Ten steps to make Canada a leader in science

Rock-star physicist Lee Smolin writes a scientific to-do list for Justin Trudeau

Lee Smolin (Perimeter Institute)

Lee Smolin (Perimeter Institute)

Like many new Canadian citizens, I came here for an opportunity, but fell in love with the extraordinarily generous, open and diverse nation that is Canada. In my case the opportunity was to be part of founding a scientific institute, which we have built during the past 15 years into a world-leading centre for research in my field. Having previously been a professor at three American universities and a visiting professor at Imperial College London and in several European countries, I often ask myself what it takes for a country to become a leader in a science.

The key is that scientists are, as essayist Pico Iyer describes us, “global souls” who follow opportunities across the world. For us scientists, the most valued opportunity is one that gives us a launching pad from which we can aim high to contribute the breakthroughs and discoveries that increase human knowledge for the betterment of the world. This is partly a matter of resources but, as seen in several countries like Holland and Denmark, which consistently punch above their weight in science, it is even more a matter of culture and tradition. The cultures that succeed uphold the highest standards of excellence and rigour, while being friendly to ambition and risk, and welcoming to those who aim to do the extraordinary.

Canada has a good start in a great education system, leading to our many excellent universities, our forward-looking, educated population and our open and diverse spirit. Canada is already the home to many world-class scientists, and more have been coming recently. But we still have work to do, if, as still happens, the most promising Canadian, and Canadian-trained, scientists leave for better opportunities elsewhere. To succeed, Canada must do what is required not only to keep our best here, but to attract the best from around the world to make their home here.

No one could be more enthusiastic than I am about the new government and its clear embrace of science. But becoming a great scientific country involves more than unshackling our scientists, taking climate change seriously and adopting evidence-based decision-making. Canada has a chance to become a place where great scientific discoveries are made – an incubator of breakthroughs that revolutionize our understanding of nature.

To build on our strengths we can learn from success stories such as Art McDonald, our Nobel prize winner this year, who returned to Canada from a professorship at Princeton University to build the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory. There are other similar stories, such as Raymond Laflamme, who returned from a career in the United States when given the opportunity to join the Perimeter Institute and also lead the Institute for Quantum Computing, both of which are making Canada a leading destination internationally for the quantum sciences.

The easy advice is to increase our investment in pure science. By the standards of the United States and Europe, per capita, the budget for the National Science and Engineering Research Council of Canada is half what it should be. But even more important is how we focus available funding, which expresses our values, culture and expectations. Here are 10 lessons that, in my view, would make Canada a world leader.

1. Choose carefully.

Mainly invest in areas of pure science where there is a path to world leadership. This year’s Nobel prize shows that when we do this, we succeed big.

2. Aim for breakthroughs.

No “me-too” or catch-up science. Don’t hire the student of famous Prof. X at an elite American university just because of the proximity to greatness. Find our own path to great science by recruiting scientists who are forging their own paths to breakthroughs. Many discoveries are made on the boundaries between fields or by importing ideas or methods from one field to another. This creates opportunities for discoveries that the elite, well-established centres miss. Cultivate our own judgment and get ahead of the world by taking approaches that others won’t or can’t. To be the place where breakthroughs are made we have to have hired the scientists who will make those breakthroughs before they have succeeded—not afterwards, when everyone will want them. To do this we must cultivate the judgment to make savvy investments in people who have not yet done their best science.

3. Embrace risk.

Learn from business that it takes high risk to get high payoff. Don’t waste money doing low-risk, low-payoff science. Treat science like venture capital. Create high-risk venture capital funds in pure science, advised by venture capitalists, who understand risk better than university administrators. If even just one in 10 of these high-risk, high-payoff projects succeed, we will become known as a country where discoveries are made. We can afford to fund these new initiatives at the level of 20 per cent of our existing funding agencies.

4. Recruit and invest in young leaders-to-be.

Be savvy and proactive about choosing them. Resist supporting legacies and entitlements. Give incentives for established senior scientists to explore new directions rather than do more of the same of what was cutting-edge 20 years ago. Don’t waste money on people whose best work is behind them. Resist mutual admiration societies and empire builders.

