Efforts to understand the foundational issues of theoretical physics have been made by scientists over millennia. Human beings are naturally curious: we want to deeply understand nature.
With pioneering insights by Aristarchus and Archimedes, Copernicus and Kepler and, more recently, Dirac and Feynman, humans have made spectacular advances. The benefits of basic research investigations cascade into fundamental improvements for humans living on earth. Visionary investors, like the Duke of Braunschweig Charles William Ferdinand in the eighteenth century and Mike Lazaridis of today, have recognized the virtues of investing in basic research. Leaders like Alexander von Humboldt, John Charles Fields, and Vannevar Bush helped define frameworks for governments to support basic research.
Half a Billion Dollars
According to its mission statement, The Perimeter Institute is devoted toward the important goal of researching fundamental issues in theoretical physics. Perimeter’s web page discloses that a stunning pile of public and private monies has been assembled to help the Institute’s leaders advance humankind’s understanding at the research frontier. Here is an extraction concerning public monies:
Government of Canada \$25 million grant through NSERC (2002) \$5.6 million grant from the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI) (2002) \$1.7 million grant from CFI Infrastructure Operations Fund (CFI-IOF) (2004) \$59,900 grant from Promoscience for ISSYP program (2005) \$50,700 grant from Promoscience for EinsteinPlus Program (2006) \$50 million Government of Canada announcement (2007) \$10 million commitment from Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI) for building expansion (2009) Government of Ontario \$15 million grant through MEDT (2002) \$5.95 million grant from the Ontario Research and Development Challenge Fund (ORDCF), shared equally with the Institute for Quantum Computing (2002) \$5.6 million grant from the Ontario Innovation Trust (OIT) (2002) \$20,000 for 2003 Summer Institute (2003) \$150,000 grant through MEDT for outreach programming (2005) \$120,000 grant from the provincially administered Research Performance Fund (RPF) (2005) \$50 million through Ministry of Research and Innovation (2006) \$10 million commitment from Ministry of Research and Innovation for building expansion (2009)
Adding up the bold figures above reveals a public investment of more than $178.85 million. The 2011 Federal budget commitment of $50 million and the additional 2011 Ontario budget commitment of another $50 million to the Institute are not yet listed (nearly a year after the gifts). I wrote about these gifts last year in Part 1 of this series of posts. The total Canadian public investment in the Perimeter Institute over the past ten years exceeds $278.85 million.
Here is an extraction concerning private donations supporting the Perimeter Institute:
Mike Lazaridis, President & Co-CEO Research In Motion: \$100 million (2000), \$50 million (2008), and \$20 million (2009) for total donation of \$170 million Doug Fregin, Vice President (Operations) Research In Motion: \$10 million (2000) and \$20 million (2009) for total donation of \$30 million Jim Balsillie, Chairman & Co-CEO Research In Motion: \$10 million (2000)
These highlighted private gifts total to $210 million producing a rather impressive (but incomplete) total sum of gifts in excess $488.85 million. To gain some sense of the scale of this amount of money, consider the following facts:
- The annual budget for the Fields Institute (Ontario's treasure supporting mathematical research) is less than \$5 million.
- The Connaught Fund for research at the University of Toronto has a total value of \$77 million. These funds were raised by the sale of Connaught Labs, the first lab to commercially produce insulin following the discovery by University of Toronto researchers F. Banting and C. Best. That fund generates \$3 to \$4 million dollars to support research activities by UofT researchers.
- Investment in Perimeter exceeds the five year budget request by TRIUMF labs which employs 340 full-time scientists and engineers, plus a lot of specialized equipment for experiments. (Perimeter lists 14 faculty and around 45 other faculty whose permanent positions are at other, mostly non-Canadian, institutions.)
- NSERC's Discovery Grants Program is the principal source for funding basic scientific and engineering research activities performed by faculty at Canada's colleges and universities. The annual budget for the Discovery Grants (supporting about 10,000 investigators across all fields from Biology, Chemistry, Physics, all flavors of Engineering, Computer Science, Mathematics, ...) program is about \$360 million.
Perimeter Institute Buys Culture
The Perimeter Institute has invested some of its funds to create a “lively and dynamic atmosphere for research.” The “Pushing the Perimeter” series has hosted musical events artists Brian Eno and Kronos Quartet. Last Thursday, the Perimeter Institute hosted musical and experimental performance concert by Laurie Anderson. Based on the official Twitter feed from the Perimeter Institute, it looks like the concert was a lot of fun, culminating in drinks at the Black Hole Bistro. Another upcoming series of events aimed at enlivening the research atmosphere in Waterloo will take place when the Perimeter Institute hosts Indulgence$^2$ (matched selections of red wine and chocolate) and Bask in the Cask (selections of fine ales brewed especially for the Perimeter Institute), as part of their Gastronomy series.
Meanwhile, and despite the relative paucity of their research funding, my colleagues at the University of Toronto continue to advance the boundary of human knowledge:
- The top global breakthrough in physics (according to the editors of Physics World) was made by Aephrim Steinberg's group probing fundamental aspects of quantum measurement.
- James Graham of the Dunlap Institute at Toronto and Nicholas McConnell of U.C. Berkeley discovered monstrously large black holes ($> 10^9$ solar masses).
- Adrian Nachman is leading a special program at the Fields Institute on inverse problems and medical imaging, advancing on ideas leading to new methods for diagnosis and treatment of diseases.
- Sajeev John's discovery (with Eli Yablonovitch) of photonic band gap materials is in the running for the Nobel Prize.
With cultural attractions like the National Ballet of Canada, the Canadian Opera Company, the North by Northeast Music Festival (Devo at Yonge and Dundas square last year!), excellent restaurants and more, Toronto investigators are fortunate: our research money can be spent on research instead of on investments aimed at building an atmosphere conducive to research. Confronting the unfolding impact from this month’s cut of $42 million from the Ontario Research Fund, tri-council research mission drift, and persistent troubles with peer review, the next generations of Canadians will look back and wonder what might have happened if Perimeter’s half-a-billion dollars had been invested differently.