Inside the Simons Foundation: Big Philanthropy on the Frontiers of Science

These are tough times for science researchers. After decades of expanding federal support of science, the party came to an end about a decade ago. Federal research budgets, adjusted for inflation, have been flat or in decline ever since. It’s become harder and harder for scientists to get grants, especially early career researchers.

This same grim period, though, has seen the rise of one of the most important new private science funders in decades: the Simons Foundation, which is based in Manhattan and bankrolled by the vast hedge fund fortune of Jim Simons, the founder of Renaissance Technologies. His wife Marilyn Simons has led the foundation since its inception.

While federal research agencies have spent recent years in trench warfare with budget cutters, the Simons Foundation has been on a tear: expanding its grantmaking, staffing up, starting new initiatives, and laying the groundwork for even greater growth to come.

In the past half decade, total annual grants made by the foundation have more than doubled, rising from $124 million in 2011 to $233.7 million last year. The endowment stands at over $2 billion, putting Simons among the top 40 foundations in the United States.

The foundation’s resources aren’t large compared to the tens of billions of dollars that government still spends annually on scientific research. And Simons is much smaller than the leading private backer of biomedical research, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

But what’s notable about the Simons Foundation is that it’s largely focused on basic science, pumping grant money into areas where researchers can have an especially tough time finding support. About a third of the foundation’s grants in a recent year went to mathematics and the physical sciences. The next-largest chunk went to the life sciences—where Simons gives millions toward research into the origins of life and the microbial processes within the oceans.

Simons money often goes to the kinds of projects that government doesn’t fund: riskier research by younger scientists, as well as collaborations and deep dives into large, abstract questions. Its work can be pretty out there, and that's intentional. Just last week, the foundation announced it was backing a $40 million collaboration to build a new observatory in Chile to study the Big Bang and better understand the formation and structure of the universe. “We’re trying to uncover what the universe looked like a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second after the universe began,” said Brian Keating, the researcher leading this work at the University of California, San Diego. While this may not sound like money well spent to everyone, it’s the kind of the fundamental issue in science that turns on the leadership at Simons.  

But the foundation funds research besides the cosmos. It has also invested heavily in autism research, spending hundreds of millions of dollars to draw new talent into a once-neglected field and helping orchestrate a series of breakthroughs on a condition that afflicts millions. Last month, the long-running Simons Foundation Autism Research Initiative (SFARI) announced one of its most ambitious undertakings yet: SPARK, a push to stockpile genetic data from 50,000 individuals with autism and their families. 

In recent years, the Simons Foundation has created a robust community of scholars, projects, conferences, publications, and more. Reading its newsletters or wandering around its offices on lower Fifth Avenue—which includes a high-tech event space—the foundation has the feel of a long-established research player. In fact, it’s only been a proactive grantmaker for a decade or so.  

The speed and scale with which the Simons Foundation has emerged stands as yet another case study of how new mega-funders are transforming key areas of philanthropy. After decades of record wealth accumulation, many of today’s billionaires have pockets deep enough to make game-changing impact on whatever funding space they choose to enter.   

Jim Simons is a case in point. Since the 1980s, Renaissance Technologies has delivered record-breaking returns—growing Simons’ fortune to $15.5 billion, according to Forbes. Last year alone, he made a reported $1.7 billion. But Simons, who retired from actively running the firm a few years ago, is now mainly focused on philanthropy. And as large as the foundation may be today, it still has absorbed only a small fraction of Simons’ hedge fund winnings. Much bigger things lie ahead.

The foundation will expand even as government science funding continues to stagnate or decline. This year, federal discretionary domestic spending hit its lowest level since the Eisenhower era. Those numbers underscore another storyline here: Big philanthropy, and places like the Simons Foundation, are rising even as big government—and agencies like the National Science Foundation—are falling.

In a recent conversation with Jim and Marilyn Simons, I got some insights into the foundation's evolution to date—and where it’s heading next.

Scaling Up

At the start, in the late 1990s, the Simon Foundation was no more than a file box in Marilyn’s dressing room. Finally, in 2001, she rented a small office down the street from Gramercy Park and hired a few part-time staff. Still, the foundation was a pretty informal operation, operating mostly passively, fielding requests for money. “They were coming to us,” said Jim. Marilyn added: “We were being reactive instead of proactive.”

Then, one day, Marilyn recalled, “Jim had a brilliant idea: ‘We should give to things we want to give to.’”

The couple’s interests were long established. Jim held a Ph.D. in mathematics, and had charted a successful career in the national security field and then academia before going into finance. He’d won the prestigious Veblen Prize of the American Mathematics Society for his work in geometry and served as chair of the math department of the State University of New York at Stony Brook. Marilyn’s Ph.D. was in economics, with a focus on econometrics, which uses applies mathematics and statistics to economics.