5. Recruit internationally.

Remove the protectionist barriers to recruiting the best, most ambitious young scientists from around the world. Canada is an extremely attractive place in which to live and raise a family. Use this well and you can compete and hire people away from Princeton, Stanford, Cambridge, Munich, and so on. Use graduate fellowships and postdoctoral positions as recruitment tools to bring the most ambitious and best-educated young scientists to Canada to begin their research here, and then target the most promising of these by creating mechanisms to ensure that their best opportunities to build their careers going forward are here.

6. Resist incrementalism.

Given the chance, every department and research group will fight for the opportunity to grow by five per cent. But this rarely makes a difference. If you spread new money around widely, little new science gets done. Instead, double-down on strategic fields of research where the progress is clear and Canada can have an impact. And invest in new fields—not just new for Canada, but new for the world. Then put the money into fostering and attracting the best talent who have ambitious, risky ideas of the magnitude that will advance the science and even found new fields, if they succeed. Most of all, put new money into centres and institutes that can focus wholly on doing great science.

7. Empower ambitious, risk-taking young scientists.

Give them independence and the resources they need to develop their own ideas and directions. Postdocs are young leaders with their own ideas and research programs; the same age as young business leaders who start companies. Support them by expanding programs like individual postdoctoral fellowships and the Banting Fellowships. Expand awards for beginning faculty members to enable them to quickly start up their research programs.

8. Embrace diversity.

Target women and visible minorities. In 14 years here I’ve mentored brilliant women and people from diverse cultures and countries, but I’ve not met one indigenous physicist or student of physics. This must change. Let us build a Canadian scientific community that looks like Canada.

9. Speak the truth.

Allow no proxies for success, no partial credit for “progress” that leaves unsolved problems unsolved. Don’t count publications or citations, count discoveries that have increased our knowledge about nature. We do research because we don’t know the answer; don’t force us to write grant proposals in which we have to pretend we do. Failure is a necessary consequence of risk, and should be part of an honest scientist’s reporting. Genuine progress requires risk and is hard-won and undeniable. Reward risk-taking and accept the honest reporting of failure, then allow funds for the risk-takers to abandon failed attempts and initiate new directions.

10. Consider the way funding agencies do business.

We scientists know that panels can discourage risk-taking, encourage me-too and catch-up science, and reinforce longstanding entitlements and legacies. Such a system may incentivize low-risk, incremental work and limit the kind of out-of-the-box ideas that, in the hands of someone well educated and highly skilled, leads to real breakthroughs. It is not the fault of the program managers, many of whom understand the need to support transformational science, and would do so had they the budgets and mandate to do so. Rather, the squelching of innovation can be an unintended consequence of structures intended to ensure excellence. But, the success foundations such as FQXi, MacArthur and Templeton have had in funding high risk research show that it is possible to design competitions that select audacious, ambitious projects over the run of the mill, while upholding high standards. So create ambitious programs, empower the program officers to pick out and incubate the brightest and most ambitious risk-takers, and reward them when the scientists they invest in make real discoveries.

Lee Smolin is a founding faculty member at Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics, an adjunct professor of physics at the University of Waterloo, and a member of the Royal Society of Canada.

Related reading: Art McDonald on how to win a Nobel Prize 



Ten steps to make Canada a leader in science

  1. The good professor was on the right track until he got to this point,

    “Embrace diversity.
    Target women and visible minorities. In 14 years here I’ve mentored brilliant women and people from diverse cultures and countries, but I’ve not met one indigenous physicist or student of physics. This must change. Let us build a Canadian scientific community that looks like Canada.”

    Forget diversity….target brilliance; wherever it comes from. If you haven’t met a single aboriginal physicist, it isn’t because we lack diversity….it is because we currently lack an aboriginal candidate with those capabiliities. Give it time………Don’t just fill the spot because he or she satisfies the need for the “tick in the box”.

