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Nobel Prize-winning chemist John Polanyi calls for more government investment in science

U of T's John Polanyi says the government funding he received throughout his career “has been absolutely vital” and crucially, it was given “on very enlightened terms” (photo by Johnny Guatto)

Scientists with PhDs aren’t the only ones engaged in a process of discovery. People begin to explore and learn about the world around them even before they are in diapers.

“The pursuit of understanding is something we begin as soon as we open our eyes on this Earth,” says John Polanyi, a Nobel Prize-winning chemist and a University Professor at the University of Toronto.

By underinvesting in discovery science, the Canadian government undervalues something “absolutely essential to our being,” he argues.

Polanyi delivered the keynote address this week at a Canada 150 event on the future of Canadian federalism, where fellow speakers included historian Margaret MacMillian, Canada's Parliamentary Poet Laureate George Elliott Clarke, former Quebec premier Jean Charest, former Clerk of Privy Council Alex Himelfarb, the Faculty of Law’s Doug Sanderson, and more.

In an interview with U of T News after the event, Polanyi turned his attention to the future of research and discovery in Canada, speaking in support of the recommendations of Canada’s Fundamental Science Review panel.

The panel, commissioned by Science Minister Kirsty Duncan and chaired by U of T President Emeritus David Naylor, found Canadian funding for research has slumped in the last 15 years and that the country’s research competitiveness has diminished as a result.

Interested in publicly funded research in Canada? Learn more at UofT’s #supportthereport advocacy campaign

The panel’s report recommends $1.3 billion over four years in new federal funding for science and an overhaul of how research is overseen.

Critically, the panel says there has been a shift in funding away from independent science and scholarly inquiry to what is described as innovation-facing and priority-driven programs.

Polanyi says the government funding he received throughout his career “has been absolutely vital” and crucially, it was given “on very enlightened terms.”  

“I was given freedom,” Polanyi says. “The notion was, you can’t tell somebody what to discover – if they knew, it wouldn’t be discovery.”

Polanyi, who shared the 1986 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his work on the “dynamics of chemical elementary processes,” says there are number of problems with prioritizing science with clear and immediate applications over pure research.

For one, “It's a bit of an illusion to think that we really know where the most important applications lie,” he explains. In the 1960s, when he was researching lasers that obtain energy from a chemical reaction, he didn’t realize how lasers would come to be used in communication systems.

Read a CBC story on the Naylor Report

Polanyi says it’s also unethical for Canada to expect to benefit from scientific discoveries without contributing to the research.

Underinvesting in basic science is a problem with governments across the political spectrum, he says.

“What they have done is remove the money that might have been used for this central activity which underlie universities and our lives and have transferred to headings where there is a known target.”