James Simons: My Guiding Principles

The chair of the Simons Foundation describes his five principles for building a successful organization.

The foundation began in 1994, and in its early years, it had no particular mission and was simply Marilyn’s and my vehicle for distributing charity. In 2003, after the foundation had grown considerably (in part due to principle 5!), Marilyn and I became interested in autism — its cause and possible methods of alleviating its symptoms. We didn’t know how to begin this effort, but in the summer of that year, a friend of ours agreed to convene a roundtable of outstanding neuroscientists as well as some people who were already working in the field. We learned a great deal from this: first, that autism is very largely genetic; and, second, that few great scientists were working in the field.

Our mission seemed clear: Attract great scientists, and begin with genetics. This decision was consistent with principle 1, since no one to our knowledge was taking this combined approach. A second decision was to bring Mike Wigler of Cold Spring Harbor Lab, a friend of mine and one of the world’s greatest geneticists, into the game. We were off and running.

Another decision Marilyn and I made that year was to focus the foundation almost exclusively on mathematics and science research. Again, this was consistent with principle 1, as very few U.S. foundations had such a focus, and we felt we could really make a difference.

After a few years of my overseeing the autism project, Marilyn and I realized that we needed an outstanding scientist to head the project, and we were lucky enough to hire Gerry Fischbach, the first scientist on the foundation staff. Not only was Gerry terrific, but he was indeed fun to work with. Together with Mike Wigler and a small staff, he created the Simons Simplex Collection. This was a cohort of almost 3,000 families that included both parents, one and only one child with autism, and at least one unaffected sibling. A great deal of effort was expended in designing and implementing this collection, and it has led to an enormous amount of great science. I consider this collection a beautiful thing — a fine example of principle 3.

The Simons Foundation Autism Research Initiative (SFARI) has now gone on for 16 years. When Gerry stepped down in 2013, Louis Reichardt, an outstanding scientist and leader, became its head. Our perseverance has borne fruit. Not only have we discovered numerous genetic causes of the condition, but our first drug trials have been initiated. Our patience to some extent exemplifies principle 4.

The next area we focused on was math and physical sciences (MPS), and at Marilyn’s suggestion, we brought on David Eisenbud to head that effort. David’s first step was to invite to the foundation a group of mathematicians, a group of theoretical physicists and a group of computer scientists to tell us what the foundation could do to advance each of their respective fields. The math and physics groups proposed various grant programs, which were subsequently put in place, but the computer science group wanted only one thing: an institute for theoretical computer science. There was no such institute in the world.

A competition was established among leading U.S. research universities, and after several winnowing rounds, Berkeley was selected. Not only was their proposed leader, Richard Karp, an outstanding and renowned computer scientist, but Berkeley also agreed to give us the entirety of a small building that they would renovate for our purposes. This institute is now in its sixth year and has been an outstanding success, attracting multitudes of visitors and being run in a beautiful manner. The creation of this institute exemplifies principles 1, 2 and 3.

After a few years, Yuri Tschinkel succeeded David as head of MPS. Yuri is an excellent mathematician and a pleasure to work with. Under his leadership, a number of excellent grant-making programs have been initiated, as well as several collaborations (discussed below).

The last grant-making area to be established was life science, headed by Marian Carlson, a member of the National Academy of Sciences and a totally fun person to work with. She too has initiated some innovative programs and collaborations (discussed below).

As the programs grew, particularly SFARI, there was increasing need for IT personnel. This problem was solved by bringing on board Alex Lash, a very senior IT type at Memorial Sloan Kettering. I learned the hospital was quite unhappy to lose him, but Marilyn and I were delighted to hire him, and he gradually built an excellent team of almost 30 people who serve both the science and administrative sides of the house.

In 2012, we came up with a new approach to grant-making, what we called collaborations. These would be goal-driven efforts involving a fairly large number of investigators from various institutions around the world, lasting as long as 10 years, or perhaps even more. To determine whether this was a good idea, we convened a weekend meeting of distinguished scientists from a broad set of fields. By the end of the meeting, we had decided this was indeed a good idea, provided the goal was extremely important, there was a reasonable chance of achieving it, and the leadership was outstanding.

The first of these collaborations was Origins of Life, which was quickly followed by the Global Brain, an effort to understand the dynamics of the brain as a whole. Today we have 18 active collaborations covering life science, math and physical sciences. By and large these are going very well. This program is a clear example of principle 1, as we know of no other foundation or government organization that funds such efforts.

In the course of the weekend meeting on collaborations, it was suggested that we create an institute devoted to data science. I liked this idea very much, since the wealth I had amassed was based on data science in the financial world, but instead of creating an institute on a university campus, I thought to assemble such an activity in-house. Marilyn was in full agreement. We were fortunate to recruit Leslie Greengard to head this effort, which became known as the Simons Center for Data Analysis (SCDA). Leslie not only is an outstanding applied mathematician, being a member of both the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering, but also holds an M.D. from Yale. He focused SCDA on computational biology and built up an excellent team. I consider this another example of principle 1, as nothing quite like this seemed to exist.

SCDA worked so well that Marilyn and I decided to generalize the idea and create the Flatiron Institute for computational science. For this, of course, more space was required, and happily it existed right across the street! We recruited David Spergel from Princeton to build Computational Astrophysics, and then Antoine Georges from the Collège de France to build Computational Quantum Physics (working closely with Andy Millis). Finally, we determined that the fourth unit be Computational Mathematics, and that Leslie step down from Computational Biology to head this new unit. After a fairly long search, we decided to promote Mike Shelley, a group leader in the biology unit, to be its director. Underpinning this variegated research effort is the Scientific Computing Core, a team brilliantly headed by Nick Carriero and Ian Fisk.

The Flatiron Institute has run magnificently in every way, its staff producing outstanding research and convening meetings and workshops that inspire other scientists to do the same. It clearly exemplifies principles 1, 2 and 3: it has originality and great leadership and is truly a thing of beauty.
According to its bylaws, the Simons Foundation is intended to focus almost entirely on research in mathematics and science and to exist in perpetuity. If future leadership abides by these guiding principles, Marilyn and I believe the foundation will forever be a force for good in our society.

Image of James SimonsDr. James H. Simons is Chairman of the Simons Foundation.