From the “Quirks and Quarks” man himself!
By Bob McDonald, host of the CBC science radio program Quirks & Quarks
While people around the globe celebrate the beauty of our planet on Earth Day, April 22nd, scientists in Canada are concerned that government funding is heading in the wrong direction to provide sensible solutions to environmental problems. More than 2000 scientists from across the country have signed an open letter to Prime Minister Harper and the Leader of the Opposition, expressing concerns over cuts to basic science research. It’s basic science that takes the pulse of the planet.
The scientists are concerned that government money is overlooking vital areas. For example, the current Conservative budget allocates $2 billion for university infrastructure – in other words, renovations to aging buildings. But those funds come with a catch. They must be matched with private funding, something everyone is having trouble finding during these tough economic times. Keeping roofs on buildings is important, but if there are no scientists to work in them, what’s the point?
The Canada Foundation for Innovation, a major source of science funding, did receive $740 million, but it also comes with that match-funding hook. The other funding agencies, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, have had their budgets cut back, while Genome Canada was essentially ignored.
The rest of the government’s support for science is going towards the automotive industry, carbon sequestration, biofuels and scholarships for business students. In other words, applied science is taking precedent over basic science.
While we do need both, when it comes to the environment, the two types of science are often at loggerheads.
Politicians like to support applied science because it leads to jobs and products, such as more efficient cars or new wireless devices. Basic science, on the other hand, can’t promise an immediate economic return because it simply looks at nature to understand how things work – and more importantly these days, how things are changing. As we’ve seen with climate change, basic scientists have been out in the field watching ice caps disappear before their eyes, carbon dioxide levels rise and climate patterns shift. At the same time, those dealing with the technology at the heart of the problem resist the basic science to keep the current systems in place.
The beauty of Earth Day is how we come together for a short time to appreciate the complexity and unity of our planet. Basic science describes the many spheres we live on and within. There’s only one atmosphere, one hydrosphere, one biosphere, one cryosphere, one geosphere, and they all interact with each other in ways we’re just beginning to understand.
We need those scientific eyes to keep track of this dynamic Earth. We also need to see how our technology is impacting every one of those spheres.
Applied science and the technology it provides have made us who we are, but it needs to be guided. An airliner can fly itself but it still needs the eyes of a pilot to see the destination. Basic science is our eye to the future destination of our spaceship called Planet Earth.