The coronavirus upended our lives and society in 2020. With COVID-19’s rapid spread worldwide, many of us quarantined and socially distanced ourselves, pivoting to the virtual realm. The world turned its hope to science for defense from this pandemic, and in little over a year, two very effective vaccines appeared using an innovative synthetic mRNA technology, and then several quickly followed using a DNA-based adenovirus approach. The quick turnaround in providing these immunizations obscured the fact that decades of research actually went into their production: A huge amount of past investment in fundamental scientific research provided a broad and deep knowledge base that could be leveraged for these acutely important efforts. When we look back on the race to formulate a vaccine, the gains from the previous century’s investments in basic science research are undeniable.
Supporting basic science research and mathematics is the work of the Simons Foundation. At our Flatiron Institute, theoretical and computational scientists advance our understanding of natural phenomena in the areas of astrophysics, biology, quantum physics, neuroscience and mathematics. Through our grantmaking programs, we support individual research proposals as well as collaborative projects in mathematics, the physical sciences, the life sciences, neuroscience and autism. And through our outreach and education program, we hope to engage all audiences with science and mathematics.
2020 was a productive year at the foundation, as this report shows. Our feature stories are based on the theme of “connections.” They highlight connections of all kinds: research focused on connections between atoms and between neurons; connections between scientists within a field — or collaborating across disciplines; and even connections we have with other funding partners.
2020 was also a particularly challenging year. Our year of remote work lacked the inspiring connection of in-person meetings and serendipitous encounters with new ideas and old friends. The tragic social injustices we witnessed shook our complacency with the status quo. Staff members’ urgent calls to action focused us on mobilizing programs to advance diversity, equity and inclusion in our workplace and in science.
As we reflect on this past year, there are many lessons to learn from the triumphs and tragedies of 2020. Relating to science in particular, we’ve already grasped these salient take-aways: the profound importance of long-term commitment to basic science research, the necessity for greater outreach to the public to promote a deeper understanding of science and the need to build a pipeline of scientists who are representative of our diverse society. Clearly, we’ve got lots more work ahead!
Marilyn Hawrys Simons, Ph.D.