Another Way a Huge Hedge Fund Fortune Is Being Tapped to Crack Scientific Puzzles

We’ve mostly explored the Heising-Simons Foundation’s substantial climate giving, but science research is in this funder’s blood. The foundation has announced a unique research program devoted to answering just one solitary question.

Does axion dark matter exist? That's it. That's the question. But more on that later. 

The Simons clan is one of the wealthiest and most compelling families in philanthropy today, with hedge fund billionaire James Simons and his wife Marilyn running one of the largest research funders in the country. But the Simons heirs have emerged as shrewd philanthropists in their own right, with Nathaniel Simons overseeing large climate funder Sea Change, and Elizabeth Simons running the Heising-Simons Foundation with her husband Mark Heising. (James Simons is worth $14 billion and has signed the Giving Pledge, so there's no shortage of cash for this family to tap.)

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Heising-Simons in particular has been making headlines lately for its climate giving, including joining up with Mike Bloomberg in his quest to topple coal and boost clean energy, and backing Risky Business, an economically motivated climate activism initiative.

But the relatively young foundation, which last reported assets of $269 million trust, actually has four main programs, one of which is devoted to science research. The foundation can’t quite compete with the other Simons Foundation in this realm, which has assets of at least $2 billion, and pours a fortune into research on autism, mathematics, physics, marine biology, neuroscience, and computer science. It recently joined Gates and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in a broad initiative to boost funds for early career scientists.

Related: Familiar Lesson of Science Give: Government Looks to Philanthropy to Get Stuff Done 

And yet, Heising-Simons is out to make an impact in the research world in its own way, namely by drilling down on one particular problem that are physicists are working overtime to solve. Well, one question, actually. You know, about axion dark matter.

It's a worthy single question. Dark matter is one of the toughest mysteries facing scientists researching the nature of the universe. Dark matter and dark energy make up the overwhelming majority of the universe, and we have a very limited understanding of either, since they can’t be observed with current instruments. We know they are there, and are responsible for the universe behaving as we know it, but what exactly they are remains one of the biggest problems in science. 

There is one hot lead, however, and that’s the hypothetical particle known as an axion. There is a large, concerted effort to detect whether axions are a component of dark matter, and Heising-Simons is backing it big time, recently announcing three-year grants to at least eight universities and labs. The foundation leadership has said that researchers could have an answer in a few years' time. 

If axions were the explanation for all of dark matter, we’d be able to comprehend 27 percent more—another full quarter—of the universe around us.
The Heising-Simons Foundation chose to fund this research not only because of its promise for understanding, but also because its investment is substantial enough to allow researchers to move the needle in a major area of scientific discovery. 

It’s an interesting approach, seeking to make a splash with highly focused giving to such a specific research question. This is a common strategy in philanthropy, when a donor decides to hammer down on a particular, important problem that it sees as vulnerable, or a profound issue that is ripe for the taking in a short time.  

But we see it less often in research, where those kinds of a problems are less common. Science is usually slow, and often doesn't unfold as we expect. So you usually see funding for incremental progress, institutions, individual researchers, fields of study, or even pieces of equipment. 

It's a cool program, but I have to say, I wouldn't get my hopes up. Science is slow, but discoveries are also fickle.

It brings to mind the inflation theory breakthrough in 2014 that was called one of the biggest astrophysics discoveries of the century, which turned out to be a misreading of data caused by cosmic dust. So this is a bit of a risky proposition, but an intriguing approach for a medium-sized science funder looking to make a big bang.