Canada is in line to get a big boost in both star and science power: famed Cambridge professor and Star Trek alumni Stephen Hawking has made plans to move to our “humble” country to take a research position this summer at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics, of the University of Waterloo.
Professor Hawking considered making the move once before in 2008, following a series of science budget cuts by the UK government. Further pressuring Hawking to move was Neil Turok, a colleague of Hawking, who has already crossed the pond and has assumed the role of Director of the Perimeter Institute.
The assumed move comes as a bit of a shock to Cambridge University, who had something different to say, “Professor Hawking has no plans to leave Cambridge at present. However, he will be a regular visitor to the Perimeter Institute for research purposes”. Hawking has held the Lucasian Chair of Mathematics for 30 years (retired from the post in October 2009), joining such historical luminaries as Sir Isaac Newton, Charles Babbage, and Lieutenant Commander Data. What could cause perhaps the greatest theoretical physics mind in the world to leave one of the most prestigious academic posts in the world?
In short: anger.
In long: anger at several years worth of drastic budget cuts by the UK government to pure science research. While Canada’s science community would stand to benefit greatly from the arrival of Hawking, his reasons for leaving the UK are symptomatic of a much larger, and concerning trend in science research funding and direction.
In Dec 2009, the biggest cut yet to UK science was announced: £600 million from higher education and science and research budgets (page 110), and experts and political observers generally expect tens of millions more on the way in the near future. Indeed, the UK government now invests in pure science at levels comparable to the days when Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister.
The prospect of Hawking working in Canada notwithstanding, Canada also faces drastic cuts to science, including a $113 million reduction in research funding over the next 3 years. The new budget proposes $488.5 million for the Canada Foundation for Innovation, but with the stipulation that research be prioritized at the Industry Minister’s discretion. Furthermore, an unspecified amount has been promised for business-related degrees.
I’ll repeat that: Canada’s Minister of Industry (not science), Tony Clement, will be dictating how the lions’ share of funds will be distributed, and another lump-sum will be shifted away from science (and the humanities) and into business education.
What is happening in this process (in the UK and Canada) is a re-prioritization of what science should be doing. Both countries face an aging population, climate issues, and a troubling economy, so the states have decided that saving money is a priority, as is spending what money there is on specific goal-oriented projects. This treats science more as an engineering problem than a scientific one.
As Carl Sagan observed in The Demon-Haunted World: