Big thoughts on little science

Big thoughts on little science

November 1, 2006

On June 22, 2006, a large gathering of scientists, administrators, business people, and politicians met to celebrate the opening of the $120 million facility of the National Institute for Nanotechnology (NINT) at the University of Alberta in Edmonton.

In many respects it was a celebration of innovation in one of the most rapidly advancing areas of scientific research and an opportunity to informally consider the prerequisites for stimulating and supporting future innovation.

Nano science—as its name suggests—involves investigation of the properties and performance of matter at the minute scale of 10-9. It is important for its own sake—regardless of the technologies, products, processes, and economic benefits which may flow from it—because it increases our understanding of the universe at a fundamental level.

Nanotechnology involves working with materials approximately 3 to 4 atoms wide and building structures and machines that are 1/10,000th of the width of a human hair. Many believe it will provide the foundation for the next major technological revolution, with societal impacts even larger than those of the computer revolution. Its economic impacts alone are predicted to be in the range of $1 trillion per year within the next ten to fifteen years.

While science policy experts draw careful distinctions between scientific investigation, technological development, and innovation (the process whereby science and new technology are translated into marketable goods and services of economic benefit), to the layman the spirit of innovation appears to pervade the whole nano field from start to finish. The scientists who conduct research on the nano frontier must themselves be innovative in the hypotheses they formulate and the experiments they design. The technicians who facilitate the conduct of experiments at the nano scale must be innovators as well, as must the technologists and entrepreneurs who look for ways and means of moving new nano discoveries from the laboratory to the market place.

And the science policy developers (including politicians) and administrators responsible for providing the financial, organizational, and policy framework for stimulating and supporting such activity must be innovators as well. The unique three-way partnership between the federal government’s National Research Council, the University of Alberta, and the Government of Alberta, which brought NINT into being, is itself a successful organizational innovation that should be recognized as such.

In fact, much of the scientific progress made in Canada over the last decade, including that achieved by the scientists of the NINT network, would not have been possible without the support of the Canada Research Chairs (CRC) program and the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI)—both administrative and financial innovations in their own right.

Which raises the question, what further innovations are required on the public policy and administrative side to further stimulate and support institutions like NINT, and Science, Technology, and Innovation (STI) generally in Canada? I can think of several:

  1. Continue to support the three-way partnership concept (federal government, provincial government, university) represented by NINT, but expand it as the science and technology matures to more fully involve a fourth partner—the business and commercial sector.
  2. If the heart of “supporting innovation” is to support innovators—scientists, technicians, technologists, administrators, managers, and entrepreneurs—expand the present Scientific Research and Experimental Development (SR&ED) Tax Credit to cover expenditures by business and industry in support of research fellowships, research and educational grants to graduate students and post doctoral fellows, and exchanges of scientists and scientific managers between the public and private sectors.
  3. Apply the same innovative thinking that has expanded the capital facility and human capacity of Canada’s science sector through the CFI and CRC program, to resolving the current operating deficit problem faced by most of Canada’s big science and other research programs.
  4. More rigorously apply the science of communication to the communication of science, in particular, to bridging the communications gap between the scientific community and the political community whose understanding and support is so critical to future innovation.

Innovative thinking and action are distinguishing characteristics of the evolution of nano science and its applications at every stage. To complement and support that innovative spirit, it is equally important that innovation continue to characterize the evolution of Science, Technology, and Innovation policy and administration in Canada.

The views and ideas expressed in this column do not necessarily reflect those of the Canada Foundation for Innovation or its Board Directors and Members.