New coun­cil fo­cus ig­nores sci­ence’s role

The Lindsay Post - - COMMENT - David Suzuki

The fed­eral gov­ern­ment re­cently an­nounced a re­or­ga­ni­za­tion of the Na­tional Re­search Coun­cil to make it more “busi­ness-led” and in­dus­try-fo­cused. It ap­pears we’re com­ing full cir­cle to the early 1970s, when Sen. Mau­rice Lamon­tagne re­leased “A Sci­ence Pol­icy for Canada,” a re­port propos­ing Cana­dian sci­ence be di­rected to “mis­sion-ori­ented” work rather than “cu­rios­ity driven” re­search.

Since then, many politi­cians have en­cour­aged sup­port for sci­ence that serves mar­ket in­ter­ests. I be­lieve we should sup­port sci­ence be­cause cu­rios­ity and the abil­ity to ask and an­swer ques­tions are part of what makes our species unique and helps us find our way in the world. Still, ba­sic re­search aimed at spe­cific out­comes can lead to game- chang­ing ap­pli­ca­tions, from tran­sis­tors and pes­ti­cides to nu­clear bombs, peni­cillin and oral con­tra­cep­tives. But how do new ap­pli­ca­tions flow from sci­ence?

Many sci­en­tists sup­port a myth­i­cal no­tion of what makes sci­ence in­no­va­tive. To be “rel­e­vant”, they write grant ap­pli­ca­tions as if their work will lead to cures for can­cer, new en­ergy forms or salt-tol­er­ant plants, de­pend­ing on the pri­or­i­ties of fun­ders and gov­ern­ments. This cre­ates the il­lu­sion that sci­ence pro­ceeds from ex­per­i­ment A to B to C to so­lu­tion. But we re­ally have no idea what re­sults an ex­per­i­ment will pro­duce. If we did, there would be no point to the ex­per­i­ment.

It’s more likely that a sci­en­tist will do ex­per­i­ment A lead­ing to F then O, while an­other in a dif­fer­ent area will do ex­per­i­ment Z lead­ing to W then L. Maybe the two will meet at a con­fer­ence or even a pub and, in talk­ing about their re­spec­tive work, re­al­ize that re­sults O and L could lead to a new in­ven­tion!

In 1958, dur­ing my ge­net­ics stud­ies, we were as­signed to cri­tique pa­pers by corn ge­neti­cist Bar­bara McClin­tock. She painstak­ingly crossed corn plants, har­vest­ing two crops, first in In­di­ana then in Mex­ico. She dis­cov­ered an amaz­ing and mys­ti­fy­ing phe­nom­e­non: “jump­ing ” genes that moved from one chro­mo­some lo­ca­tion to an­other, sup­press­ing gene ac­tiv­ity wher­ever they landed. It de­fied every­thing we had learned. I sweated blood to make sense of her el­e­gant ex­per­i­ments, al­though we as­sumed the phe­nom­ena she stud­ied were pe­cu­liar to corn.

Decades later, sci­en­tists dis­cov­ered jump­ing genes in other or­gan­isms, in­clud­ing fruit flies, and found they were use­ful for study­ing their de­vel­op­ment. McClin­tock was be­lat­edly li­on­ized for her dis­cov­er­ies and ul­ti­mately awarded a No­bel Prize in 1983. If her re­search pro­pos­als had been as­sessed for rel­e­vance or po­ten­tial ap­pli­ca­tions, she wouldn’t have re­ceived fund­ing for her early, trail­blaz­ing work.

As a grad­u­ate stu­dent, I also stud­ied the ex­per­i­ments of mi­cro­bial ge­neti­cists Werner Ar­ber and Daniel Nathans, and bio­chemist Hamil­ton Smith, who were in­ves­ti­gat­ing an es­o­teric phe­nom­e­non: bac­te­ria that re­sisted in­fec­tion by viruses called bac­te­rio­phages ( mean­ing “eaters of bac­te­ria”). Like McClin­tock’s work, their ex­per­i­ments were el­e­gant, espe­cially when you con­sider they were work­ing with micro­organ­isms you can’t see the way you can ob­serve a corn plant or fruit fly.

It was as­ton­ish­ing. The bac­te­ria pro­duced en­zymes that cut DNA into pieces. They were called “re­stric­tion en­zymes” and acted by rec­og­niz­ing spe­cific se­quences within the DNA and cut­ting at that point. Var­i­ous bac­te­rial species evolved dis­tinct re­stric­tion en­zymes, cut­ting DNA at dif­fer­ent se­quences. When the orig­i­nal ex­per­i­ments were car­ried out, no one could have an­tic­i­pated that th­ese en­zymes would turn out to be crit­i­cal tools for ge­netic engi­neer­ing. It was just good sci­ence. And, like McClin­tock, the sci­en­tists were awarded a No­bel Prize for their work.

Canada’s con­tri­bu­tion to sci­ence is mi­nus­cule com­pared to coun­tries like the US, Bri­tain, Ger­many and even China. But if our top sci­en­tists are as good as any, they be­come our eyes and ears to cut­ting-edge sci­ence around the world, are in­vited to speak at top uni­ver­si­ties and in­sti­tutes and at­tend meet­ings where the lat­est ideas and dis­cov­er­ies are shared.

If we’re se­ri­ous about cre­at­ing part­ner­ships be­tween sci­ence and busi­ness, we have to sup­port the best sci­en­tists so they are com­pet­i­tive with any around the world. We also have to rec­og­nize that in­no­va­tion and dis­cov­er­ies don’t al­ways come from mar­ket­driven re­search. We should rec­og­nize truly in­ter­na­tion­ally ground­break­ing work to in­spire young peo­ple who will grow up know­ing they can be as good as sci­en­tists any­where. This takes com­mit­ment from gov­ern­ments, more gen­er­ous grants and long-term sup­port.

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