No small matter

The answers to fundamental questions about our world come from some of mankind’s most sophisticated technologies. This makes basic science a veritable treasure chest of opportunity for innovation.
November 15, 2015

Dr. Arthur McDonald’s 2015 Nobel Prize in Physics, awarded for his fundamental discovery that changes how we understand matter and the universe, is a great accomplishment in Canadian science. Dr. McDonald’s work and the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory (SNO) in Sudbury, Ont., the research facility where he made his prize-winning discoveries, also provide a clear example of the interplay between basic and applied research, or more to the point, evidence that there is a vital continuum connecting the two.

Like all new knowledge, Dr. McDonald’s discovery that subatomic particles called neutrinos have mass and can change identities could give rise to extraordinary new innovations in the same way that understanding the nature of electromagnetism led to the development of modern telecommunications. But beyond the inherent power of knowledge, science that seeks solely to illuminate a yet-unknown part of the universe we inhabit — the kind of science Dr. McDonald pursued when he set out to learn what was happening to neutrinos coming from the sun — often gives forth real-world, and sometimes marketable, ideas all along the way.

SNOLAB, as it is now known, brims with examples of this. When the cavity for the research facility — located two kilometres below ground — was excavated in the 1990s, Sudbury mining companies used the information that was gathered about the geology and rock mechanics of the area to understand rock stresses in mineral deposits. The sensor technologies developed by SNOLAB researchers so they could better understand dark matter — one of the great mysteries of modern astrophysics — is now sold by a Montréal company to monitor radiation exposure at nuclear reactors. And the American company that developed the spherical acrylic vessel to hold the heavy water used in the facility’s neutrino detector now markets the same technology to create grand aquariums for business tower lobbies.

The fact is that to answer fundamental questions in science, highly sophisticated equipment is often required and the incredible engineering and technology development involved naturally has applications far beyond the specific research project for which it was developed.

Ocean Networks Canada, a web of highly sophisticated monitoring and detection instruments that lies on the seafloor along the coast of western Canada, reflects the research community’s intrinsic understanding that science projects are more productive, and therefore more valuable, when they serve the broadest range of stakeholders. Their cabled observatories collect data on the physical, chemical, biological and geological aspects of the ocean to answer fundamental questions about the processes that make our planet work. At the same time, the team applies the massive data sets these instruments produce, and their knowledge of sensor technology, to applications ranging from early earthquake and tsunami warning systems, to tools that provide detailed sea condition information to improve ship safety, to sophisticated hydrophones that monitor sound levels in the ocean to protect whales and detect and reduce noise pollution from ships.

More than just the knowledge and technology that gets created by fundamental research, there are also the people who are trained in fundamental science facilities. The broad range of highly specialized skills they acquire in areas such as data handling and analysis, instrumentation engineering, and the management of large-scale, highly complex science facilities, is one of the most valuable outputs of basic science endeavours.

So when we celebrate a Nobel prize, we should not simply acknowledge the fundamental breakthroughs that help us better understand the universe, but also the long road it took to get there and all of the things we gained along the way.

Dr. Gilles Patry is President and CEO of the Canada Foundation for Innovation, the country’s only organization dedicated to funding state-of-the-art research infrastructure. This opinion piece originally appeared in The Globe and Mail on November 16, 2015.