Since returning from a vacation partly spent isolated from the internet, I’ve been catching up and noticed that some of the most prominent sources of funding for math and physics research have been making the news:
- The New York Times and other sources have extensive reports based on leaked records from an offshore law firm that specializes in helping you avoid inconvenient US tax and reporting requirements. The story starts out with the example of Jim Simons, who has become the largest non-governmental funder of math and physics research. His Simons Foundation has been doing an excellent job of providing such funding. They have about \$3 billion in assets, annual income of around \$500 million. The Times reports that Simons (with a net worth of about \$18.5 billion) has an offshore version of the Foundation, the Simons Foundation International, with assets of \$8 billion, dwarfing the onshore version.
- The assets of these Foundations are presumably largely invested in the secretive and extremely successful Renaissance Technologies hedge fund, which also is the employer of quite a few physicists and mathematicians. I’ve asked many people over the years, but have never found anyone who knows (or will admit to knowing) what it is that RenTech does that is so successful. A peculiar aspect of the coming age of private math/physics research funding is that no one getting this funding really knows where the money comes from.
In other news while I was away the CEO of RenTech, Robert Mercer, was finally induced to leave. Mercer had drawn a lot of attention recently since he in recent years has been taking the opposite tack to Simons, funding institutions devoted to promoting untruth over truth (e.g. Breitbart News), achieving fantastic success last year. He also has branched out from doing whatever secretive things RenTech does to make mountains of money using computers and data, starting up a firm called Cambridge Analytica, a firm involved in secretively using computers and data to undermine democracy in the US and elsewhere. I had been wondering for quite a while what Simons thought of Mercer’s activities. My understanding of highly-paid finance jobs was that your employer pays you a lot of money in return for having your full attention and devotion to not having negative stories about them come to public attention, so Mercer’s continued employment was surprising. It seems that Simons finally had enough, after realizing how much damage Mercer was doing to his firm, in particular by creating a situation that would discourage many people from wanting to work there (there also was a campaign underway to get institutions to divest from investments with RenTech).
- Another high profile source of funding for math and physics, in this case for cash prizes to mathematicians and physicists, has been venture capitalist Yuri Milner, with his Breakthrough Prize organization. New prizes will be announced in three weeks at a December 3 prize ceremony (I also believe there will be an associated Breakthrough Prize symposium held at Stanford shortly thereafter). It has always been well-known that much of Milner’s wealth derived from investments in Facebook and Twitter. Less well-known and recently revealed was that a major source of the funds for these investments was Russian state organizations closely tied to Vladimir Putin.
- Turning to sources of public funding, there’s not very positive news about a possible ILC collider in Japan, with reports of a cutback of the proposal from a 500 GeV to a 250 GeV machine (which would still cost about $7 billion).
- Foreign policy magazine has an article discussing the proposal for a huge new collider in China (discussed here). The point of view of the article is quite critical of the idea of locating a huge new project in a country with an increasingly authoritarian regime:
China’s next-generation supercollider will unlock secrets of the universe — and destroy the ideals of the scientists running it.
Luckily, for another more local prominent large country with an increasingly authoritarian and xenophobic regime, the issue of a possible problem with locating an international collider project there isn’t likely to come up since its leaders have no interest in funding such projects.