Advancing Basic Science for Humanity
06/30/2020 - President and CEO Bob Conn to Retire
“Through the dynamic leadership of Bob Conn, The Kavli Foundation has become one of the leading philanthropic organizations supporting basic science in the world. Through his vision, drive and thoughtfulness, Bob built on the work of our founder and benefactor, Fred Kavli, further establishing the foundation’s philanthropic leadership role within the scientific enterprise. During his 12 years, he has made many, often unique, contributions – from growing our Kavli Institutes to initiating new endeavors in science philanthropy, public engagement with science, and more. Honoring his decision to retire, the foundation’s board of directors and its staff thank him for his leadership and wish him well as he explores life’s continuing journey.”
– Rock Hankin, Chairman of the Board, The Kavli Foundation
After 12 exceptional years leading The Kavli Foundation, Bob Conn has decided to retire. He will step down as president and CEO of The Kavli Foundation after the end of this year. Bob is the second president in the foundation’s 20-year history. He led the foundation through an extraordinary period of growth, one that included a tripling of the endowment after Fred Kavli’s passing, a tripling of staff, and moving the foundation’s headquarters from Oxnard to Los Angeles, California, in 2017. He helped expand the Kavli Institutes in astrophysics, theoretical physics, nanoscience and neuroscience globally from 10 to 20. He created new foundation programs, grew the foundation’s leadership team, and elevated the foundation’s reputation and standing as a major philanthropic player in support of basic science. During his tenure, the foundation’s endowment, paired with those of the Kavli Institutes around the globe, has grown to more than $1 billion.
“This past decade or more has been an extraordinary journey. The privilege of leading The Kavli Foundation through a period of extraordinary growth, seizing opportunities all along the way to advance science for the benefit of society, and helping the public understand the role and importance of science to their lives, has been for me a special life experience,” remarked Bob Conn, president and CEO of The Kavli Foundation. “Nothing is accomplished alone. It has taken an extraordinary staff and board of directors working together to achieve the impact we have had over time. To all my colleagues at the foundation and to all those partners around the globe with whom I’ve worked so closely, I express my deepest gratitude.”
“Bob Conn’s vision, leadership and honing have catapulted the Kavli Institutes into discipline-defining powerhouses,” said Thomas Rosenbaum, trustee of The Kavli Charitable Trust and president of Caltech. “Bob’s contributions to science and the country through the Kavli Institutes, his facility as a convener, and his deep commitment to engaging the public have been extraordinary.”
Expanding and Creating Programs
During his tenure at the foundation, Bob played a critical role in helping employees and partners at Kavli Institutes and elsewhere form and support the Brain Activity Mapping Project in 2012 – an effort that was the central precursor leading to President Obama’s announcement of the U.S. BRAIN Initiative in 2013. The BRAIN Initiative was the first government-funded science grand challenge problem of the 21st century and an example of the crucial role of federal and philanthropic partnerships. Today, the foundation is a key supporter of the International Brain Initiative. Bob also supported a major expansion of the foundation’s work to align with its mission to promote public engagement with science through the development of new programs. Part of this included strategic hires and additional resources towards initiatives that support engagement and communications with the public about science.
“Bob Conn has moved the needle on basic, curiosity-driven research. And he’s done it more than by expanding Kavli Institutes globally or calling attention to extraordinary scientists with the Kavli Prize—he’s also set his mind to making sure that this deeper understanding of nature is shared by the rest of the world,” said Alan Alda, actor, author and science communication advocate. “Engaging the public in basic science will be one of Bob’s many lasting accomplishments. In the future, this country’s science will dig deeper, and be better understood by its citizens, in no small part because Bob Conn has led The Kavli Foundation with skill and wisdom.”
Serving as an Active Conduit and Advocate
A hallmark of The Kavli Foundation is bringing diverse disciplines together – serving as an active conduit to critical conversations that advance science. A recent example includes a partnership with the National Academy of Sciences and the Sloan Foundation to discuss the next 75 years of science in the U.S. and globally, and to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the influential Vannevar Bush report, Science: The Endless Frontier, that served as the guiding force for science and innovation in the U.S. for more than five decades. The report led to the development of the modern American research university, the National Science Foundation, and the intellectual architecture for science, engineering, and medical research and higher education in the U.S. The next 75 years will be just as eventful, and science will play an even more central role in advancing society and the economy.
“If basic research were Mount Olympus, Bob Conn would be its Zeus. His creativity, leadership and vision in guiding philanthropic investments have toppled barriers to collaboration, created space for novel exploration, and propelled nascent fields to prominence,” remarked Marcia McNutt, president of the National Academy of Sciences. “He has been the consummate champion for all of the societal benefits that accrue from innovation born from basic research.”
An advocate of philanthropic funding for science, Bob was the founding chair of the Science Philanthropy Alliance, a community of funders that work together to inspire new, emerging and current philanthropists to dedicate a portion of their philanthropy to basic science. In 2012, six partners – the Kavli, Moore, Sloan and Simons foundations, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, and Research Corporation for Science Advancement – established the Science Philanthropy Alliance. Bob chaired the Alliance’s board for its first five years. The membership has since grown from these six to more than 30 members today with endowments of current members exceeding $140 billion.
“As a founder and chair of the Science Philanthropy Alliance, Bob helped foster and guide a new generation of philanthropic support for basic science. His vision, understanding of the scientific enterprise, and constant focus on the future leave a deep impression on all of us who have the privilege of working with him, and I, for one, am grateful for Bob’s service and friendship to us all,” stated Harvey V. Fineberg, president of the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation and chair of the Science Philanthropy Alliance.
An Illustrious Career
As a scientist, inventor and entrepreneur, Bob’s passion has been about the power and benefit of science to society, which is what attracted him to join the foundation in 2008. At The Kavli Foundation he found an opportunity to build on the mission set forth by Fred Kavli to advance science for the benefit of humanity. Prior to joining the foundation, Bob was 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. He led the school through a period of unprecedented growth in faculty, students and reputation, resulting in its rise in the rankings from 43 in 1993 to 11 in 2003. Its current ranking is among the top 10 engineering schools in the country. Bob is a member of the National Academy of Engineering and a fellow of both the American Physical Society and the American Nuclear Society. 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. He received his B.S. in Chemical Engineering from Pratt Institute, and his M.S. in Mechanical Engineering and Ph.D. in Engineering Science from Caltech.
The Kavli Foundation’s board of directors will immediately launch a search for the next president and CEO, working with Isaacson, Miller. Bob will remain in his role through the end of the year, after which time he will enjoy retirement in his home of Del Mar, California.