The Swartz Foundation's Single-Minded Pursuit of the Mind

Despite the current surge in neuroscience research and news coverage, and some tantalizing data points derived from improved brain scan technology, the cold hard truth is that we know very little about how the brain actually works.

But we’re trying, and there’s a lot of funding flying about in this realm. Researchers are using all of the scientific disciplines at their disposal to try to cross the giant chasm between understanding the biological structures of brains and the functions of the mind. The Swartz Foundation exists solely to make that leap possible.

Swartz is a science research funder based on Long Island, founded and endowed by renowned physicist Jerome Swartz. The foundation’s only focus is learning how the brain works through theoretical neuroscience, including the discipline known as computational neuroscience. This basically means using non-biological sciences such as mathematics, physics, engineering and computing to model how the biology of the brain translates into things like thought, memory and the big one, consciousness. 

The foundation has assets of $9 million, giving about $1.7 million a year to its neuroscience centers, research projects and conferences. While it has an endowment, it’s also something of a pass-through, in that it does fundraise to expand. 

Jerome Swartz started the foundation in 1994, toward the end of a highly successful career in applied physics, primarily as head of Symbol Technologies. Symbol makes a variety of tech, but is best known as a leader in barcode technology and RFID, or radio frequency tracking tags. Now retired, Swartz sits on various academic boards and is one of two trustees in his foundation. 

The move to brain science may seem out of pocket, but not theoretical neuroscience. This interdisciplinary field is less about dissections and clinical tests and more about using math and physics to try to model how the brain becomes the mind. It takes what we know about the brain’s biological properties like electrical currents and neuron behavior, along with what we know about thought from psychology, and tries to model how large-scale brain activity works and translates into complex functions.

Herein lie the big mysteries of the brain. We have very limited understanding of how the jumble of neurons manifests into incredibly sophisticated computing such as the ability to efficiently recognize and remember massive amounts of input. And what we know about how a brain creates the experience of consciousness is largely speculative. 

Swartz’s funding to work toward an improved understanding in this realm has a few outlets. For one, it sponsors a series of Swartz Centers, one main center at UC San Diego, and five other joint centers with Sloan at schools like CalTech and Salk Institute. 

But the funder also supports targeted research projects at schools like Stony Brook, Columbia, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory and Princeton. Finally, Salk tries to build the amount of shared knowledge out there with a series of workshops and conferences, featuring the most prominent brains working on brains. 

The relatively small, niche funder has little in the way of guidelines and program staff, and doesn’t accept proposals from individuals, instead going through preferred research centers. But researchers or academics interested in getting in the game might start with Science Director Hirsh Cohen, who can be reached here.