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(Deborah Baic)
(Deborah Baic)

At The Editorial Board

On the record: Neil Turok Add to ...

Across the political system in Canada, there's agreement on this ... People who oppose this just need to be countered ...

I came from Britain. Comparatively, what I find in Canada is a breath of fresh air. Britain is cutting back in science; making itself more and more difficult for talented young science post-docs to come to, introducing all kinds of restrictions and regulation. They'll just cut themselves off from the pool of talent, and that'll be destructive to the future of science and technology in Britain.

What do you think of the tripling of tuition fees in Britain?

It's a disaster. The financial crisis was generated by Britain's over-emphasis on financial services. They made mistakes. And now who's paying for it? It's going to be the next generation, and they're putting them in debt ... Cambridge and Oxford are going to raise their fees to 9,000 pounds. Some people who may just go into debt. People who are responsible and know they cannot possibly pay will go to a cheaper university. So you're destroying access; instead of it being on the basis of academic merit, it's about money.

Would it have been possible to do the Perimeter Institute within a university?

No. I have a long experience of this. I was a professor at Princeton, at Cambridge, and I didn't know much about the outside world, to be honest. What taught me about the outside world was setting up an institute in Cape Town, [South Africa]... what I discovered is that by being outside universities, but partnering with them, you can go ten times faster. It's like a start-up company can go much faster than a Ford or an IBM. You can basically make new rules for today, whereas the universities by and large are operating according to rules which were designed maybe a hundred years ago in some cases. My experience - and Princeton and Cambridge are two of the best universities in the world - they are not dynamic institution

We set up this institute in Cape Town, the African Institute Mathematical Science. We had no money. We bought a derelict hotel. And again out of this sheer naiveté, just like Mike Lazaridis. We thought, let's think: how do we make a centre for post-graduate mathematical science which is really useful for Africa.

We said, ok, this is the physics curriculum. And we wrote it down. But we thought, these students are coming from disadvantaged backgrounds, and then we want to make them into researchers. We can't afford to go the traditional route. That takes four, five years. you've got to leapfrog somehow. So what we realized is that, if you look at researchers today in science, and this is true of 95-99 per cent of them. What are they doing? They are all sitting at computers, making models, taking data sets over the Internet, fitting them to the model, trying to make a better model. If you look at astronomy, biology, physics, they're all doing the same thing. Yet those skills are never taught. Nobody teaches you how to do a model on a computer. Or how to solve unfamiliar problems through independent thinking. So we designed an entirely new curriculum which cuts across all the sciences. It starts with the skills common to all of them ...

So [the Perimeter Institute]is a new style of university, one with minimal bureaucracy ... By the way, there's no exam in this course at all. Everything is continuous assessment, there's a research project which you are assessed on. You have an oral exam, and you're judged on your written thesis for your research project. We deliberately de-emphasize exams and grades. do you go through your university to get 87, or to get a number? No, you don't. You should go there to become a creative young person who can do all kinds of things.


My criticism of universities is they have become rather insular and selfish organizations who essentially, when it comes to talent, they operate with a vacuum cleaner model. You look at Harvard or Cambridge, and they hoover up the talent and they give nothing back. But we know in science that much more efficient than just sweeping stuff up is to create positive feedback. So what you should do is to take up talent, and enable those people to go back and generate more talent. And then more young people will apply, and you'll get circulation, and that reinforces itself. That's the way this institute in Africa which I started operates, and it's become very very successful. It's trusted by other centres in Africa, because it deliberately encourages people to go back ... essentially supplying young lecturers and so on all across Africa

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