The London Institute for Mathematical Sciences is Britain’s only independent research institute in physics and mathematics. Based at the Royal Institution, we offer scientists an alternative to a university career, giving them the freedom to devote themselves full-time to discovery.
There’s a strange inefficiency in the way scientific research is organised. The best scientists get hired, then encounter fierce limits on how much science they get to do. The reason for this is that the vast majority of research is done at universities, where scientists are expected to devote most of their time to teaching and administrative duties. That’s why we founded the London Institute for Mathematical Sciences. We wanted it to be a place where physicists and mathematicians were free to dedicate themselves full-time to fundamental theoretical research.
The London Institute is not part of a government initiative. It arose naturally out of the desire of a handful of theorists to spend more time doing science. Founded in 2011 with a grant from DARPA, it received early support from the US Department of Defense. In 2015 it became eligible for funding from the European Union’s scientific research agency. The Institute was designated an Independent Research Organisation in 2019, becoming Britain’s first research centre in the physical sciences to compete with universities for Research Council funding. In 2021, it was invited to move into the Royal Institution in Mayfair, where it occupies rooms where Michael Faraday once lived.
The London Institute does research in physics, mathematics and the mathematical sciences. We don’t teach or award degrees. Discovery is our only focus—so we are only as good as the discoveries that we make. Benchmarking the London Institute by the quality of our research keeps us on mission, at a time when it’s easy to get distracted by outreach, bureaucracy and virtue signalling.
We specialise in fundamental research, the kind that is done without consideration of how useful it might be. Time and again, this has led to the most transformative breakthroughs. All of our work is theoretical; we don’t do experiments or data science. Because our researchers are all fluent in mathematics, they can understand each other’s work and are open to collaborating.
Our research spans five main research themes. In Mathematics that unifies, we study the relations between different branches of pure mathematics, and create overarching theories that bind them together. In The elegant universe, we tackle big questions about the fundamental forces, symmetry and information, and the intimate interplay between physics and mathematics. In Life, learning and emergence, we develop mathematical foundations for life and artificial life, machine intelligence, and other emergent phenomena that defy reductionism. In Tomorrow’s technology, we establish the scientific principles behind the technologies of the future, in order to transform work, health, defence and creativity. In the Theory of human enterprise, we develop mathematical models of markets, innovation and organisations, so that we can predict them and enhance them through interventions.
We believe that communicating our discoveries is as important as making them. Our papers are the official record of our discoveries, allowing others to build on and apply our work. Each paper is the result of many months of research, so we work hard to make them clear, beautiful and inspirational, and publish them in leading journals.
In addition to our papers, our website is how people know us. Our coders and designers work closely with our researchers and writers to build and maintain it. In early 2022, our website received one of five Webby Award Nominations for the best science website, alongside NASA and Science magazine.
As well as doing science, the London Institute is shaping the national debate on how to fund and organise it. We have written in the national press about the value of basic and theoretical research and how to innovate models for doing it. We also work with the Government to help enhance Britain’s reputation as a science superpower.
The Royal Institution, where we are based, leads the country in science communication. We collaborate with them to share the joy of insight through events in their historic public rooms. Their vast reach on social media and as a video provider helps spread the word about discoveries made inside the building.
The London Institute is funded by a combination of grants, donations and support from industry. Because we do not rely on student fees or government subsidies, our success depends on out-discovering our competitors. We constantly seek new ways to increase discovery and cut bureaucracy.
Until recently, our main source of funding has been research grants. We’ve had grants from the EU’s Horizon 2020 and Framework Programme 7, the European Innovation Council, DARPA, the US Department of Defense, the Ministry of Defence, the UK Research Councils and Cancer Research UK. Many of these have been joint grants with other universities and institutes—to date we’ve partnered with over 50 organisations from around the world.
We have secured support from British foundations and the City of Westminster for the renovation of our building and for public events. With the appointment of our Development Director in 2021, we have added philanthropic gifts to our funding repertoire, to support posts, our building and running costs. In 2022, donors helped us launch our Arnold Fellowships.
Counterintuitively, some businesses are more open to funding basic science than government agencies. These businesses seek open-ended, foundational insights that they cannot realise in-house. We have a track record of securing corporate grants in basic science, with investment from firms in strategy, biotech and AI.
The Royal Institution, where we are based, was founded in 1799, and throughout the 19th century oversaw a litany of breakthroughs in experimental science. It was here that Sir Humphry Davy identified nine chemical elements and Michael Faraday discovered the principles of electromagnetism.
However, as experimental science grew more complex, it required ever larger laboratories and bigger teams. The traditional model of work done by one man and his assistant was coming to an end. Over the course of the 20th century, experimental science migrated from the confines of the city centre to purpose-built labs outside London. Rooms once occupied by great scientists were rented out to industry. By 2008, the Royal Institution ceased to employ researchers altogether.
Yet this historic building is perfectly suited to theoretical research, which needs only blackboards and a place to think and interact. With that in mind, in early 2021 the Royal Institution invited the London Institute to move in. While safeguarding its tradition of original research done in the building, we are adding a new chapter to the Royal Institution’s extraordinary history.
In creating the London Institute, we had an opportunity to build, from scratch, a new kind of research organisation—one that makes fundamental discoveries better and faster than our competitors.
Even though we’re a non-profit organisation, we have a for-profit appreciation of free-market principles. To attract the best talent, we offer scientists more time to do research and a better work environment than universities. To attract donors, we do more discovery per unit investment. We benchmark and share our progress, because you cannot innovate models for doing research if you don’t know how to compare them.
Many research organisations celebrate the calibre of their scientists. At the London Institute, we also take pride in the quality of our staff, drawn from coding, design, finance, fundraising and journalism. Our scientists and staff are not segregated but work alongside each other to fund, carry out and communicate our research.
Unlike universities, we expect our scientists and staff to be physically present during business hours. New ideas are fragile, and they often come from unexpected interactions with others. Showing up makes an organisation more intelligent, because it lets workers switch between focus and interaction in an unplanned way. This helps us adapt quickly to new ideas or a changing environment.
While the Institute is in the business of making discoveries, occasionally its scientists foresee a spinoff application fit for market. LIMS Ventures, our technology incubator, provides the skills and space needed to launch their product. The Institute does not lay claim to its scientists’ IP. Because the researchers and incubator are under one roof, we can quickly turn today’s discoveries into tomorrow’s business.