NRC is going for the money, but forgetting the basics may not pay off
- March 25, 2011 5:37 PM |
- By Quirks
By Bob McDonald, host of the CBC Radio One science program Quirks & Quarks.
The National Research Council of Canada, our largest research institute, is shifting its policy away from basic science and towards the more profitable applied science and technology. While the NRC has always worked with industry to develop better products, forgetting the basics may be shortsighted.
In an email, the NRC states:
"As the Government of Canada's leading research and technology organization, the National Research Council of Canada is redirecting some of its activities into areas of national importance that will support innovation by Canadian industry and economic development overall."
NRC, in partnership with industry, has developed an impressive list of innovative technologies, such as automatic search and rescue beacons, the Canadarm, Earth monitoring satellites, even the exact time for the CBC's "long dash following 10 seconds of silence." It has played an important research support role that would be too expensive for companies to do on their own.
But technology is only one side of scientific work. Basic science is where true innovation is found, although it may not be obvious at first.
Basic science goes back thousands of years to the ancient Babylonians, Sumerians and Greeks who established disciplined methods and cultivated educated scholars to try to understand how nature works. From early observations of stars and planets parading across the skies, through the basic laws of physics, chemistry and biology, up to the latest images of the edge of the universe from the Hubble Space Telescope, and understanding of the universe within the atom from the Large Hadron Collider, basic science has provided us with a mind-boggling perspective on ourselves and our place in the universe.
And considering that 95 per cent of the universe is still unknown to us, in the form of dark matter and dark energy, we still have a lot to learn.
Focusing mainly on the applied side of science provides a short-term gain, but in the long term, any advances will be incremental because you always start with what you have and simply make it better.
If you want true innovation, the kind that provides products no one thought of before, you have to allow basic science to go off on its own, with no particular goal in mind.
Historically, all the major leaps in thought from the world of science have come from people asking basic questions, not by saying, "Hey, let's make a better screwdriver." Michael Faraday wanted to understand the relationship between electricity and magnetism, not knowing that it would lead to electric motors and just about every electronic device on the planet. Marie Curie was interested in a form of radiation called radioactivity, leading to the concept of radioisotopes, later used in medical diagnostic tools and nuclear reactors. The list goes on and in every case, the people asking the basic questions had no idea where the pursuit of those questions would lead.
Canada, with the support of the NRC, has a solid track record of conducting world-class basic science. The Sudbury Neutrino Observatory, which looked into the fundamental processes happening at the center of the sun, is now set up to detect elusive dark matter particles, for example. Our astronomers using telescopes in Canada, Hawaii and Chile probe the universe, while geneticists, bio-technolgists and nano-technologists work in centers of excellence across the country.
The point is, we need both basic and applied science. While paying people to explore the world out of pure scientific curiosity may not turn a quick profit, the potential for long-term gain can be enormous. People who spend their time crawling around on forest floors examining slugs under rocks or who use the most expensive tools to look at the tiniest particles are often ridiculed for insane behaviour. But those who criticize often don't understand the benefits of gaining knowledge just for the sake of knowing it. Those slugs could be telling us about the health of our forests and the sub-atomic particles could reveal interactions that will send spaceships to the stars.
In its statement, the NRC proudly says, "The National Research Council of Canada has a long-standing, international reputation for innovation and results."
We should all be proud of that. And if we want more innovation in the future, we can't ignore the basic questions that form the foundation of science.
(NOTE: For the record, here's the full text of the email:)
The National Research Council of Canada has a longstanding, international reputation for innovation and results. We are evolving to keep up with the needs of the country.
The goal is to advance Canada's position in the innovation landscape. As the Government of Canada's leading research and technology organization, the National Research Council of Canada is redirecting some of its activities into areas of national importance that will support innovation by Canadian industry and economic development overall.
Through focused, strategic interventions, we will be better able to address areas of major public concern, such as technology to reduce health care costs and reductions in greenhouse gases.
Increasing the National Research Council of Canada's profile with external stakeholders is paramount. The agency will create relationships and foster collaborations and mutual exchanges of value. Making the NRC more accessible and visible will be essential to achieving the goals of the new strategic direction.
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