It was the collaboration that begat more collaborations: Nearly two dozen eminent scientists gathered together at the Buttermilk Falls Inn in Milton, New York, in 2012 for two days of intensive discussion. The Simons Foundation had invited the researchers — all groundbreakers in disciplines such as physics, biology, mathematics and computer science — to swap ideas about how to take the foundation’s support for path-finding basic science research to the next level. They were charged with identifying ambitious, cross-disciplinary projects that might unfurl over the course of decades, rather than months or years. “I thought large-scale, goal-driven collaboration in such projects might be a useful way to advance certain areas of science,” Jim Simons recalls. “We were getting advice from some really thoughtful people — that’s the power to convene.”
Because of this “power to convene,” the discussions at Buttermilk Falls served as the genesis of a host of ambitious programs called Simons Collaborations — 10 to date — in mathematics, physical sciences, life sciences and brain research. The first collaborations to launch are now coming into their own and serve to shed light on the unique ways that scientists and discovery-driven investigators collaborate.
One of the first initiatives to emerge from the convention in Buttermilk Falls was the Simons Collaboration on the Global Brain (SCGB). The term ‘global brain’ refers to the neuronal processes that cascade across different regions of the brain in coordinated patterns to produce not just externally observable processes such as sensory reception and physical action, but also “decisions, perceptions, memories — things that don’t depend on necessary external stimuli,” says Gerald Fischbach, the foundation’s distinguished scientist. “The goal is to understand the coding and dynamics of neurons during such internal mental states. What happens when you’re just thinking?”
This investigation into cognition’s ‘black box’ is made possible by new technologies that allow researchers to observe brain behavior at the so-called ‘mesoscopic scale’ — effectively measuring the activity of hundreds or thousands of individual neurons simultaneously. But beneath SCGB’s advanced methods lies a brand of collaboration that is equally revolutionary. Each SCGB grant is awarded jointly to a pair of investigators: one theorist and one experimentalist. “In the rest of the world, the experimentalists stick to their experiment and don’t think much about the mathematics involved,” Fischbach says. “But that’s not the case here.” Building in this unusual collaboration at the foundational level is essential to SCGB’s success. “If you want to record certain neural systems at this scale, you’ve got to describe how you’re going to analyze the data beyond simple number crunching,” Fischbach says. “You have to have your theory of what’s going on.”
Theory also takes center stage in the seven collaborations hosted by the Mathematics & Physical Sciences division. Unlike experimental physicists, who can coalesce by the hundreds around a single, immensely expensive instrument (think CERN’s Large Hadron Collider), theoreticians “can do most of their day-to-day work without direct help from other people,” says Andrew Millis, the foundation’s associate director for physics. But in new and colorfully named Simons Collaborations such as “The Non-Perturbative Bootstrap,” “Special Holonomy in Geometry, Analysis and Physics” and “Cracking the Glass Problem,” theoreticians now cultivate fruitful connections with one another by sharing their work and their ideas at regular collaboration meetings.
“We could just take the same amount of money and simply give it as direct grants to each of the individuals, and not require them to talk to each other on a regular basis,” says Millis. “But what we’re doing in these domains is an experiment: a different mode of working that we hope will produce new and better science. Although these collaborations have not been running for long, the indications look good: We have lots of examples of creative work done jointly by people who would not otherwise be working together.”
Meanwhile, in the Life Sciences division, experimentalists cross disciplines freely in the Simons Collaboration on the Origins of Life (SCOL), which synthesizes multiple scientific specialties in an attempt to solve one of Earth’s most stubborn mysteries. “We create interactions among people who wouldn’t normally even talk to each other — who might have trouble even understanding the science that’s being done in each other’s lab,” says Marian Carlson, geneticist and director of life sciences at the foundation. “Chemists who are trying to understand chemical reactions that could have occurred on early Earth talk to astronomers who think about what molecules might have been brought here from space. It’s just a whole different level of broadening one’s scientific perspective.”
Yet even in 2017, sometimes a dose of 19th-century-style expeditionary fieldwork is necessary to move the needle on other questions in the life sciences. That’s what the Simons Collaboration on Ocean Processes and Ecology (SCOPE) provides, in the form of repeated research cruises to Station ALOHA, a 4-kilometer-deep water column in the Pacific Ocean, north of Hawai’i. SCOPE aims to comprehensively model ocean microbiology at multiple scales of time and space. And although computer simulation and remote sensing from satellites and seaborne drones play an important role in taking measurements, “you still have to actually go out there and look,” Carlson says. “And these are incredibly hard conditions, doing experiments on a moving ship. You have to bolt your microscope to the lab bench. These people are amazing adventurers in addition to being good scientists.”
But for all of their varied formats, all of these ambitious forms of scientific collaboration function in essentially the same way: by getting advice from fellow discoverers. “We’re good at getting experts to convene,” Simons says. “I doubt that we’ll know all the answers to these questions in 10 years — but we’ll probably have advanced the subjects a fair amount in the process.”