Of Harperman, Hadfield and Herzberg--- Free Radicals in Science and Society

October 13, 2015
Paul Dufour
Fellow and Adjunct Professor, ISSP, UOttawa

Absorbing the latest news surrounding the federal election, one might be surprised to see the occasional reference to the role of science and technology in society. But this is as it should be—after all, science and technology have always played a major part in Canada’s history, culture and socio-economic development.

Often understated in this has been the engagement of ‘free radicals’ who take up the cause and use their star power to make Canadians sit up and pay attention. David Suzuki would qualify here as a long-standing rebel on why science matters to everyday Canadians... and it is more than his long-running Nature of Things. He recently gave a stirring keynote address to the iVote group at University of Ottawa organized by Kevin Page, the former Parliamentary Budget Officer---himself a key player in warning about the abuses of accountability.

Harperman, a federal environmental researcher who has composed a song about the muzzling treatment of its own scientists by the Harper administration, has recently stolen the spotlight criss-crossing the country to alert citizens about why voting in this election is important. He has not been alone. In an unprecedented awakening by the grass roots scientific community, the general public is witnessing the emergence of various groups designed to tackle issues such as the muzzling of the federal scientists, arbitrary cuts to public research; shelving, destruction and archiving of information, data and scientific collections that have provided key inputs to public policy over the years; and elimination of governance bodies that have served to provide valuable advice to the polity. These organizations are interviewing candidates; holding debates, using social media, and asking the federal political parties to answer questions about trends in science and what they will do to commit to its future support.

The media and bloggers are doing their bit as well by shining a spotlight on some of these electoral questions, including ACFAS, Je vote pour la science, Science Borealis and the Quebec, and Canadian science writers’ associations.

The advocacy work of Diane Orihel in campaigning to reverse the Experimental Lakes Area cuts (The ‘Lady of the Lakes’ as Nature has labelled her); the development of Evidence for Democracy, the Scientific Integrity Project, CAUT’s Get Science Right campaign, and the PIPSC embrace of science as a major election issue, all speak to this cri d’alarme. Students clubs are also engaged such as the Science and Policy Exchange in Montreal and UOttawa’s Science Policy Society. Not to be forgotten, our Governor General has been an outspoken ambassador for science and innovation (with the recently announced GG Innovation Awards in collaboration with CFI and the Canada Science and Technology Museums Corporation).

National recognition also matters for other reasons. When Statistics Canada (itself a target of the Harper cuts) released its survey on pride in being Canadian and pride in Canadian achievements, science and technology ranked sixth, above economic achievements and Canada’s political influence in the world; and was virtually tied with Canadian pride in sports. Here, our astronauts and space achievements are often cited as contributing to this positive perception. Roberta Bondar, Marc Garneau and Julie Payette come to mind for their accomplishments and their continuing work in promoting science culture throughout the country. Chris Hadfield, using social media and his guitar, has probably done more to cement his own mark.

Other perceptions of our achievements are shaped by major prizes to Canadians in the sciences. Given the annual announcements this past week; Nobels are usually seen as the highest watermark. Canada has had a number of Nobel science recipients over the years apart from this year’s physics co-awardee Art McDonald. They include John Polanyi, Bertram Brockhouse, William Boyle and Michael Smith, but probably none more fitting of the ‘free radical’ label than Gerhard Herzberg who was awarded the Nobel for chemistry in 1971.

Indeed, the country’s most prestigious award in the sciences (bestowed by NSERC) is called the Gerhard Herzberg Canada Gold Medal.

Along with his excellence in science, Herzberg was a prolific commentator on the role of basic research and science in society. During his professional lifetime spent almost exclusively at the NRC, he gave talks, speeches and commentary on the need to ensure the vitality and integrity of science, discovery and its cultural role. He railed against the increasing bureaucratization of science (when he received his Nobel Prize in 1971, the government had just launched its new Ministry of State for Science and Technology and the Senate Special Committee on Science Policy led by the Harvard-trained economist Maurice Lamontagne had been holding hearings on the future of science, targeting the NRC). Herzberg took them on arguing for less intrusive meddling in the workings of creative scientists.

From his argument for why astronomy and astrophysics is critical to advances in the human intellect, to the problematic notions of economic justification in funding science—(‘science powers commerce’ as the current PM is fond of saying), to the need for scientists to pursue ideas in a ‘free market’ , to the long-standing arguments about basic vs applied research, Herzberg is actually quite contemporary. He was the epitome of a scientist taking his role as concerned citizen seriously.

Every society needs advocates such as the ones we have outlined above. They provide fresh insights into the root of things we often take for granted. They are key to helping shape new dialogues, and demonstrating the need to question fundamental assumptions about how our knowledge and science impacts on everyday life and society—even if we don’t always agree. That is the basis of a well-functioning democracy. As Mike Lazaridis, another outspoken and articulate player on this scene once said, "We cannot be so blinded by the urgency of our problems that we take for granted how important, how powerful the combination of curiosity and reason really is. That is the tradition of science."