Scientists who become philanthropists are especially attuned to the needs of basic science. At a recent UC Berkeley-Science Philanthropy Alliance event for philanthropists, a conversation with Frances Hellman, physicist and dean of mathematical and physical sciences at the University of California, Berkeley, and president of the Hellman Fellows Fund, and Jim Simons, mathematician, investor, and chair of the board of the Simons Foundation, provided some insights into how scientist-philanthropists think about supporting basic science. Bob Birgeneau, physics professor and chancellor emeritus at UC Berkeley, moderated the discussion.
Why Basic Science
Birgeneau asked Hellman and Simons to define basic science. Hellman noted that basic science is curiosity-driven. In her own research on magnetism and non-crystalline materials, for example, she didn’t start by trying to make better, faster computers. “Many, many engineers are working on this,” she said. “Instead, I start with trying to understand magnetism and how electronic properties interact with each other, which may have a relevance to computers. By not answering a specific question, scientists can have a greater impact.”
Simons agreed on the unforeseen benefits of basic science. His own field of research, pure mathematics, is by definition basic science. While he was at Stony Brook University, he collaborated on a paper called “Characteristic Forms and Geometric Invariants” with S.S. Chern, from whom Simons took a seminar ten years earlier as a graduate student at UC Berkeley. The paper was in a field of mathematics related to topology and geometry, but to Simons’ surprise has turned out to be useful in a number of fields of theoretical physics. “You never know where basic science discoveries are going to go,” he said.
from left to right: Bob Birgeneau, physics professor and chancellor emeritus at UC Berkeley; Frances Hellman, physicist and dean of mathematical and physical sciences at the University of California, Berkeley and president of the Hellman Fellows Fund; and Jim Simons, mathematician, investor, and chair of the board of the Simons Foundation
Kicking off Their Philanthropy
Birgeneau asked Hellman and Simons how they got started on their philanthropy.
Hellman recounted, “After I received my own tenure, I talked to my parents about the funding issues that assistant professors often face. Tenure requires not just brilliant ideas, but financial support for research. However, the National Science Foundation’s peer review system, while useful, is inherently risk averse. The chances of six peers rating any risky research as excellent is vanishingly small. And as we’ve heard, the path to discovery is not a straight one, so there’s a real need to support young faculty.”
“So I created a fund with my parents to enable early-career pre-tenure faculty – faculty who are in their debt years and without the track record needed to obtain federal research grants – to do research. We started at UC Berkeley where my father went to school and UC San Diego where I had been an assistant professor. My parents loved this program because assistant professors would meet with them and talk to them about their research and send them books,” she described.
“As dean, I can help faculty and students create knowledge and make discoveries. As president of the Hellman Fellows Fund, I can help provide the financial support that they need. I love being able to empower young faculty to explore their ideas.”
Simons recounted his own experience.
“Bob Birgeneau was the first to extract money from us as the dean of science at MIT – that was my first experience with science philanthropy. My wife Marilyn and I started a foundation 25 years ago. It was a catchall foundation. We decided in 2004 to focus on basic science; our other giving would be outside the foundation,” he said.
“We started by supporting research on the foundations of autism, which is a puzzling condition. It’s an ongoing project. We then gave to math and physics and started collaborations to explore the origins of life. The National Institutes of Health will not provide funding to learn that secret. These collaborations now support 30-40 private investigators.”
The Simons Foundation not only gives grants to scientists, but now also conducts its own research. “Six years ago, we decided to do some research in-house, so we started the Simons Center for Data Analysis, headed by Leslie Greengard, who has an M.D. and a Ph.D. in computer science, and is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and Engineering,” said Simons. “The center does computational science in the biology area. We’ve since generalized the notion and, under the new name of the Flatiron Institute, added computational astrophysics, computational quantum physics, and computational mathematics,” he said.
“Marilyn and I are having a very good time running this foundation, which hopefully will go on in perpetuity,” he summarized.
Running their Philanthropies
Birgeneau then asked Hellman and Simons about how they run their philanthropic organizations. Hellman noted that her family’s philanthropy continues to fund people rather than projects. Previous Hellman fellows make up a committee to select the next set of award winners, which has turned out to be a useful mechanism.
Frances is president of the Hellman Fellows Fund, as well as a director of the Hellman Foundation, which she and her four siblings run. “They all believe in basic science, in a variety of fields including physical and life sciences and the social sciences. We have different interests, but we are very supportive of each other, so it has worked very well.”
Simons noted that his wife Marilyn is the president, while he is chair of board of the Simons Foundation. Marilyn is in charge of the business side of the foundation and oversees education and outreach, including Quanta magazine and projects like films about science, while Jim oversees the science work.
“There are lots of things I’m excited about, including a cosmic microwave background (CMB) telescope; the CMB is the leftover glow from the Big Bang. This telescope can discern primordial gravitational waves that would have occurred in the Big Bang, and so we hope it can tell us if the theory of the universe’s inflation in the earliest moments of the Big Bang is true. Either the theory is true, and someone will win a Nobel prize, or it isn’t and we’re back to the drawing board on the origins of life. I can’t lose on this bet,” he said, noting that his daughter and son-in-law’s Heising-Simons Foundation is also supporting related work.
Ultimately, funding basic science is exciting and satisfying work for both Hellman and Simons. In Simons’ words: “It’s fun to be a philanthropist of science.”