Wall Institute to meld best minds in research

by Charles Ker
Staff writer

Four years ago, Prof. Ken MacCrimmon joined a select gathering of renowned
artists and scientists in the resort town of Bellagio in northern Italy.

Attendees included a Booker Prize nominee, a leading British composer and
author Joseph Heller.

Sponsored by the Rockefeller Foundation, the month-long, revolving door retreat
sought to mix and stir the creative juices of scribes and scholars and, in so
doing, inspire them to greater heights.

The experience proved a research opportunity unlike any other for MacCrimmon,
who was studying theories of creativity in the Faculty of Commerce and Business
Administration.

“I came back thinking this broad-based sharing of ideas was vital to any
university and we needed mechanisms to foster it at UBC,” he says.

Today, MacCrimmon is charged with setting up similar programs encompassing all
academic disciplines across the university.

MacCrimmon’s new job as the first director of the Peter Wall Institute for
Advanced Studies is to make it recognized worldwide as the pre-eminent
institute focused on basic research linking all fields of inquiry.

Fueling this ambitious project is a $15-million contribution from Vancouver
financier Peter Wall, who hatched the idea with UBC President David Strangway
in 1991.

“Peter realized that there was an opportunity to create a university-based
institute for advanced research which doesn’t exist anywhere else,” says
Strangway. “He made it clear from the outset that the money had to be used to
generate new ideas and initiatives that wouldn’t happen otherwise.”

MacCrimmon claims that the Wall Institute fills an untapped academic niche.

Outstanding institutes for advanced research, such as the one in Princeton,
focus primarily on the hard sciences with little presence in the social
sciences and humanities. The Peter Wall Institute, he says, will encompass all
departments and faculties on the UBC campus.

Two of the institute’s key planks were already in place when MacCrimmon was
appointed director in August of this year.

Nobel Laureate Michael Smith and Prof. Raphael Amit, director of UBC’s W.
Maurice Young Entrepreneurship and Venture Capital Research Centre, had been
named Peter Wall Distinguished Professors. Smith will chair an internal,
10-member advisory committee when he returns from sabbatical next year.

Secondly, an annual competition for thematic research projects had been
launched under the guidance of John Grace, former dean of Graduate Studies. An
endowment of $10 million, drawn from the President’s Fund, was allocated for
the three-year thematic projects which bring scholars together from different
disciplines to work on specific problems.

In the 1995/96 competition, a team of nine UBC scholars prevailed over six
other applications and was awarded the first $500,000 thematic grant. The team
will look at the phenomenon known as “crisis points”–those junctures at which
the character of a process changes abruptly.

“It may be the recurrence of a disease posing a major new threat, groundwater
pollution reaching a level where it threatens our water supply, or the collapse
of a currency or market,” says mathematics professor and project co-ordinator
Priscilla Greenwood.

Greenwood says the interdisciplinary group–which is searching for qualified
graduate students and post doctoral fellows–will study both the question of
how to develop crisis point models and how to apply them to particular problems
in areas such as biology, earth sciences, economics, epidemiology and
psychology.

A 17-member adjudication committee, hand-picked from UBC’s best scholars, will
review the next round of project proposals for which the deadline is March.

Meanwhile MacCrimmon has been busy laying several more planks in the
institute’s programming platform.

The first of these is a summer residential program which would bring a dozen or
so of the most creative scholars, artists and professionals together at UBC for
an informal gathering of four to six weeks.

MacCrimmon has been poring over lists of Nobel, Booker and other major prize
winners in a search for distinguished summer visitors. The idea, he says, is to
have them come to campus and interact with one another, as well as with the
local community, with no set theme or agenda.

A second initiative, called the Research Encounter Program, will bring three
world-class scholars together whose research interests overlap but who don’t
work in the same discipline. MacCrimmon says participants would have few formal
responsibilities in terms of lectures and would be challenged to discuss ideas
amongst themselves and see where discussions lead. At the end of their stay,
students and faculty would be invited to an open forum where they would learn
about the discussions and exchange ideas. A transcript of the forum would then
be put on the institute’s Web site (www.pwias.ubc.ca) and a global interactive
discussion would follow.

MacCrimmon is asking UBC faculty to submit their own suggestions for a “dream
team” triumvirate.

One of the first assignments MacCrimmon gave himself was to visit every dean
and many department heads to ask what the institute could do for them and vice
versa. An individual visiting artists and scholars program, varying between
three weeks and six months in length, has been widely endorsed and constitutes
another programming plank MacCrimmon is working towards.

In addition, he is working with Strangway to identify and appoint an External
Advisory Board comprising some of the most distinguished artists and scholars
in the world.

“In all these programs we’re prepared to get a number of rejections at the
start,” he says. “But we’re determined to attract only the very, very best.”
MacCrimmon is looking forward to the day when the institute has its own
building to host and run its programs. The institute’s present location is at
Green College.

MacCrimmon, however, doesn’t need to theorize much about what the Peter Wall
Institute will do for UBC.

“It will bring together the best minds within UBC and around the world to
generate new knowledge across the boundaries of standard disciplines,” he says.
“We want to build a new type of creative environment.”