Now’s the time to take science seriously

Looking at the enormous changes the world has experienced over the past century, it’s clear that the most powerful force shaping our lives and society was not politics or economics but science when applied by business, the pharmaceutical and medical industries, and the military.

Looking at the enormous changes the world has experienced over the past century, it’s clear that the most powerful force shaping our lives and society was not politics or economics but science when applied by business, the pharmaceutical and medical industries, and the military.

Think of the impact of antibiotics, chainsaws, nuclear weapons, computers, oral contraceptives, cars, television – the list is long.

And what lies ahead? Human cloning, genetic engineering, artificial intelligence, nanotechnology, and space weapons – to say nothing of environmental issues such as climate change, deforestation, and toxic pollution. How can any society make important decisions about these issues without being scientifically literate and informed?

Too often, the role of science in solving our social, medical, and economic problems is poorly understood because the nature of scientific research, discovery, and application is not understood.

The Globe & Mail recently reported that the federal government has radically reduced its support for science. Well, why should Canadians support scientific research?

First, good scientists make important discoveries, and to maintain a top group of scientists, we need a culture that supports and honours its researchers. That can’t happen when science funding becomes a political hockey puck slapped around by whichever party comes into power.

We need generous long-term support for our top scientists so that they can create clusters of enthusiastic, inspired researchers.

Canadian scientists are a small fraction of all scientists, but they occupy front-row seats to the world’s best research because, if they’re good, they get invited to small meetings of experts, they are consulted about new insights, and they receive scientific papers before they are published. They become our eyes and ears to the discoveries being made worldwide.

Many people believe that we must identify important areas like cancer, energy, or pollution and then direct the money to those areas so that we can look for solutions or new technologies. That is not how science works.

Scientists need money to do their work, and when funding is directed at specific areas, scientists will find ways to make their work relevant to those areas. It’s a game that’s played to get grant money. I did it when I was an active researcher.

I was interested in genetic control of cell division. When cancer-research money became available, I used the rationale that understanding the process of cell division would give us insights into the process by which cells begin to divide out of control as they become cancerous.

Scientists don’t go from experiment A to B to C to D to find a cure for cancer. That’s just how we write up our results or our grant proposals.

Many scientists who have made important discoveries would have never qualified for research grants if the grants were specifically targeted.

Let me give you two examples from my area of training, genetics.

In the 1960s, microbial scientists puzzled over an arcane area to do with bacteria and viral infection. They found that certain viruses could infect and kill bacterial hosts while other bacteria seemed immune. How could the bacteria fend off viral infection?

You might wonder who cares whether bacteria get sick. But out of this very esoteric work came the answer: Bacteria had enzymes that recognized specific stretches of viral DNA and cut them up.

These “restriction enzymes” turned out to be vital tools for genetic engineering, something that could not have been predicted when this Nobel Prize-winning work was started.

I remember as a student in the 1950s slaving over research papers by a woman studying corn.

Barbara McClintock was a meticulous scientist and we agonized over her experiments because they were so complex and elegant. She was studying genes in corn that had a peculiar property of changing locations on chromosomes. We never imagined that her work would lead to the discovery of “jumping genes” that are now a vital part of the toolbox geneticists use to modify gene behaviour.

McClintock won a Nobel Prize for work that would never have qualified for grants had there been restrictions for applications.

I would urge politicians and scientists to resist rigidly restricting funding to specific research areas.

Instead, they should support scientists who can be judged by their track records, by their papers and talks, in the knowledge that those scientists will have ideas, make observations, and hear about work that will be useful in some area that can’t be predicted. And we must have a culture in which science is as important a part of our education as reading, writing, math, and music.

This column is co-written by broadcaster David Suzuki and Faisal Moola, a scientist.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

(Photo from Highway 11 Functional Planning Study)
Public input wanted for Highway 11 improvement plan

Round 2 of public online engagement continues until March 10

Sylvan Lake RCMP are investigating a break-in at a seasonal residence where three oil paintings were stolen. (Photo contributed)
Art theft in Lacombe County

Sylvan Lake RCMP investigating

About 110 students from Red Deer Catholic Regional Schools participated in March for Life rally in Edmonton May 9. (File photo by Advocate staff)
St. Joseph High School in Red Deer moves back to online learning

Students will be learning online until at least March 12

Travellers arrive at Terminal 3 at Pearson Airport in Toronto early Monday, February 22, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn
New rules appear to push international air travel down even further than pre-pandemic

OTTAWA — Canada’s new COVID-19 testing and quarantine rules for international air… Continue reading

Red Deer dogs Bunsen and Beaker helped save a missing pet recently. The two dogs have more than 80,000 followers on Twitter. (Contributed photo)
WATCH: Red Deer science dogs help save lost pet

Red Deer science-communicating dogs Bunsen and Beaker helped rescue a missing pet… Continue reading

Ryan Jake Applegarth of Ponoka, 28, is scheduled to appear at Ponoka Provincial Court on March 12, 2021. (File photo)
Discussions about justice continue as Ponoka murder victim’s case proceeds

Reaction to comments Ponoka Staff Sgt. Chris Smiley made to town council last month

Dr. Stanley Read
Hometown Bashaw doctor recognized with alumni award for AIDS work

Dr. Stanley Read, born and raised in Bashaw, is considered a global health leader

A nurse assistant prepares a dose of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine for COVID-19 during a priority vaccination program for health workers at a community medical center in Sao Paulo, Brazil, Wednesday, Feb. 3, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Andre Penner
COVID-19 cases start to climb again as variants spread, in step with dire forecasts

OTTAWA — Canada’s chief public health officer says new COVID-19 cases are… Continue reading

Shipping containers are seen at the Fairview Cove Container Terminal in Halifax on Friday, Aug. 25, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan
Statistics Canada to release final economic figures for 2020, January GDP estimate

OTTAWA — Statistics Canada is expected to say today precisely how bad… Continue reading

FILE - In this Jan. 31, 2020, file photo, former NBA player Shaquille O’ Neal is interviewed on the red carpet for Shaq’s Fun House in Miami. O’Neal is set to perform in his first competitive match when he teams in All Elite Wrestling with Jade Cargill in a mixed tag to take on Cody Rhodes and Red Velvet at Daily’s Place on an episode of “Dynamite,” Wednesday, March 3, 2021. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky, File)
Shaq Attack: O’Neal ready to rumble in tag match for AEW

O’Neal’s first competitive match with All Elite Wrestling

Tokyo 2020 Organizing Committee President Seiko Hashimoto, center, speaks during a Tokyo 2020 executive board meeting in Tokyo, Tuesday, March 2, 2021. (AP Photo/Koji Sasahara, Pool)
Tokyo Olympics add 12 women to executive board to reach 42 per cent

Board will now have 19 women among its 45 members

The Stratford Festival’s Festival Theatre is shown in Stratford, Ont., on May 28, 2018. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Geoff Robins
Stratford Festival plans next stages with two outdoor summer venues

Ontario festival productions set for between late June and the end of September

Most Read