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John Polanyi
John Polanyi

John Polanyi

Separating science from innovation: An important task Add to ...

John Polanyi is a Nobel laureate at the University of Toronto who has written extensively on science policy.

It is uncommon today to hear universities accused of being ivory towers. But it remains true that they have a special function, and that function, the pursuit of knowledge, needs protecting. Since that is an investment in the long-term, it differs from the quotidian.

That does not mean that universities are free from scrutiny. Academics, world-wide, judge their peers. The most respected judges are in high demand. One reason we need high quality scholarship, is to claim the attention of those judges. The criteria they use are real. Fundamentally, they look for changes in the way we see the world.

When, a century ago, Sweden found itself charged by Nobel with a job of selection, the country was aghast. Their Royal family attempted to reject the prize. Then it dawned on them that they had been presented with a historic opportunity.

We have been slow to take that point. But hopes are higher since the federal government established a distinguished advisory committee on Fundamental Science.

There was a time when we spoke of ‘pure science’. As a beginning academic I was asked to outline a project in pure science, and was awarded a few thousand dollars by the National Research Council in Ottawa. I was told to make a discovery at the University of Toronto, on the basis of my proposal.

A short time later I had a better idea, and asked NRC if they minded my switching topic. “None of our business”, they replied. In future, they added, I should bear in mind that the responsibility for guiding my research was mine.

I did not need telling that I would be required to report progress. The responsibility for that progress, too, would be mine. If it was unsatisfactory, I was finished.

This seemed right. What, after all, was the alternative? NRC was not in a position to direct my research. The selection of the questions to ask is the most important decision a scholar makes. No sensible nation attempts to make that decision for its fundamental scientists. The Fundamental Science Review should agree with that.

Why then do we need the Review? Because our best research universities still fall short of the world’s best. This has to do with successive governments’ reluctance to support fundamental science, widely seen as a political liability. Who among the public will recognize its worth, they ask. This underestimates the public. Nonetheless pure research has been dropped and fundamental science largely concealed behind the more presentable façade of ‘innovation’.

These two activities, science and innovation, are linked. New ways of thinking precede new ways of doing. Canada needs to be committed to both activities, but should not smuggle one under the guise of the other. We need the Review to come clean with the public.

Then we need it to adjust government priorities so that Fundamental Science is accorded its proper share of the resources devoted to science and innovation. But to achieve this we need to make it clear that the two activities differ, and so have differing needs for success. The fundamental scientist’s job is to seek patterns in nature; the innovator’s to shape knowledge so that it fills societal needs.

Both pursuits make high demands. But even the best individual cannot operate simultaneously at the cutting edge of both. Nonetheless, we increasingly demand of our scientists that they do precisely that, by offering the fundamental scientist support on condition that the work can be seen to benefit the applied sector.

This is government’s solution to the problem of having one’s cake, and eating it too. The consequence is indigestion.

The fundamental scientist loses the freedom to make discoveries, and the innovator is unable to focus on the market place. That seems like a good time to have a Fundamental Science Review.

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