Some years ago — never mind how long, precisely — having little or no money in my purse and plenty of time on my hands, I thought I would set sail for the Upper East Side of Manhattan to help an earnest young couple of good fortune with their newly minted foundation. Several days a week I would go there to help the Simons Foundation’s president, Marilyn Simons, in all matters, organizing gift receipts carefully into binders and then calculating my own wages, unsteadily, using a pencil on graph paper.
This is our story.
The Simons Foundation was a family foundation and, as such, in the beginning some of its gifts were at the direction of family members for their own disparate communities and causes. But in 2003, Jim Simons (the treasurer) and Marilyn came to rest on a mission that would stick: advancing the frontiers of research in mathematics and the basic sciences. Both Jim and Marilyn truly loved science and math, and they decided that helping future generations by investing in basic research was how they could best offer unique value in a philanthropic landscape largely aimed at addressing society’s current afflictions. Although they leveraged Jim’s experience as a prizewinning mathematician to inform early funding decisions, and Marilyn’s Ph.D. in economics and nonprofit experience proved a boon to foundation administration and operations, the couple eventually went on to establish a working partnership wherein both would be involved in the major decisions impacting the foundation — scientific or administrative.
So, understanding that over the centuries the biggest leaps in knowledge tend to arrive unexpectedly — when great minds are given free rein to explore ideas — the Simonses put their money on history.
In thinking about how to best deliver on their mission in the shadow of a federal government whose programs distribute vastly more funding to science than a private philanthropy ever could, Jim and Marilyn became determined instead to try to fill significant gaps in funding, supporting deserving projects or, later, even entire research areas that were not getting backing for any number of reasons. Projects might be promising and even poised for timely success, yet still too ‘risky’ or administratively complex for public funders to undertake. However, as a private philanthropy, the Simons Foundation could move nimbly through funding decisions that might stall out elsewhere.
Honing of mission notwithstanding, support of mathematics research has always been at our core. Math is the lingua franca of science, and Jim understood this deeply and personally. His own collaboration with mathematician S.S. Chern from 1969–1970 had led unexpectedly to breakthrough science that would become important in various aspects of physics, including string theory and condensed-matter physics. Progress in math enables new thinking about and understanding of science, and the other way around. Jim and Marilyn were from the beginning generous with elite mathematics centers around the globe, lending support to venerable institutions like the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute, Institut des Hautes Études Scientifiques, the Institute for Advanced Study and Stony Brook University. Sometimes these institutional gifts were for general operations; sometimes they were for large capital projects. But it should be considered that math is the intellectual spine of the foundation.
In those early days, the gifts were larger and fewer, as there were no staff to administer a grant-making program. But that would soon change. Also around 2003, the Simonses had begun to think about funding work in the science of autism. They wanted to invest well, in the right people and projects. Thus was erected another pillar of the Simonses’ approach: Invite the best experts to consult on problems. That year the Simonses held what we now call ‘the Autism Roundtable,’ a daylong discussion among top investigators and policymakers — some already involved in autism, some not — about what was needed to advance the ball in autism science. The discussion that day would plant the seeds and focus the direction of the foundation’s first major funding program: the Simons Foundation Autism Research Initiative (SFARI).
And, big decisions having been made, the foundation would find ways to check in on itself, always. Scientific advisory boards are formed for all major programs. Roundtables and colloquia and meetings are held by grant-making divisions, between staff and scientists, and for scientists alone. Exposure to new outside ideas and the sometimes rigorous questioning of inside ideas, it is hoped, will always lead to earnest reflection and a truer course for the work. This is, interestingly, just another version of the scientific method.
And it’s no secret: The Simonses like to hire some of these experts as well as fund them. The first example of this, of course, was the hiring of Gerald D. Fischbach to run SFARI. Gerry created the model for professionalizing and growing the foundation’s grant-making capacity, thereby turning this family foundation into a family foundation. He brought the first scientists on board as staff and introduced us all to open RFAs (requests for applications) and big strategic projects designed to propel autism science. Indeed, this early recipe of finding individuals expert not only in science but also in the ins and outs of grant-making to run programs — and giving them the flexibility to mold the programs as they saw fit — would be echoed in the hiring of David Eisenbud and then Yuri Tschinkel to run the Mathematics and Physical Sciences (MPS) program along with Andy Millis and Greg Gabadadze; in the hiring of Marian Carlson to run Life Sciences; and then in the recruiting of Louis Reichardt to take over SFARI from Gerry. (Nota bene: The hiring would not stop there.)
Nearly 10 years after the Autism Roundtable, another hugely formative gathering of experts would impact the course of the Simons Foundation in more ways than one. This 2012 meeting we cryptically call ‘Buttermilk Falls,’ after the inn where it was hosted in Milton, New York. This two-day gathering of 18 preeminent scientists from varied disciplines was meant to assess whether goal-driven collaborative research projects were a sensible idea for the foundation, and, if so, what areas of research were uniquely poised for advancement in the next 10 years.
