Annual Report 2020

2020 was quite a year — the likes of which we have not seen since the “Spanish flu” in 1918. Nonetheless, a remarkable amount was accomplished at the foundation. A few highlights follow.

Early on, we contributed $5 million to Rockefeller University to support COVID-19 research. That inspired an avalanche of such funding from other friends of Rockefeller, and some excellent work was accomplished. This flood of support culminated in an extremely effective monoclonal antibody treatment for COVID-19, recently licensed to Bristol Myers Squibb and now undergoing trials. The presence of vaccines notwithstanding, a highly effective treatment for COVID-19 will have an important role to play around the world.

Back at the foundation, we established a new unit of the Flatiron Institute, the Center for Computational Neuroscience (CCN), which will be housed at 160 5th Avenue instead of across the street at the institute’s main site. It will be led by Eero Simoncelli, an outstanding scientist, and will grow to 50 people over the next several years. This is the fifth and last unit to be established at Flatiron. To seed it, the neuroscience group from Flatiron’s Center for Computational Biology (CCB) has moved to the CCN, allowing the CCB to expand into other areas.

While working from home and over Zoom, the folks at Flatiron produced over 750 scientific papers submitted for publication this year: a new record. A good deal of recruiting took place, some for senior scientists but most for postdoctoral scientists. Flatiron continues to grow!

Louis Reichardt, who headed our autism research program, stepped down at the end of September after almost seven years of very good work. Until a new director is in place, John Spiro, SFARI’s deputy director, is also serving as interim director and doing an excellent job. A search for a director has been underway for some time, and we believe the position will be filled quite soon.

A number of new Simons Collaborations were established, mostly in the Mathematics and Physical Sciences division, but one in Life Sciences — called the Simons Collaboration on Plasticity and the Aging Brain — is particularly interesting, especially to me, whose brain is definitely aging! This effort is overseen by Gerry Fischbach, assisted by Alyssa Schaffer. It is not focused on diseases of the brain such as Alzheimer’s, but on the natural deterioration of the brain as we age. A team of great scientists, headed by Coleen Murphy of Princeton, are populating this collaboration, and some interesting ideas have already emerged. If we can get to the bottom of this, it is possible that some interventions may be discovered to slow the aging process. Fingers crossed!

Late in the year, Marilyn and I determined to change our roles at the foundation. I have been overseeing the science we support, with Marilyn overseeing administration as well as the foundation’s outreach and education mission. As of July 1, 2021, David Spergel will step in and run the whole show as our new president. Presently David heads the Flatiron’s Center for Computational Astrophysics, and he is an outstanding scientist as well as an outstanding leader. The foundation board was unanimous in his selection. Marilyn and I will both assume the title of co-chair. We haven’t the slightest doubt that under David’s leadership the foundation will thrive.

Onward and upward!

Jim Simons, Ph.D.