Monthly Archives: July 2012

The Scientists Strike Back

With some notable exceptions, scientists are not generally habitual rabble-rousers, at least not in their capacity as an Official Representative Unit of Science. In my experience, many of them have deep political convictions, and are not shy about sharing them, but going out on the street en masse as scientists (rather than as ordinary citizens) is not a common sight — I can’t remember the last time scientists took to the streets to protest policy. So when a couple thousand of scientists in lab coats and funeral wear converge on Parliament protesting the Death of Evidence, something is going on.

The Death of Evidence protest was organized by some scientists (mainly grad students, I believe) at the University of Ottawa, and was timed to coincide was a very large evolutionary biology and ecology conference in Ottawa to attract more marchers from across the nation. The list of policies that the protest was targeting is long and broad:

The Harper government has embarked on a systematic program to impede and divert the flow of scientific information to Canadians through two major strategies. The first involves the gutting of programs and institutions whose principal mandate is the collection of scientific evidence. Examples of this include:

  • Cutting the mandatory long-form national census.
  • Major budget reductions to research programs at Environment Canada, Fisheries and Oceans Canada, Library and Archives Canada, the National Research Council Canada, Statistics Canada, and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada.
  • Decisions to close major natural and social science research institutions such as the world-renowned Experimental Lakes Area, the National Council of Welfare and the First Nations Statistical Institute.
  • Closing of The Polar Environment Atmospheric Research Laboratory (PEARL) in Eureka, Nunavut

Mr. Harper’s second strategy is perhaps less overt, but even more insidious: to impede the bringing forward of scientific evidence into the public debate. Examples:

  • Not renewing the The National Science Advisor in 2008.
  • Dozens of instances of censoring of, impeded access to, and coercion of government scientists, a practice which Minister of Environment Peter Kent has justified as merely in keeping with “established practice”.
  • Shutting down the National Round Table on Environment and Economy (NRTEE), an arm’s length advisory body providing independent advice on environmental protection and economic development, because the government didn’t like its advice.

This is beyond death by a thousand papercuts: this is more like death by hundreds of axe wounds. I’m not saying that every federally-funded science initiative needs to be funded in perpetuity without any evidence (there’s that word again!) that it’s viable and productive research. I am saying that when multiple scientifically flourishing initiatives are having their funding unceremoniously ended, with no credible evidence presented to back up that decision, things start to fail the sniff test.

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Whether the Boson is Higgs or Higgs-like, It’s Still A New Fundamental Particle

The news out of CERN that a new, heavy, subatomic particle has been discovered by the ATLAS research group has the science-y part of the internet all a-twitter. It’s certainly not every day that new fundamental particles of nature are discovered, and to be 99.99995% certain that it’s an accurate conclusion is no small feat.

The Higgs boson is, in one sentence, a particle which is theorized to give other particles (like protons and electrons) mass. There are plenty of people who’ve done primers and more detailed explanations of what the Higg’s boson is, and for the sake of getting this up while everyone is still reading about all things Higgs, I’ll skip the drawings this time and point you elsewhere for the basic explanation.

What I do want to talk about are some of the significant results of such a significant result. The Large Hadron Collider was built essentially to find this particle, and while it’s not entirely clear that it is definitely a Higgs boson and not an exotic Higgs-like boson that we’ve not anticipated existed, something new has been found. Getting such a positive result underscores the worth of large-scale collaborations. Large-scale science is very difficult to get off the ground due to the sheer scale of resources necessary to built the devices. Things like particle colliders, gravitational wave detectors, space telescopes, even the shuttle program, fall under this category, and because there are so many resources poured into these programs, there’s extra pressure for them to succeed. It’s heartening when they do, because inevitably when big science programs that probe the edges of our knowledge of the universe come up, there’s people who bemoan the investment and say that the money would be better spent doing something practical.

Sure, we need money going towards practical things, but I agree with Neil deGrasse Tyson on this, and we need big, visible, exciting projects. We need things that excite our collective imagination to push innovation forward and give students and young researchers something to aspire to, and discoveries like the Higgs boson show both fill that need and show that the boundaries of science can be pushed. The knowledge that the Higgs boson (or something like it) exists may not make an appreciable difference in people’s everyday lives, but that moment of wonder is important. Without those “wow…!” moments, we don’t have a grand vision of scientific exploration, and without that vision, science stalls in the realm of what we know and understand to some degree, and never makes it much past the boundary between what we anticipate and the unexpected. How do we push the boundaries of knowledge without a grand vision? We don’t, and moments like today’s announcement are the culmination of grand vision backed by adequate funding.

It’s not well publicized, but there are often plenty of practical spinoffs of big-project science which filter into everyday peoples’ lives. The enormous magnetics that bend the particle beams in a circle at the LHC spawned new technology in high-speed rail in Europe. NASA’s space program has generated enormous amounts of technological innovation, from velcro to novel materials. This is setting aside the enormous amount of support staff that are hired to run and maintain facilities like CERN, and the obvious societal benefits of giving hordes of physicists something to tickle their brain with and keep them out of trouble and off the streets, both of which keep people gainfully employed and contributing to the economy. To say there is no practical reason to fund grand vision science is to be ignorant of what exactly grand vision science entails.

We haven’t had many collective “wow..!” moments in science lately, and there’s been a steady stream of funding cuts, regressive science policy, and wilful obfuscation of information by government agencies at the behest of the minister, and that’s just in Canada. There is Canadian involvement in the results — some researchers at TRIUMF are involved in the ATLAS collaboration — but even if there wasn’t, we could use a “wow…!” moment or five lately. Science in Canada is being ground away, and we need moments like this to inspire us to keep pushing the boundaries of knowledge.