By Joe Tash
Del Mar resident Robert Conn found his visit last month to the White House, which included a meeting with President Barack Obama in the Oval Office, “both wonderful and surreal.”
Conn, who is president of the Kavli Foundation, a philanthropic organization dedicated to the advancement of science, traveled to Washington, D.C., to honor a group of award-winning scientists.
When the group arrived at the White House on June 6 for the presidential visit, its members had to go through two separate security checkpoints before they were allowed to enter the West Wing, where “we were marching like a set of soldiers around a labyrinth of hallways,” said Conn.
Next, they waited in a hallway near two doors — one made of beautiful, stained wood and the other, a non-descript white door. “All of a sudden, the white door opens, and there’s President Obama,” said Conn.
The group of scientists and dignitaries was arranged in a semicircle around Obama, who stood in the center of a carpet bearing the presidential seal. Obama chatted with the group about various scientific topics and the recent NBA playoffs, and after about 20 minutes, the visitors were ushered back the same way they had come.
“There you are, an hour later, standing on the sidewalk,” where the experience had begun, said Conn. “In the middle you had this fantastic trip, this magic carpet trip to another world, it’s almost like now you’re back to reality.”
The scientists who met with Obama were American winners of the 2010 Kavli Prize. Every other year, the Kavli Foundation, in conjunction with the government of Norway, presents three $1 million prizes for outstanding achievement in the areas of neuroscience, nanoscience and astrophysics. The cash prizes are split among the award recipients. Winners also receive a scroll and gold medal, which were presented last year by King Harald of Norway in a ceremony held in Oslo.
“It’s a reward for having done something terrific for science,” Conn said.
While the award — and its parent foundation — might not be household names, that may be changing thanks to such high-profile activities such as presidential meetings. Last year marked the second time the awards have been given, following their debut in 2008, when winners met with former President George W. Bush just before he left office.
The ceremony is modeled after the Kavli Prize’s more famous cousin, the Nobel Peace Prize, which is also awarded in Oslo, Conn said.
Conn is a former dean of the Jacobs School of Engineering at UCSD. After leaving the university in 2003, he joined a La Jolla-based venture capital firm, then took over the presidency of the Kavli Foundation in 2009. He and his wife, Anne Hoger Conn, a professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at UCSD, have lived in Del Mar since 1994.
The Kavli Foundation was established in 2000 by Fred Kavli, a Norwegian-born physicist who built an electronics company, Kavlico Corp., and also amassed a large real estate portfolio. According to Conn, Kavli started the foundation with a gift in the hundreds of millions, and the foundation now spends $15 million to $20 million per year for its various programs.
Along with the Kavli Prize, the foundation funds scientific institutes at 15 universities around the world, including UCSD and three others in California.
“This is really about enabling great science to be done and making sure the public appreciates what scientists do and how science affects their lives in so many ways,” said Conn of the work of the foundation, which is based in Oxnard.
“We’re trying to provide that early resource to organizations that do great science, to enable them to do more of the inventive side, the early work before it’s ready for prime time,” said Conn, who is himself an applied physicist and engineer.
The foundation supports scientific research in four key areas, according to Conn: neuroscience, or science of the brain and mind, viewed as the most complex; nanoscience, the science of the very small, at the level of atoms and molecules; astrophysics, cosmology and physics, the science of the very large, including study of the universe; and theoretical physics, which uses mathematical models to explain and predict natural phenomena.
At UCSD, where the foundation funded the Kavli Institute for Brain and Mind, $1.5 million in seed money over a five-year period has brought in $27 million in federal research grants, Conn said.
As the foundation works to enhance public appreciation and understanding of science, events such as the meeting with President Obama serve not only to honor the scientists, but the White House “is sending a signal about the importance of science.”
Eight scientists — including seven Americans — received Kavli Prizes last year. The prize winners are determined by the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters, and the Kavli Foundation is not involved in the selection process, said Conn. Nominations for the 2012 prizes will be accepted this fall.
Conn commutes back and forth to Oxnard each week, and in spite of the demands of his job, which also take him across the country and abroad, the Del Mar resident said he and his wife have no plans to move from their home.
“I just like the feel of the place,” said Conn, who can’t run because of a bad hip, but loves to walk his two dogs. “We go walking on the bluffs, it’s just joyful. It’s one of the best places to live in the world.”
For more information about the Kavli Prize and the foundation, visit