The Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics (PI) is at once an anomaly in Waterloo and a striking example of how deep the roots of knowledge have permeated the region. In just 10 years, PI has exploded on the world of theoretical physics, becoming the largest centre of its kind on the planet. It has also become the engine of an ever increasing concentration of research that has spawned an equally distinguished experimental research centre (the Institute for Quantum Computing - IQC) and demonstrated the power of a public-private partnership that has inspired a whole community.
"Right now we're the largest group of post doctoral fellows with the freedom to work on what they like … There are many advantages to starting from zero. Basically you can set the gradient curve very steep and keep on that curve and there's very little to slow you down," says Dr Neil Turok, PI's director and an internationally renowned researcher in the field of cosmology. "At old universities like Cambridge, if you try to do something new, there are all kinds of obstacles. You've got competition, jealousies, rivalries and bureaucratic rules. We're not like that and we pride ourselves on it."
Turok says farsighted decisions to focus on both space-time and quantum theories and include quantum information in its fields of inquiry have quickly established the institute as the place to work for those young, unorthodox researchers.
"PI has gained this reputation as not being a monoculture but a place where people come to see and try different approaches, and to encourage the clash between approaches is very important," he says. "Many institutes want a uniform approach and research assistants are at the bottom of the pile. The alternative is that post docs are totally free to do whatever they want to do and that encourages creativity."
One of the many unique aspects of PI is its the composition of its board, which is chaired by Research In Motion co-founder and co-CEO Mike Lazaridis and comprised of high-profile business executives and government officials. The board confines itself to management and financial issues. A separate scientific advisory board meets annually, reviews the research agenda of the past year and reports to the board, leaving PI officials to set the scientific agenda.
"You should never underestimate the importance of making independent decisions. If we are to do original science, we have to set out our own agenda," says Turok.
"And because PI is a private-public partnership, I like to think of it as bringing the energy of the private sector, entrepreneurialism. Mike Lazaridis is the best possible benefactor you could wish for. He doesn't want to control, he only wants to support and all he cares about is great science, and enabling young people to get into science."
Having already secured $300 million from private donations (primarily by Lazaridis) and public support, PI is about to grow again. Last fall it announced it was seeking to raise another $400 million which will make it self-sustaining and the leading theoretical physics research institute in the world (R$, October 26/09). Additional funding would allow PI to more than double its faculty members from its current level of 11 and expand its overall staff from about 80 to more than 250 researchers.
The new funding seeks to replicate the public-private model that has sustained PI up until now, which could prove difficult in the current economic climate.
Turok says that many of the senior-level politicians he's met since arriving at PI in late 2008 are highly supportive of basic science. In the coming months, he and other PI staff will be working hard to reinforce the importance of supporting fundamental research. And this summer they'll play their trump card — the first visit to the PI by Dr Stephen Hawking for an extended stay.
"Hawking is a kind of icon for our field. He's coming to PI and of course we'll invite politicians to come and meet him. He epitomizes the incredible power of this field of research and any politician would be pretty foolish frankly to ignore him," says Turok, who worked with Hawking at Cambridge before accepting the PI director's position. "It's our job to make clear that basic science is above all of us, it's above politics. It's knowledge of incredible power and importance to the future and something you should be able to persuade politicians of any hew that it's in their interests to support."
During his stay, Hawking will engage in several initiatives including scientific research and participate in a televised outreach event on June 20th.