The year was 1924 and Albert Einstein was desperately in need of funding. And so he did what legions of scientists, emerging and renowned alike, would later do in his footsteps: he turned to philanthropists.
In his case, Einstein wrote a letter to the Rockefeller Foundation. The executive leadership had no guarantees of future breakthroughs from Einstein, but they took a chance on the “unknown scholar”—awarding him $1,000.
“He may be on to something,” John D. Rockefeller said when instructing his top lieutenant to double Einstein’s initial request of $500.
With that gift, comically small by today’s standards, the Rockefeller Foundation not only demonstrated its commitment to Einstein himself, but it solidified its place in the pantheon of powerful philanthropic institutions emerging in New York City at the time—a network fueled by a common desire to foster a better world; a network whose ripple effect would eventually extend well beyond the Big Apple.
This institutional mindset was arguably pioneered by the formation of the Carnegie Corporation of New York, which Andrew Carnegie seeded with $125 million in 1911 and 1912, making it the largest philanthropic trust ever established. Within a decade, the Corporation had begun channeling its resources to the natural and social sciences, part of a great effort to improve “scientific management” in the U.S.
This trend continues today, with foundations and individual philanthropists—whose potential beneficiaries are virtually limitless— placing a premium on furthering science through financial support. According to the most recent national report from the nonprofit Foundation Center, which tracks global philanthropic giving, the health industry was the number one recipient of foundation dollars in 2008, receiving nearly 23% of the pie.
The volume of philanthropic monies awarded today is staggering, and it is only logical that New York, an axis of power, wealth, and creativity— and the birthplace of large-scale philanthropy—remains the epicenter of targeted giving. Based on a list of the top donors in America—who each gave over $1 million—published by The Chronicle of Philanthropy, foundations and individuals in New York State gave close to $1.5 billion in 2012. So far in 2013, the amount from New York-based donors has already exceeded $2.2 billion.
Giving Back to Science
It is only logical that Jan Vilcek would feel indebted to the field of science and to the institution that helped him turn his capacity for it into a wildly lucrative career.
After escaping the crushing grips of Czechoslovakian Communism in the mid-1960s, Vilcek, then a pioneering young researcher, was rewarded with a faculty post at New York University’s School of Medicine, where he remains today. In the course of his research, Vilcek contributed to the development of Remicade, a blockbuster therapeutic drug that would treat untold multitudes of patients suffering from Crohn’s disease, rheumatoid arthritis, and dozens of other inflammatory disorders.
“We expected the royalty income would grow,” Vilcek recently said, “but we had no idea it would become as successful as it actually has.” And so Vilcek and his wife, Marica, formed the Vilcek Foundation as a way to support the sciences and the arts. And beyond their foundation, they decided to channel a portion of their Remicade earnings to NYU.
One gift alone, donated to NYU in 2005, totaled $105 million. The funding has largely promoted basic research, which Vilcek sees as the building blocks of scientific discovery.
“A decade ago it seemed like there was much more going on in the Boston area and in California,” he says of scientific research outside of the five boroughs. But New York, he adds, is rapidly catching up, with charitable giving serving as a core driver of the innovation.
“Philanthropy is really essential, especially in the times we witness today, when government spending is down,” Vilcek notes. “Without philanthropy, there would be complete stagnation.”
Likewise, James (Jim) Simons built his financial career on the back of science and technology and he, too, saw fit to pay it forward. His hedge fund, Renaissance Technologies, rose to the top of its field by using complex mathematical models to evaluate and execute trades.
“All the sciences have a beauty to them—a well-conceived experiment, a dramatic new finding,” even intricate financial algorithms, Simons says. “And I think science needs all the help it can get.”
About 20 years ago, Simons and his wife Marilyn formed the Simons Foundation, which focuses its energies on funding basic science and mathematics research. Among his proudest achievements is the foundation’s Autism Research Initiative, which, since 2007, has awarded grants to more than 150 researchers across the globe. Along with a myriad of other programs, the foundation created a novel initiative called Math+X to generate highly competitive challenge grants fostering collaboration between mathematicians and those in science and engineering.
The Simons Foundation is also devoting substantial resources to studying the overall functionality of the human brain and the origin of life.
Asked about his interest in the latter, Simons shrugs and smiles: “It’s interesting! Wouldn’t you like to know?”
“We look at the stars and wonder how this whole thing got here,” he says.
Indeed, in over a dozen interviews with leaders in business and science philanthropy over the summer of 2013, a common personality trait quickly emerged: visionaries like Simons, and those with names like Appel, Soros, and Allen, appear to possess an unbridled curiosity, which motivates them to channel their money to those capable of answering some of life’s greatest questions and solving some of its most dire challenges.