Long story short: It was decided that, yes, the foundation would undertake goal-oriented research by establishing ‘collaborations,’ wherein scientists — sometimes even competitors, sometimes even across disciplines — would work in concert to address topics of fundamental scientific importance. Today, 18 of these Simons Collaborations exist in the life sciences and in MPS on topics as diverse as the Origins of Life, Homological Mirror Symmetry, Principles of Microbial Ecosystems and ‘The Global Brain.’
These collaborations became an important touchstone: The Simonses knew that the exchange of ideas across disciplinary and institutional silos must necessarily lead to richer outcomes than if just a few experts from one silo conferred narrowly. For example, reflecting the foundation’s deep interest in using both mathematics and computation to advance the life sciences, a multidisciplinary group of investigators from oceanography, statistics, data science, ecology, biogeochemistry and remote sensing was formed — the Simons Collaboration on Computational Biogeochemical Modeling of Marine Ecosystems — to develop and apply quantitative models of the structure and function of marine microbial communities. In this program as in others, many minds and disparate disciplines are brought to bear on a big task.
But the foundation has still another, more oblique mechanism for promoting progress in the sciences, especially fields involving data analysis. Do you know how much data there are in marine microbial communities? Or within the movements of all detectable celestial bodies? Or within just one human genome? A lot. And do you know how much money and person-power it takes to gather up all those bytes? Also a lot. So another big thing we do here is to share the information we gather, freely, for others to use, hoping to push science forward that much faster. The foundation mandates that its grantees share their data. SFARI’s groundbreaking Simons Simplex Collection — offering to scientists genetic information on 2,600 families and phenotypic data of the child with autism — turned a new page in autism science and made it possible to begin to identify genes causing and contributing to the condition. And the SPARK (Simons Foundation Powering Autism Research) project, aiming to collect genetic information on 50,000 families, will achieve the ability to detect at least 70 percent of autism risk genes that exert a strong effect. All these genomes and data from study participants will be accessible for use by scientists — greatly, greatly reducing startup costs of new experiments.
Which brings me to the Flatiron Institute. I am not overstating things when I say that Jim and Marilyn feel that the launch of Flatiron has brought them full circle: The foundation’s money came from the application of data science to the financial markets, and now those same funds are being used to support data analysis to advance basic science. Launched in 2016, Flatiron is an intramural research group dedicated to advancing scientific research through computational methods, including data analysis, theory, modeling and simulation. The institute hosts computational centers devoted to astrophysics, biology, mathematics and quantum physics. It plans to launch a neuroscience center in June 2020. All the centers are encouraged to work together in developing algorithmic approaches. These ‘approaches’ become software that Flatiron then makes freely available to the world. The foundation was able to attract more top scientists to lead/run these centers; first came Leslie Greengard, followed by David Spergel, Antoine Georges and Andy Millis, then Mike Shelley.
The foundation, in addition to investing in ‘the future’ by funding basic science, also tries to do this in a most literal and proximate sense: by keeping the pipeline of future scientists full and flowing. Certain transitions in scientific careers can be particularly precarious, such as the transition from postdoctoral fellow to tenured faculty, and the foundation has several programs that address this delicate time in the career of a scientist. The Life Sciences’ Simons Postdoctoral Fellows in Marine Microbial Biology program aims to support postdocs in or wishing to enter this specialized field, as there are no other funders in this space! SFARI’s Bridge to Independence Awards support postdoctoral autism scientists by committing to partially fund recipients’ labs if they are able to secure a tenure-track position — a ‘carrot’ that is good enticement for a hiring institution. And the Flatiron Institute’s rich environment, filled with top minds and plenty of conferences, permits postdocs to continue their work in an environment that connects them broadly to others in their field — leading, we hope, to employment possibilities.
So there it is, in a nutshell. Scientists and philanthropists alike have described the foundation as an influential and innovative funder. But as you see, none of this excellence happened by accident. In my own opinion, this institution has grown up, naturally, to reflect the personal dispositions of Marilyn and Jim. Just like its founders, the Simons Foundation is goal-oriented, elegant, innovative and intellectually rigorous in its funding.
And that is our tale. I alone am witness to the journey from the legendary Closet That Held the File Box to a company 400 strong with two buildings in the Flatiron District. With my longtime colleague Marie-queg, I, the foundation’s first employee, have lived to tell this tale, buoyed up all these years in the roiling waters of progress, not by luck, or by wooden coffins, but by the company we keep.
Stacey Greenebaum is the Simons Foundation’s communications director as well as its first employee. Marie-queg, aka Maria Adler, was the foundation’s second employee, and after having served for years as its CFO, is today director of special projects.