“The council should be restructured with an unfaltering focus on scientific excellence, or be replaced”

… And the government should then appoint Mike Lazaridis to lead it, I may add. But first he has to be appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire! You guessed it. This is not the kind of talk that you would hear in Canada. The title of this post originated in the UK, where the scientific community is up in arms against the new ways of the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), the principal source of funding for the physical sciences and mathematics. Other things are also different in the UK. Major media outlets there, such as The Guardian, The Telegraph and The BBC do care about what the descendants of Newton, Faraday, and Lord Kelvin have to say. Not in Canada.

But before I talk about “why Lazaridis?” allow me to reproduce this short and powerful letter to the British Prime Minister, signed by 88 British Scientists and published by the Telegraph.

“SIR – We support the ambition of David Willetts, the science minister, to make Britain “the best place in the world to do science”. However, this will remain beyond reach as long as the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), the principal source of funding for the physical sciences and mathematics, persists in making disastrous errors in its operations and in damaging scientific discovery in Britain.
The council’s pronouncements that research PhD students will no longer be funded through standard grants; that fellowships will only be open in areas chosen by unqualified EPSRC officials; that grant applicants must present an assessment of the “impact” of their work over 10 to 50 years, and that the EPSRC will decide without consulting researchers what level of support is available for every subject, are all seriously flawed. Taken together, they pose a serious threat to British science.
EPSRC has exceeded its remit so spectacularly that it has lost the confidence of a significant proportion of the scientific community. EPSRC must now be subject to scrutiny by Parliament and be held accountable. Appropriate action must be taken to ensure that such a situation cannot occur again. EPSRC should be restructured with an unfaltering focus on scientific excellence, or be replaced.”  

OK now, why Lazaridis? Because no one –including in the UK and the US– has better defended and supported the importance of basic research, while developing the most successful Canadian high tech company in a decade. Surely, “Research in Motion” is going through a rough time, but these problems have nothing to do with scientific vision. They are about marketing, competition, positioning, and … luck.  Plus, just think of the jobs, the billions of dollars and the intellectual property that RIM has generated for Canada. The man has already paid his dues to innovation, to commerce, to the economy, and to consumerism.

But most importantly, Lazaridis has another thing going for him. The man knows first hand the concept of a “research pipeline”. That  “if you don’t feed basic science into the front of the pipeline, the commercialisable stuff coming out of the end will quickly dry up”. He knows that his “Blackberry” and related products owe their existence and success to the breakthroughs of the mathematical physicists of the early twentieth century. Lazaridis gets it like no other. Listen to this:

Theoretical physics (the description of natural phenomena in mathematical form) may seem like knowledge for knowledge’s sake. It is anything but, as Mike Lazaridis tells it. The “next generation of value” will be intellectual capital, rather than natural resources, he says. When discoveries are made in theoretical physics, whether in Canada or elsewhere, “the country with the largest dedicated force to interpret, understand and disseminate that information will be the first to commercialize it.”

And because of that, he went about to create “The Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics”investing tons of his personal money into that institution. But this is not the only reason that Lazaridis is a hugely positive force for Canada’s research effort.

Remarkably, Lazaridis has managed to “sell” the concept of the importance of such an institution to the Government of Canada. Actually, he is the only one who has succeeded lately to introduce “Basic Research” into the government’s agenda. Simply compare the $278-million that the Perimeter Institute has so far received in federal and provincial funding to the pathetically stagnant budget of the Discovery Grants in the last 6 years.

And yes, it is important to be willing and able to make the case to government on behalf of Canada’s scientists. And yes, it is really too bad that Lazaridis sits no more on NSERC’s Council.

This entry was posted in Op-eds, R&D Policy and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to “The council should be restructured with an unfaltering focus on scientific excellence, or be replaced”

  1. Pingback: Shifting winds in the world of particle accelerators: the Fermilab « FrogHeart

  2. Peter Bell says:

    Another great post, thanks. It’s nice to see you give an example of ‘good’ commercialization, especially with an emphasis on fundamental research.

  3. Pingback: Finally, media and Parliament pick up on research funding crisis | Piece of Mind

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