The federal government recently announced a reorganization of the National Research Council to make it more "business-led" and industry-focused. It appears we're coming full circle to the early 1970s, when Sen. Maurice Lamontagne released "A Science Policy for Canada," a report proposing Canadian science be directed to "mission-oriented" work rather than "curiosity driven" research.
Since then, many politicians have encouraged support for science that serves market interests. I believe we should support science because curiosity and the ability to ask and answer questions are part of what makes our species unique and helps us find our way in the world. Still, basic research aimed at specific outcomes can lead to game-changing applications, from transistors and pesticides to nuclear bombs, penicillin and oral contraceptives. But how do new applications flow from science?
Many scientists support a mythical notion of what makes science innovative. To be "relevant," they write grant applications as if their work will lead to cures for cancer, new energy forms or salt-tolerant plants, depending on the priorities of funders and governments. This creates the illusion that science proceeds from experiment A to B to C to solution. But we really have no idea what results an experiment will produce. If we did, there would be no point to the experiment.
It's more likely that a scientist will do experiment A leading to F then O, while another in a different area will do experiment Z leading to W then L. Maybe the two will meet at a conference or even a pub and, in talking about their respective work, realize that results O and L could lead to a new invention!
In 1958, during my genetics studies, we were assigned to critique papers by corn geneticist Barbara McClintock. She painstakingly crossed corn plants, harvesting two crops, first in Indiana then in Mexico. She discovered an amazing and mystifying phenomenon: "jumping" genes that moved from one chromosome location to another, suppressing gene activity wherever they landed. It defied everything we had learned. I sweated blood to make sense of her elegant experiments, although we assumed the phenomena she studied were peculiar to corn.
Decades later, scientists discovered jumping genes in other organisms, including fruit flies, and found they were useful for studying their development. McClintock was belatedly lionized for her discoveries and ultimately awarded a Nobel Prize in 1983. If her research proposals had been assessed for relevance or potential applications, she wouldn't have received funding for her early, trailblazing work.
As a graduate student, I also studied the experiments of microbial geneticists Werner Arber and Daniel Nathans, and biochemist Hamilton Smith, who were investigating an esoteric phenomenon: bacteria that resisted infection by viruses called bacteriophages (meaning "eaters of bacteria"). Like McClintock's work, their experiments were elegant, especially when you consider they were working with microorganisms you can't see the way you can observe a corn plant or fruit fly.
It was astonishing. The bacteria produced enzymes that cut DNA into pieces. They were called "restriction enzymes" and acted by recognizing specific sequences within the DNA and cutting at that point. Various bacterial species evolved distinct restriction enzymes, cutting DNA at different sequences. When the original experiments were carried out, no one could have anticipated that these enzymes would turn out to be critical tools for genetic engineering. It was just good science. And, like McClintock, the scientists were awarded a Nobel Prize for their work.
Canada's contribution to science is minuscule compared to countries like the U.S., Britain, Germany and even China. But if our top scientists are as good as any, they become our eyes and ears to cutting-edge science around the world, are invited to speak at top universities and institutes and attend meetings where the latest ideas and discoveries are shared.
If we're serious about creating partnerships between science and business, we have to support the best scientists so they are competitive with any around the world. We also have to recognize that innovation and discoveries don't always come from market-driven research. We should recognize truly internationally groundbreaking work to inspire young people who will grow up knowing they can be as good as scientists anywhere. This takes commitment from governments, more generous grants and long-term support.
Learn more at www.davidsuzuki.org.
A selection of programs and research facilities being closed, downsized or in jeopardy due to federal funding cuts or policy changes made by the Conservative government.
May be forced to close in 2014 if new funding isn't secured due to moratorium on the Major Resources Support Program (MRS) at Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC). Several of the following MRS cuts are detailed in a <a href="http://kennedystewart.ndp.ca/sites/default/files/kennedystewart.ndp.ca/field_attached_files/mrs_program_moratorium_impact_report_0.pdf" target="_blank">report by the office of NDP MP Kennedy Stewart</a>, opposition critic for science and technology.
