Walter Burke Institute for Theoretical Physics

Caltech has just announced the establishment of the Walter Burke Institute for Theoretical Physics, with Hirosi Ooguri as director. It will have a permanent endowment of around $74 million, with $30 million of that new funds from the Sherman Fairchild Foundation and the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.

To get some idea of the scale of this, the recent worries about HEP theory funding in the US have been due to a drop in funding by the DOE of university research from around $27.5 million/year to $24 million/year. So, a few million/year from this endowment should help make up for that, while continuing the trend of changing over theoretical physics funding from government support to philanthropy by the .01%.

Update: In other developments from the .01%, Physics World has the news that nominations are now open for the $3 million Milner prize in physics. You can submit nominations here. Nominations close June 30, announcement of winners will be November 9.

There’s also now a website for the Milner/Zuckerberg $3 million mathematics prize. Not much info there except that it will reward “significant discoveries across the many branches of the subject.” I’m guessing that, like the other prizes, initial picks will be from Milner/Zuckerberg themselves, with those people going on to form the committee to pick future winners.

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11 Responses to Walter Burke Institute for Theoretical Physics

  1. CU Phil says:

    Hastening a return to the days when gentleman-scientists were supported by royal benefactors. Delightful.

  2. Jon Orloff says:

    Any indication that the benefactor wants to choose the topics of research?

  3. Peter Woit says:

    CU Phil,
    The trend to private funding does mean that our current equivalent of royalty will be the ones deciding what research gets done. But one difference is that they believe in paying people pretty well: those getting funded shouldn’t need a family trust to support themselves.

    Jon Orloff,
    I assume Burke is willing to leave the choice of research topics to the Caltech physicists, although the donation reflects a personal decision that he likes what they are doing more than what other groups are doing. The effect of this move to private funding is more to concentrate control of research directions in certain hands: DOE money is allocated by panels reflecting a broad community, this money will be allocated by Ooguri and a few others.

  4. Low Math, Meekly Interacting says:

    The short-term alternative to the 0.01% anointing certain disciplines with cash while public funding dwindles is that public funding dwindles anyway. Easy enough to see a benefit in that context.

    Long-term, however, I worry that the rate of decline in public funding will accelerate in response to a new expectation that the 0.01% will eliminate the need for it.

  5. domenico says:

    I think that there is a difference between the Sherman and Betty funds, and the Milner prize: the first will lead to certain (small or large) results in Theorical Physics, the second is a loss of money from a billionaire to a millionaire pensioners.

  6. Sam says:

    A couple of points:

    1) Much of the privately funded research, especially the prizes, is solely directed towards the ‘intellectual merit’ criterion of NSF’s two fundamental criteria (broader impacts and intellectual merit.) The funding broader impact activities is very important for the scientific well-being of the nation and this is so recognized in Congress. Funded broader impact activities are visible, and accessible, to members of Congress and their staff. I don’t think private funding, prizes especially, will drive the nation out of the funding of science.

    2) Private funding, e.g. the Simons Institute, can be more nimble and experimental. Further, Simons is run by folks that have a deep understanding and experience in the academic research model. There is every reason to hope that new and exciting funding mechanisms/ideas will be brought forth and adapted/adopted in the public sphere.

    Folks are too pessimistic; there are opportunities and changes coming. Not all will work out but some will.

  7. srp says:

    An influx of private funding to replace government funding of pure research would be most welcome, especially if the sources are diverse and controlled by diverse groups of scientist/administrators. Up until World War II, almost all important U.S. science was privately funded. Hale was able to build giant telescopes, the biggest science of his day, entirely through private donations. Fields such as geochemistry and chemical engineering were sired by companies and foundations. Especially as government funding of research in the U.S. becomes more unified behind overarching umbrella programs run by a shrinking number of decision-making groups, we should hope for even more entry by the philanthropic into pure research funding.

  8. PhilAnthropy says:

    Let’s hope some of this money takes the lead from Jim Simons, for more brad-based support, rather than from the steroid-enhanced star system of
    Milner. The tendency of the .01% of money to fund the .01% of physics and math
    doesn’t help anyone except the egos of those concerned.

  9. domenico says:

    Dear Rob Meyer:
    I don’t understand: why to use a prize to reward an old glory, then the old glory could reward a promising young scientist, if is there the direct method to reward the promising young scientists and young research works? Is not these moneys be better spent?

  10. domenico says:

    I have to apologize with the Breakthrough Prize laureates that support the next generation scientists: I had forgotten that the smart choices are in the intelligent people.

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