This week’s developments in fusion energy research resulted from billions of dollars of investment by the U.S. government over many a long time — the form of “moonshot” project that has been an indicator of U.S. science policy because the Second World War.
Now Canada, where critics have often found federal support for scientific research to be incremental and risk-averse, is considering a framework for its own moonshot program.
A House of Commons committee is studying the concept; scientists who’ve testified are encouraging; and, in an interview with Global News, the country’s innovation and science minister Francois-Philippe Champagne said he is worked up concerning the potential such a spotlight might bring for developments in climate change solutions, vaccine development, and artificial intelligence.
“My message to everyone seems to be: I would like to guide. I would like us to be ambitious. I would like us to seize the moment,” Champagne said. “So what are the weather [of a moonshot program]? You already know, funding is one. Then there may be the organization of research and science in Canada. After which third, I’d say help with who and during which field can we partner internationally.”
Champagne isn’t able to commit to funding or to policy details just yet. He’ll wait for a report from the House of Commons Standing Committee on Science and Research which has been in search of the answers to among the questions Champagne raised since early November. The committee’s work, which is able to likely finish in February or March, took on a recent dimension when the U.S. Department of Energy announced that, for the primary time ever, researchers had produced a fusion energy response that produced more energy than was required to start out the response.
“If we wish those sorts of breakthroughs, and I feel we do for every kind of reasons, government must be there to fund the moonshots. Private sector won’t. And it’s not a criticism of the private sector. What the private sector is sweet at and needs to be doing is taking those great ideas coming out of moonshots after which turning them into products and corporations that they will then market and make cash from,” said Alan Bernstein, president emeritus of the Canadian Institute for Advance Research.
“Governments really are the one ones which have deep enough pockets and are patient enough investors to take a position the billions of dollars over [decades].”
For a long time, the federal government’s approach to funding scientific research — funding price billions of dollars a yr — has been a standard “bottom up” approach. Scientists, working on their very own or with colleagues, provide you with project ideas after which compete for funding grants distributed by the federal government. The “moonshot” approach, pioneered and largely perfected by the U.S. government, is a “top-down” approach during which researchers are directed to concentrate on a particular general problem.
“There are … areas where we want scientists to be involved to unravel socially essential problems,” said Yoshua Bengio, one among the world’s leading artificial intelligence experts and executive director of the Montreal Institute for Learning Algorithms (MILA) on the University of Montreal.
“So recent technologies for fighting climate change or to cope with pandemics and infectious diseases or antimicrobial resistance are all areas where there isn’t enough research being done. Industry isn’t investing in a lot of these areas sufficiently because, for now not less than, it’s not profitable or not sufficiently profitable. The approach to do these moonshot research projects is different, is more top down. So some groups of students, with the federal government, must make decisions. You’ll be able to’t put money into every part. You’ve to make just a few decisions which can be socially essential where now we have some scientific advantage and it will possibly make an enormous difference for society.”
Moonshot-style research produced the atomic bomb, the unique landing of a human being on the moon, the invention of insulin and, more recently, the essential science that laid the muse for the rapid creation of mRNA vaccines by Moderna and Pfizer. Actually, work done at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ont., was a part of that moonshot research into RNA vaccines.
“That was a moonshot,” Bernstein said. “And again, one other great example where money and patient investing and prior science, again funded by public funds, led to a so-called overnight success of those RNA vaccines. It wasn’t an overnight success. It was prior investments by each the federal government here in Canada actually and within the U.S. of a long time of research that led to that overnight success.”
Similarly, Bernstein believes Canada could play a number one role in moonshot research that might help prepare the world for the subsequent global health crisis. “A high priority for society is clean energy or antibiotics given the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. So we want to have mission-driven research or use driven research that tackles a particular problem that society faces. And in order that’s rather more focused. It’s more, when you will, top down.”
Each Bernstein and Bengio provided advice to the Commons committee on how research decisions for a Canadian moonshot program could be made, in addition to the necessity for transparency and a commitment to “open science” —the concept any advancements achieved in any program could be widely distributed to industry and academia.
“When the cash comes from government, it comes from us, it comes from taxpayers,” Bengio said.
“It’s going to be a lot better spent within the sense of how much progress it’s going to yield if we force the actors, whether or not they are in academia or industry, which can be doing the research to be transparent about what they do, to share their results, to share the information.”