Dear James,

 

Thank you for this opportunity to respond to your recent blog posting on Perimeter Institute and offer some clarifications.

  • First, the comparisons of support for different institutions and programs presented in this posting mix total funding over time (including endowment contributions) with annual budgets and ignore substantial differences between their operations.  For example, Perimeter Institute currently houses over 140 full-time trainees and researchers (from Masters students to senior faculty) whereas to my knowledge the Fields Institute has none.
  • Second, this blog post juxtaposes received funding with cultural events at Perimeter and implies that public monies are used to support ancillary activities, which is not accurate.   Cultural and social events are supported through paid ticketing as well as private donations. Public funds are strictly allocated to the purpose for which they are intended: to support the research, training and educational outreach programs of the Institute.

You and your blog readers may be interested to know that a recent third party evaluation of Perimeter Institute’s cost-effectiveness was conducted by KPMG, as part of a comprehensive audit required as a condition of our government funding. The final report, available on our website, states “PI has designed and implemented practices and processes that promote economy and efficiency in the use of resources and that are effective in supporting the achievement of PI objectives and expected results.”

In closing, let me emphasize that Perimeter Institute takes very seriously its commitment to promoting basic scientific research in a collaborative manner with universities and other institutions across Ontario and Canada. In this context, Perimeter serves as an example of a successful public-private partnership which is helping to energize and strengthen the entire scientific community.

 

Sincerely,

 

Neil Turok

 

Director, Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Celebrated Discovery Continues in Toronto

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:

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.

 

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.