Q&A: Lord Sainsbury and Fred Kavli: Investing in Neuroscience Research and Public Education
Lord Sainsbury was the finance director of J. Sainsbury plc from 1973 to 1990, deputy chairman from 1988 to 1992, and chairman from 1992 to 1998. He became Lord Sainsbury of Turville in October 1997 and was appointed Minister of Science and Innovation from July 1998 until November 2006. In 2007 he produced The Race to the Top, a review of the government's science and innovation policies. He is the Settlor of the Gatsby Charitable Foundation.
Fred Kavli is the founder and chairman of The Kavli Foundation, which is dedicated to advancing science for the benefit of humanity, promoting public understanding of scientific research, and supporting scientists and their work. The Foundation's mission has been implemented through an international program of research institutes in astrophysics, nanoscience, neuroscience, and theoretical physics, and through the support of conferences, symposia, endowed professorships, journalism workshops and other programs and activities. The Foundation is also a founding partner of the Kavli Prizes.
SfN: Tell us about your foundations’ interests in neuroscience and what you hope to accomplish by focusing resources in this field.
Lord Sainsbury: My personal interest in neuroscience started when, as an undergraduate at Cambridge University, I switched from reading history to reading psychology and this brought me in contact with brilliant researchers like Horace Barlow and the late Richard Gregory, and led to a lifelong interest in the subject. Then, about 15 or so years ago, Roger Freedman, a great friend from my Cambridge days, told me of the exciting developments beginning to take place in neuroscience, and set up for my charitable foundation, the Gatsby Computational Neuroscience Unit at University College London, which has become one of the world's leading centers for theoretical neuroscience. Today, I believe that technological developments mean that there is an opportunity to do exciting research on neural circuits and behavior, and I have set up a joint project with the Wellcome Trust to do research in this area.
Fred Kavli: Neuroscience has long fascinated me — it's the most complex part of nature. The brain is the source of who we are and our very sense of consciousness and self. And now with the human genome and a combination of cutting-edge genetic methods and brain imaging techniques, lab scientists are exploring the neural circuitry of living animals in ways that 20 years ago we could barely have dreamed of.
Nothing exemplifies my interest in neuroscience better than the Kavli Institutes, which are dedicated to understanding and unraveling the complexities of the brain. There are four Kavli neuroscience institutes. At the Kavli Institute for Brain Science at Columbia University, Eric Kandel, Tom Jessell, Rafa Yuste, and others are using advanced imaging technology to observe neurons, synapses, and neural circuits as they develop and function, and as they respond to learning. At the University of California, San Diego, we have the Kavli Institute for the Brain and Mind, which is uncovering the physical and biochemical processes that underlie everything from learning and consciousness to memory and emotions. At the Kavli Institute for Neuroscience at Yale University, they are finding out how the nerve cells and synaptic circuits of the cerebral cortex enable humans to learn about the outside world and to remember what they already have learned. And at the Kavli Institute for Systems Neuroscience at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, they are doing groundbreaking research aimed at understanding how memory is encoded, stored and retrieved, and how the brain's navigational system works.
SfN: SfN is pleased to be partnering to develop BrainFacts.org. What are your aspirations for the site's content and strategy?
Lord Sainsbury: I am supporting BrainFacts.org because I believe it will serve a unique and important function that is presently unfilled: assembling and disseminating scientifically vetted public information about the brain and nervous system to the broad public, sub-university level science educators, and public policy audiences. This will strengthen public awareness of growing scientific knowledge about the brain and how basic physical and life science research translates to better human health. It will help dispel "neuromyths" and decrease misunderstanding and lack of knowledge that lead to illness, stigma, and suboptimal health outcomes; it will stimulate greater academic interest and enthusiasm among young people by providing science teachers with easy access to teaching tools and resources; and hopefully increase public support for brain research funding by showcasing how research happens, demonstrating tremendous progress to date, and informing policy deliberation about brain science.
