Welcome Address to the 97th Canadian Chemistry Conference

June 01, 2014

Vancouver, BC

Andrew Petter
President and Vice-Chancellor
Simon Fraser University

Thank you and good evening. It’s my honour to welcome you to this – the 97th Canadian Chemistry Conference.

I understand the theme of this year’s conference is “Chemistry from Sea to Sky,” and I can’t imagine a more suitable or beautiful location than Vancouver in which to explore the aesthetic as well as the scientific dimensions of that chemistry.

I also understand this is Canada’s largest annual conference devoted to the science and practice of chemistry, and I am therefore particularly pleased that Simon Fraser University is its sponsor, and that this year’s organizing committee is an all-SFU team.

On your behalf, and ours, I want to thank Conference Chair Zuo-Guang Ye, Scientific Program Chair Danny Leznoff and their SFU colleagues for the huge amounts of time and energy they have dedicated to ensuring that this event is a success.  

With three campuses in British Columbia’s three largest municipalities – Vancouver, Surrey and Burnaby – SFU is proud to be consistently ranked as one of Canada’s leading comprehensive universities, with a strong reputation for research excellence and impact.

We are also proud of our international standing amongst research universities of our generation.  We were recently rated 17th in the world and 3rd in North America in the QS Top 50 Under 50 World University Ranking.

Of course, this success will come as no surprise to this audience given that, for the past ten years, our research efforts have been led by an award-winning chemist – our Vice President Research Dr Mario Pinto – from whom you’ll be hearing shortly.

At SFU, research is a pillar of our strategic vision to be Canada’s “Engaged University.” That vision calls upon us to leverage our basic research strengths and our community connections “to become a global leader in research mobilization.”

We also value the critical relationship between research and education – both how research informs teaching and how students energize the research mission. 

And, above all, we value the transformative capacity of research.

With respect to what’s happening in your own discipline – in what is justifiably referred to as “the central science” – I cannot help but be impressed by the breadth and depth of the issues addressed in the program for this conference.

It’s an agenda that well illustrates the hugely important roles that scientists play.  To a non-scientist like me – whose academic background is law and public policy – I discern three such roles:

  • The first is the epistemological role scientists play in expanding the scope of human knowledge;
  • The second is your instrumental role in developing solutions to address societal problems; and
  • The third is your facilitative role in producing evidence upon which sound public policy can be based.

Taking those one at a time:  it all – and always – starts with the quest for knowledge – the need to ask a question for the pure pleasure of discovering the answer. The impact of such research, if unpredictable, can also be profound.

I look, for example, at your sessions on nano-materials and marvel at the advances and impacts in that field – and this, barely a decade after the word first starting popping up in dictionaries and Google searches.

On the second role, the instrumental role, scientists have the opportunity, and responsibility, to seek solutions to societal problems.  Again, your program suggests that you are fulfilling this responsibility admirably.

I think, for example, of the advances in biological and medicinal chemistry that have revolutionized health care just in the last generation.

There is also the whole area of environmental chemistry.  In our complex and, at times, dangerous world, there is more need than ever for the best scientific minds to grapple with problems such as Contaminants of Emerging Concern.

And, in a world that is increasingly desperate to exploit a dwindling energy resource, Canada has a particular issue with the chemical monitoring of activity in the oil sands.

These are pressing problems that cannot be resolved without the advances in knowledge that you are pursuing.

I note, as well, your sessions on Intellectual Property and commercialization.  Research mobilization is often a commercial process and at times a profitable one.  

SFU, for example, has incubated or mentored 200 companies, creating more than 2,400 new jobs and generating – in Canada – more than $185 million in annual tax revenue. This, too, I regard as an example of solving a societal problem.

That brings us to the third, facilitative role for the scientist:  in generating knowledge you produce evidence upon which sound public policy might be based.

But here we come to a complication. There is a saying attributed to English philosopher and scientist Francis Bacon: “Knowledge is power.”

