Indira V. Samarasekera is president and vice-chancellor of the University of Alberta.
It's been 20 years since a scientist working in Canada has been awarded a Nobel Prize in science. Bertram Brockhouse received the Nobel Prize in physics in 1994, Michael Smith in chemistry in 1993, and John Polanyi in chemistry in 1986.
Nobel Prizes are the most recognizable symbols of scientific excellence. Does this long drought suggest that Canada is losing global competitiveness at the frontiers of science?
The answer is far from clear. First of all, Canada has many outstanding researchers, some of whom are definite Nobel contenders. Canadian science and engineering research leads to many societal benefits: new therapeutics, advances in environmental protection, breakthroughs in information and nano-technologies and so on. We punch above our weight in terms of total number of publications and citations, and our government investment in publicly funded research remains among the highest among OECD countries.
Still, when it comes to the highest forms of recognition, such as Nobel Prizes, the Fields Medal in mathematics, the Canada Gairdner International Awards and the Wolf Prize, our record is hardly stellar.
What can Canada do to raise our standing in global scientific excellence? The words of Nobel laureate Harold Varmus are worth recounting. In The Art and Politics of Science, he wrote: "Science is an inherently paradoxical activity. Nearly all great ideas come from individual minds … But validation and acceptance of new information requires communication, convening and consensus building – activities that involve community."
How can we navigate our way through this paradox? Individuals who make remarkable breakthroughs share some key characteristics: fiercely independent minds, relentless focus and passion. Their work is often first rejected by their peers, as was the case for Dr. Smith. The paper that earned him the Nobel Prize was originally turned down on the grounds that it was of no general interest.
We must ask ourselves tough questions about whether practices in the academy are optimal for developing great ideas and nurturing bright minds. Does our peer-review system achieve the right balance between recognizing established work and rewarding risk-taking and unconventional approaches? Are we rewarding both individual and team-based disciplinary and interdisciplinary research? Has the pendulum swung too far from discovery and basic research toward shorter-term, use-driven approaches? Should we as a country step up investments in outstanding high-risk research?
At the same time, we cannot forget Dr. Varmus's observation that scientific recognition requires community. Canada should not underestimate the global scientific community's role in providing validation of our scientists' contribution. Global reputation is not built on publications, conferences, patents or new technologies alone. Communicating, convening and consensus building should also be important national strategic goals.
The initiative to enhance global recognition for Canadian research excellence, spearheaded by Howard Alper and Governor-General David Johnston, is a visionary effort. By identifying and co-ordinating nominations of meritorious candidates for international research awards, Canada can garner greater recognition for its best researchers and raise awareness of Canadian scientific excellence.
There are other activities that can build global recognition and enhance the careers of young academics. Many Israeli universities require young researchers to use sabbaticals to work with top scientists around the world. While correlation is not causation, it is worth noting that four scientists working at Israeli universities have received Nobel Prizes in the past decade.
In Canada, we should do more to help identify and facilitate such opportunities for our young researchers. Dr. Smith held a postdoctoral fellowship with Gorbind Khorana, a brilliant chemist who had won a Nobel Prize of his own. Dr. Smith also spent a sabbatical with Cambridge's Fred Sanger, a two-time Nobel laureate.
Research has grown increasingly international and interdisciplinary in scope and scale. As a country, Canada must step up and fund participation in large-scale scientific endeavours to ensure we claim a seat at the frontier.
Our researchers must be supported to develop international partnerships of scale. Imagine what could result if we established a "Grand Opportunities Program" or "International Empowerment Fund"? More Canadian researchers would be present as leaders on the world stage, contributing to leading-edge thinking at important scientific gatherings and achieving global excellence.
The end goal is not recognition in itself but creation of a culture where research and discovery are championed for their societal benefits in the long term.
Let us make the kinds of investments Arthur C. Clarke had in mind when he asked us to imagine a space ship travelling at high speed to a distant star, which with today's technologies would take centuries to reach its destination. Our grandchildren's space ship, launched in the same direction, may overtake ours – but only because we invested in the knowledge needed to launch ours first.