$400 Million Gift to Caltech Will Fund Science Research at Other Universities
As CEO of Cryogenic Industries, Ross Brown learned that midcareer researchers “with restless minds” need funding.
As CEO of Cryogenic Industries, Ross Brown saw firsthand how scientific research shaped the technology that made his company a success.
“Scientists long before us had paved the way, gave us information,” Brown says, without which “it would’ve been impossible to do what we did.”
[Maybe say briefly, if possible, what Cryogenic Industries accomplished to connect the thread?]
Brown’s high esteem for scientific investigation prompted him in 2020 to launch the Brown Investigator Awards program at his foundation, which has provided five-year, $2 million awards to 13 mid-career, tenured faculty working on chemistry and physics research.
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As CEO of Cryogenic Industries, Ross Brown saw firsthand how scientific research shaped the technology that made his company a success in providing equipment and services to the industrial gas and hydrocarbon industries.
“Scientists long before us had paved the way, gave us information,” Brown says, without which, “it would’ve been impossible to do what we did.”
Brown’s high esteem for scientific investigation prompted him in 2020 to launch the Brown Investigator Awards program at his foundation, which has provided five-year, $2 million awards to 13 midcareer, tenured faculty working on chemistry and physics research.
That program is now finding a new home at the California Institute of Technology — and will be fueled for decades to come by a $400 million gift from Brown. Caltech will make the $2 million awards to at least eight researchers each year, while additional funding will be used to support other physical science research at Caltech.
After selling his company in 2017, Brown sought the advice of the Science Philanthropy Alliance, a project of the New Venture Fund that promotes philanthropic funding for basic science research. There he learned there was a need for grants for midcareer researchers, who often face difficulty getting government funding, especially for riskier research without clear practical applications.
“It’s often a period when people have a new set of ideas where they want to launch something brand new, and that is hard to do with federal funding,” says David Tirrell, Caltech’s provost.
Brown also saw a need to fuel research in physical science, such as physics and chemistry, which he says attracts less funding than life sciences.
Brown took inspiration from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation’s Packard Fellowships in Science and Engineering. The 35-year-old program invites 50 universities to nominate two promising early-career professors each year who receive flexible funding to conduct science and engineering research.
“The genius of their process is they try to avoid a lot of overhead by making the tough problems of selection fall on others,” Brown says of Packard’s fellowship program.
The Brown Investigator Awards program follows a similar model, inviting universities to nominate one midcareer, tenured faculty member conducting physical science research. An independent scientific advisory board, led by Marc Kastner, former president of the Science Philanthropy Alliance, then reviews the nominations and interviews the researchers.
Brown says he was reluctant to keep the program housed under a foundation; he worried about mission drift and having limited ways to control costs. As a Caltech alumnus, he decided the university, renowned for its innovations in science and engineering, would be a good fit for his fellows program.
But the Brown Investigator Awards program will give funding to researchers only at other universities. Caltech researchers won’t be considered, to avoid concerns about conflicts of interest. However, about $1 million per year will be set aside for Caltech’s own fundamental research in chemistry and physics.
“We were not able to find another example where a university was playing that central role in administering a program for support of other universities,” Tirrell says. “It’s a little unusual.”
While the program will support a broad range of research, Tirrell expects to see funding follow broader trends in physics and chemistry, including quantum physics and catalysis in materials. Past awardees include William Irvine, a University of Chicago professor who has conducted research related to fluid dynamics and condensed matter, and Hemamala Karunadasa, a Stanford professor researching issues related to solar cells.
Brown hopes that funding this fundamental science will pay off in the future.
“I have no doubt, looking back 30 years from now, some of those restless minds will produce really important things that make life better,” he says.