Scientists who become philanthropists are especially attuned to the needs of basic science. At a recent UC Berkeley-Science Philanthropy Alliance event for philanthropists, a conversation with Frances Hellman, physicist and dean of mathematical and physical sciences at the University of California, Berkeley, and president of the Hellman Fellows Fund, and Jim Simons, mathematician, investor, and chair of the board of the Simons Foundation, provided some insights into how scientist-philanthropists think about supporting basic science. Bob Birgeneau, physics professor and chancellor emeritus at UC Berkeley, moderated the discussion.

Birgeneau asked Hellman and Simons to define basic science. Hellman noted that basic science is curiosity-driven. In her own research on magnetism and non-crystalline materials, for example, she didn’t start by trying to make better, faster computers. “Many, many engineers are working on this,” she said. “Instead, I start with trying to understand magnetism and how electronic properties interact with each other, which may have a relevance to computers. By not answering a specific question, scientists can have a greater impact.”

Simons agreed on the unforeseen benefits of basic science. His own field of research, pure mathematics, is by definition basic science. While he was at Stony Brook University, he collaborated on a paper called “Characteristic Forms and Geometric Invariants” with S.S. Chern, from whom Simons took a seminar ten years earlier as a graduate student at UC Berkeley. The paper was in a field of mathematics related to topology and geometry, but to Simons’ surprise has turned out to be useful in a number of fields of theoretical physics. “You never know where basic science discoveries are going to go,” he said.

Birgeneau asked Hellman and Simons how they got started on their philanthropy.

Hellman recounted, “After I received my own tenure, I talked to my parents about the funding issues that assistant professors often face. Tenure requires not just brilliant ideas, but financial support for research. However, the National Science Foundation’s peer review system, while useful, is inherently risk averse. The chances of six peers rating any risky research as excellent is vanishingly small. And as we’ve heard, the path to discovery is not a straight one, so there’s a real need to support young faculty.”

“So I created a fund with my parents to enable early-career pre-tenure faculty – faculty who are in their debt years and without the track record needed to obtain federal research grants – to do research. We started at UC Berkeley where my father went to school and UC San Diego where I had been an assistant professor. My parents loved this program because assistant professors would meet with them and talk to them about their research and send them books,” she described.

Read the full article about scientists becoming philanthropists at Science Philanthropy Alliance.