Ideas you can take from the bank

“One rarely has to wait long at Perimeter before somebody comes along with a gift of money,” I wrote in September in my account of a month at Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo.  Today will be another such day. But not nearly routine, even by the standards of such days.

This afternoon the usual suspect when it comes to funding for Perimeter, its founder and chairman Mike Lazaridis, will be joined at the big black building in Waterloo by a newcomer: Bill Downe, the CEO of BMO Financial Group. Downe’s bringing the cheque: $4 million to establish — deep breath — the “BMO Financial Group Isaac Newton Chair in Theoretical Physics at Perimeter Institute.”

The Institute’s endowment fund, kept full by Lazaridis, will match the bank’s donation to make $8 million. BMO’s $4 million is the largest single donation it has ever made to a science project. It is the largest corporate gift Perimeter has received in its decade of existence. And it marks a new moment for the science park, because it marks the first time it attracts serious private money from a source that didn’t get rich selling BlackBerrys. As we’ll see this is only the beginning of that trend. But it’s what Perimeter will do with the money that’s really intriguing.

The BMO Newton chair is the first of five endowed chairs Perimeter’s director, Neil Turok, wants to establish. (The others will be named after other historic discoverers, Maxwell, Bohr, Einstein and Dirac.) The stated goal is “to attract five of the most influential theoretical physicists of our time.”

Each chair holder will come, almost certainly from outside Canada, to work, publish, teach and collaborate at Perimeter. The term is for 10 years, renewable. With $8 million and probably more for each chair, each chair holder will be able to select and hire teams of colleagues, post-docs and grad students.  Some of those team members will teach at U Waterloo or other Southern Ontario universities. More of the smartest kids in the world will want to move to the area to get close to those ideas. “The Chairs will make valuable contributions to Canada’s ‘brain gain’,” the press release says, “solidifying the reputation of Perimeter Institute and the country as global leaders in research excellence.”

Today’s announcement begins the formal search process for the first chair, although I strongly suspect Turok has a very good idea who he’d like to get. Perimeter already has Lee Smolin and Ray Laflamme and Lucien Hardy (bios here); by rounding up a whack of cash and naming the chairs after the holies of physics, Turok is going after even more prominent scientists. And by making it a 10-year renewable term he’s going after leaders in their prime. I doubt Stephen Hawking will get one of these gigs, although he might have in 1975. I’ll go out on a limb (this isn’t my field and Turok hasn’t tipped his hand to me) and guess that this guy, and a few of his colleagues at Princeton, should be among those expecting a call.

BMO’s contribution is fascinating. One suspects it has a lot to do with a recent addition to its management committee, Kevin Lynch, who helped design the federal government’s policies on the knowledge economy under Chrétien and kept it advancing under Martin and Harper. Four million is serious money. Within a year or two it will likely quintuple to $20 million from various donors for the five chairs, matched by Lazaridis’ endowment. It may be matched yet again by others: In a sentence from the press release I find intriguing, “It is anticipated this private core funding will attract additional funding partners.” Does that mean other corporations? Philanthropists? Governments? The answers will come later. Any way you slice it, Turok is amassing a huge budget for the biggest intellectual hunting expedition in the world.

UPDATE: Gordon Pitts of the Globe has a very good interview with Lazaridis and Downe. Downe’s last remark, especially, shows he gets why this is a good investment. And he reveals that he and Lazaridis have already been softening up Canada’s C suite for further donations. One thing that strikes me when I talk to Lazaridis is that, even as he puts $200 million of his own money into Perimeter and the University of Waterloo, he won’t be satisfied until his passion is shared, first by governments and now by other private-sector wallets. That’s a big part of what today’s about.

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