The Simonses' main interest was in funding math and science, but they were also keen on doing something about autism and learning disabilities. They pulled together a roundtable of experts for a day to learn about the research in this area. Jim said of that meeting: “we came away with the conclusion that there were two things we could do: One, bring better people into the field because the quality of the research was not all that good. And two, to focus at least initially on genetics, where it was clear that the condition was caused at least in part by one’s genes.”

The Simonses made a few grants along these lines, but felt out of their depth with giving money at this level. “We were lucky we picked a couple good people to support, but we didn’t really know how to do that,” Jim said. So he and Marilyn looked around for someone to help them, and soon hooked up with Gerald Fischbach, a distinguished neuroscientist who had spent years at the NIH and also medical schools, before becoming a dean at Columbia, where he continued advanced research. In 2006, he joined the Simons Foundation as the scientific director overseeing its autism research funding.

Hiring Fischbach was “a paradigm shift for us,” said Marilyn, “because instead of being reactive, he would ask for proposals. He understood working with scientific advisory boards to help vet proposals.” The Simones were so thrilled with this step forward that they decided to professionalize their giving for basic math and science, which had also tended to be haphazard. Within a few years, the Simons Foundation had top directors building out all its grantmaking areas. As the operation evolved, Marilyn remained as president, leading the work to scale up an outfit that was soon growing by leaps and bounds, as increasingly large sums of money flowed from Renaissance Technologies into the foundation’s endowment. Annual grantmaking soared. “It just grew,” Jim said.

Many new philanthropists are reluctant to build out large foundations these days, fretting about the overhead costs and the dreaded thought of their philanthropy becoming “bureaucratic.”

Jim and Marilyn Simons never had any doubt about the need to hire a sizeable staff. “What we’re doing is very technical,” Jim said “You can’t just give money to mathematics and science by throwing it out on the street and letting people pick it up. You need to know who’s doing what, how good they are, what’s the likelihood they will use the money wisely, and so on. We’re giving a lot of money. Hundreds of millions of dollars every year. So we want to do it a professional way.”

Money Out the Door

To get resources into hands of promising scientists, the Simons Foundation runs numerous competitive grants programs. Funding goes out for fellowships that allow university faculty to focus on research. There are grants for postdoctoral fellowships, which are invaluable to young academics. Funding is also available “to support high-risk projects of exceptional promise and scientific importance on a case-by-case basis.” And money goes for lots of other kinds of work, too—with all grant proposals subject to review by a constellation of experts and advisers that have become part of the Simons Foundation universe over recent years.

Look through the funding opportunities at the Simons Foundations and you’ll notice a big focus on collaboration. Another theme is that grants often target researchers at early stages in their careers. Both these priorities have been shaped by a frequent critique of science research: the lack of robust cross-pollination of ideas and support for the younger scientists who often have the newest and most exciting ideas.

Collaboration emerged as a top focus of the Simons Foundation a few years ago, after its leadership had been struck by the rich dividends that came from a collaborative approach to its work on autism. The foundation held a two-day retreat in upstate New York with top scientists to brainstorm about other areas where collaborations might prove fruitful. What emerged was a new collaborative funding model aimed at bringing Simons-backed investigators together to work on key problems—often across disciplines—with the hope that new kinds of interactions will produce breakthroughs.

Since then, the foundation has launched a growing number of collaborations. Among these is the Simons Collaboration on the Global Brain, begun in 2014, an effort that underscores why the foundation is so keen to get scientists talking to each other across fields. Brain research has advanced rapidly in recent years, with tons of new data piling up from many studies. But making sense of that data requires mathematical approaches that are beyond the grasp of most neuroscientists. This is where the Simons Foundation comes in, with expertise in both life science and mathematics, and robust networks in both areas. The foundation hopes that breakthroughs will emerge from its effort to “build a cohesive and interactive multi-disciplinary community of scientists focused on furthering our understanding of higher brain function.”

Meanwhile, Simons Foundation support of younger researchers takes various forms. Beyond grants for grad students, post-doc support, and fellowships for tenure-track faculty, the foundation offers some sweet deals for young investigators working on cutting-edge—and often risky—projects. One example is its partnership with the Klingenstein Fund to support young neuroscientists. The Klingenstein-Simons Fellowship Awards provide up to $225,000 in funding for over three years—which is very nice money for younger researchers.

The foundation’s Bridge to Independence Award, for autism researchers, is even more generous. The goal, here, is backing “talented early-career scientists interested in autism research and facilitating their transition to an independent research career.” The award comes with $150,000 per year over three years toward project work. Again, great money if you can get it.

