Canada’s culture of research excellence

Posted on February 10, 2016 in Education Debates – Opinion
Feb. 10, 2016.   David Johnston

David Johnston is Governor-General of Canada.

I was born in the town of Copper Cliff, now a part of Sudbury, a city famous for its minerals and for being the site of National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) training missions in the early 1970s. To this day, the reason for those missions is misunderstood: Rather than training in Sudbury because its landscape resembled the moon – as the myth goes – the Apollo astronauts were there to study geology. Specifically, they were studying the Sudbury basin, a two-billion-year-old meteor impact similar to impacts found on the lunar surface. Those astronauts weren’t learning how to moonwalk in Sudbury, they were learning about moon rock.

Why am I telling this story? Not just because I’m a Sudbury native who wants to set the record straight. It’s because I’m in Washington attending meetings on the margins of the American Association for the Advancement of Science – a gathering of some of the world’s top science minds, including numerous Canadians – and Sudbury is again starring prominently in the world of scientific discovery. This time, it’s for what we’ve learned there about the sun.

That’s right, the sun! This time around, the Sudbury basin is the site of the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory (SNO), a lab the size of a 10-storey building located two kilometres underground in Vale’s Creighton Mine.

Recently, the SNO was awarded a prestigious 2016 Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics, dedicated to encouraging physicists studying the deepest mysteries of the universe. The award was accepted on behalf of an international team by Arthur McDonald – himself a co-winner of the 2015 Nobel Prize in Physics for his work at the SNO.

To say the least, it has been a good year for Canadian physicists on the world stage – as well as for all kinds of Canadian scholars. In 2015, no fewer than 24 Canadians won prestigious international awards and prizes in science, engineering, health, medicine, the social sciences and humanities. This is a great achievement, and during my visit to Washington, I’m meeting with scientists and leaders from governments, universities, granting agencies and non-governmental organizations to find ways to build on that record and to further promote Canadian excellence. Because in a world where knowledge is a key currency, nothing attracts talent and resources like success. Global Excellence, an initiative I’ve been working on with academic institutions and government agencies, seeks to recognize and celebrate success so we enhance a Canadian culture of equality of opportunity and excellence.

How do we do this? The story of the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory provides us with some valuable lessons.

One, collaboration – often on a global scale – is critical to success. The SNO involved hundreds of scientists, technicians, institutions and agencies from Canada, the United States, Britain and Portugal. Even Dr. McDonald’s Nobel Prize is shared with Takaaki Kajita of the University of Tokyo, who led an earlier phase of the neutrino experiment in Japan.

Two, whether you’re an individual or community, leverage your local strengths. Think of Sudbury. Who would have thought a nickel mine would be an ideal place to observe neutrinos from the sun? Sometimes the competitive edge we need is literally right under our noses. What makes your community unique?

Three, recognize that Canada is home to some of the world’s brightest minds. We must support and celebrate their success. That means nominating our leading scholars and organizations for the world’s top prizes in the sciences, the arts, social sciences and humanities. Because sometimes the clichés are true: You miss 100 per cent of the shots you don’t take!

Together, in every sphere of activity, let’s build on our momentum and make sure the world acknowledges and celebrates the truly stellar achievements of Canadian trailblazers.

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