How a Young Foundation Is Looking to Make a Difference in Science

At the Moore Foundation, Cyndi Atherton oversaw some of the world’s largest science philanthropy initiatives. Now she’s helping a younger and smaller Heising-Simons shake up exciting corners of the physical sciences.

During her five-year run at the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, Atherton was in charge of some of its biggest research commitments, including support for the Thirty Meter Telescope that has topped $181 million so far, and long-term backing for Caltech, exceeding $300 million to date. 

That’s got to be one of the top jobs in all of science philanthropy, but when she started talking with Mark Heising and Liz Simons about the plan to build up their foundation and its science giving, she couldn’t turn down the offer to direct the program. 

Related: Inside the Heising-Simons Foundation: A Brainy Startup Finds its Way in 3 Major Arenas

For one, the donors have a real commitment to physical sciences, her wheelhouse as a longtime researcher in atmospheric chemistry and physics. There was also something exciting about making an impact with a brand new channel of science funding.

“I thought, this is my one chance to get in on the ground floor and have a lot of creative space to operate in,” Atherton says. “It was just a great fit, both in terms of what they were doing, and their approaches, and it just seemed like a once in a lifetime opportunity. I better take it.”

She started in 2013, and has since been working directly with Mark Heising and a growing team to build its science program—Heising-Simons gave $10.5 million to science alone in 2015, up from $6.5 million the previous year. Formerly directed by the couple, with a lot of support to University of California, Berkeley, Heising-Simons has turned to Atherton to build from scratch a highly focused research program looking to make waves in emerging fields. 

“We have to be really thoughtful about what grants we make,” Atherton says. “When we look at a focus area of funding, I am really thinking about how many grants could we possibly do, what would be the grant size, and how many do we need to hit a critical mass in a specific focus area.”

For starters, Heising-Simons gives almost entirely to the physical sciences, a niche in itself within private philanthropy. A recent survey by the Science Philanthropy Alliance found physical sciences were funded in 2015 with just 7 percent of private dollars from participants, dwarfed by life sciences. There’s a similar imbalance in funding from public agencies.  

Related: Just How Much Are Private Funders Giving to Basic Science Research?

Atherton’s program has a focus area on climate science, but it’s mainly giving to astronomy, cosmology, and fundamental physics. These are fields that periodically make headlines when wild discoveries are announced, but can fade out of popular awareness, likely because of its intangible or hard-to-grasp concepts. Atherton says it helps that Mark Heising, who has a bachelor’s in physics and a master’s in computer science and electrical engineering, doesn’t shy away from such work. “Any time you talk about an electron moving, Mark’s eyes light up.” 

The first big focused area of funding the program took on is an especially theoretical and mysterious one—dark matter and dark energy.  

One of the great puzzles of the universe is that it’s made up almost entirely of dark matter and dark energy—only 5 percent of it is the stuff we can observe with our current instruments. The rest is a mystery; we can’t see it. One theoretical particle that could make up dark matter is the axion. Heising-Simons has made a mission of hunting down the exotic particles, or finding a related explanation, a topic the team realized it could strongly influence.

“There’s a small number of people working on this,” Atherton says. “It’s a small enough group that we could basically fund most of the people in the U.S. working on this.”

Even when the foundation’s donors are schooled in the nuances of research, how does one go about running a program pursuing something that may or may not even exist? In results-obsessed philanthropy, how do you know you’re making a difference? 

One big metric would be entirely changing the way we understand the universe. “If it turns out there are axions, then you basically rewrite every physics textbook in the world,” Atherton says. 

“It would just revolutionize science.”

But even if the Nobel Prizes don’t rain down on their grantees, you can still track more subtle indicators of an emerging field gaining traction. As Atherton points out, there’s also inherent value in the pursuit, unfolding new knowledge, new theories, and improving tools and techniques. 

“We will have pushed the edge of physics in multiple ways,” she says.

Atherton sees that ability to be patient, and open to the twists and turns that happen in fundamental research, as one of the hallmarks of good science philanthropy. 

“In my own career of research, before coming over here, I realized that it’s not always a straight line,” she says. “The beauty of a private foundation is … that flexibility to interact with grantees and decide what’s best for the project, what’s best for science.”

That can mean backing work on ideas that might not be fully established in past research, and on the other end of things, keeping funding going for a long enough period. She’s usually looking to make grants of several hundred thousand to $1 million, on three- to five-year timelines.

The other benefit to having more leeway with funds than say, the NSF, is that you have some room to play around with such new ideas, bringing together groups of smart people to bounce them around. 

Before they commit to a new initiative, the team will conduct a series of expert roundtables, corralling together voices that might otherwise be working away in their own corners of the world, to put their heads together on an issue and possibly identify a new line of funding.

As work is being funded, they can similarly round up interested, seemingly disparate parties together for workshops, a practice popular among major research funders such as Simons and Kavli foundations.

Related: Inside the Simons Foundation: Big Philanthropy on the Frontiers of Science 

“If you get these people in a room together, and you tell them dream what you will dream and don’t put any caveats on it, you just know that really interesting things are going to come out of it,” Atherton says. “You don’t bound them ahead of time, [or say] that it has to fit into our regular budget and project size and scope. You just say, think of creative thoughts.”

Talking to Atherton about her evolving program, you can hear her enthusiasm for possibilities ahead. After all, she’s a funder, but she’s also a researcher. It's that level of creative opportunity that makes it clear why she jumped at the job. 

Related: How One Funder is Looking Back Millions of Years to Understand Climate Change