Latest Simons Telescope Grant Shows the Power of Science Philanthropy as a Catalyst

A $40 million observatory grant will advance the global hunt for knowledge of the universe’s origins. It also demonstrates a philanthropist’s power to orchestrate various institutions and spark much bigger funding. 

The ability and willingness of billionaire-mathematician James Simons to write a check that will fund a telescope array with 10 times the light-collecting detectors of anything currently running is certainly impressive—it will bear the family name in recognition of the gift.

But just as scientific discovery is never about one person, the grant for the future Simons Observatory is just one part of a much bigger and ongoing funding story.

Simons’ role in that story—which involves at least five universities, two countries, and much more money from academic institutions and government agencies alike—demonstrates how private philanthropy’s true power is acting as a fast catalyst for work much larger than itself. 

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That's not to say the grant is small; it involves $38.4 million from the Simons Foundation, and an additional $1.7 million from Heising-Simons Foundation, the philanthropy of Jim and Marilyn’s daughter Liz and her husband. Matching funds are also coming from the five academic institutions involved at the observatory site. The funding will back construction of new telescopes in the Atacama Desert in Chile, merging with two existing, ongoing sites searching for information about the early stages of the universe.

In particular, the observatory will hunt for evidence of cosmic inflation theory, which would shed new light on the nature of the universe’s origins, and lead toward better understanding of things like dark matter and dark energy. There are many teams searching for such evidence, including the BICEP2 experiment at the South Pole (also backed partially by private philanthropy), which announced possible evidence of inflation in 2014 that ended up being interference from cosmic dust.

Billionaire funders have been major backers of terrestrial telescope projects for decades, making it tempting to think of such a hunt for knowledge as a race between wealthy investors. But collaboration is a hallmark of these endeavors. Simons, it turns out, actively sought to align some of the teams when setting up this observatory grant.  

Related: The Philanthropy of Stargazing: We're In a New Golden Age of Mega Telescope Projects

UC San Diego astrophysicist Brian Keating, who also helped design BICEP2, is actually the son of one of Jim Simons’ former business partners and worked with the philanthropist to hash out the project details. The San Diego Union-Tribune reports that Simons wanted to see more collaboration among the telescopes and universities working in the Atacama, which led to the idea to bring them all under one roof of the Simons Observatory. 

That collaboration, however, is also part of something potentially much larger—CMB-Stage Four is a vision for a ground-based project that could tap into the full wealth of knowledge possible through observing cosmic microwave background. The plan involves running cooperative arrays with several times more observing power than what’s happening now, and could help physicists unravel some of the core questions of the nature of the universe. It may involve cosmic inflation theory, or it may support a theory we haven't even come up with yet.

CMB-S4 builds on longtime support from the NSF and other institutions and philanthropies, and will draw on more public funding from the DOE, and likely the NSF and international funding agencies. It will involve many research institutions, telescopes, and countries coming together to build the next generation of cosmology experiments. 

And that’s where the serious impact of the Simons’ $40 million—a relatively small amount relative to such a megaproject—comes into play. Just as Bill Gates and Charles Simonyi kickstarted broader funding for the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, Simons is hoping to get things moving on a level that has only been in the planning stages. He’s not getting any younger, after all.  

As Simons told Nature: “Sometimes private philanthropy gets something going which government support then continues. By our getting it going, it will encourage them to fall in.”  

And University of Chicago physicist John Carlstrom added in the Nature piece: “We’ve been trying as a community to figure out how we can continue to extract this information. It’s getting to the point where we really need to pull together and need a community effort to get to the next level. This looks like a way to really start pushing for that.”