As It Shifts Strategies, the Kavli Foundation’s Zeroing in on How Climate Change Affects the Brain


The warming climate is driving all kinds of changes around the globe — and not just in terms of weather, but also in the basic biology of the creatures that live on earth, including humans. Change on this scale is not unusual in the planet's 4.5-billion-year history, but human activity is involved this time, and it's driving global changes more rapidly than ever before.

Some impacts are apparent — extreme heat, more powerful storms, changing agricultural patterns and invasive animal species, to name a few. Less immediately obvious, however, if no less important, is the impact of a changing global environment on the neurobiology of human and animal brains. This is an emerging area of science, with many unanswered questions encompassing not only the basics of how neural systems function, but also the more complex ways they adapt or strive to remain resilient as environments change.

The Kavli Foundation's science team sees this as an area of particular importance in an era of fast-paced climate flux and globe-spanning human activity. Neuroscience has already been a priority for the science funder. And now, Kavli’s recently announced new grantmaking program, Neurobiology and Changing Ecosystems, will drive research into how brains and neural processes — both human and animal — are impacted by changing environments.

"We have been thinking about this now for a couple of years in terms of recognizing that there are huge climate perturbations going on," said Amy Bernard, director of life sciences at Kavli.

Neural systems are the orchestrators of the brain’s many intricate functions, including complex movement and sensory systems like vision and hearing. Brains and neural systems have always evolved in response to their environment — it's been going on for hundreds of millions of years. But according to Kavli, recent and rapid human-driven environmental changes are testing the limits of neural systems to adapt, potentially leading to significant consequences across species and ecosystems. Indeed, scientists have already noted ways in which climate shifts and other human activity are having a significant impact on the neural systems of animals as their ecosystems change.

“The interrelatedness of systems is a factor”

Kavli has initially committed $5 million to support research in the field, though that sum is likely to increase as the program continues, Bernard said. But because this field is undeveloped — as mentioned, there's plenty yet to learn about the normal, unperturbed state of brains and neural systems — Kavli hopes the new program will drum up interest in the space throughout the research community.

Kavli's science team believes there's both an opportunity and a need for expanded interdisciplinary research to understand responses induced by broad stressors like pollution, habitat depletion, climate change and other environmental perturbations. Relatively recent changes — like the rumbling engine noise from ocean vessels, which has sharply increased in the last century — have already affected how some fish communicate. In the open air, noise in urban areas has affected the frequencies birds use in their songs.

As a result, Kavli says, this area of study will need to be multidisciplinary and collaborative. Initial research backed by the new grants program will certainly involve neurobiologists who study the brain at the cellular and molecular levels. But the program will also aim to create collaborations between traditional neurobiologists and animal behaviorists and environmental scientists, such as researchers who track the physical and chemical changes in the world’s oceans. "One of the things that we learned is that if you're looking at a cross-section of change, the interrelatedness of systems is a factor," Bernard said.

Kavli also plans to pull in computational modelers who can help make sense of very large data sets that scientists are already collecting. "Now, with access to big data, we actually have the ability to look at that and can step back and not just look at our one model organism, but at a whole big picture," Bernard said.

A new chapter for Kavli

As I wrote a few weeks ago, the 23-year-old Kavli Foundation has begun a new chapter in its identity as a science funder. Central to its strategic rethink was the foundation's decision to cease its longtime signature program, which involved establishing science institutes at research universities in the U.S. and around the world, and endowing them with multimillion-dollar, no-strings-attached gifts. The foundation had established 20 such institutes in all, and while it won’t establish any new institutes, the existing ones will continue on, conducting basic research in Kavli's key areas of scientific interest — astrophysics, nanoscience, neuroscience and theoretical physics.

Ending the Kavli Institute program frees up millions of dollars that the foundation can now contribute to science in other ways. Going forward, under the direction of its president Cynthia Friend, who took over in 2021, the foundation will shift toward more direct grantmaking for research and researchers — not just as a writer of checks, but as a thought leader seeking to shape and guide the direction of research.

"This is a new model of philanthropy for Kavli that our president, Cynthia Friend, brought," Bernard said. "She wanted us to find areas that were understudied and underfunded, and that were ripe for the potential for philanthropic giving. In some ways, it’s a little bit more conventional to grantmaking, but we're taking our own novel approach where it's not just about grantmaking, it's about a whole cohort of activities that are going to drive a particular theme or area of science forward."

These activities include convening experts, outlining or landscaping the key scientific issues and questions within fields through the creation and publication of scholarly articles, and partnering with other organizations and funders that share these interests and expertise.

For last month’s story, Friend told me there would be more announcements in the months to come, so the neurobiology and ecosystems program will presumably be followed by others, continuing Kavli's ongoing evolution as a science funder.