It may be 20 years, or 50, before there is a direct payoff from the BMO Sir Isaac Newton Chair in Theoretical Physics at the Perimeter Institute in Waterloo, Ont. Or from similar chairs to be named after Albert Einstein, Niels Bohr, Paul Dirac and James Clerk Maxwell. But the chairs are a wise investment that deserve emulating in other institutions in Canada.
It is not easy to be forward-looking in difficult times, but now is actually an excellent time to be investing in long-range projects that expand our intellectual capital. Why now? Because while other countries are hamstrung by economic problems, Canada is in decent enough shape to get a jump on attracting talent and stimulating innovation. In a borderless world economy, the value in becoming a magnet for scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs is immeasurable.
Theoretical physics (the description of natural phenomena in mathematical form) may seem like knowledge for knowledge's sake. It is anything but, as Mike Lazaridis, the founder and co-chief executive officer of the BlackBerry-maker Research in Motion Ltd., tells it. The "next generation of value" will be intellectual capital, rather than natural resources, he says. When discoveries are made in theoretical physics, whether in Canada or elsewhere, "the country with the largest dedicated force to interpret, understand and disseminate that information will be the first to commercialize it." Perimeter is remarkable for its commitment to world-calibre minds. Even before the research chairs, it lured some of the most promising members of the young generation to its campus.
Canada needs to develop its brainpower. It's relevant that it was a bank that made a $4-million donation that (matched with an equal amount from Perimeter's endowment) got the first chair launched. The Bank of Montreal expects a ripple effect on growth in the economy.
Of late, this country has created postdoctoral fellowships for international students, scholarships for foreign PhD students in Ontario, and now the first of several research chairs at Perimeter. Spending money to lure foreign talent here at a time of economic uncertainty may seem like swimming against the tide but it is the right direction to be headed in.