Fred Kavli: BrainFacts.org will be an innovative Web-based "portal" that provides reliable, non-commercial information about neuroscience for teachers, policy makers, and the general public. This fits one of the key missions of The Kavli Foundation, which is to promote public understanding of scientific research. With SfN's vision, leadership and resources, we see BrainFacts.org becoming the most trusted public source for this kind of information. People will come to the site to learn about brain research, understand brain diseases and disorders, learn how to promote brain health and wellness… even to learn what they need to know to write better laws and policies related to science and health. Teachers will come for up-to-date and exciting education resources. And as time goes on, the site will become deeper and better, with multimedia and social media being integrated into the site. We were excited to partner not only with SfN but with The Gatsby Charitable Foundation in supporting this initiative of SfN. Foundations working together can move us forward faster when the right opportunity presents itself. This was one of those opportunities.
SfN: As funders working on a global stage, what opportunities do you see in the globalization of science?
Lord Sainsbury: Science has always been a global endeavor, but in recent years the international dimension of science has greatly increased. In the UK between 1996 and 2000, 29 percent of UK scientific publications were internationally co-authored. Between 2001 and 2005 this figure rose to 40 percent. Solving the mystery that is the brain is a vast project and effective global collaboration will accelerate the discoveries that are ready to be made. As a foundation, we have a long standing history of welcoming partnership with other funders (e.g., Wellcome Trust, Kavli Foundation). We also encourage collaboration between our grantees. For example, the three theoretical neuroscience centers we support in London, New York, and Jerusalem have now been meeting and collaborating for five years. We are keen to ensure that our new initiative, the Sainsbury Wellcome Centre for Neural Circuits and Behaviour, will be part of a global network of neuroscience initiatives worldwide.
Fred Kavli: That's an interesting question, because we know that science does take place globally and also that the results of experiments should not depend on where an experiment is done. This is fundamental to science. So, having more people around the globe able to check and reproduce new results should help science progress even faster. We have institutes on three continents, we've endowed programs such as the Kavli Royal Society International Centre outside London, and of course the Kavli Prize is an international prize. And just last year, our Kavli Prize Science Forum brought together some of the world's most important leaders in science and science policy to discuss how to make international cooperation in science research more effective.
As for the opportunities, there are so many. One can look in any direction and find areas that deserve global efforts. Medicine and public health, energy science and technology, climate change, water resources, agriculture… look at any of these areas and you discover issues that transcend national boundaries. Global warming is the one that probably comes quickest to mind. But what I think is important right now is, as science is needed to address global issues and changes, greater effort must be made to ensure a healthy, coordinated blend of international cooperation that gives everyone confidence in the scientific findings. We must also make certain that nations — particularly developing ones — appreciate that being part of a global science community is a key to their own social and economic development, and for meeting the multiple needs of their people.
SfN: Philanthropy is growing and is fast becoming another innovation hub for programming that supports science; it might include increasing public awareness, focusing intense resources on understanding a single disorder, or working to improve coordination across scientific fields and specialties. What role do you think the philanthropic community can and should play to support continued scientific innovation?
Lord Sainsbury: Philanthropy has a unique role to play in science — it can move quickly, and can drive and support projects in innovative ways, much more than government funding or large established charities who have to be mindful of the public nature of their support. The ability to be agile and operate with minimal bureaucracy is a powerful tool. It is much easier to take risks and accommodate the consequences. Another important role that private philanthropy can play is as a neutral convening agent, with no baggage or bias, only the goal of focusing on the issue at hand. This simple ability can often allow the right people to be brought together to collectively agree on actionable agendas across science. Funding of pilot type studies is another area we can drive forward, allowing scientists to gather critical data that puts them in the position of being able to get larger grants from government agencies or other funders.
Fred Kavli: The roles you mention are excellent ones. I would add that, while philanthropies can never be an economic engine on the scale of a government, we can and must support research that does not always have the constraints frequently associated with government grants. This is particularly important in basic research, where the most exciting work often comes from early work that has great risk that it might fail, but may also have even greater benefit if it turns out to be right. Yet such risky scientific ideas are almost always too risky for government funding agencies. Philanthropy can play a role in filling this critical gap. Philanthropies can provide funding where this kind of gamble is understood and accepted. We can also react more quickly to the latest opportunities and innovations, and bring together unique assemblies of researchers simply to encourage innovative thinking, help facilitate a new direction in research, or to develop new and unexpected partnerships. Among other programs, this is one of the objectives of our Kavli Futures Symposia.