Canadian Nobel Prize win highlights what’s lost in Harper science policy

It’s inspiring to see a Canadian and a Canadian experiment sharing the 2015 Nobel Prize in physics. This is significant international recognition of Canadian scientific excellence.

I studied the neutrino experiments in Canada and Japan in detail in undergrad physics courses (see this YouTube video for a fun explanation of neutrino oscillation using pies). It’s fascinating science. However, these are example of fundamental research with no obvious or immediate commercial application. Regrettably, our current government has implemented policies that limit this type of science in Canada.

Consider an illustrative example: the current President of Canada’s National Research Council, appointed by the Prime Minister, has stated that “scientific discovery is not valuable unless it has commercial value.” Yikes. I disagree. Commercialization of research and innovation is a good thing. But it shouldn’t come at the expense of basic research. Frequently, research grants now require industry partners. This makes it very difficult for many research streams which may not align with industry wishes. If you cut off fundamental “blue sky” research, you turn off the tap fuelling the technology-driven knowledge economy. It’s short sighted.

When lasers were first invented, they had no immediate applications. It took decades, but eventually their commercial value was immense. Even neutrino research is leading to new technology and ideas with the potential to help with border security (scanning cargo containers for nuclear material), and maybe even mining and communication.  It’s impossible to predict where research into the nature of the universe will go. But it’s worth pursuing.

The Liberals and the NDP both have significant elements in their platforms about supporting Canadian science. The Conservatives? They’ve been cutting research budgets, misunderstanding innovation, and firing scientists for a decade. I can’t find anything about science on their website. It’s time for their “subtle darkening of Canadian life” (as described in a recent NY Times article) to come to an end. It’s time for Canada to step back into the light, and vote for a government that values and supports science this election.

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