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Big Science in Canada: Realizing the Benefits

November 18, 2015
By: 
Professor Rolf Heuer
Director-General
CERN, European Organization for Nuclear Research Geneva, Switzerland



In the field that I know best, fundamental physics, Canada is a major player on the international stage, and Canada is better off domestically as a result. But there’s more that Canada can do, and I’ll come to that soon. First, let’s look at what the country has. Canada deploys its resources in fundamental physics cleverly. It has world-class facilities for particle and nuclear physics, for underground physics and for theoretical physics. I’m speaking, of course, of TRIUMF, the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory and the Perimeter Institute. Each of these institutions is firmly embedded in the global fabric of research in fundamental physics, and each can therefore lay claim to be an integral part of the world of Big Science.

TRIUMF is the laboratory I know best, not only because it is CERN’s main partner in Canada, but also because back in 2008, I chaired an International Peer Review Committee that took stock of where the lab was, and made recommendations for where it should be heading. With a history stretching back to 1968, when it was founded as the Tri-University Meson Facility, TRIUMF has always struck a good balance between providing a world-class facility on-site, and corralling resources to enable Canada to take part in large international projects such as those at CERN. TRIUMF has also played close attention to the interplay between fundamental and applied science, and I have to confess that my experience on the Peer Review Committee helped shape one of my key understandings of that interaction.

Much is made of the linear progression of ideas from fundamental research to applied science and eventually applications that improve our lives. This is true, but the full picture is more subtle. It requires one more link: a link that completes the virtuous circle and takes those applications back to fundamental science where they can contribute to a new generation of experiments. Through nurturing collaboration with applied science, TRIUMF embodies this principle. You just have to look at the role that TRIUMF has played in developing techniques for particle beam cancer therapy, and in the development of techniques with Nordion that deliver both essential drugs to the world, and new tools for research. It’s a partnership that works very well for both TRIUMF and Nordion, and you’ll find similar examples wherever there are curious scientists confronted with a technological problem to be overcome.

Take CERN, for example. Back in the 1970s, the medical profession recognised the potential of positron emitting isotopes to develop a powerful new diagnostic tool, and a long running partnership between CERN and the medical diagnostics industry was formed. CERN scientists worked with medical practitioners to develop sensors that would go on to be used in particle physics experiments and in PET scanners. A decade later, a new generation of sensors for particle physics went on to be deployed in a new generation of PET scanners, and yet another decade later, this interplay between particle physics and medical diagnostics was so well established that the next big leap came naturally. When one of our experiments wanted to operate such sensors inside a powerful magnetic field, knowing that the necessary electronics did not exist, they wasted no time in rectifying that situation in partnership with industry. The resulting innovations have opened up new possibilities for physics, as well as allowing the complementary techniques of PET and MRI to be combined in a single scanner.

So the virtuous circle of research is well established, but that does not mean we can take it for granted. You’ll not be surprised to read a director of a major public sector laboratory arguing for solid public sector support of the fundamental science part of that wheel. But over my time as Director General of CERN, I’ve heard the same point being made by industry over and over again. The timescales involved are too long for industry to sustain fundamental science, even though companies know their lifeblood depends on it. That responsibility lies with governments.

This is something that Canada’s approach to fundamental science has understood over the decades. Results, both for society and for industry, require long-term investment. Look at the Brout-Englert-Higgs mechanism, for example, predicted in 1964 and confirmed in 2012 with the announcement of the discovery of its messenger, the Higgs boson, at the LHC. The Nobel Prize that followed, awarded to François Englert and Peter Higgs, was very much embraced by the whole LHC community, and in a very real way it’s a tribute to the Canadian physicists at the LHC. The benefits that have accrued to society as a consequence of the quest that revealed the Higgs could fill a book, and we’ve only just begun. Or look at this year’s Nobel Prize. It came to Canada’s Art McDonald as the consequence not only of a very clever piece of research, but also because of a very clever piece of research investment policy: investing in an area of research in which a country like Canada can have global impact. Incidentally, when the prize was announced, CERN basked in reflected Canadian glory for a day – it was the among the biggest media stories for CERN this year, a clear sign of how integrated the global world of particle physics is.

Moving beyond Canada’s borders, the country is a big player at CERN. I much valued my Canadian colleagues when I was an experimental physicist at CERN in the 1980s, and I value them equally today. There are currently around 180 Canadian scientists involved with programmes at CERN. They work on research as varied as Higgs physics with the ATLAS experiment, antimatter research, including an investigation of whether antimatter could be used to treat cancer, at the Antiproton Decelerator facility, and on a range of experiments with unstable ions at the ISOLDE facility. It’s a very diverse programme. Canadian industry has also benefited from Canada’s involvement with CERN, supplying a series of very sophisticated components for our flagship LHC accelerator, for example. And academic computing has benefited through the establishment of a very successful LHC computing grid Tier-1 centre at TRIUMF, as well as Tier-2 centres in collaborating universities.

So when it comes to research in fundamental physics, Canada is doing well. But I said at the beginning that I felt the country could be doing more. CERN is open to membership, or associate membership, from countries beyond the European region. Why not join us?