A Foundation to Fund Thinkers

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Last Monday, through a last minute call from Daniel Cerventus, I met up with Mark Surman in Loof, together with Andrew and Heidi (Ford Foundation).  We have an interesting discussion on an idea or passion which I have for sometime. Not many people really know why my real passion in life is all about. The idea is to build a foundation to fund thinkers (or academics) in theoretical sciences or humanities similar to how the Medici family have funded the best thinkers in the Renaissance during the 15th century. While chatting with Mark, I thought that I should sketch out some of my ideas on the blog. Of course, I may not make the money to build it, but I hope to continue pursue the idea into reality. Even if it is within my lifetime to achieve it, I hope that the idea can spread far enough until someone can help fund and create the foundation.

The problem of today is that the Universities today do not encourage creative thinking between different discipines. Most academics are locked in their silos and with the universities becoming more and more like an educational institutions, it becomes harder for people to pursue original and interesting ideas taking a multi-disciplinary approach. One interesting model which is similar to this idea is the TED Foundation, where they bring in people from various disciplines for a conference and they have made it open for everyone to access the talks. The fellowship I have in mind is for longer term and gives the thinkers the affluence to continue pursuing their ideas.

The idea is to create a virtual institute that will fund an academic after his or her PhD for seven years. The academic will be able to pick the university of choice, or choose to move between places over the years. Once the funding ends in seven years, the academic will no longer gets another round of fellowship. The aim of this fellowship is to encourage new and original ideas in innovation and give the academic the best times of his or her years to do original and exciting research. The funding only applies to people in theoretical sciences and not in applied sciences. Why theoretical sciences? The best example to support my case is the development of quantum theory in physics during the 1920-1930s. If quantum theory did not happen, we won’t get the engineering innovation of transistors that power the computers today. Through my interaction with fellow academics in the humanities, the funding should apply to the social sciences such as psychology, economics and philosophy where new ideas can emerge that brings in the scientific approach.

Of course, there is some differences in my proposed model as compared to the type of fellowships offered in other foundations. In order to stop inbreeding or create silos by various PhDs in certain areas, particularly, nowadays it is easier for students under famous supervisors to get jobs in academia. For the application, I have set a different criteria for the fellowship: the academic’s recommendation must be made by someone from another discipline. For example, if you are a physicist, you cannot solicit a senior physicist to write your recommendation for the fellowship. It has to be someone from a totally different discipline who sees the spark in you to generate new knowledge.

I have made my pitch and will consolidate my ideas into a full proposal on this foundation from time to time. Hopefully one day, we will see it happening.

Acknowledgments: The original idea of the virtual institute came from Professor William Saslaw from University of Virginia (one of my collaborators in both papers of physics and economics) but I have made a lot of modifications to the idea to be more reflective of the current times.

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Bernard Leong

A Pragmatic Idealist