Canadian Nobel Prize-winning physicist encouraged by Ottawa’s scientific mandate

The federal Liberal government's promise to embrace science and innovation is promising to a Canadian scientist who was recently awarded the Nobel Prize.

HALIFAX — The federal Liberal government’s promise to embrace science and innovation is promising to a Canadian scientist who was recently awarded the Nobel Prize.

Arthur McDonald, who was the co-winner in physics for his work on tiny particles known as neutrinos, said Monday he’s pleased with Ottawa’s commitment to public policies based on evidence, not politics.

“I’m actually very encouraged by what I see of the mandate of our new science minister, Kirsty Duncan,” McDonald said in an interview at Dalhousie University in Halifax, where the alumnus was expected to deliver a public lecture on his prize-winning research.

“Having this openness in the government itself and encouragement for evidence-based decision-making … I see a lot of good things in the way in which this government is putting science and innovation forward.”

McDonald and Japanese scientist Takaaki Kajita were cited for the discovery of neutrino oscillations and their contributions to experiments showing that neutrinos change identities.

They determined that neutrinos have mass, which fundamentally changed the understanding of the laws of physics.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has pledged to restore the government’s relationship with the scientific community, which was strained under Conservative predecessor Stephen Harper.

Duncan, who McDonald said attended the awarding of his Nobel Prize last December in Stockholm, was appointed by Trudeau to create a chief science officer and ensure that government science is publicly available. She is also mandated to guarantee that government scientists can speak freely about their work and their analyses are considered in decision-making.

McDonald, a professor emeritus at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont., said while Canada has done very well in basic and applied science, the country needs to translate that success into Canadian companies doing more work on home soil.

He said that includes encouraging graduates to start businesses at home.

“You also have to have situations where Canadian companies collaborate with researchers who are at the cutting edge demonstratively of their field in academic research in the development of better products to make that research possible,” he said.

“When you’re pushing the frontier, you always need better technology.”

The key is ensuring that technology doesn’t go to waste by having enough skilled researchers on hand to use it, said McDonald.

The Nova Scotia native applauded continued funding for the Canada Foundation for Innovation, which invests in state-of-the art equipment for applied and basic research. However, he said base support for the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada has “almost flatlined” in recent years.

“If you have brand-new equipment and you don’t have the people, the students or technicians or post-docs to be able to operate that equipment and be able to take advantage of the really good capabilities that it has, then you’re out of balance in terms of return on investment,” he said.

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