How This Science Funder Is Making Its Mark on Mathematics

The Fields Medal is widely considered the most prestigious award a mathematician can win. And if it were a considered showdown between science funders (and to be clear, it is not), 2014 would have been a tie between the Simons Foundation and the European Union. 

The Fields Medal is probably never discussed without the term “Nobel Prize of Mathematics” being thrown around, probably because the Nobel famously ignores math (come to think of it, science awards are compared to the Nobel constantly). 

But it really is a pretty big deal—at least it has been since the Cold War. The International Mathematical Union gives out the awards every four years to outstanding mathematicians under 40. 

The 2014 awards were announced recently and, of the four winners, two of them are grantees of the Simons Foundation—Manjul Bhargava and Maryam Mirzakhani. Mirzakhani is also the first woman to ever win the prize. The other two winners, Artur Avila and Martin Hairer, are grantees of the European Research Council, sort of the European Union analog of the National Science Foundation. 

Both Bhargava and Mirzakhani are recipients of the Simons Investigators awards, which started in 2012 as a program to provide stable, ongoing funding for scientists working on the fundamental questions in mathematics, physics and computer science. Investigators receive $100,000 a year for five years, plus $10,000 a year for their departments.

Related: Simons Foundation: Grants for Science Research

Bhargava was an inaugural Simons Investigator starting in 2012, and Mirzakhani was appointed in the 2013 class. Between 10 and 20 investigators are appointed each year, and awardees tend to be early in their career when they are starting out on creative new paths of study.

We write a lot about the Simons Foundation these days, and for good reason. It’s one of the most influential funders out there in basic science research, and its focus on theoretical work (i.e., no profitable or defense-related outcomes needed) is filling a gap, particularly in mathematics. Clearly, this kind of long-term strategy for cultivating creative work is paying off.

That's got to be deeply satisfying to Jim Simons, the former mathematician and hedge fund wizard who bankrolls the Simons Foundation out of his $12 billion fortune. 

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

To read more about the 2014 Fields winners, and the mind-boggling work they are doing, I recommend the lengthy profiles over at Quanta