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$60 million Simons Foundation grant to launch theory of computing institute

The Simons Foundation has awarded a landmark $60 million grant to UC Berkeley to establish a theory of computing institute that promises to catalyze new advances in broad disciplines that affect our everyday lives, from how we spend our money to how we fight disease.

A groundbreaking $60 million award to UC Berkeley from the Simons Foundation will establish the campus as the worldwide center for theoretical computer science. The grant funds the creation of a new institute where top computer theorists and researchers from around the globe will converge to explore the mathematical foundations of computer science and extend them to tackle challenges in fields as diverse as mathematics, health care, climate modeling, astrophysics, genetics, economics and business.

The Simons Institute for the Theory of Computing promises to be a worldwide center for theoretical computer science.

Over the past half century, the theory of computing has developed into a powerful and specialized mode of scientific thinking that can bring new insights into key problems in domains beyond conventional computation that require the analysis of vast amounts of data using new algorithms and mathematical approaches. To date, UC Berkeley researchers in the field have been responsible for pivotal discoveries that underlie the multi-billion dollar Internet search and commerce industries, quantum computing and the mining of massive data sets.

The new Simons Institute for the Theory of Computing at UC Berkeley will infuse new life into the field by offering researchers a computational lens with which to explore new challenges relevant to everyday life, including how to fight diseases, create more accurate climate change models, and make people’s social and commercial interactions on the Internet more secure and efficient, said Richard Karp, the institute’s founding director, who has received the Turing Award, the Kyoto Prize and the National Medal of Science for his groundbreaking contributions to theoretical computation.

How it all happened: Q&A with Richard Karp

Richard KarpEstablishing a new research institute at a top-tier university is a major undertaking that required a great deal of teamwork to pull off. In a recent interview, Richard Karp, founding director of the Simons Institute for the Theory of Computing, talked about how the grant proposal came together. Read more…

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“We expect that, within the next two decades, every major field of science will have among its most significant achievements at least one that is computational in nature,” added Karp, a University Professor at UC Berkeley and head of the Algorithms Group at the International Computer Science Institute (ICSI).  “And there’s no better place than UC Berkeley for this endeavor, given our record of innovation in computer science over the last four decades, and our deep experience with complex, interdisciplinary institutes.”

UC Berkeley was the only public university among the finalists for the grant. In a statement released today (Tuesday, May 1), Marilyn and Jim Simons, Simons Foundation co-founders, said that “the competition to host the new institute was very keen, attracting many of America’s very best universities, but Berkeley’s proposal, combining outstanding leadership, an excellent site, great scientific ambience, and a substantial campus commitment, topped the list. We look forward to wonderful science in the coming years.”

That enthusiasm is shared by a substantial and growing list of corporate leaders, including Google, IBM, Yahoo and Microsoft, who have already expressed interest in collaboration with the new institute.

“Google is excited about the creation of the institute at Berkeley,” said Peter Norvig, director of research at Google, the Simons Institute’s first Founding Industrial Partner. “We believe it will be a great step forward for theoretical computing in general, and for many of the fields that are critical to Google’s mission, including search, machine learning, large data sets, security, computer vision, digital media, and the study of social networks and economic mechanisms on the Web. We look forward to assisting the institute in furthering these fields of research.”

The institute will begin operations in July, and its first scientific programs will start in January 2013. Later that year, the institute will move into its home in Calvin Hall.

“We took the rare step of providing space on the central campus because we believe the Simons Institute will be a key to scholarship across the entire campus,” said UC Berkeley Vice Chancellor for Research Graham Fleming. “The institute will enable researchers from various disciplines to connect at a profound, interdependent level. So many of the challenges now confronting the planet and the human race can only be overcome by bringing together disparate scientific fields.”

Oversight of the institute will be provided by Vice Chancellor Fleming, Mark Richards, executive dean of the College of Letters and Science, Shankar Sastry, dean of the College of Engineering, and a representative of the Simons Foundation.

Karp will lead the institute with fellow UC Berkeley computer science professors Alistair Sinclair, the institute’s founding associate director, and Christos Papadimitriou, founding chief scientist. Participating UC Berkeley faculty members, many of whom played a key role in the institute’s formation, will come from research fields including mathematics, statistics, psychology and molecular and cell biology.

The Simons Institute will be housed at UC Berkeley's Calvin Hall.

Each semester, the Simons Institute will bring to UC Berkeley many of the world’s leading researchers, as well as the next generation of outstanding graduate students and postdoctoral scholars, to work together on new computational topics in workshops, seminars and informal collaborations.

The initial questions to be pursued will include how the diversity of life on Earth evolved in only 4 billion years, what the regulatory mechanisms are that govern immune response or the genesis of cancer, whether information can be divulged from a database without revealing specific details about an individual, and how to help create more accurate models of climate change.

At the heart of theoretical computer science are algorithms—­­the step-by-step procedures for solving a problem. Today, said Karp, the fundamental algorithmic process is considered a powerful tool for understanding across the scientific landscape.

“For example, in biology, the immune system is running an algorithm as it decides which enzymes to generate to combat the continuously mutating pathogens,” he said.

Algorithms from decision theory can be used to help computers decide how to use a telescope in the most efficient way, given the limited time it has at night to discover new supernovae, Karp added.

A number of UC Berkeley research centers will be affiliated with the Simons Institute, including the Center for Information Technology Research in the Interest of Society (CITRIS), Mathematical Sciences Research Institute, ICSI and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, which will contribute supercomputing capabilities at its National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center.

The Simons Institute also has a strong educational outreach component that involves workshops targeted to the professional development of K-12 teachers and partnerships with Math for America and CalTeach.

A campus event to celebrate the establishment of the Simons Institute will be held on Monday, May 21, at UC Berkeley’s Sutardja Dai Hall. Details of the event will be updated when available at