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Bring leading computer scientists together with leading astrophysicists, and exciting stuff happens—complex computer simulations of galaxy formation, algorithms churning through terabytes of data collected by telescope arrays.
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But get everyone working together under the same roof with extensive time and funding, and unexpected work might take shape. New ideas could form as computer scientists and researchers from a variety of fields hold meetings, chat over lunch, or just run into each other in the hallways.
That’s the kind of research environment the Simons Foundation is trying to cultivate with its latest endeavor, and its most ambitious yet, the Flatiron Institute. What’s more, Jim and Marilyn Simons also decided they wanted that same roof to be their own. More specifically, the foundation made a significant expansion into the building right across the street from its Manhattan offices to accommodate a new research institute fully supported by the foundation.
The new campus, officially launched in November, will eventually employ hundreds of scientists and programmers from varying backgrounds, using big data and computational approaches to crack some of their respective fields’ toughest problems.
With assets of around $2 billion, the Simons Foundation is one of the country’s largest private funders of basic science, supporting a mix of collaborative research initiatives, individual investigator awards, and science education. It’s also supported some research in-house, but the Flatiron Institute is something very new, requiring huge growth for the foundation—they will ultimately lease the entire building across the street. Simons’ current foundation staff totals 160, and Flatiron already has a staff of 60, which they anticipate will grow to 250. Flatiron’s budget is expected to be about $80 million a year.
Something like Flatiron also has the potential to serve researchers beyond its walls. As UC Berkeley’s Joshua Bloom points out, this level of commitment can serve as a lighthouse for other foundations and federal agencies to identify new and important work to support. As new software is developed, Flatiron will make it available for other researchers to use.
But the execution is key. There’s a lot of risk here, and much money being spent. For all the talk of serendipitous discoveries between fields, who knows if it will happen? This kind of collaboration also requires identifying novel topics that will keep the multiple researchers involved sufficiently engaged.
That being said, the foundation isn’t leaving its other commitments behind, and Marilyn Simons describes Flatiron as one part of a diverse portfolio, like you’d want with investments. Jim Simons doesn't seem too worried about it.
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