Shining a light on basic science


Image: Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press Gary Goodyear, federal minister of state for science and technology, responds to questions as National Research Council of Canada president John McDougall (left) and Senator Claude Carignan look on during a news conference in Ottawa.

Image: Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press
Gary Goodyear, federal minister of state for science and technology, responds to questions as National Research Council of Canada president John McDougall (left) and Senator Claude Carignan look on during a news conference in Ottawa.

This article appeared in the Guelph Mercury in 2013.

The pronouncement Tuesday from Gary Goodyear, the minister of state for science and technology, about the National Research Council has left scientists across Canada — normally a mild-mannered and rather placid bunch — sputtering with disbelief and even anger.

The National Research Council is no longer a place for fundamental science, we’re told. It is a place for “commercially viable” science. It is now a servant of Canadian industry. Canadian industry will create wish lists and its minions at the research council — paid on the taxpayers’ dime — will do their best to fulfil them.

Research and development is a risky business, because a good idea isn’t necessarily always a profitable one. Stephen Harper’s Conservative government has a solution. Instead of incentivizing industry to do their own research and development, let’s just have the government-funded National Research Council do it for them. It’s quintessentially Canadian. Socialize the risk. Privatize the profit.

Goodyear, the MP for Cambridge, was all gregarious and well-intentioned this week, with a message spun sweet as cotton candy. What could possibly be wrong with an initiative to make the research council useful, even profitable?

The problem is, Goodyear isn’t a scientist, and if this new policy is any indicator, he genuinely and truly doesn’t understand how science works.

First, let me tell you how science doesn’t work.

A laser eye surgeon did not at any point in history sidle up to a mad scientist and say, “Hey, I need a non-invasive tool to make extremely fine incisions. Can you invent me some kind of gizmo for that? Maybe a laser. Yeah, invent the laser. Here, have some money.”

Innovation does not ever happen like this, except maybe in Hollywood and in Goodyear’s brain.

Let me tell you how the laser did happen. In 1905, Albert Einstein, following Max Planck, established the theoretical foundations for it. In 1954, Charles Townes and his team at the University of California, Berkeley created a primitive version of the laser, but using microwave radiation rather than visible light. In 1957, Townes worked with Arthur Schawlow at Bell Labs — the research and development wing of AT&T, a for-profit company — to study the infrared laser.

That’s a long, dull, flat story, isn’t it? Such is the nature of science. We make incremental, boring-looking steps toward understanding, and every few years one of us cries Eureka! It’s tedious work, and people like Goodyear sneer at you and call you useless — until Lasik MD steps in and makes millions off the invention.

The scientists who invented the laser did not make any millions at all. Yes, scientists like money. But most of them prefer freedom.

Canadian industry never clamoured for a laser. From the dawn of time until the first laser bar code scanner in 1974, not a single captain of industry on the planet had ever scratched his head and said, “Crikey! You know what would solve this pressing problem in shipbuilding/grocery buying/medicine/pig farming? A giant beam of perfectly coherent light. Canadian government, create one for me.

“Oh … and you’re buying.”

No, the only driving force for the laser’s invention was insatiable human curiosity, a desperate urge to know the answer to the question: “What is light? I know how it behaves, but really, what is light?”

I can state with absolute confidence that under Goodyear’s scheme, the laser could never have been invented. It was too useless at its conception. It was too novel. It was too much of an unknown, it was at the very frontiers of human understanding.

At today’s National Research Council, the scenario would go something like this. An eye surgeon would announce a need for a finer incision tool. Goodyear would bid the research council to create one. Five of the six scientists at the agency would effectively propose a pencil sharpener. The sixth would be squirrelled away in his lab, thinking about the nature of light. Six months later, he would be fired.

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