Simons Foundation News

The latest AMS notices has the news that the Simons Foundation is now spending about $40 million/year in mathematics and related theoretical fields. This is being done under a program being run by David Eisenbud at Berkeley, and the first initiative has been the funding of new postdoctoral fellowships (there’s an earlier posting about this here). How the rest of the money will be spent remains undecided, with a request going out for suggestions.

This fall the program will fund 15 mathematics and 10 theoretical physics 3-year postdocs, as well as 9 2-year postdocs in computer science. A similar number of new positions will be funded next year. The postdocs will pay very well, at 70K/year for the mathematics ones, 65K/year for those in physics and “gauged to attract the highest caliber of applicants” for computer science.

The departments chosen for the postdocs have not been officially announced, but a little googling turns up the following ones that have job ads specifically mentioning the Simons fellowship.:

Mathematics: Berkeley, Cal Tech, Cambridge (UK), Columbia, Harvard, Michigan, MIT, Northwestern, Stanford, Texas (Austin), UCLA, Yale

Physics: Berkeley, Cal Tech, Chicago, MIT, NYU, Santa Barbara, Texas (Austin), Yale

Computer Science: Carnegie Mellon, Cornell, MIT, Princeton

The job market for the usual sort of teaching jobs at academic institutions has not been doing well recently, especially at US state universities facing budget problems. On the other hand, the job market for mathematics and theoretical physics, at least at the post-doctoral level, may do better than that in some other disciplines. We may be returning to an eighteenth-century model where this kind of research is supported not by public universities, but by the great private fortunes of the day, those being produced in dominant new industries such as finance (Simons) and telecommunications (Lazaridis).

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15 Responses to Simons Foundation News

  1. Oh sure, the market for math postdocs improves after I’ve been squeezed out…

  2. Abhijnan Rej says:

    I think the Simons Postdoc at Northwestern starts from the academic year 2011!

  3. chickenbreeder says:

    The eighteenth century model of private sponsorship may turn out to be the better one. The current model is that the government collect all taxtpayers’ money and give it to NSF/DOE, allowing a small number of like-thinking program managers to run the show. This highly centralized model not only leads to lack of diversity but also bureaucratic waste. This can be reverted by giving private foundations big tax break if they devote themselves to sponsorship of science.

    If 20 super-rich people do as Simons and Larzadis do, it may be enough to change the landscape of science research in the U.S.

  4. Arun says:

    2010 Federal Budget:
    National Institutes of Health $30.8 billion
    FDA $0.51 billion
    Centers for Disease Control $6.4 billion
    DOE Office of Science $1.6 billion
    NSF $7 billion

    20 Simons foundations: $0.8 billion

    Even if government spending is 10 times less efficient, it would take more than 200 Simons to match it.

  5. anon says:

    “…the job market for mathematics and theoretical physics, at least at the post-doctoral level, may do better than that in some other disciplines. We may be returning to an eighteenth-century model where this kind of research is supported not by public universities, but by the great private fortunes of the day, those being produced in dominant new industries such as finance (Simons) and telecommunications (Lazaridis).”

    Did pencils and paper cost fortunes in the 18th century? I can understand certain experiments costing fortunes, but not theory…

  6. Peter Woit says:

    Arun,

    Large scale experiments are still beyond the financial resources of almost all of the largest fortunes (although, extrapolating trends of the past couple decades, that may not be true in the future). But $40 million/year is a significant fraction of US government support for pure math and theoretical physics, and it’s less than 1% of Simons’s wealth/year.

  7. Tim vB says:

    @anon
    Don’t forget that other parts of society need talented people, too. If you put too much money into mathematics and theoretical physics you will cause a brain drain elsewhere :-)

  8. Kay zum Felde says:

    Hi,

    I don’t know, if it is good, that money is now spent by the industry. They decide how the money is used. Physicists should decide, how they use their money.

  9. SteveB says:

    anon,

    How much theoretical physics is done with only pencil and paper today. I would expect that a significant fraction of the “theory” work done today uses computational models to extract information and big computers do not come cheap — ~$1M to purchase and several $100K per year to power, cool, and support.

    SteveB

  10. Peter Woit says:

    SteveB,

    Very few theoretical physicists use that kind of computer power, in almost all cases a workstation or server that costs only a few thousand dollars is all that is needed. For mathematics and theoretical physics, what is costly is people, not equipment.

  11. Mitch Miller says:

    Is there a specific reason why the math ones pay a bit more?

  12. Peter Woit says:

    Mitch,

    I wondered about that myself. Maybe Simons likes mathematicians more… I believe the math Simons fellowships involve teaching one semester course/year, possibly this is not true for the physics ones, and that has something to do with the difference

  13. Eric Baird says:

    Well, IAS Princeton was founded by a department store owner, the Perimeter Institute was set up by the Blackberry guy, and the Nobel Prize was founded with a bequest from an arms manufacturer.

  14. Arun says:

    OK, American Mathematical Society:
    http://www.ams.org/notices/200807/tx080700809p.pdf

    “Federal support for the mathematical sciences is slated to grow from an estimated US$468.59 million in FY 2008 to an estimated US$516.8 million in FY 2009, an increase of 10.3 percent.”

    so Simon is adding 10% to that. Significant but it doesn’t change “the landscape of science research in the U.S”, only that of mathematics and theoretical physics.

    And on the other hand, the very same document tells us

    According to the Science and Engineering Indicators, 2008 Edition, in FY 2006, only 34.6 percent of full-time mathematics faculty, having doctoral degrees, received federal research support.

    So non-federal government sources fund most math. faculty. Simon is one more.

  15. Peter Woit says:

    Arun,

    The fact that 34.6 % of math faculty receive federal research support doesn’t mean that the rest get non-federal research support. Most of them probably get no research support.

    Also, keep in mind that Simons is supporting pure math research, not applied math research, and the federal support for that is a lot less than the total of about $500 million (maybe half?, NSF DMS is about $250 million). In addition, he is funding mathematics in other ways, e.g. the Simons Center, for which he gave $60 million to start the thing up two years ago.

    Unless there’s a mountain of money around that somehow I’ve never heard about, at the moment there is no other private source of funding for pure math research in the US on anything like the scale of the new Simons Foundation activities.

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