Simons Foundation Launches Three Math Sciences InitiativesOctober 19, 2010
Mathematical models, miscast as villains in some accounts of the current financial crisis, have been responsible for keeping the hedge funds of at least one carefully watched firm spectacularly profitable. In a classic case of giving back, profits from those funds are now being used to benefit the discipline from which the models emerged.
Many readers will quickly identify the main players in this tale: Renaissance Technologies, the investment firm founded and until recently run by James Simons (former professor and chair of mathematics at Stony Brook University, best known for the Chern–Simons invariants) and the Renaissance hedge funds, including Medallion, whose investments are guided by mathematical models.
Another key player, probably less familiar to readers, is the Simons Foundation, created about 15 years ago to organize James and Marilyn Simons's giving and expanded over the years to support scientific research and organizations. Readers may be aware of two of the foundation's largest projects in mathematics and the physical sciences: the Simons Center for Geometry and Physics at Stony Brook University, and Math for America, an organization devoted to the improvement of high school mathematics teaching. Other major interests of the foundation include the biological sciences---mathematical biology and the study of autism in particular. Even readers who have followed one or another aspect of the story may not be aware of the extent of the Simons Foundation's support for the mathematical and physical sciences.
In a late-August phone call, David Eisenbud, since January the Simons Foundation's director for mathematics and the physical sciences, introduced SIAM News to the foundation and some of its activities. (Eisenbud is on two-thirds leave from UC Berkeley, where he is a professor of mathematics and, from 1997 to 2007, was director of the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute.) Parts of the SIAM community, he said, will be interested in three new programs:
- Math + X. The Simons Foundation intends to endow university chairs, shared by mathematics and some other discipline, "X". The foundation will actually provide half the endowment, with the university expected to match the investment; the foundation's share will be $1.5 million toward the endowment, along with, for six years, $325,000/year for postdocs and graduate students and $100,000/year for conferences, visitors, and similar activities. The intention is to create one or two chairs each year for some time.
Details can be found at https://simonsfoundation.org. Letters of intent from interested pairs of departments must be received by October 27.
- A New Institute for the Theory of Computing. Given the many overlapping and computing-related areas in which members of the SIAM community work, some clarification is in order. The institute, which is to be located at a U.S. institution, will be focused on theoretical computer science and the scientific applications of its ideas. The foundation has adopted a broad definition of the field, including work in complexity theory, algorithms, machine learning, randomness and pseudorandomness, zero-knowledge proof, computer networks, computer vision, robotics, and streaming algorithms.
The institute project, Eisenbud explains, emerged from a round table discussion in which theoretical physicists, mathematicians, and theoretical computer scientists put on the table lists of "unfulfilled needs" in their disciplines. The computer science people on the panel were extremely enthusiastic about the chosen direction, he says, as is Simons himself. Once the foundation had settled on the theory of computing as the institute's scientific area, a panel of experts was convened to help define its scope. As to the resources the new institute will have, the Simons Foundation intends to provide $6 million/year for ten years, with a possibility of endowment support thereafter. Again, details can be found on the web and letters of intent are due by October 27.
- Collaboration Grants for Mathematicians. A response to longtime wishes of parts of the mathematical community, this program will award many small grants to, in Eisenbud's words, "researchers who don't have major public funding." Each grant will be $7000/year for five years, including $1000/year to the grantee's department to "enhance the research atmosphere" and $1000/year in indirect costs. By supporting travel for visitors and graduate students, Eisenbud said, the program is an attempt to enhance the "fluidity and effectiveness of the community." About 140 awards are planned each year, until a steady state of 700 is reached.
Eisenbud also points to a postdoc program, established a year ago as a response to the sparse job market. Nearly 70 two- or three-year postdoc positions (half in mathematics, about a quarter each in theoretical physics and theoretical computer science) were promised; the fellowships will take effect from 2010 to 2012. The awards were made to university departments, on the recommendation of a small committee in each field. The goal was to allow the strongest postdocs to take positions in institutions that could best support their development, but that might not have had the funds to hire as many postdocs as they could foster. From the first, this program was seen as an interim response to the bad economic situation and is not slated for continuation, at least in its present form.
Demonstrating the reach of Simons's interests, Eisenbud also mentions his efforts in support of a restructuring of the State University of New York system that would include quality-based differences in tuition, and consequently in revenues, at individual campuses.
Asked how his ten years at MSRI might have prepared him for the position he holds at the Simons Foundation, Eisenbud laughs. The two activities are inverses of one another, he explains. At MSRI, finding the money to support mathematical programs was a constant challenge. At the Simons Foundation, the money is there; the question is identifying the areas and people who will put it to the best possible use.---GRC