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Meet Kevin Moses, Vice President of Science Programs at The Kavli Foundation

Philanthropies can drive breakthrough science by helping researchers cross the traditional boundaries of academia, he says.
 

DR. KEVIN MOSES IS THE NEW VICE PRESIDENT OF SCIENCE PROGRAMS at The Kavli Foundation, where he will oversee its existing science initiatives in the core fields of astrophysics, nanoscience, neuroscience and theoretical physics, and the development of new programs to support basic research. 

Kevin MosesDr. Kevin Moses will assume his new role a Vice President of Science Programs on December 1. (Courtesy of the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative)

Over the past 12 years, Dr. Moses has held a variety of leadership positions at some of the world’s top philanthropies, including the Wellcome Trust, the Janelia Research Campus of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) and the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI). Prior to moving to the not-for-profit sector, he was an accomplished scientist who ran a laboratory at the University of Southern California and then at Emory University. His research focused on understanding the development of the visual system in fruit flies, a widely used model organism in biomedicine. 

The Kavli Foundation sat down with Dr. Moses to learn more about how his career has evolved and what he thinks philanthropies can do to fuel breakthrough science. 

TKF: Let’s start by getting a sense of what sparked your interest in science.

Moses: Well, I'm a realist, so I wasn't very good at literature! And with respect to the sciences, I gravitated toward biology because you can look down the microscope and see the very thing you’re interested in. When you see it with your own eyes, you can get a real feeling that it's right. For me, though fascinating, physics and even chemistry were a little bit more abstract. 

TKF: Eventually, you went on to get your Ph.D. at the University of Cambridge and work as a professor of biology at the University of Southern California and then at Emory University. How does that background relate to the work you’re doing in philanthropy today?

Moses: There are really two components to doing science as a faculty member. Part of it is the intellectual stuff of reading the literature, talking to people, working with your own lab group members, debating ideas and really defining the scientific question you want to answer. So, ideas come, and they get kicked around. And then there's the actual doing part, the physical craft of sitting down in the lab and doing the experiment. I've always loved that part. I don't miss the intellectual part because I have that even better now. In this job, I get to talk about science ideas with the very best people in the world. I do miss the craft part of it. So, I cook dinner and a few things like that. 

TKF snowflake

ANNOUNCEMENT: Dr. Kevin Moses Named Vice President of Science Programs

The Kavli Foundation has announced the appointment of Dr. Kevin Moses as Vice President of Science Programs. He will assume his new role on December 1. A developmental biologist by training, Dr. Moses has more than a dozen years of leadership experience at several of the world’s top philanthropic institutions, all focused on science. 

Read the announcement

TKF: What prompted you to change careers and take on leadership roles at philanthropic organizations such as Janelia and the Wellcome Trust?

Moses: It was roughly October 2003 when I got a call from my former advisor at Berkeley, Gerry Rubin. At that time, he was vice president of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and director designate of the new research campus they were building at Janelia Farm. Gerry told me that he had secured generous funding for start-up construction and for funding Janelia’s first five years. He said, “We'll build the best institute in the world. We'll tear up all the rules. And we’ll approach the biggest question possible.” So that was tempting.

He needed a person to do academic administration around the building and starting of the institute, which involved recruiting people, helping with the science programs, and building a graduate and conference programs from the ground up. The deal was I would give up my research lab, give up tenure, come to Hughes and jump into the startup. The challenge of tackling the greatest open science question and the idea that we could tinker with all the rules was just too good to refuse. So, I just made an abrupt jump. It's very tempting to build Utopia. 

"When you look at history, great science doesn’t happen through committees and peer review and counting up citations and the usual stuff. Instead, it is the result of bringing together people with different ideas, and new technologies meeting new science questions."

TKF: When you look back at your time at Janelia, and subsequently at the Wellcome Trust and CZI, what lessons did you learn about what philanthropies can do to fuel great science?

Moses: Government funding is wonderful, and it is crucial. But because spending has to be justified to taxpayers, the wild and crazy stuff that sometimes happens at the intersections of fields is hard to get through. That’s exactly where private philanthropy has its chance. 

HHMI was really interested in how to bring about breakthrough science—the kind of science done by people who step beyond the boundaries and out past convention. That’s also similar to The Kavli Foundation’s mission. 

When you look at history, great science doesn’t happen through committees and peer review and counting up citations and the usual stuff. Instead, it is the result of bringing together people with different ideas, and new technologies meeting new science questions—questions that you couldn't ask before.

But in academia, there are many barriers for that to happen. Think of Watson and Crick, the co-discoverers of DNA. Watson was a geneticist. Crick was an x-ray crystallographer. And they were both supposed to be working on protein structure, not DNA. They cheated at night and worked on DNA. 

