Computer tycoon’s $50m bequest secures Oxford research into sciences

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The Independent Online

A technology entrepreneur who lives on his own private island off Bermuda yesterday became the latest wealthy benefactor to Oxford University, after his pledge to give the venerable institution $50m if an equal sum could be raised by like-minded philanthropists and donors led to a flood of recession-busting contributions.

The $100m (£65m) fund set up by Dr James Martin, a Pulitzer Prize-nominated author from Ashby-de-la-Zouch who is considered one of the world's foremost computer scientists, will be used to finance a catalogue of research projects aimed at resolving pressing global problems, ranging from methods of forecasting economic shocks to the preservation of plant species.

The research will be carried out at the 21st Century School Dr Martin had already established at the university with a previous donation of £100m.

"When the matched funding scheme was announced, many people said this is crazy timing as this is the worst economic crash in recent history," Dr Martin said yesterday. "The Oxford vice-chancellor and I disagreed with them. Some foundations and wealthy individuals give money in bad times if the cause is exceptionally important."

Nearly 20 research projects will be set up as a result of the donations, with no fewer than 30 different donors coming forward to raise the necessary £50m needed to trigger Dr Martin's pledge.

Dr Ian Goldin, head of the James Martin 21st Century School, said: "I personally wasn't very optimistic that we would reach the target of $50m within the 12-month deadline given the economic climate, but we had the very pleasant shock of getting virtually double the number of pledges we needed."

The donors include the international financier George Soros and Adrian Beecroft, the former chief investment officer at Apax Partners. Mr Beecroft, whose donation will be used to fund research into pushing the frontiers of computing, said: "We are delighted that the project we offered funding for is going ahead. Pushing the boundaries in computational science will benefit researchers in astrophysics as well as those working in climate science."

Dr Martin, who has always been at pains to deny that he is a multimillionaire philanthropist, has not donated to any other institution than Oxford. He studied physics at the university's Keble College between 1952 and 1956.

He started his career as a rocket scientist in the UK before emigrating to the United States and making his reputation as an information technology guru. He earned his fortune writing books, such as the Pulitzer Prize-nominated The Wired Society: A Challenge for Tomorrow. He also founded his own company, originally called James Martin & Co but now known as Headstrong.

Dr Martin first gained credence in the world of information technology by predicting mobile phones, the internet and world wide web in 1977 – before anyone else had heard of them.

In the 1980s, he helped develop RADF (rapid application development), software that lets usable systems be built in as few as 60 days by using a flowchart instead of code.

He later became an adviser to the US government on scientific software – predicting in 2002 the growth of "personal media machines" for programming internet and TV viewing.

The Research Projects

Plants for the 21st century – looking at crop production and species conservation.

Population dynamics and environment – uniting demographers, economists, anthropologists, philosophers and environmentalists in assessing environmental and demographic changes over the next 50 years.

The future of cities – exploring the social and technological changes cities will face over the next 50 years.

Stem cells – the matched funding will secure the recruitment of new stem cell biology fellows and establish a critical mass of stem cell scientists from different disciplines.

Vaccine design – this will seek to design and develop promising new vaccines against infectious diseases such as pandemic influenza, malaria and meningitis.

Mind and Matter: manipulating the brain and its ethical implications. The researchers will discuss the ethical, legal and social implications of conducting such research.

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