But Bacon left something out.  Knowledge itself is not powerful if it is left on the shelf.  What I assume he meant, therefore, is that people who possess knowledge also possess power.

We see this too often in the way policy is made today. We see policy-makers disregarding or discounting scientific evidence in favour of their own predetermined agenda, preferring to manufacture policy-based evidence as opposed to generating evidenced-based policy.

This is particularly prone to occur when the scientific evidence supports policies that challenge societal norms, contradict ideological beliefs, or threaten economic interests.

Which brings me to a fourth potential role for the scientist.  One that is less evident from your conference program, but that I, as a public policy professor and former policy-maker, wish to urge upon you.     

It is, in a word, engagement.  If scientists wish their evidence to have impact, they must themselves take responsibility for engaging the public and political decision-makers.

What Carl Sagan observed in 1990 is even more relevant today:  “We live in a society exquisitely dependent on science and technology, in which hardly anyone knows anything about science and technology.”

I believe it’s critical that scientists not leave it to others to address this deficiency – especially given the state of 21st century communications and the condition of contemporary media.

There has never been greater capacity – nor greater confusion – in the way we communicate with one another.  We have the internet and the Twittersphere – media in which conversations occur widely and wildly, at a blistering pace, and without expert assessment or moderation.  

This, in turn, makes it possible for knowledge to have more power – or less.  

If one is disinterested in, or hostile to, the notion of letting evidence guide policy, it is easier than ever to advance your policy and then use it to shape the evidence. The internet can provide credible-looking support for pretty much any position you like.

“Global warming is a myth?” – There’s an app for that.

“The world is only 6,000 years old?” – You bet. You can get Google-map directions to the museum.

Meanwhile, when it comes to science, mainstream media are both overwhelmed by the volume of information – and underwhelming in their own diminishing investigative capacity.

We have ever-larger media conglomerates creating more and more portals with fewer and fewer reporters.

The newspapers of record are in precipitous decline and only the biggest news organizations still retain subject area experts – so-called “beat” reporters.

There are fewer than 20 full-time science journalists on staff at all of the newspapers and radio or television stations in Canada today.

So the public dialogue is too often being recorded and mediated by people who are out of their depth – inexperienced reporters reliant upon others to give them the straight goods.  And they are bombarded daily by self-appointed and often self-interested experts on every imaginable position.

Which brings us back to you. You have proven your capacity, not just to learn and understand the fundamentals of your own discipline, but to expand its boundaries – to discover things that no one has ever known.

Even by coming to this conference, you assert your aptitude to take up and wield this knowledge – to marshal and communicate it so as to have impact.

I urge you to enlarge that spirit of engagement.  I urge you to ensure that the public conversations – and critical policy decisions – that touch on your own specialties include an informed and passionate voice, not for selective wiki-facts, but for reliable scientific evidence.

Such evidence will not, by itself, determine policy.  Policy-making in a democracy will remain, as it should, the domain of the public and of the policy-makers who act on their behalf. 

But the quality of policy-making will profit if that domain is infused with the voices of scientists who speak strongly and authoritatively about the insights and implications that flow from their research findings.        

I spoke earlier about SFU’s vision for itself as an “engaged university.”

An important aspect of that vision calls upon scholars to “seek opportunities to transfer the results of [our] research to the broader society, including policy-makers, civil society leaders, and the community.”

In this regard – though decades earlier – the English chemist and novelist C.P. Snow offered more explicit encouragement for the engagement of scientists.

“A scientist has to be neutral in his search for the truth,” said Snow, “but he cannot be neutral as to the use of that truth when found. If you know more than other people, you have more responsibility, rather than less.”

Words to live by.

I want, once again, to welcome you to Vancouver and to commend you for the work that you have done – and for all that you may yet do.

I hope your conference is an unalloyed success and that you leave justified in the feeling that you have “more responsibility, rather than less.”

Which is to say, I hope that you gain much knowledge … and that you act boldly on what you learn.

In a world whose future well-being and possible survival so depends upon science and scientists, the evidence demands it.