Sudbury·Audio

Nobel Prize winner says Laurentian's physics program cut means losing great minds, research funds

Laurentian's decision to cut the physics department will severely impact the university's research funding, as it loses some of the greatest minds in science, says astrophysicist Art McDonald, who teamed with some of the faculty members now losing their jobs to win the Nobel Prize in 2015.

Sudbury school's profs played big role in Nobel work at underground science facility SNOLAB, Art McDonald says

Art McDonald, a Nobel-winning Canadian physicist and former director at the underground science laboratory known as SNOLAB, says the cuts to Laurentian's physics program mean the Sudbury, Ont., university will no longer be able to take part in major astrophysics work. (Stu Mills/CBC)

Laurentian's decision to cut the physics department will severely impact the university's research funding, as it loses some of the greatest minds in science, says a Nobel Prize-winning astrophysicist.

Art McDonald said he worked with some of the physics faculty members who will now be losing their jobs, and they played a big role in landing the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2015 that was also shared with Japanese physicist Takaaki Kajita. 

McDonald, 77, said he received the Nobel on behalf of his Canadian colleagues, "because it really was the team that did the work. They all received a part of the breakthrough prize for their efforts. They are highly respected internationally."

Along with four other universities, Laurentian is also a founding partner of SNOLAB, a world-class underground science laboratory. It operates two kilometres underground at Vale's Creighton Mine near Sudbury, and specializes in neutrino and dark matter physics, noted McDonald, SNOLAB's former director.

With the loss of the Laurentian's physics department, as well as the math program, the university will no longer be able to take part in important projects in astrophysics, said the Sydney, N.S., native.

"Math is a backbone for programs across the university. So is physics in a number of areas. The idea of running an engineering program without a significant physics educational ability within the university is very surprising."

The casualties of restructuring

Nearly two weeks ago, Laurentian announced its first in a series of cuts to dozens of programs and staff that now include major varsity sports teams and the music program.

This week, the university said it's court-appointed monitor has approved of the steps taken so far to get the institution back on stable financial ground, and it's now seeking court approval to move to the next phase, which may include re-evaluating its assets like real estate, and its potential to "monetize" it to pay creditors.

It's all part of the insolvency proceeding, under the Companies' Creditors Arrangement Act (CCAA), that allows an organization to operate while dealing with its financial situation.

Laurentian is also working to end agreements with federated universities Thorneloe, Huntington and the University of Sudbury that it says will help it retain $7.7 million.

School researchers 'stepped up' in pandemic

McDonald, however, wondered whether the cuts being made at Laurentian are taking into account the importance of the graduate educational and research programs.

"They have on the order of $1.3 million per year in funding from the funding agencies. They have 15 graduate students for post-docs, typically 20 undergraduate students in the summer and a number of technicians, and they're strong participants in these major experiments at SNOLAB."

He also said research involving Laurentian personnel is especially important given pandemic restrictions that have made it difficult to travel to SNOLAB.

"They have stepped up and really worked very hard under this COVID situation."

McDonald believes SNOLAB will continue operating as a world-leading centre, saying it's "really thriving."

"Major international experiments are choosing to be sited there. It has the largest reduction in cosmic ray background of anywhere in the world, and it's the only laboratory that is fully clean conditions everywhere in the lab," he said.

"The world is choosing SNOLAB as the site of choice for a really growing field of particle astrophysics."

Intellectually and educationally, [Sudbury] has basically been cut off from attracting students, from having a substantial role academically in the experiments that are ongoing at SNOLAB.- Art McDonald, Nobel Prize in Physics winner

However, he's more concern about the impact on the city of Sudbury, which, "intellectually and educationally, has basically been cut off from attracting students, from having a substantial role academically in the experiments that are ongoing at SNOLAB." 

McDonald added that SNOLAB hasn't been a financial pressure on Laurentian.

"There are ways in which these programs pay their way. There are funds that have been put forward to do renovations at Laurentian to maintain facilities there that are of great value to these research programs carried out by the faculty," he said.

"In fact, one of the five faculty members' salaries was completely paid by the Canada First Research Excellence Fund, which a number of universities across the country participate in. So it's not as though it's entirely being supported by Laurentian and that this is therefore a major drain."

Will cutting the entire physics department at Laurentian affect what happens at the Nobel prize winning SNOlab in Sudbury. How will it affect the university? We heard Nobel prize laureate and former SNOlab director from Art McDonald. 8:09

With files from Markus Schwabe and Jan Lakes

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