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John Polanyi is a professor and Nobel laureate in the Department of Chemistry at the University of Toronto. His research group’s recent studies of molecular motions in chemical reaction are illustrated in a newly issued Canadian postage stamp marking the International Year of Chemistry.
John Polanyi is a professor and Nobel laureate in the Department of Chemistry at the University of Toronto. His research group’s recent studies of molecular motions in chemical reaction are illustrated in a newly issued Canadian postage stamp marking the International Year of Chemistry.

JOHN POLANYI

Why our scientific discoveries need to surprise us Add to ...

In common with other scientific explorers, chemists need the freedom to be opportunistic. Discoveries that are anticipated are seldom the most valuable. This has implications for public policy in regard to the science conducted in our universities. It’s the scientist free to pilot his vessel across hidden shoals into open seas who gives the best value.

What chemists do is figure out why some atoms attract, and others don’t. The subject extends from biology to geology, from the living to the dead. Of course, none can roam so far. We move a few tentative ant footsteps from where our teachers left us. After that, we seek help from one another.

Communication in science depends on questioning the best people, and getting answers. This is as vital as getting your calls returned in the wider world. And that depends entirely on who’s calling. No organizing power can ensure it.

This personal element is why communication, collaboration and the formation of teams is best left to the initiative of the scientist. Governments hamper scientific progress when they try to manage university science, rather than facilitate the exploitation of discoveries once made.

It’s odd that governments – which, for good reason, hesitate to manage the traffic in goods – try to plan the traffic in ideas. The fault lies with scientists who’ve failed to explain what they do.

Communication, on which their enterprise depends, is an art. What’s being communicated is seldom “fact”; it’s informed opinion. That’s why it requires the skill of the scientist, operating in a self-governing society.

The society of scientists, more complex than that of ants, balances the need for freedom against order. Freedom is vital, so imagination can take flight. But to avoid chaos, scientists subject themselves to rules. These rules are uncodified, and enforced without police.

Publication is censored by scientific juries, to protect the community from ill-founded reports. Such censorship is hazardous, hence subject to constant scrutiny by the scientific community. The objective is to flag what’s important, set aside what’s pedestrian, and abjure what’s fraudulent. That’s a tall order, but the health of science depends on it.

Yet, in many countries, public policy encroaches on this system. And this encroachment does damage, since it’s based on a paradox.

Knowing that scientific talent is unevenly distributed, we require the scientific community to identify those whose work shows excellence. These best are the rare commodity we seek. Then, paradoxically, governments do an about-face, treating excellence as abundant and selecting those deemed to be the most “relevant.”

But how good are we, scientists or non-scientists, at extrapolating from unmade scientific discoveries to desired technologies? Not good at all. The reason we fail is that it’s in the nature of discovery to surprise, and in the nature of bureaucracy to oppose surprise. What’s a “plan” if it’s not to diminish the element of surprise? Nonetheless, we prescribe the dubious medicine of relevance in increasing doses.

If we should come to the conclusion that this management of university science is not making our industries more innovative, what should we do? Increase the required dose of “relevance”? That’s what’s being done in many countries. As a result, their fundamental science suffers from shrinking horizons.

There’s an opportunity here for Canada. Demand that our university scientists make the biggest possible discoveries at the least possible cost, in the shortest possible time. Require that they surprise us, recognizing that there’s nothing to beat the most innovative science for the highest degree of relevance.

John Polanyi is a professor and Nobel laureate in the Department of Chemistry at the University of Toronto. His research group’s recent studies of molecular motions in chemical reaction are illustrated in a newly issued Canadian postage stamp marking the International Year of Chemistry.

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