamental science discoveries with the potential to seed breakthroughs that benefit society
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$400 million pledge from philanthropist Ross M. Brown advances fundamental science discoveries with the potential to seed breakthroughs that benefit society

When entrepreneur, philanthropist, and Caltech alumnus Ross M. Brown established the Brown Investigator Awards, 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.

“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.”The Brown Institute for Basic Sciences at Caltech today announced the 2024 class of Brown Investigators. The cohort, the first selected through the newly formed Brown Institute for Basic Sciences, comprises eight distinguished mid-career faculty working on fundamental challenges in the physical sciences, particularly those with potential long-term practical applications in chemistry and physics. Each investigator will receive up to $2 million over five years.

Caltech and Brown share a common purpose: advancing fundamental science discoveries with the potential to seed breakthroughs that benefit society.

“My hope is the support provided by the Brown Investigator Awards will help to spark and encourage the researchers’ creativity and enable them to pursue riskier innovative ideas that extend beyond their existing research efforts and align with new or developing passions,” Brown says. “By supporting mid-career faculty, we can provide funding at a time when they are poised and prepared to make profound contributions to their fields.”

The 2024 investigators are: James Analytis, Charles Kittel Chair in Condensed Matter Physics, UC Berkeley, to develop new methods using focused ion beams to change the chemical composition of two-dimensional materials with nanometer resolution, potentially giving rise to new electronic states, including superconductivity.

Gordana Dukovic, professor of chemistry, University of Colorado Boulder, to develop methods for chemical structure determination of biomolecules bound to inorganic nanoparticles—materials that could be useful for the conversion of solar energy directly into new chemical bonds.

Robert Knowles, professor of chemistry, Princeton University, whose research will explore a novel hypothesis for the evolution of homochirality—the presence in nature of only one of two mirror-image forms of biomolecules.

Nuh Gedik, Donner Professor of Physics, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, to develop a new kind of microscopy that images electrons photo-emitted from a surface while also measuring their energy and momentum.

Kerri A. Pratt, professor of chemistry, earth and environmental sciences, and program in applied physics, University of Michigan, for research to discover the chemical compounds and chemical mechanisms that define the composition of the atmosphere with a focus on the Arctic, which is warming faster than elsewhere on Earth.

Wei Xiong, professor of chemistry and biochemistry and Kent Wilson Faculty Scholar, UC San Diego, for research on chemical reaction dynamics in the presence of light concentrated by nanophotonic structures.

Norman Yao, professor of physics, Harvard University, to develop a way to use a thin layer of microscopic sensors embedded into the surface of a diamond anvil to image the microscopic behavior of materials at high pressure.

Andrea Young, professor of physics, UC Santa Barbara, who will use novel fabrication techniques to make new kinds of qubits, the quantum computing analog of classical bits, in two-dimensional materials that will maintain quantum coherence for much longer times.

Other previous awardees include Columbia University’s Tanya Zelevinsky, who studies spectroscopy of cold molecules for fundamental physics; Princeton University’s Waseem Bakr, who works with ultracold quantum gases to realize scalable architectures for quantum computation; and Stanford’s Hemamala Karunadasa, whose research targets materials such as sorbents for capturing environmental pollutants and absorbers for solar cells.

Brown Investigators from all cohorts are invited to an annual meeting that offers opportunities to share ideas. The inaugural annual meeting was held at Caltech earlier this year.

For the 2024 class, a select number of research universities from across the country were invited to nominate faculty members who had earned tenure within the last 10 years and who are doing innovative fundamental research in the physical sciences. Nominees were then evaluated by an independent scientific review board that recommended grant winners.

“We share Ross’s commitment to fundamental research in the physical sciences, and we welcome the opportunity to help support talented colleagues around the country who have reached a critical juncture in their academic careers,” says Caltech Provost David Tirrell, Carl and Shirley Larson Provostial Chair and Ross McCollum-William H. Corcoran Professor of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering.

In administering the program, Caltech refrains from nominating its own scientists for Brown Investigator Awards. In return, the Institute draws other funds from the Brown gift to support fundamental research in chemistry and physics.

The Brown Institute for Basic Sciences at Caltech was established with a $400 million pledge from Caltech alumnus Ross M. Brown. In this unique partnership, Caltech will administer the Brown Investigator Awards program supporting newly tenured faculty in chemistry or physics until 2070. The Brown Investigator Awards are intended to 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.


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