The Importance of Funding Quantum Physics, Even in a Pandemic – Inside Philanthropy

The Importance of Funding Quantum Physics, Even in a Pandemic – Inside Philanthropy


Let’s get subatomic. In philanthropic circles, arcane topics such as theoretical physics and quantum mechanics have a tough time attracting significant funding. Grantseekers can find it challenging to convey to potential donors the importance of subjects that are not only outside the ken of most non-scientists, but which may not seem as pressing as emergencies like global pandemics, poverty or climate change. Even within science funding, public and private, the life sciences dominate.

But the Perimeter Institute, a center for theoretical physics based in Waterloo, Ontario, has been successfully attracting funding through a pioneering public-private funding model. We wrote about Perimeter and its approach last year in the wake of the 20-year-old institute’s contribution to developing the world’s first image of a black hole.

In short, Perimeter draws a blend of support from government, industry and private funders, and has become a worldwide leader in advancing talent and new discoveries in theoretical physics.

Just last week, Perimeter announced its new Clay Riddell Centre for Quantum Matter, a research hub where scientists will study the subatomic world of quantum mechanics to understand and discover new states of matter—you know, states of matter other than the familiar solid, liquid, gas and plasma that you learned about in high school. (Don’t ask us to explain plasma.)

The new center is the culmination of a 10-year, $25 million investment in quantum matter research, made possible by a $10 million founding donation from the Riddell Family Charitable Foundation. Clay Riddell, who died in 2018, was a Canadian entrepreneur and philanthropist. Physicists believe that study of quantum science and matter will eventually lead to useful technologies and abilities that stretch the imagination.

That the theoretical science of today leads to the technologies of tomorrow is a key message in basic science—and especially funding for basic science, explained Greg Dick, Perimeter’s executive director of advancement and senior director of public engagement. Consider the theory of special relativity and curved space: One hundred years after Einstein proposed it, Dick said, special relativity is a necessary element of GPS navigation systems in cars and other settings. The theories of quantum mechanics led in just a few decades to the computer age. And before all that, the theories of magnetism and electricity eventually translated into practically every single thing we use every day.

“When electricity and magnetism were discovered, the problem of the day was air pollution in New York City from the manure that horse hoofs pulverized into dust,” said Dick. “But fortunately, people were thinking about esoteric questions of electricity and magnetism, and that changed society.”

In other words, society can ill afford to stop funding basic and theoretical science. The exciting thing is that the time from new theory to useful technology is getting shorter, Dick said. Perhaps in a decade, the study of quantum matter could lead to solutions for next-generation quantum computers, medical diagnostics, transportation, superconductors for energy grids and cryptography for data security and communications.

But just as likely, said Dick, the study of quantum matter will enable the creation of exotic materials and technologies no one currently expects or imagines.  

And this brings us to why the coronavirus pandemic, which has demanded so much of the world’s attention, is helping science grantseekers connect with funders.

“Obviously, when COVID started, there was a pause (in fundraising), but interestingly, COVID has also moved the relevance and value of foundational science to the forefront of people’s minds,” said Dick. “Yes, the theoretical physics that we do is nuanced, but COVID has put science on a pedestal. It’s actually easier to have that conversation about the value of science.”

Whatever their understanding of physics, prospective donors can easily grasp the importance of the basic research that has enabled today’s search for treatments and vaccines for COVID-19.

In a related manner, the COVID-19 pandemic changed the nature of the social interactions with potential donors, said Dick. “In the past, we’d host big events and parties, but now, the pivot to digital communication has really opened up new ways to connect with supporters.” Those person-to-person video calls can actually enable more personal and deeper conversations, he said.

Perimeter was established in 1999, seeded with $100 million from Mike Lazaridis, the founder of the Blackberry smartphone pioneer Research In Motion. Bringing the public along as enthusiastic partners was always a requirement, said Dick. “Mike’s vision right at the beginning was world-class research, for sure, but he also wanted that message of foundational science baked into Perimeter from the very beginning.”

As a result, Perimeter also offers classroom-ready educational resources used by teachers around the world, reaching millions of students.

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