So, you've got to break those boundaries and bring together different kinds of technologies, bring in the best people from different disciplines who are interested in working together on some large problem and let them work across boundaries. I'm a huge believer in institutes that somehow protect people from academia and let them do this kind of collaboration. That's exactly what we set up Janelia to do.

TKF: Neuroscience research is a major focus of The Kavli Foundation. What do you think neuroscience as a field needs right now?

Moses: Neuroscience is about to become an actual science, the way biochemistry did or genetics did. It has animal models like the fruit fly, and we are approaching this in the mouse, where we can literally open the hood, look inside, and while it is doing what it does ask: What does the fruit fly dream? What is the brain doing at that moment? Is the leg wiggling? Is the wing flapping? So, we can get all the way from the molecules, to the connections, to the behavior, to what’s going on in the animal’s sensory world. The whole picture is just about to be there. 

TKF: So what opportunities does that present for private funders?

Moses: In the U.S. and elsewhere, there are two big pushes behind the recent investments in brain research. The biggest one is medical need, of which there is a tremendous amount, from spinal cord repair to treating mental illness. So, the need to be able to fix the nervous system is a big driver and that is where most of the public money is. There's also a little bit of money in basic science. Philanthropy can get into neuroscience further upstream of that toward basic, higher-risk research, or further downstream toward clinical impact. 

TKF: Aside from neuroscience, are there particular fields or research questions you think are ripe for support?

Moses: The most exciting, crazy thing I heard in the last couple of weeks was at a meeting of the National Academy of Sciences on convergence—how you bring different fields of science together. I heard a talk on what might be the most interesting big problem that is actually going to be accessible. The problem? Life beyond the planet Earth. Scientists are finding so many more extrasolar planets in the Universe than anyone expected, and the new space telescopes are going to discover many, many more. There’s going to be life. The question is, will we be able to see it? 

Now, that’s not science that's going to fix anybody's healthcare tomorrow, so it's hard to tell a taxpayer why we want to stare at planets many light years away. But getting that answer would change everything. 

"The enterprise of science requires brilliant young people to come in, work hard, think hard and flourish. But when I was a professor, teaching undergraduates, I saw that a lot of the students were worried about their own future and didn't feel they had the luxury of taking on the risk of a creative career. So, we really need to do a better job of exciting young people about science and encouraging them to see it as a viable career."

TKF: In recent years, there has been a wave of new philanthropies, many of which are interested in funding basic science research. Given your experience, what opportunities and challenges do they face?

Moses: It's great to have new philanthropy because we need new areas to get kicked around. And it's naturally going to be a little chaotic in the beginning as those organizations try new things.

I've seen some philanthropies that have existed for a long time, including the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and the Wellcome Trust. In both cases, they were started by an industrial giant. Henry Wellcome invented the compressed pill and was enormously wealthy. Hughes was the richest man in the world at the age of 19. Both were brilliant enough to take that wealth in many directions. They put huge resources into big problems.

What happens over the arc of time is that great things get done. But also, a lot of blind alleys get followed. Over time, that early philanthropy settles down and evolves to be much more stable, but also much less creative. 

TKF: How do you maintain that creativity as a philanthropy grows and kind of settles into itself?

Moses: From where I sit, I have two responsibilities: those of the good farmer and the hunter. You have to be a farmer, taking care of the soil, planting seeds, pulling out weeds, generally making sure the farm is in working order and as efficient and productive as possible. But you also have to keep a bit of the hunter in you, so if some giant piece of meat wanders by, you can throw a spear at it. You've got to have your eyes out for opportunities like that. It’s about striking a balance. In contrast to a philanthropy, government has a really hard time doing that because it's always going to be pushed toward being the ultra-farmer.  

TKF: For some philanthropies, including The Kavli Foundation, funding basic research and fostering public engagement in science go hand in hand. Why do you think that’s important? 

Moses: I think we have to communicate out for the benefit of science and for the benefit of the country. 

The enterprise of science requires brilliant young people to come in, work hard, think hard and flourish. But when I was a professor, teaching undergraduates, I saw that a lot of the students were worried about their own future and didn't feel they had the luxury of taking on the risk of a creative career. So, we really need to do a better job of exciting young people about science and encouraging them to see it as a viable career. Professional sports, the film industry, music. Those industries all to a much better job at that than science does.

For the benefit of the country, the better the public understand science and the more they participate in it, the better we can tackle the risks we’re facing, like global warming. And this is a ridiculously romantic thing to say, but science is the best thing we do. It's how we actually learn the truth about stuff.