The California Institute of Technology will receive a $750 million gift, earmarked for environmental sustainability research, from Stewart and Lynda Resnick, California billionaires who made their fortune in agriculture.
The gift will be the largest ever for environmental sustainability research and the second-largest private donation to a US academic institution. In 2018, former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg gave $1.8 billion to Johns Hopkins University for student aid.
The Resnicks own The Wonderful Company, a corporation with brands including POM Wonderful, Fiji Water, and Teleflora. In the past, the company has been criticized for its environmental practices, including heavy water use during the California drought and the destruction of an oak forest to make space for grape plantings at one of its vineyards.
A donation from the Resnicks in 2009 helped establish the Resnick Sustainability Institute at Caltech. The new pledge will expand on that institute’s mission by supporting researchers across all divisions at Caltech as well as scientists at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which Caltech manages for NASA. The supported research will focus on four core initiatives, including climate science, water resources, and ecology. The fourth, called the “Sunlight to Everything” initiative, could involve research to harness the sun’s energy, advance battery technology, and create catalysts for degrading plastics and making new chemicals.
“It’s a commitment that gives us flexibility to think about where Caltech can leverage its talent pool for the highest impact through problems that the faculty aspire to work on,” says Jonas C. Peters, director of the Resnick Sustainability Institute and a Caltech chemistry professor. “Chemistry and chemical engineering clearly have huge roles to play.”
Part of the gift will be used to build the Resnick Sustainability Resource Center, a large building that will house research facilities as well as undergraduate teaching laboratories. All first-year undergrads at Caltech are required to take a chemistry laboratory course, Peters says. With the new labs, Caltech plans to revamp that course’s curriculum with a focus on sustainability.
“That will funnel every undergraduate that ever comes to Caltech through a laboratory in their first year of undergraduate studies that shows the promise and impact chemistry, chemical engineering, and other fields can have in providing solutions to problems in sustainability,” Peters says.