Simons Investigators

The Simons Foundation has announced the surprise selection of 7 mathematicians and 9 theoretical physicists as Simons Investigators. Those selected will get \$100,000/year for 5 years, renewable for another 5, their departments \$10,000/year, their institutions \$22,000/year.

According to a Washington Post story, this is just the beginning of the program, which will continue to make these $1 million no-strings-attached awards to prominent mathematicians, theoretical physicists and theoretical computers scientists every one to two years.

This isn’t something you can apply for, the Simons Foundation has a panel which made the selections. These awards are being compared to the MacArthur Foundation “Genius Grants”, which provide the same unrestricted \$100,000/year size grants, but only for five years. When the MacArthur program started back in the early eighties, particle theorists and mathematicians were often chosen (Witten and Wilczek were among the earliest choices), but in recent years that has been very uncommon. Two of the seven mathematicians chosen (Terry Tao and Horng-Tzer Yau) were also MacArthur Fellows.

The goal of the Simons program is to provde “a stable base of support for outstanding scientists, enabling them to undertake long-term study of fundamental questions.” I guess this means the idea is to make it possible for them to work on longer-term more ambitious projects without worrying about the NSF cutting off their grants. It’s interesting that the Simons Foundation sees this as a problem to be addressed, given that these are about the most prominent people in math and theoretical physics, among those least likely to ever have a grant application turned down.

In other Simons Foundation news, Yuri Tschinkel, an algebraic geometry from NYU, will take over from David Eisenbud as Director of the Division for Mathematics and Physical Sciences. Eisenbud is returning to MSRI in Berkeley for a second stint as Director there.

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6 Responses to Simons Investigators

  1. Matthew 13:12 says:

    For whoever has, to him more shall be given, and he will have an abundance; but whoever does not have, even what he has shall be taken away from him.

  2. mark callaghan says:

    I like the idea in principle, but surely Terry Tao couldn’t possibly get any more productive,as wonderful as that would be, and i’m sure the same goes for the other recipients.To be charitable, so to speak, i think they have missed the target.

  3. theoreticalminimum says:

    I think the “big names” were chosen to give some legitimacy and credit to the money awarded (money is not a big deal for Simons after all). I am happy to see Chris Hirata on that list. He’s a fantastic young researcher! He’s also recently won a Presidential Early Career Award.

  4. I guess it’s alright to give such awards to big shots if the money is in turn used to support postdocs, graduate students etc. – ultimately the younger scientists benefit from such an arrangement. But it’s a good point that “the Matthew effect” may be dangerous and it is likely to increase (instead of bridging) the gap between the very top places and other institutions.

  5. Christopher Long says:

    I agree, all deserving people, but it’s the piling of resources on people that already have everything they need to be productive.

  6. Bugsy says:

    One of the problems afflicting the world of today is the “star system” whereby, say in professional sports, a few people are paid millions (those are the ones we hear about); 10 times as many are paid 10 times less, and so on, until the bottom rung of pro players are paid barely enough to survive. Now it can be argued that a star is worth it because he/she is making the goals/solving famous open problems. But they are standing on the shoulders of so many others, and couldn’t shine as brightly without that framework. So it is vital to keep that framework alive and happy. This is a parallel to the income inequality discussion of the 1% or .01% versus the rest of us, where
    one of the central points is that a truly healthy society needs a large and healthy middle class.

    In academics we are much luckier than athletes or jazz musicians in that there is at least some basic framework of support; however in many places in recent times that system has been seriously damaged, so that many very deserving individuals (sometimes even those who have done key work in a given area) struggle to find a reasonable job.

    Sometimes there is an ultimate happy success story, but perhaps more often enthusiasm turns into disappointment or bitterness over time, as the realization slowly dawns that certain dreams will likely never be realized.

    I wish granting foundations could find an effective way to contribute to the overall health of the scientific/academic enterprise in this sense. One possibility might be to give many smaller awards, say for great papers by people without already all the prizes and benefits of the Ronaldinhos and Beckhams…

    The CNRS system in France gave one way of doing that, but perhaps the framwork of permanent research positions could be replaced by say a rotating 5-year grant system coupled with permanent jobs (a sort of post-postdoc system).

    What do people basically need? A short answer is simply more money, whether to buy books or a house with or to pay for a child’s education. But beyond that there is a
    huge need for serious time off from teaching obligations to do research. Of course it might be difficult to get institutions to go along with that: there would definitely have to be some sweetening of the pot for the employers.

    It is easy to think that the “best” have already floated to the top but undeniably, those who have had large advantages of location, salary, better students, grants, and reduced teaching loads have had all the conditions which foster more productivity, while the opposite has the opposite effect (maybe Grothendieck after leaving IHES is an extreme example) so there are feedback loops at play, and such a grant system might break some of the negative downward spirals and contribute greatly to the overall health and well-being of the fields involved.

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