Perimeter Institute: An Experiment in Research Utopia

Housed in a quaint old building in uptown Waterloo is an ambitious, privately funded experiment in fundamental research: Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics ( PI). In the little more than a year since its creation, PI has already attracted large public grants and highly talented international researchers to its humble quarters, and it is fast establishing itself as a giant in the world of theoretical physics.

Within the broad domain of theoretical physics, PI places an emphasis on the more fundamental or foundational areas that aim to increase our understanding of the fundamental principles and laws of physics. The researchers hired so far work in fields such as quantum gravity, string theory, the foundations of quantum theory, and quantum information theory, and as the institute grows, so too will the number of fields studied.

PI was born of a dream of Waterloo-based Research in Motion ( RIM) founder and co-CEO Mike Lazaridis. Lazaridis wanted to create a place where scientists could devote themselves to revealing the secrets of fundamental physics in a cooperative, rather than competitive, setting. A hefty $120 million donation from the high-tech guru and two of his colleagues, RIM executives Doug Fregin and Jim Balsillie, along with a lot of background research into the kinds of personnel structures, research culture, and governance that would create an innovative environment, gave Lazaridis's dream a kick start. After opening in October 2001, the fledgling research institute quickly garnered the attention of both the federal and provincial governments, securing an additional CDN$57 million in public funding within the first year of its existence (see sidebar).

Public Support for PI

Canada Foundation for Innovation


Ontario Innovation Trust


Ontario Research and Development Challenge Fund


Government of Canada


Government of Ontario


PI, it seems, has no trouble recruiting high-calibre scientists. What began as a core group of three long-term scientific staff and four postdoctoral fellows has quickly expanded to include another two internationally renowned researchers, six more postdocs, and numerous associate and affiliate members with ties to the University of Waterloo. In addition to their 5-year, renewable, and performance-based contracts at PI, resident senior researchers also have the option of procuring cross-appointments with affiliated universities. The University of Waterloo was the first to reach an agreement with PI for 10 such cross-appointed positions, and PI is pursuing similar arrangements with other neighbouring research universities. The cross-appointments provide senior staff with some additional security in tenured or tenure-track positions in exchange for a small teaching load--and the ability to mentor graduate students--at affiliated universities. Postdoc appointments are for a guaranteed 3 years, after which it is expected that the postdoc will move on.

There is a distinct international flavour to the group. In fact, most of the scientists are not Canadian, hailing from Albania, Brazil, Greece, France, Germany, Mexico, Spain, the United Kingdom, and the United States. This geographic diversity is no accident: PI's executive director, Howard Burton, told Next Wave Canada that the founders have made a conscious effort to enrich Canadian science with international expertise.

Lee Smolin, one of PI's original recruits, says he simply couldn't resist the idea of being part of a new research institute. Smolin, a former physics professor at Pennsylvania State University with a research lab at Imperial College, London, says, "It was great being a professor at a university, but it was also extremely frustrating because there are so many things that are obviously not done well." He adds that it's difficult for academic scientists who want to do ground-breaking research to avoid spending a good deal of their time embroiled in academic politics, and it's also difficult for them to effect change. PI offered Smolin--and his new colleagues--the opportunity to be part of an exciting and emergent institute but without the politics.

The fields of quantum information theory and foundations of quantum mechanics are relatively young and particularly in vogue right now. Ernesto Galvão, a University of Oxford Ph.D. graduate, could have pursued any of a number of research opportunities in Europe and the United States, but it was Canada's PI that attracted him. He took his appointment as a postdoc at PI because he felt that it would offer the perfect environment for his research. The sound financial underpinning of PI means that there is no pressure on researchers to find external funding for salaries or travel grants. And there are plenty of opportunities to interact with, and learn from, fellow researchers in different research areas, such as string theory, quantum gravity, cosmology, and quantum computing. But most important, Galvão explains, he is able to conduct his research in quantum information theory--basic research that "usually doesn't find much support in university physics departments," especially when it comes to young researchers who are trying to establish their careers. "Here in PI, it is actually encouraged that we should do foundational research as our main interest, which I find fascinating." Without the constraints of a departmental structure or program-directed research, Galvão and his fellow postdocs are able to work independently on their academic interests in a supportive environment.

Although she is one of only two females hired at PI to date, Ivette Fuentes-Guridi--another transplant from abroad--also enjoys the environment it offers. She received her Ph.D. earlier this year from Imperial College, London, and chose to postdoc at PI because she thought it provided a good opportunity to experience a supportive science community. "They really treat you in a special way," says Fuentes-Guridi. "I think that the postdoc years are very important and the time when you are most productive, so PI provides all the right conditions for that."

Another appealing factor for young researchers is PI's atmosphere. The institute is housed temporarily in a century-old red-stone building that was originally the Waterloo post office. The staff refers affectionately to their temporary residence as "Spacetime Square": Before PI moved in, the building housed a restaurant called "Time Square." The informal and relaxed setting nevertheless supports a scientific environment that is lively and intense, with a busy schedule of scientific seminars, public outreach, and visitors streaming in regularly. In the common room that was once the restaurant's bar, there are always some people "chatting, getting some free biscuits or coffee, playing pool or darts, and discussing physics on the many blackboards" that line the walls, says Galvão. Says Fuentes-Guridi, "There are some details here that you probably wouldn't think are important," such as the complimentary food and drinks and nice surroundings, "but at the end of the day they are. They make you feel so comfortable." What is more, PI tries to foster a sense of community by organizing numerous social activities outside work. "It can almost be said that the place sells itself," Smolin remarks.

Another unique feature of PI derives from the founders' philosophy of a "flat hierarchy." Rather than being governed from the top down, the entire community of PI scientists has a say in how the institute is run and how to move forward--even down to discussing what artwork to buy for the new and much larger permanent facility that is due to open on the south shore of Silver Lake in December 2003.

"Most importantly, a great sense of mutual respect and support has developed between people working in different areas, so that we find people cooperating and supporting each other's initiatives, who in many university settings would be rivals in a battle for resources," Smolin explains. Although he says it is too soon to claim that PI exemplifies how increasing democracy and lessening hierarchy in an academic setting can succeed, "so far, all signs are very positive."

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