Losing a third of his research budget, worth about $500,000 a year. The money runs out April 1, 2014 due to MRS moratorium at NSERC.
Canada’s only icebreaker dedicated to research has received $2.8 million in total MRS funding. Moratorium on MRS will result in far less research and higher costs to charter; loss of four technicians out of six.
The government announced the closure of the Experimental Lakes Area run by Fisheries and Oceans Canada in northwestern Ontario. The cuts will save it about $2 million a year — although <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2013/03/19/experimental-lakes-area-tories-scientists_n_2910022.html" target="_blank">sources told The Canadian Press</a> the actual operating cost of the facility is about $600,000 annually, of which a third comes back in user fees. (The Ontario government, working with Ottawa, Manitoba and others,<a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2013/04/24/ontario-ela-open-for-year_n_3146662.html" target="_blank"> announced April 24 that it would help keep ELA open</a>). The facility, an outdoor laboratory consisting of 58 lakes, laboratories and living quarters, has been in operation since 1968 and is credited with helping solve North America’s acid rain problem in the 1970s and 1980s among other breakthroughs in areas of toxic contaminants, algae and flooding by reservoirs.
$1.27-million shortfall due MRS moratorium. Training for users and students will be scaled back significantly.
High precision measurement of radiocarbon and other trace radionuclides for geological dating and tracing in the earth and environmental sciences. Operation in jeopardy. The facility recently received $16 million in funding from the Ontario government and Canadian Foundation for Innovation to set up new geoscience labs at the University of Ottawa. It was counting on $125,000 per year from MRS to maintain operations. That funding was to increase with new facilities. "It is shameful that our main funding organization for the sciences has decided that it should withdraw from supporting solid empirical research through funding laboratories," a spokesperson said.
The Kluane Lake facility, one of Canada's oldest research facilities, lost $106,000 due to MRS cuts. The facility is run by the Arctic Institute of North America, a joint U.S.-Canada research operation that is administered by the University of Calgary along with the University of Alaska, <a href="http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/story/2012/07/10/f-kluane-glacier-research.html" target="_blank">CBC reports</a>.
Launched by the Liberal government under Jean Chrétien in 2000, the foundation awarded more than $100 million in grants for university-led research. In 2011, the federal government’s first omnibus budget bill killed the foundation. At the time, the government said it would replace some of the funds with $35 million to be distributed through the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) over five years for all climate research activities.
Located on Ellesmere Island near Eureka, Nunavut, it is one of the most remote weather stations in the world and does key research on climate change, ozone and air quality. Closed after it lost $1.5 million in annual funding due to the closure of the Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmospheric Sciences.
MRS moratorium means the centre no longer has an open door policy for Canadian researchers or a special reduced NSERC rate for research conducted by Canadians in the labs. "The long-term prognosis for the geochronology labs is not good," a spokesperson said.
Program in jeopardy due to MRS moratorium, <a href="http://kennedystewart.ndp.ca/sites/default/files/kennedystewart.ndp.ca/field_attached_files/mrs_program_moratorium_impact_report_0.pdf" target="_blank">according to the NDP</a>.
The facility will close without MRS funding, leaving $10 million in capital equipment idle, including the only Canadian-based 900 MHz Bruker Nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectrometer,<a href="http://kennedystewart.ndp.ca/sites/default/files/kennedystewart ndp.ca/field_attached_files/mrs_program_moratorium_impact_report 0.pdf" target="_blank"> according to the NDP</a>.
The office, created in 2004 by the Liberal government of Paul Martin and led by Arthur Carty, pictured, was intended to provide independent expert advice to the prime minister on matters of national policy related to science, ranging from nanotechnology, high energy particle physics and ocean technologies to climate change and the environment. The Harper government closed the office in 2008.
Funding for the arm's length, independent advisory group was cut in the 2011 budget and the group wound down in 2012. Since 1988, it had been producing research on how business and government policies can work together for sustainable development — including the idea of introducing carbon taxes. The <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2012/05/14/national-round table-on-the-environment-and-the-economy-funding_n_1516240.html" target="_blank">Tories confirmed they cut funding because of the group's focus on carbon taxes</a>.
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