The perimeter institute. Darlene Munro/shutterstock

The perimeter institute. Darlene Munro/shutterstock

For Avery Broderick, a physicist who helped bring the world the first images of a black hole earlier this year, the Perimeter Institute is a very special place.

“It’s where I get to explore and wrestle with the universe,” he says of the Waterloo, Ontario research center, where he works alongside nearly 200 other physicists. 

With a joint appointment at Perimeter and the University of Waterloo, Broderick values the half of his time spent in a more traditional academic setting. But Perimeter, he points out, is a unique environment where leading researchers in theoretical physics assemble to chase lofty goals, exchange ideas, and devote as much of their time as possible to advancing the field.

“Anything can happen at Perimeter,” he says.

While it partners closely with academia, the institute is independently governed by guiding principles that emphasize breakthrough ideas, focus, and speed, and a big part of its success to date has been its funding model. In 2000, Research in Motion (BlackBerry) founder Mike Lazaridis seeded Perimeter with $100 million, but it very quickly grew beyond a single donor’s project. Currently, government provides more than half the institute’s annual budget, with the remainder coming from its endowment, private donors, and research grants. 

In just under 20 years, the institute has become a prestigious research hub, including its important contribution to the international Event Horizon Telescope collaboration, and dozens of awards and honors for its researchers. While not a degree-granting institution, it’s become known for its workshops and visiting researchers program, grad student training, and public outreach.

It also presents an impressive example of what can happen when a donor’s vision is parlayed into a collaborative project of multiple sectors, to form something more than one funding stream could accommodate on its own. And Perimeter’s leadership say it wouldn’t be the same without that mix. 

“If you’re trying to do something as ambitious, and some people thought audacious, as saying we want to establish the top theoretical physics institute in the world, you need multiple partners,” says Michael Duschenes, managing director and chief operating officer. “That’s not realistic to do with with only private partners.”

Laying the Foundation

Long before new philanthropically backed research centers like the Chan Zuckerberg Biohub, and even a few years before the Broad and Allen institutes, Mike Lazaridis had a vision for a research facility that would be devoted entirely to theoretical physics.

Lazaridis was a tech guy, a leader in the early days of the smartphone, but he had an appreciation for the fact that theoretical work provides the foundation for all new technologies, from solar power to the computer. Basic research in math and physics, however, tends to have a harder time landing funding than life sciences. 

In 2000, Lazaridis seeded the Perimeter Institute with a $100 million donation, which was roughly one-third of his personal wealth at the time. Two of his peers at RIM also donated $10 million each at the launch. In addition, Lazaridis has been committed to developing the Waterloo area as a research hub (he’s since donated and invested in quantum computing research and development in the region).

From the start, government was highly involved. The City of Waterloo donated the land for a new, custom-built facility, and in the first few years leading up to the building’s opening in 2004, government agencies and trusts committed over $50 million to the effort. 

Lazaridis has donated a total of $170 million to date, and the institute has built up its endowment to $348 million. With an annual budget between $30 million and $34 million, the governments of Ontario and Canada supply $20 million a year combined, running on five-year renewal cycles. In the past six to eight years, Perimeter has increased its private fundraising, with backers including the Simons, Templeton, and Krembil foundations.  

So while Perimeter was initially driven by just a single donor, has a private endowment, and is independently governed, around two-thirds of its backing comes from multiple levels of government, with all the oversight that entails.

“A Cathedral to Science”

The result is a center built on a highly aspirational and focused mission, operating with both support and scrutiny from the community, that is also able to rewrite the playbook a bit. 

“So we’re in an environment not encumbered by a lot of history, not encumbered by a lot of rules,” Duschenes says. “Sometimes people refer to us as a think tank and I say, no, we’re actually a place that tries to accelerate research.”

One of the key operational differences, Duschenes says, is that they’re very opportunity focused. For example, if there’s a pressing topic researchers want to explore, an agile conference and workshop program can pull something together in a matter within weeks. Perimeter also never hires based on a set number of jobs to fill, but instead based on opportunities to recruit new researchers as they arise. 

