Address by Mike Lazaridis, PI Board Chair, to the Public Policy Forum
About the Event
Each year in Canada, the Public Policy Forum (PPF) holds a testimonial dinner at which over one thousand leaders from all sectors of Canadian society gather to pay tribute to distinguished Canadians who have made an outstanding contribution to the quality of public policy and public management in our country. The PPF is an independent, not-for-profit organization that enhances dialogue among private, public and voluntary sectors with an aim to addressing issues and long range questions of importance to the vitality of Canadian democracy and the economy.
This year’s testimonial dinner was held on April 2, 2009, and honoured several Canadian leaders, including Mike Lazaridis, Founder and Board Chair of Perimeter Institute, who conveyed the importance of long-term thinking by those involved with shaping policy relating to science and technology. The following text, building on those remarks as reported by the national media, shares the messages provided to the PPF.
Remarks from Mike Lazaridis
What we need to do, in considering our approach to science and technology, is go back in time and look at what happened a century ago. The world was in crisis – the scientific community was in crisis, engineering and business and technology were in crisis, governments were in crisis, the environment was in crisis.
We were running out of horses. And the horses we had were running amuck in New York, being used to transport goods and help to build up the city as fast as possible. We couldn’t breed them fast enough, so we were trying to figure out ways to invest and get more out of horses and build more stagecoaches and more carriages. And we had to find ways to clean up the waste in the streets because the conditions were just deplorable. So we were having environmental issues and pollution and disease.
At the same time, physicists were dealing with these incredible contradictions between theory and experiments. We just didn’t understand why light, for example, wasn’t behaving the way we thought it should – something called the "ultraviolet catastrophe." So, there were all these issues in science and all these businesses wondering what they were going to build next and what are we doing to build the economy. And then there was this gentleman who couldn’t get a real physics job.
So imagine this story. A granting council has been tasked with driving the economy, really building commerce and commercializing technology and doing important things for the country. And so, of course, what are they thinking? They’re thinking we need more horses, we need better ways to clean up the streets, and we need to figure out ways to build better stagecoaches and carriages. Now this physicist comes into the room and he sits down. And they ask him, "Dr. Einstein, why are you here?" He says, "Oh, I’d like to have an office and a stipend." "For what?" they want to know. So he explains, "Well, I need a desk and blackboard and maybe a shelf for my books and my papers. And I need a small stipend, so I can go to a few scientific conferences around the world and have a few postdoctoral researchers." They ask, "Why?" And he says: "Well, I have these ideas about light and it’s very complicated, but light can …" And the council members start wondering, "What’s that got to do with horses?"
So, that gentleman actually had to go and get a day job. He went to work at a patent office, where he came up with, a few years later, the four most important papers of all time. Ideas that transformed everything we knew and put mankind in a new direction. He came up with one of the basic ideas leading to quantum technology, when he predicted the quantum properties of light, explaining an observation called the photo-electric effect. He came up with special relativity, a new understanding of space and time. He also discovered that mass and energy are the same thing at a fundamental level. By thinking and calculating the way he did, he came up with E=mc2, the most famous equation of all time. These discoveries, over time, led to nuclear energy, semiconductors, computers, lasers, medical imaging, DVDs and much more. The powerful ideas happened from pure thought and research by someone who basically would have had to give up a comfortable salary at the patent office to take a research or teaching position at a university.
Now let’s fast-forward to today. We have all these issues. We’re running out of energy any way you slice it. And the energy sources that we have today are changing our climate and the environment catastrophically and irreparably. At the same time, we have this enormous need for value creation because our financial system basically ran onto a coral reef. We’re taking on debt to try to get ourselves off the reef, and there’s all this need for value creation and innovation. It’s kind of staring us in the face.
We only have to flashback to that gentleman thinking about light to realize that we need to fund our scientists and our researchers and our students. We not only need to fund them imaginatively, we need to have faith that what they are doing is going to be important in 20, 30, 40 or 50 years from now, and that we haven’t got a chance of understanding its relevance today.
And so we need to be very careful with policy, not to try to put everything in short-term context – not to try to figure out how something is only relevant today – because, if we do, we will make a mistake. We will go the wrong way. We will be investing in horses, carriages, and cleaning manure in the streets instead of fostering the research that can give rise to an idea or super technology that’s going to change the world.
Right now, there is some pandemonium in physics because we are running up against some paradoxes and some data that don’t make any sense. For example, Moore’s Law, which describes the miniaturization of computer chips, will reach its limit in 10 years. Everything we built our telecommunications industry and information age on is going to hit this limit, if we don’t find a new base. We need a new discovery. It’s going to happen, and we need to put major investments in these esoteric studies like quantum computing, quantum information science, quantum gravity, string theory and other areas, because I can guarantee you that one of the discoveries that will emerge is going to solve one of those scientific paradoxes and make sense of that weird data. And when that happens, 20 or 30 years from now, you won’t recognize things.
About the Public Policy Forum
The Public Policy Forum (PPF) is a not-for-profit organization that aims to improve the quality of government in Canada through enhanced dialogue among the public, private and voluntary sectors. The PPF is neutral, non-partisan, non-governmental and independent with a purpose to create a ‘safe space’ that facilitates open and frank dialogue and discussion among leaders from all sectors. The PPF believes that good government, robust public policy and strong democratic institutions depend on the contributions of all sectors of society.
Perimeter Institute is the world’s largest research hub devoted to theoretical physics. The independent Institute was founded in 1999 to foster breakthroughs in the fundamental understanding of our universe, from the smallest particles to the entire cosmos. Research at Perimeter is motivated by the understanding that fundamental science advances human knowledge and catalyzes innovation, and that today’s theoretical physics is tomorrow’s technology. Located in the Region of Waterloo, the not-for-profit Institute is a unique public-private endeavour, including the Governments of Ontario and Canada, that enables cutting-edge research, trains the next generation of scientific pioneers, and shares the power of physics through award-winning educational outreach and public engagement.