In 2017, UHF was pleased to present the award to James H. Simons, chairman of the Simons Foundation, for his visionary philanthropy to advance basic scientific research, promote collaboration, and strengthen New York’s scientific and medical community.
It’s no overstatement to say that Jim Simons is one of the top mathematicians of his generation. But over the course of his exceptional career, Jim has gone well beyond making important contributions to mathematics to extraordinary business success and a transformative philanthropy that is advancing basic science and mathematics research worldwide and strengthening New York’s scientific and medical community.
The Simons Foundation, founded in 1994 by Jim and his wife, Marilyn, is supporting the next generation of math and science leaders, forging innovative new collaborations among the world’s most talented scientists, and spurring new computational methods—all with the goal of better understanding our world.
Jim graduated from MIT in three years and earned a doctorate from the University of California, Berkeley, at 23. He went on to teach math at both MIT and Harvard, and later worked as a code breaker for the National Security Agency. At 30, he accepted the position of chairman of Stony Brook University’s math department and during his tenure built an excellent department, was awarded the Veblen Prize, geometry’s highest honor, and—along with S.S. Chern—created the Chern Simons invariants, which have had remarkable impact on both particle and condensed matter physics. Yet, yearning to do something new and intrigued by the idea of systematizing investment strategies in public markets, he left academia in 1978 to start what would become Renaissance Technologies, managing perhaps the world’s most profitable hedge fund and one that would pioneer quantitative investing.
Though he remains chairman of Renaissance, Jim retired from the firm in 2010 and has dedicated his time and significant resources to philanthropy. The Simons Foundation makes grants to individual scientists in mathematics and physical sciences, life sciences, autism research, and education and outreach. The work the foundation supports explores realms from the microscopic to the unimaginably vast: the origins of life on Earth, ocean microbial processes and ecology, brain dynamics, cosmology, and astrophysics among them.
Of note, the Simons Foundation Autism Research Initiative (SFARI) was launched in 2005 and today—with an annual budget of $75 million—is by far the largest private funder of autism research, leading the way in understanding this most complex and variegated of mental conditions. To date, scientists supported by the foundation have discovered a remarkable number of causative genes, which are beginning to converge into systems, and trials will soon be underway on those that hold promise for being responsive to medical interventions.
The foundation’s support has also benefited research institutes, medical centers and schools, and academia. Its largest gifts include: more than $230 million to Stony Brook University to support major initiatives in geometry, physics, neurosciences, biological imaging, cancer, and infectious diseases; $80 million to the New York Genome Center, which is translating research into patient treatments; and $50 million to Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory to create the Simons Center for Quantitative Biology. Reflecting Jim’s passion for better STEM education in public schools, he founded Math for America, which now has over 1,000 outstanding teachers of math and science in New York City’s public secondary schools, 10 percent of the system’s STEM teachers.
One of the Simons Foundation’s most ambitious undertakings is the recently launched Flatiron Institute, which advances scientific research through computational methods. Its diverse participating scientists—quantum physicists, astrophysicists, biologists, programmers, data scientists—are working to discover new results using quantitative methods and to develop more powerful such methods. Flatiron will have a staff of roughly 250 people and an annual budget of $80 million.
Beyond his foundation, Jim is a leader in major scientific research organizations throughout the country. He’s a life trustee of Rockefeller University and the MIT Corporation, and a trustee of Stony Brook University, the New York Genome Center, Brookhaven National Laboratory, the Institute for Advanced Study, and the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute. He is also a member of the National Academy of Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the American Philosophical Society.
On behalf of the entire health care community of New York, United Hospital Fund is pleased to pay tribute to this exceptional man. His contributions to scientific research and programs are pushing toward new frontiers, and generations of New Yorkers—and people throughout the world—will, he hopes, reap the benefits.