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Is Canada giving up on science?

By Hamish Johnston

The good old days. Nobel laureate Bert Brockhouse won his prize for work done at a federally-funded research reactor. (Courtesy: NRC)

The good old days: Nobel laureate Bert Brockhouse won his prize for work done at this federally funded research reactor. (Courtesy: CNA)

I am Canadian by birth and lived in that country for more than 30 years until the mid-1990s. For the past decade I have noticed a disturbing trend in the Canadian government of turning away from the outside world and becoming increasingly parochial in its outlook on important issues. I find this sad because I think the country is a thoroughly decent place that, despite its shortcomings, could provide inspiration for those living under less salubrious social and political systems.

Recent examples of this inwardness are utterances by senior government and civil-service officials, who seem to be arguing that doing science is not useful unless there is an immediate benefit to Canadian business or society. According to the Toronto Sun newspaper, John McDougall, president of the National Research Council said, “Scientific discovery is not valuable unless it has commercial value.”

To me, this says the government does not appreciate that the excellent basic science done in Canada is part of a noble international effort that benefits all of humankind – and gives the Canadian scientific community the kudos to influence how science is done worldwide.

There are myriad practical arguments that basic science does have measureable economic benefits to countries such as Canada. These have been made very eloquently by other bloggers (here, here and here for example) and I don’t think I can add much more.

While the anti-science comments are disappointing, it’s worth remembering that Canada has a federal system of government and its 10 provinces have a certain degree of control over science. Universities and hospitals are under provincial jurisdiction and provincial governments do fund basic research. The province of Ontario, for example, has provided a significant amount of money to support the world-class Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo (but not quite as much as the federal government).

Although there are signs that spending on science is falling in some provinces, the good news is that most provincial governments don’t appear to share the fed’s bizarre views on science. That said, the bulk of funding for basic research in Canada does come from the federal purse, so I would be worried if I was a physicist in Canada.

Of course all of this could change after the next federal election, which must happen by October 2015. The current government is Conservative and it’s likely they would win an election called today. However, the Liberal Party has just taken on a young and charismatic leader in Justin Trudeau, who just might appeal to the Canadian electorate after years of dour Conservative rule. Trudeau’s late father, Pierre, was prime minister in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s when the country did seek a high international profile. With any luck, Trudeau junior can reignite that desire in a nation that seems to be fading away from the world stage.

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  1. Dileep Sathe

    Canadian Reaction
    As a teacher I stand between physicists and people, plus I am doing research in physics education for many years – with special interest in the question WHY students go away from physics. So I am not surprised by the Canadian reaction but it reminds me of the purpose of celebrating the year 2005 as the Einstein year, for popularizing physics among students and society.

    In addition, I would like to note that even some physicists are not very happy with the recent developments in high energy / particle physics. For example, a recent story on Scientific American (30 November 2012) suggests that physics has to seek new ideas because of the failure of supersymmetry in the test. Prof. Martin Perl is also worried about the future of high energy physics because there are some key questions without answers – see the story dated 28 January 2013, title: What me worry about the future of high energy Physics? Also see my comments on above stories, dated: 12/1/12 and 01/29/13 In brief, I think, first we have to care for Physics Education because otherwise we will not get good man-power to meet future challenges of physics, as suggested in the story on Scientific American.

  2. John Duffield

    As a parent of two children who gave up all their science subjects, I feel I’m witnessing the long slow death of physics. It’s not just Canada. It’s the UK too. And see Zapper’s blog and Matt Strassler’s blog re the USA. There’s disillusionment amongst public and government, particularly concerning HEP. And you know what? Every time some science editor gives rah-rah airtime to SUSY diehards whilst denying the oxygen of publicity to those “new ideas”, it’s just another nail in the coffin. Science advances one funeral at a time. And if it doesn’t, it’s digging its own grave.

    • Dileep Sathe

      John, your children’s reaction to science is not very surprising to me. In fact, there was a British teenager, Josie, who was studying physics, after the celebration of the Einstein year. But after studying it for one year she left physics and joined biology because she did not find physics useful. So I guessed why she could have taken such an extreme step, see my Letter to the Editor in Physics Education, UK, July 2007, p. 423. John, Julio or any other interested reader can read my letter and feel free to write me on for more information / discussion.

  3. Trackback: Who Needs Science, Anyway? | Green Comet

  4. Julio Herrera

    While it may be true that HEP is reaching its saturation point, although we’ve still got to wait for the LHC upgrade, I still see lots of interesting developments in other areas. Take for instance the advancements in quantum informatics, and the new properties found everyday in graphenes. In applied science and other branches related to physics the landscape is certainly very rich. Just look at the information we get from the Sun on a daily basis from SDO, STEREO, Ulysses, and other spacecrafts. They are opening uncharted territories in Solar Physics. New techniques are implemented for the discovery of exoplanets.

    On the other hand, there are old and new challenges, such as the proper understanding of high temperature superconductors, and their development for applications such as maglevs and fusion energy. We could go on and on. Indeed, fresh ideas will be needed in many areas in order to make further breakthroughs, but science advances in different fronts, and while some have got stuck in attrition fights, others are making significant progress.

    Still, I understand John’s frustration. If the new generation doesn’t find the necessary stimulus for a career in science, it’s only natural they will choose a better way to make a living. However, as the career’s section in Physics World shows, studying physics is a good training for other activities. As a recent PhD comic stated: “Scientists will survive, even if science doesn’t. :-)

  5. Julio Herrera

    I forgot to address the main issue in this blog.

    Unfortunately we’re familiar in developing countries with McDougall’s attitude, where basic science is often considered a luxury, but it’s a shame they set in in developed ones. I guess this is a product of the ongoing trend imposed by globalisation in the past decades, in which productivity is what matters, and everyone must be able to lift his/her own weigh. Maybe the best antidote is better science education, as Diieepe Sathe states above, complemented with good science outreach.

    I don’t remember where I read (I’m sure it was a British source), that “basic science should be supported when it’s relevant, and applied science should be supported when it’s pertinent.” The trouble is, who decides when something is relevant or pertinent?


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