When he was a graduate student at Caltech, taking courses from Richard Feynman and Rudolf Mossbauer, Art McDonald could hardly have imagined that, just like those titans of 20th-century physics, he would one day have a Nobel Prize to call his own.
"Not in my fondest dreams did I think I could conceivably be going to Stockholm myself," said the Queen's University professor emeritus.
Forty-five years later, and a decade and a half since his team at the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory solved a fundamental puzzle in particle physics, Dr. McDonald indeed finds himself in Stockholm. On Thursday, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences is set to award him a share of this year's Nobel Prize in physics, marking the culmination of a distinguished career.
For Canada, such a win is rare, but an Own-the-Podium-style initiative organized through the Governor-General's office has sprung up to ensure that more Canadian scientists can follow in Dr. McDonald's footsteps.
While a handful of U.S.-based researchers with roots in Canada have won Nobel Prizes in recent years, Dr. McDonald will become the first Nobel laureate since 1994 to be recognized for scientific research that was substantially funded by and performed in this country. That makes his win well worth celebrating, but it also underscores how uncommon it is for a Canadian scientist to receive a nomination for a Nobel. Dr. McDonald was almost certainly nominated from abroad.
In his case, the neutrino experiment he led, though situated in Ontario, was international, and its results were well publicized outside of Canada. Most Canadian scientists face a much steeper challenge gaining recognition for their work from international prize committees.
Canada's effort to change that began more than two years ago, prompted by a report from the government's Science, Technology and Innovation Council that found Canadian researchers win a smaller share of international science prizes than they might be expected to based on the quality and impact of their work.
There are a few reasons for this, said Howard Alper, former chair of the council who now spearheads the effort. First, Canadian universities and research institutions have typically not been as assertive as those in some other countries when it comes to nominating their top researchers for a range of international prizes. Second, there is a tendency to hold back on promoting homegrown science until it's widely recognized outside of Canada.
"Going from that perspective to a well-oiled machine that nominates scientists on an ongoing basis takes time and energy," Dr. Alper said.
History suggests that is precisely what is needed merely to ensure Canadian researchers are fairly recognized for the important contributions they have made. For example, analyses based on citations in scientific journals – the primary way scientists acknowledge and build on one another's work – show that only about a quarter of the researchers who have made discoveries of Nobel calibre will win one of the coveted prizes that are handed out during the course of a professional lifetime. This means additional factors, such as the prestige of the nominator and how persuasive a case is made on the nominee's behalf, can play a huge role in determining who is considered for top-tier international science prizes.
And the problem perpetuates over generations. Since prize-winners can nominate, a shortfall of Canadian winners means there are fewer scientists of distinction who can champion younger colleagues at Canadian institutions.
"Countries have to build up a strength of scientific credibility so that it becomes not such an onerous process to assure that credit is given to the most deserving," said John Bergeron, a senior medical researcher at McGill University.
To achieve that credibility, the committee reporting to the Governor-General has adopted a two-pronged approach. One prong is a talent search with the goal to canvass Canada's research community to make sure scientists of high merit are not overlooked. The second is an effort to improve the quality of nominations by having them prescreened by international referees before those nominations are sent in.
While more low-key than Own the Podium, the effort to boost Canada's medal performance at the Olympics, the Governor-General's committee could eventually mean fewer Canadian scientists are overlooked for top prizes. Committee members say it's too early to say whether the strategy is working, but things have been looking up for Canada on the prize front. Last year, Nahum Sonenberg of McGill University won the prestigious Wolf Prize in medicine, considered a good sign of a possible future Nobel. And University of Toronto mathematician James Arthur won the Wolf Prize in mathematics this year.
Shana Kelley, a biochemist who came to the University of Toronto from the U.S. and has been involved in the committee's canvassing drive, said Canada needs to do more to raise the profile of its scientists internationally.
"It's absolutely amazing the people we have and the discoveries that are being made," she said. "Yet before I came here I really didn't have places like Toronto and Vancouver on my radar. No good reason. Just lack of awareness."