Why This Education and Development Funder Made a Serious Physics Research Grant

An international funder based in Greece just made an unlikely $4 million theoretical physics grant, backing one of the country’s emerging stars, while planting seeds for its future scientists.  

While the Stavros Niarchos Foundation does make its share of grants for science-related programs—mostly tied to education work—it’s not a main focus for the funder, better known for arts, education, and development philanthropy in Greece and abroad. So partnering with a Canadian research institute to establish a theoretical physics chair is a little off the beaten path for the foundation, which was established in the 1990s in the name of the Greek shipping magnate. 

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But leadership at the foundation found a kindred spirit in Ontario’s Perimeter Institute, and they hope that appointing Greek rising star Asimina Arvanitaki as the inaugural Aristarchus Chair in Theoretical Physics will both set an example and establish a pipeline for other students and scientists from the country.

It’s a notable grant for a few reasons. For one, it’s quite a bit funding, $8 million split by Perimeter and SNF to establish Arvanitaki in the role, back her research and collaboration with others, and hire a team.  

Arvanitaki’s work is also uniquely brilliant—instead of the high-energy particle smashing in most physics headlines, she conducts precision experiments that can fit on a tabletop. Through her paradigm-shifting research that the Perimeter director praised as “very unusual,” she tests theories on the fundamental nature of the universe, and topics like dark matter and extra dimensions. 

In a field that is overwhelmingly male, it’s also significant that Arvanitaki will be the first woman research chair at Perimeter, not to mention the fact that she grew up in a small Greek village before making waves at the University of Athens and then Stanford.  

All of this combined explains why the program was so compelling for the the Stavros Niarchos Foundation, which gives to a mix of social welfare, arts and culture, education, and health.

Perimeter is one of the largest theoretical physics hubs in the world, with around 150 researchers, emphasizing inspiring and attracting promising young scientists and then giving them space to thrive. It’s a public-private partnership between the Ontario and Canadian governments and a mix of corporate, foundation, and personal donations.

All of this appealed to SNF, which has been putting major funding toward getting its home country to thrive again (it has offices in Greece, Monaco, and the U.S.) amid historic socioeconomic crisis. The grant highlights Greece’s rich history of discovery—Aristarchus is the ancient Greek philosopher who proposed early on that the earth revolves around the sun. The funder also has an interest in tactics like public-private partnerships and inspiring and supporting young people, in service of its social welfare and education mission.

So while the grant is motivated by the promise of Arvanitaki’s work and the institute, there’s also a hope that the new chair will serve as a “beacon” for students and young scientists in Greece as the country confronts hard times.

Related: Could a Research Project Like LIGO Come From Private Philanthropy?