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The long, winding road to 'eureka!' Add to ...

To be fair, however, the pressure to commercialize science isn't just a Canadian phenomenon, notes mathematical physicist Neil Turok, executive director of Perimeter Institute, a quantum physics think tank set up by Research in Motion co-founder Mike Lazaridis. Prof. Turok has seen even more direct pressure applied to British scientists in recent years. "The meter has moved."

What many governments seem to have forgotten, adds Pekka Sinervo, senior vice-president of research for the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research, is that developments in applied research are always built atop layers of non-commercial discoveries, instructive mistakes and scientific tangents.

From his perspective, Prof. McNaughton feels the problem stems from a lack of public understanding about the meandering nature of scientific inquiry. Without a foundation of basic knowledge, he says, the "pyramid falls over. When an advance occurs, no one ever tracks the history of how we got there."

During the 1940s, a German scientist named Peter Holtz began to experiment with the behaviour of a chemical relative of dopamine, known as L-dopa. Meanwhile, other scientists at Cambridge University in England were investigating the physiology of these substances and how they affected the brain.

Meanwhile, a young Swede named Arvid Carlsson enrolled in medical school, determined to go into research. He studied pharmacology and the way sedatives work. Later, as a postdoctoral student, Dr. Carlsson began probing the reasons why some compounds lower heart rate and blood pressure, drawing on other researchers' earlier insights gleaned about the physiological effects of dopamine.

Soon, he returned to the University of Lund, in Sweden, to set up his own lab. There, he decided to further push his results, eventually concluding that administering L-dopa to sedated rabbits could make the animals alert. That result, in turn, led him to investigate how dopamine behaved in brain tissue, especially those areas related to movement. In 1958, Dr. Carlsson and a colleague discovered that dopamine was a major neurotransmitter. Forty-two years later, Dr. Carlsson received the Nobel Prize for shedding new light on how the brain functions.

Scientists operate in a world dominated by experiments, collaborative projects and question marks. Every paper contains a conclusion, proposals for follow-up studies, and a streamer of citations. Researchers measure their own intellectual status in terms of the number of citations their papers garner. In this way, shards of knowledge are relentlessly cascading into the work of other researchers.

Indeed, the recombinant logic of scientific inquiry is inherently unpredictable, notes Prof. Sinervo, a University of Toronto physicist. "You don't know," he shrugs. "If you knew what the answer is, you wouldn't have to ask the question."

In his own field, Prof. Sinervo has secured grants worth $40-million for highly intricate, decade-long experiments on the nature of proton collisions. He jokes about "deferred gratification," but acknowledges a reality of his line of work. "In my lifetime, I don't anticipate that the knowledge that comes out of these questions will have immediate benefit to society."

He has, however, observed the strange magic of serendipity from close up. More than 20 years ago, physicists in his field needed ways to share documents because they were working in so many different places. To solve that mundane logistical problem, they designed network software that would one day become the World Wide Web.

After Dr. Carlsson made his dopamine discovery, scientists and graduate students in London, Japan and Montreal began to measure depressed dopamine levels in Parkinson's patients and animals. Some developed techniques for mapping the chemical's travels through the brain. In 1960, a clinical neurologist in Vienna decided to try injecting L-dopa into Parkinson's patients, with "dramatic but transient benefits in these patients, heralding the beginning of the era of L-dopa therapy," according to Stanley Fahn, of the Neurological Institute in New York.

The accumulation of all the knowledge that leads to significant breakthroughs will often take place in several countries, over many decades, and under the purview of public universities, government agencies and privately operated research labs.

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