    Right now, Canada remains largely a joke in science. We spend too much money on useless junk “science” (women or gender studies, Climate change..etc..etc) and not enough on real science such as physics, biologiy, chemistry, and math.

  2. My retool to wind turbines might’ve worked. It might not have. Mass market is at odds with innovation. If I had to lobby over again I’d lobby for retool to @home electricity generation and storage. To fight pandemics. We don’t want cutting edge science. We want cutting edge solutions. Not diamond computers leading to AI, but the best computer substrates that stop short of the end of the world. Not the best bioscience, but the best bioscience that mitigates pandemics yet leaves longevity gains reasonably accessible. They said a coating on cholesterol-ridden blood vessels should scrub away the plaque yet at the same time, I suppose drill down, to rebuild damaged vessels.
    I need a Crown that can accept dual use biosensors to be held in reserve, to aid in slowing down the spread and decontaminating, a pandemic. Those who post new pathogen phenotypes should be arrested and sent to NWT. And the posts deleted. I need a resilient @home power generation economy (100% @home in a decade) as well as cell phone communcations, food production for 1-2 years, water, all resilient. CSIS should be able to prevent the world from making WMDs without themselves learning what the WMDs are as a technical blueprint.
    Can we run PR on CSIS’s activities safely? Study the terrorist and the IA without revealing the blueprint? This requires PR, but not enough to cause AI, or be a terrorist, or create a tyranny.
    I suggest figuring out the order of operations to a utopia, and then mass produce it. And hope others will copy. When sensors and algorithms and computers become WMDs, we need to be smarter and more utilitarian. They suggested focusing on making sure key personnel aren’t mentally ill. But we can do better. We can ensure the world is virtue-based utilitarian. We can then remake the world into a utopia. The 2nd time around the plague was 30% stopped because biosensors mitigated the spread. This 3rd time, let’s get it right; they wish us good luck this iteration!

    • I’m reading “The Knowledge”, and the restart plan seems to be missing technology. If a civilization rebuild plan is needing something that can be invented in 5-10 years, the book is lacking. Obviously it is missing how to prevent a nuclear war, but it is lacking some very basic things like how to purify water or even collect water. Mud to stave off mosquitoes is more important than making more clothes.
      I think what future stimuli should include, if they don’t already go for electric cars, are car alternators that are purposely built for such survivalist situations. It wouldn’t take much to retool such. And my friend says simply inventing wheat that grows fast when watered, is a huge innovation. And encyclopedias, especially engineering encyclopedias, that don’t corrode, are huge. I’ll be crowd sourcing silver encyclopedias.
      I would guess inventing civil defense products that are makeable from thermoplastics are a good hedge. We can remelt them, but not thermosets.

      • They are still dead serious about wiping out migrating birds, at least for 40 or so years until their immune systems are GMOed to die upon infection.
        They like more durable alternators, and @home wind turbines, and batteries. For @home solar the alternators aren’t needed.
        They like my future biosensors for decontamination even without a vaccine. The biosensors can be the surface of a spider robot that is electro-active. When one pathogen molecule is detected, the air of a building can be filtered. Pumps are activated in each building. The buildings are ranked before hand. HEPA filters are buttressed with an antimicrobial components. Alternate sewer drains are cut into the basements/sewers equipped with disinfecting infrastructures. The piping is determined to be air tight beforehand. I assume robots will replace the air filters. Air travel is bad; is why Bombardier isn’t an ethical company with airplanes. Everyone can have fast growing wheat @home.

