Santa Fe Institute

Major new Templeton Foundation grant to support SFI complexity science

Dec. 13, 2011 1:21 p.m.

SFI has been awarded a major new grant from the John Templeton Foundation to pursue fundamental understandings of the hidden regularities in complex biological and social systems. 

The Templeton Foundation is a philanthropic organization that supports research on subjects ranging from complexity, evolution, and infinity to creativity, forgiveness, love, and free will. More about the the John Templeton Foundation.

The primary goal of the three-year, $5 million SFI project is to generate new concepts and quantitative methods of general scientific and social value. It recognizes the opportunity presented by recent advances in data collection and computational power. 

According to the grant award, the project “initiates a groundbreaking research program on the nature … of complexity with the potential for illuminating many hidden regularities in the biological and social worlds.”

The project “has the promise of developing fundamentally new quantitative theories” and focuses on “areas where new research and analysis are likely to make a real difference.” Specifically, it supports three research efforts:

     + The evolution of complexity and intelligence on Earth, led by SFI External Professor David Krakauer

     + The hidden laws that pervade complex phenomena, especially biological and social phenomena, led by SFI Distinguished Professor Geoffrey West

     + Universal patterns in the emergence of complex societies, led by SFI President Jerry Sabloff

“All projects seek to understand the interconnectedness [among] competition, cooperation, and increasingly efficient and robust means of acquiring and communicating information,” reads the grant award. “All projects consider the crucial role of multiple temporal and spatial scales in complex systems, why hierarchical and modular structure is ubiquitous, how mechanisms have evolved to exploit rapid changes in their surroundings, and how adaptive systems have found a way of overcoming and exploiting the rapid turnaround and loss of their most elementary components.”

“These projects fit the progression of SFI science very well,” says SFI President Jerry Sabloff. “Although they are quite different in terms of the complex systems they examine -- from genes and neurons to large human social systems -- they all are concerned with the fundamental processes underlying complexity and the evolution of complexity. These are questions SFI has been asking since its founding in 1984."

“With the Templeton Foundation’s generous support, we hope to make significant progress in understanding the principles that span and unify many complex systems,” he adds.

Complexity Explorer

The grant also supports a significant education outreach project led by SFI VP for Education and Institutional Outreach Ginger Richardson. As part of the grant, SFI will create an online resource called the Complexity Explorer. At the Explorer’s core will be a wealth of learning materials associated with the sciences of complexity, she says.

SFI’s people have a long history of both developing the sciences of complexity and offering education programs in complexity, says SFI External Professor Melanie Mitchell, who is faculty coordinator for the Complexity Explorer project.

She says the online resource is intended for all levels of teachers and learners interested in complexity, including academics, graduate and undergraduate students, professionals, members of the public, and high school and middle school students.

“Wherever I go, people ask me where they can learn more about complex adaptive systems,” Mitchell says. “This project, supported by the Templeton Foundation, will transform a longtime need into a reality.”

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