Meet a Wealthy Family That Cares About Cybersecurity

We've been keeping a close eye on new philanthropic support going for work on cybersecurity. It's a crucial issue, and some experts have conjured up terrifying scenarios of how cyber attacks could disrupt U.S. society—and especially our economy—in deeply damaging ways. CIA Director John Brennan has said that such attacks pose the greatest threat to U.S. national security in the decade ahead.

The Hewlett Foundation is the dominant funder of work in this area, with an ambitious $65 million initiative that we've been written about often. But not many other funders are paying attention to cyber threats. Which is why it was great to hear that a wealthy family was stepping up to fund in this area. 

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Robert and Renee Belfer, along with their son Lawrence, recently gave a $15 million gift to the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School. The funds will help establish the Cyber Security Project, which "seeks to help create the conceptual arsenal" for strategists to confront cyber threats. 

This gift is one of several we've seen in the past year by wealthy individuals worried about rising threats to peace and security. Today's geopolitical instability, with wars ongoing in a number of places and entirely new kinds of threats emerging, is clearly rattling some people in the far upper class. 

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I've written about Robert Belfer and his wife Renee before. Belfer took over the reins of his father's oil empire, later took a hit because of shares he held in Enron, and more recently has diversified into other areas. Belfer currently chairs Belfer Management LLC, a private investment firm.

On the charitable end, I've examined the strong health giving of this wealthy couple. Belfer is chair emeritus of the board at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, is vice chair of the board of overseers of Weill Cornell University Medical College, and sits on the board of Dana-Farber Cancer Center, among other involvements. In 2011, the couple gave a $100 million gift establishing the Belfer Research Building at Weill Cornell Medical College. At the Dana Farber Cancer Center, meanwhile, the couple has underwritten the Belfer Institute for Applied Cancer Science.

Related: Three Things to Know About the Health Philanthropy of Robert and Renee Belfer

Apart from health, though, the couple is also interested in international issues, and the story here is personal. Patriarch Arthur Belfer fled Poland in the 1930s and came to the United States to fulfill his American dream. In 1997, the Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard was renamed the Robert and Renee Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. Belfer received his law degree from Harvard after attending Columbia University. 

In discussing this latest gift, the Belfer Center's director said, “Two decades ago, his support helped the Center meet the challenge of nuclear security in the post-Cold War world. Today, his gift signals confidence in our ability to serve elected officials, policy makers, and the public they are entrusted to protect with cutting-edge research on one of our era’s defining challenges.”

The new Cyber Security Project will bring some prominent minds in the space to Cambridge. The effort will be headed up by former Pentagon official Michael Sulmeyer.