        • …They’ve suggested some of climate change mitigation is about finding other uses for fossil fuels. Diamond biosensors. Also, giant avian enclosures. 100km x 900km and as tall as the former Twin Towers. Made with a material that hasn’t been invented and \I assume is mostly a polymer. The nesting sites would be controlled in the senses that young birds would be immunized for bird flu by robots. Same with the adults. The odd one that escapes immunization and the odd human interaction is probably not a threat. The estimate was 12.5% is the new world migratory bird population in the 30 year window it takes to kill off birds and then bioenegineer new birds that die very shortly after infection.
          Becase we didn’t listen to W (or S.Colbert) about the dangers of biotechnology-synthetic biology, a designer pandemic is likely in 30 years. In 45 years, these principles will be implemented in all surviving world-lines (it seems a designer pandemic is guaranteed). At that time, the odds of a pandemic that wipes out every human being are 85% higher than without wild migrating birds. Decontamination is impossible; from what I know all of N.America is a flight path and most of Eastern Asia is. In 55 years, the odds of a 100% lethal pandemic increase astronomically with migrating birds still alive.
          Building pumps that active to filter air are somehow able to capture viruses using a new type of one way material. Classified gvmt contractors are going to be needed to purchase these biosensors that can be used for decontamination as well as stopping the spread. The biosensors themselves are potentially WMDs, but after a pandemic is already begun…
          a disease without a treatment necessitates having them in the arsenal.
          They would like to visit after we figure out how not to destroy ourselves.

          • I’ve figured out some medical testing/sensor innovations. Generally, the cost pyramid for a disease with a mature cure/treatment cost base, increases from: symptomology reporting (and the known science of the disease), cheap tests, good tests, and the treatment/cure. Technology is making cheap tests even cheaper, and I suppose IT can make the 1st database of science cheaper to collect. Where I got help was in the point that a false negative prevents early detection.
            For a dynamic treatment science, it isn’t a pyramid at all. The cost shape I draw is a WTC rectangle all the way down. Here, mass production (perhaps market forces) can be used to make one or more aspects of the cost curve cheaper, and this can lead to an efficient pyramid cost curve. New microfluidic and genetics test can be subsidized and this should lead to a better database of disease science (turning the disease science and symptomology into an apex small cost of reading a medical database or text or calling your doctor expert friend or whatever), and stimulate demand for a better test with fewer false negatives. For the colo-rectal cancer home diagnostic test example that the FDA approved in 2014 but doesn’t recommend as the standard diagnostic tool, the treatment is presently mature, so only the middle of the pyramid is affected. There is a better more expensive test with fewer false negatives.
            Mental illness are nearly all with dynamic treatment sciences and costs. Nearly anything that leads to a better science can have the effect of forming an efficient cost pyramid. Wearable EEG sensors for example, if the data were collected and pooled, is the same as a diagnostic test, if only one with high false positives. So these sorts of @home tests can be subsidized as can data collection, and this should stimulate other parts of the pyramid to be, to form via “inertia”, an efficient cost curve. You need a minimum value of false positives for the test/sensor-data to have any value though. They’ve sketched out a chain of command that depowers temporarily, personnel who are temporarily angry, drunk, drugged, crazy…it is about 2/3 of the way to a chain of command utopia (still need better education and life experiences to not misuse WMDs). So a mture mental illness diagnosis and well as a good treatment, has even more value. They suggest even a cheap sensor is enough to make the system work. In summary, normally a disease only cost the lives of the people afflicted. But with mental illness, and a utopic chain of command and weighted referendums on the C-of-C, the disease might cost all humanity. So there is an incentive to subsidize mental illness sensors and treatments, especially the new cheaper ones. They want to have the military and engineering subject to mental illness sensors that function like biometric controls. The military is RW but mostly sane. Engineering presently potentially not sane at all (consider the Japanese and Oregon cults)…for mental illnesses it is critical to get false negatives tests that are near zero.

  3. “the success foundations such as FQXi, MacArthur and Templeton have had in funding high risk research”

    In what sense have they been successful? Yes, they have succeeded in giving money away; but are there any examples of “high risk research” that they funded, which actually discovered something?

  4. Right now there isn’t AI lurking in the MWG. But that could changed instantly, if in the future they communicate FTL to a past AI. They use a tachyon neutrino quantumly entangled with a normal one, to get co-ordinates (I think). Then they do the same thing for perhaps baryons. Even if we weren’t at risk to make AI, they would still bug us right around now. Much of the work in the future is to look for AI without making the galaxies look unnatural. That is what they want us to do. We need a GUT.