The Institute consists of a small number of resident faculty and postdoctoral researchers, a large group of external faculty whose primary appointments are at other institutions, and a number of visiting scholars. The Institute is advised by a group of eminent scholars, including several Nobel Prize–winning scientists. Although theoretical scientific research is the Institute's primary focus, it also runs several popular summer schools on complex systems, along with other educational and outreach programs aimed at students ranging from middle school up through graduate school.
The Institute's annual funding comes from a combination of private donors, grant-making foundations, government science agencies, and companies affiliated with its business network. The 2014 budget was just over $10 million. Evolutionary theorist David Krakauer became the Institute's president on August 1, 2015.
The Santa Fe Institute was founded in 1984 by scientists George Cowan, David Pines, Stirling Colgate, Murray Gell-Mann, Nick Metropolis, Herb Anderson, Peter A. Carruthers, and Richard Slansky. All but Pines and Gell-Mann were scientists with Los Alamos National Laboratory. In conceiving of the Institute, the scientists sought a forum to conduct theoretical research outside the traditional disciplinary boundaries of academic departments and government agency science budgets.
SFI's original mission was to disseminate the notion of a new interdisciplinary research area called complexity theory or simply complex systems. This new effort was intended to provide an alternative to the increasing specialization the founders observed in science by focusing on synthesis across disciplines. As the idea of interdisciplinary science increased in popularity, a number of independent institutes and departments emerged whose focus emphasized similar goals.
The Santa Fe Institute was created to be a visiting institution, with no permanent or tenured positions, a small group of resident faculty and postdoctoral researchers, a large visitors program, and a larger group of external faculty affiliated with the Institute but located at other institutions. The motivation of this structure was to encourage active turnover in ideas and people, allowing the research to remain on the cutting edge of interdisciplinary science. Today, the Santa Fe Institute continues to follow this organizational model.