The Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton announced today that Jim Simons and Charles Simonyi will donate \$100 million to the Institute, in the form of matching funds for a \$200 million campaign mainly aimed at increasing the endowment. For some idea of previous fund-raising by the IAS, see here.
Simons and Simonyi have donated significant sums to the IAS in the past, including \$6 million from Simonyi to endow a professorship for Witten. The IAS has about 25 permanent professors, with salaries reaching above \$300K/year. To get some idea of the scale of the new endowment funds, if they all went to new permanent professorships (unlikely), the number could be doubled or more. This kind of sizable increase of resources for prestigious pure research positions in math and physics, funded by huge fortunes made in the technology and financial industries, is part of a trend, with Perimeter and the Simons Center at Stony Brook two other noteworthy examples.
That is good. One hopes the money will be put to good use. Note that endowing a chair for Witten in years past also meant (to some extent) endowing a chair for (the pursuit of research into) string theory. See previous post about Witten interview and “string theory predicts supersymmetry”. So don’t complain. It’s a mixed bag.
Who is complaining? Not me. Witten’s as good a choice (if not better) than anyone for an endowed chair. That a sizable chunk of $200 million in new money will be available in the future to support theoretical physics and math research is a good thing. For the physics part of it, it will be interesting to see which direction the IAS takes.
The continuing trend away from public funding for math/physics research in favor of funding from the great fortunes of the wealthy is interesting and in some sense a reversion to the pattern of many centuries ago. At least in the form of an endowment, such funding may be more stable than public funding, which is at the mercy of the politics of science and university state and federal budgets. One might worry that the wealthy sources of the funding will have too much influence, and take research in dubious directions. Besides the Templeton multiverse funding, that doesn’t seem to me to have been a problem, with people like Simons, Simonyi and Lazaridis arguably making as good or better choices than DOE/NSF peer-review panels.
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If they haven’t explained the particle masses within five years, Simons and Simonyi should insist on a refund.
Is it better (for the future of research) to put a lot of money in a top theory place that is already reasonably well-funded, or to spread the money over several mid-ranked places so that each can attract one or two very good theorists?
Peter: Isn’t the endowment revenue highly dependent on the state of the stock market, and therefore subject to large fluctuations? I’m not sure that’s better than even the currently poor state of public funding.
In the long term, endowment revenue does depend on how well the endowment is invested. In the shorter term, endowment pay-outs typically depend on the average value of the endowment over several years, not what happens in any one year. If revenue is down, you can always take more out of the endowment to keep funding whatever you want (and hope that either investments will turn in your favor, or your patrons will come up with more money. Note that $50 million is less than 1% of the Simons net worth…).
That’s quite an investment, particularly for a theory-focused institution. I’d love to see that kind of growth in support for experimental work….
that sounds pretty good; i hope more hedge fund managers will follow suit.