The Lucky Few of Waterloo: Does the Perimeter Institute deserve $50M Times Two

There is chatter (here is more) suggesting that the $50M from the Conservative federal government (over 5 years) and the additional $50M (also over 5 years) from the Ontario Liberal Government to the Perimeter Institute is based more on politics than on scientific merit. These funding announcements emerge just a few weeks after the news that Neil Turok, Director of the Perimeter Institute, joined the Science, Technology and Innovation Council which advises the government on science policy. The chatter resonates with other statements that scientists from Western Canada get more than their fair share, that scientists from Toronto are discriminated against in funding decisions, and that Quebec scientists get funding just to allay separatist agitations. The key difference is that scientists outside of Perimeter must compete for funds through the Tri-council granting process which, at least in principle (but not in practice for mathematics), provides accountability and selects for scientific success.

The peer review system leverages the expertise of leading scientists to assess proposals for research investment by the government. When it works well, the process is trusted by the community of scientists to be based on scientific merit. A trusted peer review process is the ecosystem in which scientific creativity and excellence flourish. When the selection of scientific investments is perceived to be based upon factors other than scientific merit, the entire system is destabilized. The goals of research funding will not be met if the distribution system provokes poisonous comments against fellow scientists. The politicization of research funding and the ensuing unscientific conversations inside the community of scientists distract us from our agenda to advance the basic understanding of everything.

Scientific research investments selected by scientists through effective peer review are strategically superior and less risky than research investments made by politicians.

Consider the numbers:

  • The annual amount for 2009-10 Discovery Grants funding for biology, chemistry, physics, mathematics, computer science, all types of engineering,....was 64 Million dollars distributed over around 2000 researchers. The average individual grant amount was $33K.
It is not obvious that the average Canadian scientist merits 12 times less research funding than the average scientist at the Perimeter Institute.

Canadians should insist on an accountable distribution system of government investments in research. We should demand an effective peer review process in the distribution of all research and development investments made by the government, even those funds distributed outside the Tri-council umbrella like the allocations for Perimeter and the $4.7 Billion in SR&ED tax breaks. The Perimeter Institute might merit these investments but the scientific innovation system in Canada is threatened by earmarked research investments chosen without peer review.