Just to be clear, though, the Simons Foundation isn’t only interested in rising stars. One of its awards, the Simons Investigators in Mathematics, Physics, and Theoretical Computer Science, provides support to “outstanding scientists in their most productive years, when they are establishing creative new research directions, providing leadership to the field and effectively mentoring junior scientists.” These awards are worth $100,000 a year for five years—with the possibility of renewal for another five years. In turn, that support is modest compared to the Math+X Investigator Award, which aims to “encourage novel collaborations between mathematics and other fields in science or engineering” and is only open to tenured faculty. It comes with $300,000 a year for five years, also with the possibility of renewal.

As I said, the Simons Foundation is giving away a lot of money.

Rallying for Basic Research

In March 2014, the New York Times published a front-page article ominously entitled “Billionaires with Big Ideas Are Privatizing American Science.” It named the many wealthy donors that have moved into this space in recent years, including Jim Simons. “For better or worse,” said one analyst in the article, “the practice of science in the 21st century is becoming shaped less by national priorities or by peer-review groups and more by the particular preferences of individuals with huge amounts of money.” The age of grand federal research endeavors, the Times suggested, was winding down as science became “a private enterprise.”

Jim and Marilyn Simons were pleased with the piece, because it drew attention to the alarming decline of government funding for science. Jim knew first-hand how important such funding is, because he’d gotten his math Ph.D. under a new federal program the started after the Soviets launched Sputnik in 1957. But the Simonses also thought the Times’ claim that American science was becoming “privatized” was an overreach, given the modest resources of philanthropists compared to government. “We’re just tiny,” Marilyn Simons said.

That’s true. But private science funding overall is quite significant. One 2010 study found that private donors provide around 30 percent of research funds at top universities. Funders like Simons, HHMI, and the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation also play a critical role in science funding because they’re willing to go where government won’t. That includes probing topics that federal agencies might have a hard time explaining to Congress, such as the origins of life—a focus of a Simons collaboration—and also taking risks on unproven ideas.

Government research agencies are well known for their conservatism. They tend to fund work that is already at a more advanced stage, undertaken by established senior scientists. On average, U.S. scientists don’t get their first NIH grant until they’re 45. Alas, many younger scientists can’t hold on that long. As a studylast year stated: “Without their own funding, young researchers are prevented from starting their own laboratories, pursuing their own research, and advancing their own careers in academic science. It is not surprising that many of our youngest minds are choosing to leave their positions in academic research for careers in industry, other countries, or outside of science altogether.”

This crisis is why the Simons Foundation, along with a number of other private research funders, give so much attention to younger researchers, as well as backing riskier ideas. “We fund early-stage research that can help people go on and get a grant from the government or other foundations,” said Marilyn Simons. Such backing, though, as important as it is, carries no guarantee of later support. The odds of landing a grant from the feds have shrunk dramatically in the past two decades.

Beyond ramping up its own funding, the Simons Foundation is seeking to bolster support for basic science by encouraging other funders to enter this space. It’s backing an effort, with five partners, called the Science Philanthropy Alliance, which works to “inspire new, emerging and current philanthropists to dedicate a portion of their philanthropy to basic science.” The idea, here, is that many wealthy donors understand the importance of such research, but find this a daunting area to enter.“It’s hard for those new to philanthropy or without staff to know where their money is going and how it’s being used,” said Marilyn Simons.

The SPA works to cultivate and guide new science donors, connecting them to veteran funders in the alliance—such as Simons, HHMI, and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. The alliance is led by Marc Kastner, a top MIT physicist now taking point in rallying more funders to the cause of basic science. “There are some really great questions there to be answered, but there aren’t the resources to do it,” Kastner has said. “That's why I think philanthropy has a very important role to play.” Already, the SPA has connected with a number of major new philanthropists, including several coming out of the tech world. Schmidt Philanthropies, funded by Google’s Eric Schmidt and his wife Wendy, is an associate member of the SPA.

***

Jim and Marilyn Simons have said in their Giving Pledge letter that “the great majority of our wealth will be devoted to philanthropic purposes.” It’s unclear what that will mean for the Simons Foundation in terms of its eventual size and resources, or when future growth might occur. The Simons children also have foundations that could absorb some of the family wealth.

Another question mark is how big the Simons fortune may one day grow. Since officially retiring from Renaissance Technologies in 2010, Simons has added $7 billion to his net worth, and—as mentioned—had yet another great year in 2015. That haul gives new meaning to the phrase “golden years,” and also suggests that the ultimate corpus of wealth undergirding the Simons Foundation could one day put it on par with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, which has an $18 billion endowment and an annual budget approaching a billion dollars. Already, if you add up the Simons Foundation’s endowment and Jim Simons' net worth, that pile of money is as big as HHMI’s endowment.  

Down the line, the Simons Foundation could easily become the single largest philanthropic backer of science research in the United States, if not the world.