UCSB’s Institute for Theoretical Physics got a big present and a new name over Winter Break.
The institute received a gift of $7.5 million from physicist-turned-businessman Fred Kavli, founder of the high-tech Kavlico Corporation. The money will be used to support programs at the ITP that are not federal funding targets, to provide immediate funds for cutting-edge research and for a physical expansion of Kohn Hall, which houses the institute. Kavli, a Santa Barbara resident, recently started the Kavli Foundation to support institutions engaging in scientific research. UCSB’s newly renamed Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics is among the first beneficiaries of the foundation.
“The Institute for Theoretical Physics is working in some of the same fields which the Kavli Foundation is intending to promote,” Kavli said. “We are hoping that the grant will contribute to making the prizes that will be eventually distributed and the work of the Kavli Foundation better known: a better understanding of the universe and the laws of nature.”
Currently, the ITP receives 80 percent of its $5 million annual budget from the National Science Foundation. The University provides the remaining 20 percent. ITP Director David Gross said the way NSF funds are distributed creates difficulties for the ITP.
“We have a 5-year cycle of funding,” he said. “That means that we have to have a plan for the sort of activities we carry out six years ahead of time. It doesn’t give you much flexibility to change direction in theoretical physics, in which discoveries are happening all the time.”
Scientists at the ITP hope the Kavli grant will allow the institute to better keep up with cutting-edge physics by allowing for more frequent seminars and conferences where scientists from all over can meet and discuss ideas. The number of researchers who show up to these events poses its own problem.
The ITP turns away hundreds of scientists each quarter, some world-renowned, because of a lack of space. To solve this problem, the ITP plans to dedicate a portion of Kavli’s endowment to a physical expansion of Kohn Hall.
One of the biggest draws at the institute has been a new focus on bioinformatics and the increasing linkage between physics and biology, Gross said.
“We want to continue this because it’s working very well but that means money and space,” he said. “If you grow, you need the physical underpinnings. At the moment we’ve been having to turn away people we don’t like to turn away.”
The ITP is also planning new programs, which the NSF would have been unwilling to support. One such program would bring leading science journalists to the ITP to work with researchers there.
“That’s a field that many scientists believe is sorely in need of development in this country,” Gross said. “There’s certainly a lot of interest in the public but there aren’t a lot of qualified reporters out there [to write about science] or newspapers who really understand it.”
While the ITP is already prestigious within the scientific community, such a program might put the institute in the public eye – just the sort of thing that could lead to more private funds. Meanwhile, the Kavli grant will provide the ITP with ample room to grow.
“The freedom to think big and innovate is very hard to get with more traditional methods of funding,” Gross said. “This should cure our problems for a decade or so.”