Astrophysicist David Spergel began his tenure today as president of the Simons Foundation, one of the largest charitable organizations in the United States, with assets of $4.6 billion. Spergel takes the reins from Simons Foundation co-founders Marilyn and Jim Simons. Since the philanthropy’s launch in 1994, Marilyn Simons served as foundation president, overseeing administration as well as outreach and education; and Jim Simons oversaw all scientific grantmaking units of the foundation and the activities of the foundation’s new computational center, the Flatiron Institute.
Spergel was previously director of the Center for Computational Astrophysics (CCA) at the Flatiron Institute, the internal research division of the Simons Foundation. A leader in cosmology, Spergel is an emeritus professor at Princeton University and a recipient of the 2018 Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics.
As its second president, Spergel will oversee the Simons Foundation’s work of advancing the frontiers of research in mathematics and the basic sciences. The foundation comprises divisions devoted to mathematics and physical sciences; life sciences; autism research; outreach and education; and the Flatiron Institute, which houses centers for computational astrophysics, biology, mathematics, neuroscience and quantum physics.
“Marilyn and Jim have built an incredible foundation with terrific people,” Spergel says, “and it’s an exciting opportunity to build on and extend what they’ve already done. I’m very grateful to them for entrusting me with this opportunity.”
Marilyn Simons has today joined Jim Simons as a co-chair of the Simons Foundation’s board of directors, and both are looking forward to providing guidance, oversight and direction at the board level. “We are pleased to assume our new roles and looking forward to working with David,” says Marilyn Simons. “I think of this change as moving to Simons Foundation 2.0. While Jim and I will remain close by, David is sure to make the role of president his own very quickly. We are confident in his leadership and anticipate a future of growth and new opportunity.”
As for his own vision, “The guiding principle is enabling transformative science,” Spergel says. “The goal is to support higher-risk science — science where the outcome isn’t guaranteed, and you don’t know until you try it whether it will have a big impact.”
Before choosing Spergel, Marilyn and Jim Simons carefully considered how they would pass the torch of foundation leadership and management to a new president. Their firm desire was that a scientist should lead the foundation, one with an understanding of the entire scientific landscape, who could oversee the foundation’s disparate scientific divisions.
They found that person in Spergel, who has had an accomplished career as a research scientist and a proven track record of organizational leadership. “I can think of no one I would rather have at the helm,” says Jim Simons.
In addition to his prior role as CCA director, Spergel previously chaired the astrophysics department at Princeton University, where he is currently the emeritus Charles Young Professor of Astronomy on the class of 1897 foundation. Spergel’s research interests range from the hunt for exoplanets to exploring the shape of the universe. He was a member of the NASA Advisory Council and chair of the National Academy of Sciences’ Space Studies Board. He has testified before Congress on the importance of long-term investments in science and technology.
At Princeton, Spergel joined NASA’s Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) project as a theorist. The space probe mapped tiny temperature variations in the cosmic microwave background, the afterglow of the Big Bang. His pioneering work on WMAP earned him the 2018 Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics.
He is also a recipient of the NASA Exceptional Public Service Medal, the Heineman Prize for Astrophysics and a MacArthur fellowship. He is a member of the National Academy of Sciences, a legacy fellow of the American Astronomical Society and an honorary member of the National Society of Black Physicists.
One of the foundation’s ongoing focuses will be increasing diversity, equity and inclusion in the sciences, Spergel says. “Achieving excellence in science is going to require that we continue to work to build an increasingly diverse community of people working in science,” he says. “If the only people working in science are drawn from a narrow community, we’re missing out on tremendous talent.”
As president, Spergel plans to continue his astrophysics research. “I think it’s important to stay active and keep a foot in scientific research,” he says. “I’m very active in applying machine learning to cosmology, and the tools of machine learning are being actively applied in a lot of different areas. I think, on a technical level, it’s helpful to have some connection there. It’s also helpful that I’ll be talking to graduate students, postdocs and undergrads, and not just the leaders of the projects and proposals.”
While Spergel will still be involved in research with the CCA, a new director will take on his old role. During the search for his replacement, CCA group leader Shirley Ho will serve as interim director.
Under Spergel’s leadership, the foundation will continue building on its successes in developing long-term strategies to enable the sciences. The foundation’s track record includes building autism research cohorts and databases ready for use by scientists; creating the Flatiron Institute as a hub for scientific innovation and software development; and convening interdisciplinary collaborations ranging from pure mathematics to neuroscience.
“My long-term goal is to have the Simons Foundation enable innovative science. An important criterion for all of our investments is focus on areas where the Simons Foundation is uniquely positioned to have significant impacts,” he says. “In the long run, it will be the combination of the scientists we train and the transformative results we enable that will determine how I judge myself.”
Read more about David Spergel’s appointment in 2020 here.