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Why Canada needs curiosity-driven science and the freedom to think: Lewis Kay

Canada needs to stop trying to predict the future – instead, we should “educate great scientists and give them the freedom to think big,” says globally renowned researcher Lewis Kay

“Take MRI in medicine – it began as an observation in quantum physics in 1938,” Kay says. “Forty years later that observation led to the first amazingly detailed views of the body. Doctors now use MRI routinely. My own experiments build on that same 1938 principle and have generated new ways to describe the properties of proteins.”

A professor of molecular genetics, biochemistry and chemistry with the University of Toronto and a senior scientist at The Hospital for Sick Children (SickKids), Kay is the latest leading researcher to speak out in support of the findings of Canada's Fundamental Science Review panel. The author of more than 400 scientific papers, Kay holds the title of University Professor – the highest faculty rank U of T bestows – and was recognized earlier this year with a Canada Gairdner International Award laureate.

The Gairdner Awards – Canada’s highest prize for medical science – are often a forerunner to the Nobel Prize.

In the video above, Kay explains how research that is not restricted by concerns about short-term return on investment, can have a dramatic impact on everyday life.

“Take a look at your phone – it wouldn't exist if scientists hadn't been free to think about the nature of matter and free to fool around with semi-conductors back in the day,” Kay says.

The video was created in support of the findings 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.

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

Kay joins hundreds of researchers across Canada speaking out in support of the Naylor Report. Last week, Nobel laureate and University Professor John Polanyi leant his voice to the campaign. 

 

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.

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