An interview with Dr. James Simons on “Math, Money, and Making a Difference,” from the S. Donald Sussman Fellowship Award Fireside Chat Series. In part three of this conversation moderated by Michael Sipser Dean, Simons talks about philanthropy and giving money away.
Dr. James Simons: Philanthropy And Giving Money Away
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Actually I remember asking you about because you were already in the process of amassing your wealth at the very beginning you were. Well you know you are a lot wealthier than I had any vision to be a lot less wealthy than you are now of course and I remember I ask you you know what are you going to do with all your money. I don't know if you remember the conversation.
But I do. And you said you didn't know but you said you'd figure it out.
And I did.
And you did. That's what brings us here today. So I thought I would start at the beginning and ask you to tell us about how your philanthropy got started [inaudible] were philanthropic child.
OK. Well when I did start to make money the first time I made a reasonable amount of money. I thought I would give a little bit of it away. Which I did back that was to care. This is an outfit called care. I gave some money to care and then periodically I would give them a little money here, a little money there. I married Marilyn who's sitting here in the front row. And we were both giving money away in kind of random ways to good causes. But and then she had the idea to make a foundation that was in 19 in 94 in 1994. And I thought that was a pretty good idea in particular because I could give money to the foundation get a tax deduction and not have to worry about exactly where the money was going to go. So you could it could pile it up and give it out later. So we started this foundation. Marilyn ran it out of her dressing room in a box boxes or something for a number of years. And finally she hired her first employee. Now we have 350 employees. Is that right. 350 350 people.
So the foundation grew and the the first science meaningful science we did was in the field of autism we have a relative on the autistic spectrum and we were very interested in this condition. And while Columbia University said Oh give us 10 million dollars and we'll start an institute and said well maybe someone else at Columbia said don't be sell fast. You should learn more about the field so we had a round table. This was in June of 03. Where the head of the NAIMH was there a number of very distinguished neuroscientists who were there and we had this roundtable for all day and we came out of it realizing our learning. Two important things. One the condition is highly genetic if two identical twins if one of them has autism it's at least 90 percent that the other well not 100. So it's clearly highly genetic. And the second thing that we learned was with a few exceptions people working in the field were not such crackerjacks. It hadn't interacted with with a few exceptions. Really first class scientists. So that became our mission. Okay we'll focus on genetics and give grants where we might. Two very smart people who want to get into this field. And we gave a few grants and they went OK but it wasn't long before I realized that and I guess now realized too that we really didn't know what we were doing in this grant process. It turned out we gave a couple good grants one in particular which was terrific had a terrific result but how do you really get grants and judge whether there are going to be good or bad. So we decided we needed someone to run this program and I did a search and it was a nice search I got form the search committee.