How Does a "Transformative" Gift for Research Happen? Not Overnight

The recent $50 million gift to establish Cold Springs Harbor Laboratory’s new research center is being called a “transformative” sum that will allow expanded work in quantitative biology. But it didn't happen overnight. The gift is the culmination of years of work the lab has done in the field, as well as ongoing funding from Jim and Marilyn Simons. 

It’s certainly not every day that a funder like the Simons Foundation gives such a large amount to establish a new research center—specifically, the Simons Center for Quantitative Biology. But landing support on that level does not come out of nowhere. The work CSHL has been doing in applying computational sciences to biology has been laying the groundwork for the center and the gift for over a decade, according to institute staff. And the laboratory has been receiving significant funding from Simons all along the way. 

The new center itself has been in the works for a while, in fact, with the $50 million not given in one lump sum, but with incremental donations to establish the center going back to 2010. But with this week’s announcement of the gift, the Center for QB officially launches, chaired by Adam Siepel, PhD, from Cornell, who studies the intersection of computer science, statistics, evolutionary biology and genomics. Siepel joins eight researchers who already staff the Center, and will recruit additional investigators for the effort. 

The field of Quantitative Biology involves analysis of data, including imaging and genomics data, to advance breakthroughs in life sciences. It combines the fields of computer science, mathematics, theoretical physics and engineering to investigate illnesses such as cancer, autism, bipolar disorder and depression. For example, CSHL cites major discoveries stemming from quantitative biology, about the genetic basis for Autism Spectrum Disorders, and single cell sequencing to understand how cancer tumors develop. 

Other priorities at Cold Springs, a research and education institution that started in 1890, include work on cancer, neuroscience, plant biology and genomics.  

The recent gift is an impressive sum, but it shouldn't come as too much of a suprise, as CSHL’s work in this realm, and its research in general, align closely with the interests of the Jim and Marilyn Simons Foundation. The major science funder has programs that support mathematics and physics, but also research on the origins of life, brain activity, and autism spectrum disorders. Marilyn Simons is vice chairman of the board and Jim Simons is honorary trustee. There's a longstanding relationship between the lab and the philanthropists.

The power of quantitation is also something Jim Simons has firsthand experience with, as he spent his career working in math and data analysis, pioneering the use of mathematical strategies to build a successful hedge fund, and becoming a billionaire in the process. 

The foundation of Jim and wife Marilyn has a history of making large gifts to support institutions, including a $150 million to Stony Brook University in 2011, where he was once a mathematics professor.

Simons seems to be all over the news lately. The CSHL news follows an announcement last month of the foundation launching a huge, collaborative initiative to study microbial ocean ecosystems, based at the University of Hawaii, Manoa. And the New York Times this week published a lengthy profile of Jim Simons. 

If you want to learn even more about this high-profile funder, we've got you covered. Start out here with IP profiles of the Simons Foundation:

Simons Foundation: Grants for Science Research

Simons Foundation: Grants for Brain Research and Treatment

Simons Foundation: Grants for STEM Higher Education