“Everything is done so if there’s an opportunity, you move on the opportunity, and I think the ability to move quickly is really, really important,” Duschenes says.

Another key principle of Perimeter is to flatten the hierarchy among researchers as much as possible. All postdoctoral researchers at the institute work independently as full members of the community, and while they do tend to team up based on interests, don’t answer to any faculty member. 

As far as research funding goes, faculty and postdocs take a salary for their work, and can also be reimbursed for certain other expenses such as related travel (theoretical physics doesn’t require much in the way of equipment). Perimeter researchers do some outside fundraising, largely in support of graduate students, which can be covered by government or private grants, although some are funded by the institute. Faculty members have no classroom teaching requirement. The goal, Duschenes says, is to allow researchers to spend as much of their time as possible on research. 

For Avery Broderick, the laser focus on physics research is a major draw (although he does find teaching to be an important part of his career that he gets to carry out through his joint appointment at the university). Another is the institute’s culture. 

“At Perimeter, I have found that on timescales of months you can execute the kinds of projects that would otherwise take many years elsewhere,” he says. There’s an atmosphere, even in faculty evaluations, of encouraging researchers to not just publish the next incremental paper, but to think big—to step back and ask, “not what can you do, but what should you do.” 

The institute also employs more than twice as many postdocs as full-time faculty, which Broderick says keeps things fresh. “Having a lot of these young, brightest people in the world converge just creates a very active, energetic, and opportunity-laden environment for deep thinking and progress.” 

Finally, Broderick says the facility itself, “a cathedral to science,” makes Perimeter unique. It’s designed to promote interaction and cultivate a research community instead of tucking teams into their respective corners. Between staff and visiting researchers, physicists you read about in textbooks can be spotted wandering the halls.

Shared community spaces and blackboards are always in use. Even on the way into the building, you have to pass through the beloved “Black Hole Bistro,” strategically placed to encourage interaction. There’s a running joke that on a really good day, you should never get past the bistro.

Managing Multiple Funding Streams

Some of the ways Perimeter is unique can also pose challenges with fundraising. For example, the institute is dedicated solely to theoretical physics, which can be mystifying to some donors, and far from eventual real world applications. It also lacks a large number of alumni, since they don’t grant degrees. That means fundraisers have to find just the right donor. 

“You’re really finding the needles in the haystack, and those needles can be individuals, they can be foundations, and they can be leaders in corporations,” says Heather Clark, executive director of advancement. 

Either the institute finds donors who are already inspired by work on things like black holes or quantum physics, or from time to time, Perimeter will win someone over. It also works to attract donors at all levels, which relates to the outreach it does to make theoretical physics relevant to the general public. It brings in about $6 million a year in fundraising, and are about halfway to its current $100 million campaign target. 

The team does use the multiple streams of funding to its advantage in attracting supporters. Private donors like the assurances public support provides, and government likes that private dollars are going toward basic science. Staff I talked to emphasized how critical the mix of public and private support has been in making Perimeter what it is today.

That’s one of the cool things about Perimeter, in fact, the way it’s dovetailing the accelerant role of philanthropy with the sturdiness and community oversight of government funding. 

Broderick offers a scientist’s perspective on the value of this combination. As he puts it, the private funding allows the flexibility that makes a place like Perimeter unique, but the public support “provides an imprimatur from our community, that we are doing good things.”

“It kind of prevents us from believing our own hype too much, right? You go out and you get a reality check from your peers.”

There’s also something grounding about funding coming from members of the public, who might otherwise spend that money on a movie with their kids, he says. 

“I think that realization imbues a duty to do something worthwhile, that when we receive public monies, we are beholden now to everybody, to justify why that was a useful expenditure,” he says. “I do reflect on that. I hope my colleagues reflect on that. I think they do.”

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