As you probably read already on Peter Woit's blog, the current issue of Nature has an article about Perimeter Institute, titled "The edge of physics," as well as what is supposed to be a review on Howard Burton's book "First Principles" by Joao Magueijo. You can read my review here.
Unfortunately, both articles are access restricted so the majority of our readers won't be able to look at them. Let me briefly summarize that "The edge of physics" is a well-written brief description of how PI came to be, and what it is today. It brings forward a healthy skepticism on some issues. For example that "Lazaridis has had an unusually strong hand in the management of Perimeter," to which the new director Neil Turok comments that "the make up of the board helps give the place a risk-taking spirit that is more in keeping with a Silicon Valley start-up than an academic venture."
There is some truth to both. Focusing power usually helps things run faster and doesn't make it necessary to please everybody. On the other hand, it's likely to piss off people who believe that their opinion is worth listening to. Unfortunately, most people with a degree fall into this category. As you can guess, the Power-of-Mike issue is frequently discussed among newcomers, and a point usually not addressed in public. It is thus interesting to find it mentioned in this article. In practice however, that power structure has no consequences unless you're involved into the highest level of administration, or you're a person of principle who cares about the basics of the system. Idealistically, I find it an uncomfortable position, in particular if the mission statements babble something about a "flat hierarchy." Practically, it works pretty well, probably because Lazaridis is a smart man.
The article also tells an anecdote in which Nima Arkani-Hamed and Freddy Cachazo work till 4am before they collapse, which, probably unintentionally cynically, is summarized as "the kind of effort that Turok wants: undirected, unconventional, ambitious." It's not that I have never worked till 4am, but people who do this frequently don't display ambition but a miserable time management combined with an unhealthy dose of masochism. You can blame that on my European upbringing, but I believe that time to relax is an essential ingredient to sustainable creative work.
To move on to the second article, Joao Magueijo's review of Howard Burtons' book isn't much of a review, but rather an expression of his opinion about the change PI has undergone since its startup. And it is not a positive opinion. Something went wrong along the way, is what Joao writes "the sought utopia had become a dystopia." He criticizes Howard for being an "insecure country cousin awed by the sophistication of established scientists and their fancy dinner parties."
Well. I haven't been at PI in its early days, but I've had the opportunity to follow its development during the past three years. It is of course true that PI has changed, and it is still changing. You can't run an Institute with 100 people as you run a place with 10, and PI is supposed to grow to more than twice its current size, both in facilities as well as researchers.
Part of the change growth brings is in administration. You'll need some sort of policies and procedures. You'll need some way to efficiently get information to where it needs to be, to coordinate efforts. You'll set up meetings, and committees, circulate drafts of guidelines, and discuss for several hours who is supposed to cleans the coffee mugs.
Another part of the change is social. The more people are at a place, the more difficult it becomes to encourage interdisciplinary exchange. At some point, researchers will begin to cluster into groups according to their prime interests. This has at PI reflected in the formal introduction of research groups like you find at any other physics department. I personally find this very disappointing and an (unnecessary) step into the wrong direction. In contrast, the Santa Fe Institute for example has chosen to keep its research staff deliberately small to avoid exactly this falling apart. When I arrived in Waterloo in 2006, PI had just about reached the size where it was basically impossible for everybody to know everybody. This represents quite a dramatic change from what must have been one large family to an increasingly larger group of researchers who just happen to share the same employer.
But the most serious part of the change is one in spirit. And that is what I think Joao is mostly criticizing. There is an inherent and unsolvable tension between trying to create an institute that is "different," and trying to create an institute that "competes with other top-institutes." You either play according to everybody else's rules and adjust, or you give them the finger, make your own rules, and accept that you will be regarded with skepticism. Unfortunately, I have heard that tension being denied repeatedly by various people at PI. I think it is possible to find a balance between both, the risky quirky and weird stuff with a high nonsense factor, and the established mainstream research programs that are promising to pursue. In most places, the emphasis is on the latter. PI was meant to have the emphasis on the former, but the trend I have witnessed is one towards adjustment with the heatbath. That is the natural thing to happen if new people come in who bring their expectations, their opinions, and their strategies from elsewhere. Especially if these people sit on temporary contracts and know they will be thrown back into the heatbath. Working against this trend requires conscious effort. And that effort hasn't been made.
Joao Magueijo btw left PI briefly after I arrived. I recall being disappointed because it was good to have somebody around who had worked on the phenomenology of quantum gravity. Not to mention that he's a cool guy. Meanwhile, PI has a new director, and though I didn't have much overlap with Neil Turok, my impression is that he is full of energy and eager to lead PI into a new phase, the recently launched PSI program is part of that. Yet where PI's change will lead, I don't know.
My experience with PI has been very good. I found it to be a welcoming and openminded place where, best of all, I could just do what I wanted. German as I am, the disorganization and maladministration I encountered was utterly frustrating, but then this sort of dysfunction isn't specific to PI. And since the limousine transfers from the airport are mentioned in the Nature article, unless it falls under moving expenses you have to pay them from your travel grant.
In any case, I wish PI the best luck. And I hope that the place remains truthful to its original goals.