The Simons Foundation has valued science outreach and education since its inception. From those early days, Marilyn Simons wanted to ensure that public engagement with science was part of the foundation’s core mission. We continue that work today, pushing boundaries in the field through the many programs we support and the initiatives we run — from grantmaking to public events and more.
We also understand that science does not sit apart from, but rather is part of, society and culture more broadly. To that end, we have renamed the Outreach, Education and Engagement division. The division will now be called Science, Society and Culture.
Our vision for science engagement
Science is all around us and is fundamental to our understanding of who we are and our place in the universe. Yet for many people, science is just another course on the schedule, a relationship that ends the day they graduate from high school. How do we transform science’s place in the public sphere to help everyone develop and maintain a greater connection to science that goes beyond the classroom?
As leaders in the science community, we have a role to play in illuminating the ways science and society intersect and creating welcoming environments for all to engage in ways that are meaningful to them. We work to make science a part of the cultural conversation, using creative partnerships to allow people to reimagine their relationship with science. This includes uplifting and supporting the communities that surround young people and their families. We want to change the public perception of who science is for, broadening the community to include diverse voices, experiences and backgrounds.
Through this work, we aim to help show that science is much more than just a career path or a field of study; it’s a fundamental part of what it means to be human.
The Science, Society and Culture division at the Simons Foundation exists to provide opportunities for people to forge a connection to science — whether for the first time or a lifetime. We work within and beyond the foundation to inspire people’s journeys in science, wherever they may lead and for however long they last.
We understand that everyone has different priorities and responsibilities to juggle. Science is not top of mind for most people, and we don’t expect it to be. Just like music or art, it is part of culture. We want to ensure that when someone chooses to engage they can do so in a way that is relevant to them, aligned with their existing identities and interests, and in a place they call home.
Our vision manifests through our different areas of work including grantmaking, public events, researcher engagement, national initiatives and a rich media portfolio. Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) is at the core of our work and guides our approach at all stages, from the people we fund to the audiences our grantees serve. We don’t view DEI as a standalone initiative — rather it is a cross-cutting, fundamental criterion for any new partnership or program.
We are committed to funding some of the most innovative and authentic organizations in the public engagement space. Our flagship grantmaking initiative, Science Sandbox, supports boundary-pushing, interdisciplinary projects that support science in culture. Through our partnerships we strive to bring to light the role scientific inquiry can play in people’s day-to-day lives, while centering communities and voices that have been historically underserved. We are also committed to going further. Over the coming months we are piloting new grant schemes that will increase employment opportunities in New York City for people with autism, a Bridge Grant that will support the long-term organizational sustainability of our previous awardees, and a new mechanism for supporting art and science collaborations across the U.S. More details on these initiatives are coming soon.
We take our role as a convenor seriously, and our free public events are a testament to that. We run two series at our headquarters in New York City. The Simons Foundation Presidential Lectures are high-level scientific talks intended to foster discourse and drive discovery among the broader NYC-area research community. The Simons Foundation Presents series is very different, both conceptually and in terms of target audience. Hosted monthly, SF Presents features our in-house scientists and special guests from across disciplines — from history to music to design — discussing the ways in which their work intersects. The conversation is followed by an evening of connection over drinks.
At the foundation, we have more than 200 scientists that work in a variety of disciplines, from astrophysics to neuroscience. Alongside supporting their important scientific work, we create opportunities for them to engage with the public in meaningful ways. The Researcher Engagement program aims to equip our scientists with the tools and partnerships needed to do so effectively. In the past year — the program’s pilot year — we have partnered with exceptional organizations like Gibney Dance and Científico Latino. Giving our researchers opportunities to engage in this way not only helps build stronger bridges between science and society, but also helps influence the culture of science here at the foundation.
Our award-winning, editorially independent media portfolio centers high-quality journalism and authentic storytelling. Pulitzer-Prize winning Quanta magazine works to illuminate basic science and math research, and Spectrum magazine is a leading source of news on autism research. Sandbox Films is an Academy-Award nominated production studio that specializes in creative and boundary-breaking documentaries rooted in scientific ideas that inform society and culture.
National initiatives: Eclipse 2024
Our newest area of work allows us to strategically grow our national footprint, with a focus on areas of the country that have fewer traditional science engagement opportunities than cities like Boston or San Francisco. Our first initiative centers around the total eclipse of the sun that will pass through the middle of the U.S. on April 8, 2024. We’re building new partnerships and supporting communities and organizations in the path of totality, from science museums and art organizations to cultural centers and local downtown districts. The eclipse will be an unforgettable moment of awe, and we see this as an opportunity to leverage that sense of wonder to provide onramps for meaningful, lifelong relationships with science that extend beyond this celestial event. Watch this space.
We are committed to the work that we are doing with our partners across the U.S. to forward science engagement. We believe that, if given the opportunity, resources and support, everyone can find a point of connection within the vast world of science.
Ivvet Modinou is the vice president of the Simons Foundation’s Science, Society and Culture division.