A Conversation with Rob Cawthorn, BIOS Trustee Emeritus

Growing up in England, Rob Cawthorn dreamed of a farming life, but instead spent nearly four decades in the pharmaceutical, biotechnology, and animal health industries. He visited Bermuda for annual meetings and vacations while working for a company in Canada, and—smitten with the island’s climate and proximity to the U.S. and Europe—retired here in 1999 with his wife, Sue. That year he learned about BIOS [then the Bermuda Biological Station for Research] and soon after began serving on its board.

What intrigued you when you first learned about BIOS?
RC: When we came to Bermuda, we found out about ongoing research here through mutual friends who knew of my interest in science, research, and technology. I have a background in fundraising and charitable work so it proved to be a good match, especially because I enjoy getting involved with organizations that support and encourage science exploration and education. At that point we desperately needed new labs. So the first thing we did was raise money for the Naess building [a three-story building that houses conference rooms and laboratories, including a ground-floor wet lab]. And then we realized we also desperately needed a new ship. It took about five years in total, with about two or three years of real effort, to raise the funds for the research vessel Atlantic Explorer. When we figured out and agreed that we’d raised enough money with the help of HSBC to cover the balance, that was a “wow” moment for me.

I like this quote from a 2006 Wall Street Journal article written about you, when you were chair of Actelion Ltd: Rob Cawthorn puts his dislike of extravagance down to his Yorkshire upbringing. (He) trained as an agriculturalist, (and) compares himself to a frugal farmer. He “likes growing things,” he says, “whether it's plants or businesses" and “dislikes waste.” How does that philosophy apply to BIOS?
RC: I’m one of those people who have a bug for helping small, entrepreneurial organizations. For BIOS, funding has always been a struggle and it will continue to be. But that stimulates and motivates people like me to figure it out and find a way. I promised myself when I retired that I’d only be involved with organizations that are full of interesting people doing interesting things and deserving of the time and energy required to obtain resources they need to do their jobs.

What contributions have brought you the most pride?
RC: I am proud of the work we did to have the organization’s name changed. One of the hardest things to do is get an organization to agree on a name change, because everyone has an opinion. We managed to get a consensus to have it called “Bermuda Institute of Ocean Sciences” based on input from all kinds of people. We knew it was time for a change to a name that was more reflective of the work this place is doing.

The Cawthorn Cambridge Internship at BIOS is another point of pride. [The annual research internship covers all expenses of a selected University of Cambridge student to spend 12 weeks conducting research under the guidance of a mentor at BIOS]. I like the idea of supporting something that helps both BIOS and my alma mater, the University of Cambridge. In the five years that we have had this they’ve been able to select some really interesting young people and help them figure out what they want to do with their science career. I have nothing to do with the selection but I always try to meet the person selected and it’s so gratifying to hear their enthusiasm. [In January, Tom Perkins, the student selected for the Cawthorn Cambridge Internship at BIOS in 2016 for meteorology research on Bermuda, wrote to his mentor at BIOS with an update on his progress. Perkins had recently completed his graduate thesis and he wrote that “having the internship made all the difference” in completing graphs and models needed for his research].

Any other points of pride?
RC: This last year, I was approached by guiding members of the Institute to support a competition among BIOS scientists that would help support ideas for research that wouldn’t typically receive funding—we describe them as “out of the box” ideas. These types of ideas can be tricky to support financially and that appealed to me. So the scientists submitted their applications and from those we selected the winner.

[Damian Grundle, who in late 2016 was the first recipient of the award, said:  For a number of years now I have been interested in how atmospherically relevant gases are produced and consumed via biological processes in the ocean, and the startup funding I received as part of my new position at BIOS is allowing me to continue and expand upon this research. While understanding the biological cycling of dissolved gases in the ocean is extremely important, it is equally necessary to understand how gases exchange between the atmosphere and the ocean, and the Cawthorn Innovation Fund has provided the resources for me to expand upon my research and pursue avenues related to air-sea gas exchange. Ultimately, this award has not only allowed me to expand upon my research and increase the capabilities of my lab, it will also increase the capacity for additional atmospheric work to be conducted onboard the Atlantic Explorer]. 

You are 81 years old now and enjoy many hobbies, like gardening and travel. Why do you stay on at BIOS?
RC: My wife jokes that I keep failing at retirement, but I’ve continued to participate with organizations I find stimulating and from my point of view, it has been fantastic. I love this place. I love what it does. I think it’s doing some very important science and it really punches above its weight. For a little science organization, in a little place like Bermuda, it’s amazing what comes out of here: the publications, the contributions to scientific progress, the percentage of grants that are funded in the name of ocean and atmospheric science, the world-wide collaborations. These are all signs of people doing meaningful work.