The theory is complicated, the equipment is expensive, the location is offshore and the payoff – if there is one – could be a decade away. But as federal Science Minister Kirsty Duncan prepared to announce $10-million in funding to help retool the Large Hadron Collider near Geneva, Switzerland, she was happy to justify the commitment.
“It’s going to allow our researchers, our best and brightest, to work with their counterparts around the world,” Ms. Duncan told The Globe and Mail in an interview before Monday’s announcement. “This is asking the big questions about the universe.”
More technically, the funding will enable Canada to build and contribute new superconducting cryogenic units to the giant collider, where particles are smashed together at higher energies than anywhere on Earth. When the Canadian hardware is installed, it will help researchers manipulate the collider’s particle beams in new ways that will increase the number of collisions and therefore increase the flow of data from the international physics facility.
Although the money for the project was committed prior to this year’s federal budget, Ms. Duncan did not waste the opportunity to geek out about the science.
“I am really jazzed about this,” she said.
Now 2½ years into the job, Ms. Duncan has become chief standard bearer for the Trudeau government’s efforts to be seen as supportive of research and evidence-based policy making.
She has championed the hiring of more women in research roles, appointed a chief science adviser and set the stage for a multifaceted overhaul boosted by an increase in the federal science budget.
But the coming year could prove the biggest challenge yet for Ms. Duncan, as she works to implement the changes that the budget has promised and tries to keep science on the radar, even as the political agenda shifts to trade relations with the United States and other issues ahead of the next federal election.
Many of the tasks she faces now are less visible than those that initially topped her agenda, such as the government’s 2015 directive to unmuzzle federal scientists. But they are also more demanding on the policy side and more likely to cause grumbling in the research community in cases where a change in funding strategy may produce losers as well as winners.
One such change could be in the way Ottawa supports third-party research organizations, which are entities that tend to be focused on a specific research domain, such as quantum computing or regenerative medicine. The budget promised a new look at how money is allocated for such entities. It is a potentially sticky question that Ms. Duncan said she would not weigh in on until later this year.
Another panel-recommended effort that she is more prepared to talk about is a $275-million allocation over five years for what the budget calls “international, fast-breaking and high-risk science.” Ms. Duncan said she will be meeting with university administrators and other stakeholders over the summer to discuss how the new funding stream should be set up to enable Canadian scientists to respond quickly to new discoveries or global emergencies.
Gilles Patry, executive director of the U15 group of research-intensive universities across Canada, said that his organization has recommended that a portion of the funding be set aside to create international research centres in Canada, where scientists can collaborate with global partners.
“It’s a way to ensure that Canada is seen as a magnet for talent,” Dr. Patry said.
Ms. Duncan said that the appointment of Mona Nemer, a former vice-president of research at the University of Ottawa, as chief science adviser has accelerated a shift toward science within the federal bureaucracy.
“Where there was hesitance we’re now seeing a real change,” she said.
The additional support for her agenda comes just as Ms. Duncan finds herself dividing her time between her role as Science Minister and, since January, as Minister of Sport and Persons with Disabilities. She said the new role does not mean Canadian science is getting less of her attention, though she says it has lengthened her workday.
It’s hard to imagine that will change ahead of the next election, less than 18 months from now.
Katie Gibbs, executive director of Evidence for Democracy, a watchdog group that advocates for science within government, said that while the current government has a better track record on science than the last one, Ms. Duncan will need to maintain her momentum to make sure the policy changes she has initiated see fruition.
“None of the boxes are fully checked,” Dr. Gibbs said. “There’s been a lot of progress, but there’s a long way to go before the finish line.”