In the largest single donation in its history, the nonprofit Santa Fe Institute will receive $50 million from legendary investor Bill Miller. The gift will advance the Institute's pioneering science of complex systems by growing its research community and expanding the facilities in which it works.
Complexity science seeks to find the organizing patterns at the heart of systems with a multitude of adaptive parts — from economies to ecosystems. Many scientists, including the late physicist Stephen Hawking, predicted that the 21st century would be “the century of complexity,” when science would build on the foundational laws of physics by understanding “how the laws fit together, and what happens in extreme circumstances,” Hawking said.
“This gift comes at a moment when the world needs radically new ideas and quantitative frameworks to engage with the growing connectivity and complexity of life and the accelerating pace of change in both technology and society,” says SFI President David Krakauer. “Bill’s gift supports the search for new foundational ideas bearing on our understanding of complex reality, which includes consideration of the planetary future, our increasingly hybrid nature with machines, and potential existential issues around climate, our democracy, and rationality.”
Beyond being the largest single donation in SFI's history, Miller’s gift is also believed to be the largest gift explicitly dedicated to support the science of complex systems, which is also called “complexity." The Santa Fe Institute is the only stand-alone institute in the world dedicated to advancing the frontiers of this field.
Ecologist Jennifer Dunne, who is SFI’s Vice President for Science, remarks that “Bill’s gift to SFI is extraordinary and provides us with the means to expand and sustain important research and outstanding researchers in complexity science for many years to come. It demonstrates how he fundamentally resonates with the Santa Fe Institute’s quest to bring the most diverse, brilliant, and curious minds together (including his!), to make progress on the most interesting and difficult questions facing our world.”
For scientists at SFI, the gift marks a turning point in the mainstream establishment of complex systems science, in the same year the field received its first Nobel Prize in Physics.
"2021 has been a defining year for complex systems,” Krakauer says. “In October, the Nobel prize was awarded to Giorgio Parisi for his work on physical models for complex systems, which built on the work of SFI researchers including Phil Anderson and David Sherrington.”
In 1984, SFI became the first research institute dedicated to the rigorous analysis of complex systems. Over the past 37 years, this pursuit has yielded transformative methods and insights that have been applied to sustaining cities and ecosystems, preventing pandemics, and predicting bubbles and crashes in financial markets.
"Bill Miller's continuing generosity and support over the years has been absolutely pivotal for SFI and, as a consequence, for promoting and sustaining the kind of science and scholarship that is playing an increasingly central role not just across academia and business but in how we understand the messy world around us and address the enormous challenges we face,” says Geoffrey West, SFI’s Past President and Distinguished Shannan Professor of Complexity. “His latest gift has gone one extraordinary step further in ensuring long-term support of complexity science, transdisciplinary collaboration, and addressing the really big questions; in a word, ensuring the support of the science for the 21st century.”
In the decades to come, SFI plans to use Miller’s gift to attract more of the best minds in the world to the frontiers of complex systems science. The Institute hopes to grow a critical mass of researchers to advance both a fundamental theory of complex systems, and to supercharge individual research themes like complexity economics, the interface of complexity science and machine learning, mathematical and philosophical foundations of complexity science, foundations of natural and artificial intelligence, the theory of sustainable urban and large-scale social systems, and the theory of information processing systems like cells and brains, which are an iconic example of “emergence” in complex systems.
Miller credits his 30-year involvement with SFI* for inspiring four major decisions in his investment career which significantly contributed to his fortune. But for Miller, the new gift to SFI isn’t about repayment or monetary investment — it’s a bet on the future of humanity.
“My long affiliation with SFI has been among the most rewarding of my life, both personally and professionally," says Miller. "SFI scientists have been and remain at the forefront of the most exciting and important scientific problems and challenges we face. I am delighted to be able to contribute to the critically important work SFI is engaged in.”
*Miller, whose formal name is William H. Miller III, first visited SFI in 1991 and joined its board in 1995. He has since served SFI as Chair, Vice-Chair, and Chair Emeritus of the Board of Trustees. He is currently the founder of investment firm Miller Value Partners. He spent 35 years at global investment firm Legg Mason.