The Lucky Few of Waterloo Part 2: Perimeter Institute Buys Culture
Efforts to understand the foundational issues of theoretical physics have been made by scientists over millennia. Human beings are naturally curious: we want to deeply understand nature.
With pioneering insights by Aristarchus and Archimedes, Copernicus and Kepler and, more recently, Dirac and Feynman, humans have made spectacular advances. The benefits of basic research investigations cascade into fundamental improvements for humans living on earth. Visionary investors, like the Duke of Braunschweig Charles William Ferdinand in the eighteenth century and Mike Lazaridis of today, have recognized the virtues of investing in basic research.
Unpredictable Societal Benefits of Basic Research Illustrated
The American Association of Universities has a trove of documents illustrating the societal benefits of basic research. A wide portfolio of scientific investments selected strategically via peer review by scientists produces unexpected benefits. Here are some examples, courtesy of the AAU:
Innovation and the Disrespect of Scientific Invention
“Innovation is the creation of better or more effective products, processes, technologies, or ideas that are accepted by markets, governments, and society. Innovation differs from invention in that innovation refers to the use of a new idea or method, whereas invention refers more directly to the creation of the idea or method itself.”
Dean Roger Martin of the Rotman School of Business, an iThinker pondering Canada’s innovation gap, writes in a recent op-ed piece that “The first lesson is that commercial success and impact is more about innovation than about invention.
Anticipating the Report of Canada's Expert R&D Panel
I was happy today to learn that Canada Post issued a stamp honoring my Toronto colleague and Nobel Laureate John Polanyi. The stamp is issued as part of the celebration of the International Year of Chemistry. This bit of good news tempered the alarming developments across the ocean where actions by the EPSRC appear to be destroying the scientific fabric of the UK. Here in Canada, despite an anomalous 2011 Discovery Grants competition for math/stats and recent news that some of my colleagues’ appeals were rejected, I hope to soon hear good news from the Expert R&D Panel which will hopefully reset Canada’s priorities and shore up support for basic research.
Troublesome Trends at NSERC
I was troubled to learn recently that:
1. NSERC awarded far fewer postdocs and grad student fellowships in 2011 vs. 2010.
The official statistics reveal that NSERC awarded less than half the number of PDFs in 2011 than were awarded in 2010. Master’s awards are down. Doctoral awards are down. NSERC communicated an official explanation in reply to N. Ghousshoub’s post on this news, but the numbers still trouble me.
Wisdom from Vannevar Bush on Science Research Policy
Timeless and timely extracts from Science: The Endless Frontier by Vannevar Bush:
Scientific Progress is Essential Advances in science when put to practical use mean more jobs, higher wages, shorter hours, more abundant crops, more leisure for recreation, for study, for learning how to live without the deadening drudgery which has been the burden of the common man for ages past. Advances in science will also bring higher standards of living, will lead to the prevention or cure of diseases, will promote conservation of our limited national resources, and will assure means of defense against aggression.
A New Dawn for Math and Stats in Canada
The recently released 2010 International Review of Mathematical Sciences for the UK has a timely quote for the Canadian statistical and mathematical communities to consider (see page 10): “A longstanding practice has been to divide the mathematical sciences into categories that are, by implication, close to disjoint. Two of the most common distinctions are drawn between ‘pure’ and ‘applied’ mathematics, and between ‘mathematics’ and ‘statistics’. These and other categories can be useful to convey real differences in style, culture and methodology, but, in the panel’s view, they have produced an increasingly negative effect when the mathematical sciences are considered in the overall context of science and engineering, by stressing divisions rather than unifying principles.
NSERC Peer Review System is Broken for Mathematics
Anomalous results of the 2011 NSERC Discovery Grants competition in mathematics have provoked a loss of confidence in the NSERC peer review system. To avoid a substantial loss of Canada’s scientific talent, which has been enhanced through the Canada Research Chairs program and other spectacular hiring over the past ten years, scientific policymakers need to quickly fix the broken peer review system. In the absence of an effective peer review process setting the strategy for research investment, Canada will miss out on the rewards made over the past decade’s recruitment of scientific talent.
The Lucky Few of Waterloo: Does the Perimeter Institute deserve $50M Times Two
There is chatter (here is more) suggesting that the $50M from the Conservative federal government (over 5 years) and the additional $50M (also over 5 years) from the Ontario Liberal Government to the Perimeter Institute is based more on politics than on scientific merit. These funding announcements emerge just a few weeks after the news that Neil Turok, Director of the Perimeter Institute, joined the Science, Technology and Innovation Council which advises the government on science policy.
Vannevar Bush: Inventor of Government Research Funding Strategy
Vannevar Bush was the inventor of government investment in research innovation. He was founder of the US National Science Foundation, founder of Raytheon, main organizer of the Manhattan Project which influenced Berkeley leading to Silicon Valley, etc. Here is a timely extract from his letter to President Roosevelt entitled Science: the endless frontier: Five Fundamentals
There are certain basic principles which must underlie the program of Government support for scientific research and education if such support is to be effective and if it is to avoid impairing the very things we seek to foster.