Calculated Giving: With Federal Funds Shrinking, Math Sciences Funders Step Up

  photo: Dr Project/shutterstock

 photo: Dr Project/shutterstock

While STEM giving is one of the hottest funding areas in higher ed philanthropy, most of the gifts we profile are earmarked for tangible and conventional goals—a new science building, teacher training, diversifying the ranks of science majors, and so on.

Two recent gifts from opposite corners of the continent, on the other hand, initially appear to be a bit more, well, abstract.

The first comes to us from Providence, Rhode Island, where Brown University announced a grant of $8 million from the Simons Foundation in support of a multi-institution effort focused on tackling fundamental questions in algebra and number theory.

Meanwhile, 3,000 miles to the west, the University of California, San Diego received a $4 million legacy gift from Nobel laureate Harry Markowitz, an adjunct professor at the Rady School of Management. This gift will establish the Barbara and Harry Markowitz Endowed Fellowship program with the goal of attracting students in the area of "decision sciences, including mathematics, finance and operations research."

Fortunately, I have no intention of providing a primer in arithmetic geometry, number theory, or decision sciences. Instead, I'd like to address a far more comprehensible reality.

Federal research budgets, adjusted for inflation, have been flat or in decline for a decade. It's within this environment that science funders are ramping up giving to complex and befuddling areas that, when all is said and done, have a practical impact on society.

Take the Simons gift, for example. Funding supports the hiring of programmers and mathematicians who perform "sophisticated calculations and assemble new databases of mathematical objects." This sentence may make your eyes glaze over, but at the end of the day, subsequent research can yield advancements in fields like cryptography, defined as "the art of writing or solving codes." (See? Piece of cake.)

Followers of the Simons Foundations shouldn't be surprised by this gift. Based in Manhattan, bankrolled by the hedge fund fortune of Jim Simons, and led by his wife Marilyn, the foundation has been integral in filling the gap left by dissipating federal research dollars. Math is a special passion. Jim received his Ph.D. in math and had a distinguished academic career before harnessing his quantitative skills to finance. After years of imploring government to invest more money in math education, Simons created Math for America in 2004, which works to improve the math education. Simons has given millions to the organization and chairs its board of directors. 

In the academic world, Simons Foundation grants are among the most generous available for mathematicians. Overall, as we've explained in the past, 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 and issues.

The speed and scale with which the Simons Foundation has emerged is yet another case study of how new mega-funders are transforming key areas of philanthropy. Expect the Simons Foundation's giving to continue expanding—as well as its in-house support for researchers. Next month, the foundation is opening its new Flatiron Institute in Manhattan, which will focus on advancing computational science. 

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

Which brings me back to San Diego and Harry Markowitz. The recipient of his largess, the Rady School of Management, has distinguished itself as a "pioneer in a new model of business education." To date, there are over 130 Rady School-related start-ups, generating an estimated $150 million in revenue per year with total employment of over 1,025 people. There's nothing abstract about that.

Markowitz's life's work in academia has also found a very practical application here in the real world. The nearly 90-year-old donor chose to apply mathematics to the analysis of the stock market for his dissertation all the way back in 1955.

He continues to teach portfolio theory, which is the idea that "risk-averse investors can construct portfolios to optimize or maximize expected return based on a given level of market risk." (If that sentence makes your eyes glaze over, I'd suggest an index fund.)