After receiving an ‘invitation’ from the Canadian Science Policy Centre, I wrote an opinion piece, drawing on my submission for the public consultation on Canada’s fundamental science research. It seems the invitation was more of a ‘call’ for submissions and my piece did not end up being selected for inclusion on the website. So rather than waste the piece, here it is,
Creative destruction for Canada’s fundamental science
At a time when we are dealing with the consequences of our sins and virtues, fundamental science, at heart, an exercise in imagination, can seem a waste of precious time. Pollution and climate change (sins: ill-considered uses of technology) and food security and water requirements (virtues: efforts to improve health and save more lives) would seem to demand solutions not the flights of fancy associated with basic science. After all, what does the ‘big bang’ have to do with potable water?
It’s not an unfair question despite the impatience some might feel when answering it by citing a number of practical applications which are the result of all that ‘fanciful’ or ‘blue sky’ science. The beauty and importance of the question is that it will always be asked and can never be definitively answered, rendering it a near constant goad or insurance against complacency.
In many ways Canada’s review of fundamental science (deadline for comments was Sept. 30, 2016) is not just an examination of the current funding schemes but an opportunity to introduce more ‘goads’ or ‘anti-complacency’ measures into Canada’s fundamental science efforts for a kind of ‘creative destruction’.
Introduced by economist Joseph Schumpeter, the concept is derived from Karl Marx’s work but these days is associated with disruptive, painful, and regenerative innovation of all kinds and Canadian fundamental science needs more ‘creative destruction’. There’s at least one movement in this direction (found both in Canada and internationally) which takes us beyond uncomfortable, confrontative questions and occasional funding reviews—the integration of arts and humanities as an attempt at ‘creative destruction’ of the science endeavour.
At one point in the early 2000s, Canada developed a programme where the National Research Council could get joint funding with the Canada Council for the Arts for artists to work with their scientists. It was abandoned a few years later, as a failure. But, since then, several informal attempts at combining arts, sciences, and humanities have sprung up.
For example, Curiosity Collider (founded in 2015) hosts artists and scientists presenting their art/science pieces at various events in Vancouver. Beakerhead has mashed up science, engineering, arts, and entertainment in a festival founded and held in Calgary since 2013. Toronto’s ArtSci Salon hosts events and installations for local, national, and international collaborations of artists and scientists. And, getting back to Vancouver, Anecdotal Evidence is a science storytelling series which has been appearing sporadically since 2015.
There is a tendency to dismiss these types of collaboration as a form of science outreach designed to amuse or entertain but they can be much more than that. Illustrators have taught botanists a thing or two about plants. Markus Buehler at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has used his understanding of music to explore material science (spider’s webs). Domenico Vicinanza has sonified data from space vehicle, Voyager 1, to produce a symphony, which is also a highly compressed means of communicating data.
C. P. Snow’s ‘The Two Cultures’ (lecture and book) covered much of the same territory in 1959 noting the idea that the arts and sciences (and humanities) can and should be linked in some fashion was not new. For centuries the sciences were referred to as Natural Philosophy (humanities), albeit only chemistry and physics were considered sciences, and many universities have or had faculties of arts and sciences or colleges of arts and science (e.g., the University of Saskatchewan still has such a college).
The current art/sci or sci-art movement can be seen as more than an attempt to resuscitate a ‘golden’ period from the past. It could be a means of embedding a continuous state of regeneration or ‘creative destruction’ for fundamental science in Canada.