The Simons Foundation, one of philanthropy’s best-known funders (and pretty significant doers) of basic science research, recently named a new president—for the first time in its 25-year history. Since its launch in 1994, Simons has been co-led by founders Jim and Marilyn Simons, but in July, the billionaire donors handed over the reins to prominent astrophysicist David Spergel.
It was an in-house promotion, as Spergel has been with Simons since 2016, when he joined as the first director of the foundation’s newly established Center for Computational Astrophysics, itself a part of the Simons’ own research center, the Flatiron Institute. We spoke recently with Spergel and with Jim and Marilyn Simons about the change in leadership and what it might mean for the foundation in the coming years.
First, a bit of background on the new president. Spergel has long been a mover and shaker in the fundamental-questions-of-the-universe business, including at Princeton University, where he was a professor for more than 30 years and chair of the Department of Astrophysical Sciences for 10 years. His research into the nature of the cosmos has included the study of dark energy, the shape of the universe, and extrasolar planets.
He has received a truckload of academic and professional recognitions. To mention a few: In 2018, he was awarded the multimillion-dollar Breakthrough Prize in fundamental physics for his contributions to NASA’s Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP), a mission that mapped the early universe and illuminated the evolution of the cosmos and formation of galaxies. He is a recipient of the NASA Exceptional Public Service Medal, the Heineman Prize for Astrophysics, and a MacArthur Fellowship. He has co-authored more than 300 papers, including some of the current century’s most-cited physics articles, and remains an emeritus professor at Princeton.
The above list is far from complete. But it’s enough to show that the science funder is now helmed by one of the world’s most experienced professional scientists, which underscores Jim and Marilyn Simons’ continued, laser-focused commitment to their foundation’s basic science mission. The Simonses also had ample opportunity to witness Spergel’s work as a leader in a philanthropic environment before entrusting him with their baby. But how do the founders feel about stepping away?
“Jim and I both envision the foundation carrying on in perpetuity, and I feel like this is part of the building process,” said Marilyn. “And how could we not be totally thrilled with David as a leader? I want to see what he does.”
Founders Jim and Marilyn Simons are themselves no strangers to science and academia. Jim has a Ph.D. in mathematics and worked at universities and in government; he was chair of the math department at Stony Brook University before turning his mathematics background to finance, starting the storied quantitative hedge fund Renaissance Technologies, which made the family’s fortune. Marilyn has a Ph.D. in economics; she’s also chair of the board of trustees at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. Together, they ensured that the foundation would remain focused on basic science research, even requiring in its bylaws that a majority of the board would always consist of scientists or mathematicians.
The couple have built out an expansive footprint as donors over the years—including giving big to Democratic candidates over the years—and sit atop a powerful new philanthropic dynasty. The Simons family nabbed an impressive four spots on our inaugural Power List, as the second generation is highly active in funding issues like climate change, early education, and LGBTQI rights.
Even so, it was a recruiting coup for the Simonses to lure a researcher of Spergel’s stature to serve as head of the Center for Computational Astrophysics, one of a handful of in-house research hubs the foundation operates within its Flatiron Institute, which focuses on computational methods-based research. In fact, it’s hard to imagine that Spergel would ever have left academia for philanthropy in the first place had he not had the opportunity to stay active in research at Flatiron.
Evolution of an organization
So what changes are in store for Simons in the Spergel era? Short answer: It will evolve as programs mature, but will not transmogrify into some vastly different kind of funder. Its focus will remain on the core interests it has developed and supported over the last couple of decades, including mathematics and physical sciences, life sciences, neuroscience, and autism research. Funding will remain split at roughly similar proportions between funding outside grantees and Simons’ in-house research—with 80–85% going out in traditional grantmaking and 15–20% going to internal research.
Some changes will accrue in the natural evolution of the organization, irrespective of whose office door says “president.” After all, science is supposed to shift its focus to new areas, pointed down new avenues by novel discoveries and thinking. For example, says Spergel, some of the Simons Collaborations—about a third of the foundation’s budget—will eventually reach their expected completion as they edge toward eight years in operation. But Spergel will certainly drive some new programs and areas of interest as he settles into the job. Here are a few of the opportunities he talked about.
Career pivots for scientists
One new program area Spergel is considering for the foundation is actually focused on scientists as much as on the science—namely, to find ways to help scientists in academia, as well as those working in biotech or Silicon Valley and other non-academic settings, change to new subjects or specialties. This builds on the notion that people from varied backgrounds can bring fresh insights to bear on questions that veteran subject-matter experts might not see, said Spergel. It also can help energize mid- and late-career scientists seeking new challenges and new ways to contribute.
“There are a lot of people doing interesting research and building up interesting skills, but we have a pretty rigid academic system that makes it difficult for people to follow a more complex path,” Spergel said. “If you’ve been a physicist or you’re a tenured professor somewhere, and you want to start thinking about climate or neuroscience or epidemiology, a pivot program would enable you to make that change.”
Details are yet to be hammered out, but such a pivot fellowship program might, for example, buy out some of a faculty member’s time or support a graduate student. Spergel said the foundation would conduct a series of workshops with representatives from academia and business to develop approaches. “One of the main challenges is to identify people most likely to make a successful career pivot,” said Spergel. “But as I talk to people about this, there’s a lot of interest.”
A push for diversity in basic sciences
Academic science, including the basic science that Simons specializes in, remains disproportionately white and male. This was old news years ago, but despite efforts in the last few decades to boost diversity, women and minorities remain underrepresented in science departments. Simons has already been working to encourage people of different backgrounds to enter the sciences—for example, the foundation recently launched an initiative with the Society of Black Physicists called the Simons-NSBP Scholars Program to get Black undergraduate physics students into eight-week summer research positions.
Spergel says he intends to expand Simons’ diversity-building efforts. “I’d like to see more Ph.D.s in math, physics, neuroscience and computational science broadly from under-represented groups,” he said. “We’ve got a number of new initiatives, and the ones that are successful in doing that will continue and grow.”
A period of transition
With assets of $4.6 billion, Simons is not only one of the largest foundations supporting basic science, it’s one of the better-endowed foundations in philanthropy. In overall terms, in 2020, Simons made about $528 million in grants, up from $446 million the previous year.
You’d think it would be difficult for Jim and Marilyn Simons to hand over control of the foundation they’ve run since day one, but it’s pretty apparent they’re comfortable turning over the job to Spergel. After all, they have had the opportunity to work with him for the last five years and observe his leadership style as he developed the Center for Computational Astrophysics. And as Spergel assumes the presidency, the Simonses will remain as co-chairs of the board of directors.
“I wanted the opportunity to help shape the future of the board and staff relationship by taking a step back and letting the transition take place while we were around, and we could understand what the board needed for its future,” said Marilyn. “We’re eager for David to develop his vision and lead.”