This week’s developments in fusion energy research resulted from billions of dollars of investment by the U.S. government over many decades — the kind of “moonshot” project that has been a hallmark of U.S. science policy since 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 idea; scientists who have testified are encouraging; and, in an interview with Global News, the country’s innovation and science minister Francois-Philippe Champagne said he is excited about the potential such a focus might bring for developments in climate change solutions, vaccine development, and artificial intelligence.
“My message to everyone is: I want to lead. I want us to be ambitious. I want us to seize the moment,” Champagne said. “So what are the elements [of a moonshot program]? You know, funding is one. Then there is the organization of research and science in Canada. And then third, I would say help with who and in which field can we partner internationally.”
Champagne is not ready 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 seeking the answers to some of the questions Champagne raised since early November. The committee’s work, which will likely finish in February or March, took on a new dimension when the U.S. Department of Energy announced that, for the first time ever, researchers had produced a fusion energy reaction that produced more energy than was required to start the reaction.
“If we want those kinds of breakthroughs, and I think we do for all kinds of reasons, government has to 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 good at and should be doing is taking those great ideas coming out of moonshots and then turning them into products and companies that they can then market and make money from,” said Alan Bernstein, president emeritus of the Canadian Institute for Advance Research.
“Governments really are the only ones that have deep enough pockets and are patient enough investors to invest the billions of dollars over [decades].”
U.S. scientists announce nuclear fusion energy breakthrough
For decades, the federal government’s approach to funding scientific research — funding worth billions of dollars a year — has been a traditional “bottom up” approach. Scientists, working on their own or with colleagues, come up with project ideas and then 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 in which researchers are directed to focus on a specific general problem.
‘Kids are dying:’ B.C. doctor speaks out over respiratory illness-related deaths
Smith’s comments comparing Ottawa’s treatment of Alberta to Indigenous experience prompts criticism
“There are … areas where we need scientists to be involved to solve socially important problems,” said Yoshua Bengio, one of the world’s leading artificial intelligence experts and executive director of the Montreal Institute for Learning Algorithms (MILA) at the University of Montreal.
“So new technologies for fighting climate change or to deal with pandemics and infectious diseases or antimicrobial resistance are all areas where there is not enough research being done. Industry isn’t investing in many of these areas sufficiently because, for now at least, it’s not profitable or not sufficiently profitable. The way to do these moonshot research projects is different, is more top down. So some groups of scholars, with the government, need to make choices. You can’t invest in everything. You have to make a few choices that are socially important where we have some scientific advantage and it can make a big difference for society.”
Moonshot-style research produced the atomic bomb, the original landing of a human being on the moon, the discovery of insulin and, more recently, the basic science that laid the foundation for the rapid creation of mRNA vaccines by Moderna and Pfizer. In fact, work done at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ont., was part of that moonshot research into RNA vaccines.
“That was a moonshot,” Bernstein said. “And again, another great example where money and patient investing and prior science, again funded by public funds, led to a so-called overnight success of these RNA vaccines. It wasn’t an overnight success. It was prior investments by both the federal government here in Canada actually and in the U.S. of decades of research that led to that overnight success.”
Similarly, Bernstein believes Canada could play a leading role in moonshot research that could help prepare the world for the next global health crisis. “A high priority for society is clean energy or antibiotics given the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. So we need to have mission-driven research or use driven research that tackles a specific problem that society faces. And so that’s much more focused. It’s more, if you will, top down.”
Both Bernstein and Bengio provided advice to the Commons committee on how research choices for a Canadian moonshot program would be made, as well as the need for transparency and a commitment to “open science” —the idea that any advancements achieved in any program would be widely distributed to industry and academia.
“When the money comes from government, it comes from us, it comes from taxpayers,” Bengio said.
“It’s going to be much better spent in the sense of how much progress it’s going to yield if we force the actors, whether they are in academia or industry, that are doing the research to be transparent about what they do, to share their results, to share the data.”