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Canadian Science Policy Centre | Are we Jupiters in the celestial field of science?: How 'Big Science' and major facilities influence Canadian Science Culture

Are we Jupiters in the celestial field of science?: How 'Big Science' and major facilities influence Canadian Science Culture

Conference Day: 
November 25

Large-scale science facilities are important drivers for growing Canada’s future economy and fostering innovation in industry. These facilities present a challenge for traditional science policy/research because they require a large up-front capital commitment with significant ongoing operating costs as compared to University-based individual researchers. This structure can unfortunately lend itself to a view that large facilities are inwardly-focused, instead of focusing on the national research program and increasing Canada's science capital and culture.

However, these large facilities/infrastructure are dynamic, supporting a broad cross section of academic, government, and industrial users from many different disciplines. They include the Canadian Light Source, TRIUMF, Compute Canada and SNOLAB to name a few. This panel will discuss how the public engagement and sharing from large science facilities might differ from that of an individual researcher - and whether large science facilities have a greater obligation in influencing the Canadian scientific landscape.

From the training of highly qualified personnel to the engagement of the private sector through unique research capabilities to the transfer of laboratory-developed technology to Canadian businesses, these facilities stimulate growth at both the local and national levels but also are a major component in shaping the scientific landscape and developing a strong culture within our citizens.

Takeaways and recommendations: 
  • Big science is a long-term game, with research solutions leading to technological advancement, industry engagement and economic impact
  • Big science facilities encourage international collaboration and leverage benefits for Canadian and foreign participants alike
  • Advanced research computing is essential to collaboration and must be constantly upgraded
  • Significant investment is needed to scale the benefits of big science facilities from individual researchers to society at large
  • Canada is a small country and must identify niches where it can excel and succeed
  • Issues faced by large science facilities can’t be addressed by a bottom-up, proposal-driven funding model. It’s time for Canada to take a second look at how these facilities are supported.
Session Report: 
Big science facilities driving international collaboration

Panel: Are We Jupiters in the Celestial Field of Science?
Organized by SNOLAB
CSPC 2015: November 25, 2015

Moderator: Timothy Meyer, Chief Operating Officer, Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory; Panelists: Johnathan Bagger, Director, TRIUMF; Robert Lamb, Chief Executive Officer, Canadian Light Source;
Dugan O’Neil, Chief Science Officer, Compute Canada; Nigel Smith, Director, SNOLAB

The policy issue:

Canada’s big science facilities, despite their cost to build and operate, are critical to international collaboration, scientific advancement and long-term social and economic benefit. Four of Canada’s major science facilities – TRIUMF, SNO LAB, the Canadian Light Source and Compute Canada – are significant contributors to the rapidly growing global knowledge base and the interchange of science between research communities and beyond. Their expertise facilitates new avenues of exploration, the training of new researchers and support for cutting-edge industry sectors.

The size and scale of major science facilities is key to their influence and impact, facilitated by astute project management and dialogue between facilities.

“The whole idea is to deliver compelling science. That’s really the driver of everything we’re trying to achieve. The way you do that is to develop unique tools and infrastructure. There’s an element of size and scale here that is not usually accessible to universities themselves but when you collaborate you can develop large infrastructures that can springboard the science forward,” said Smith. “It’s also the ability to connect to a broader research community internally within Canada and externally. All of these facilities have many external connections which allow Canada and lever the investments and deliver compelling science outputs.”

Smith said each of the four facilities represented by the panel are working on world-class niche science projects, from wheat and agriculture and medical isotope production at the Canadian Light Source to isotope research and production for physics and medicine at TRIUMF’s ARIEL (Advanced Rare IsotopE Laboratory)—its flagship superconducting electron accelerator.

The options:

People are the primary vehicle for transferring research knowledge into practice, making training a critical component for future researchers and engineers. The four big science facilities represented on the panel engage more than 9,000 graduate students and host 15,000 users a year from about 40 countries. Lamb says the circulation of that huge brain trust is integral to Canada’s participation and collaboration with researchers worldwide, as well as the communities in which they are located.

“It’s like an exclusive club where everyone can join. You have to engage people at every level including those outside who want to know why you’d invest in such a facility,” said Lamb. “These national facilities have international networks and they connect into the national facilities … The best way to retain talent is when (students and researchers) get to a certain point they should leave. Then they create their own networks and it’s those networks that make these big science facilities happen.”

Like all fundamental research, science at big science facilities can generate unexpected, disruptive technologies that have a profound impact on the economy and society at large. Bagger said a key role of laboratory directors is to ensure that the intense creativity at these facilities also benefits Canadians. The unique equipment and instrumentation should be developed in Canada—instead of bought off the shelf—with opportunities to spinout those innovations into the commercial realm.

Bagger says there at least four examples of this transfer of knowledge, starting with the development of TRIUMF’s first cyclotron which was contracted to EBCO Industries Ltd. The Vancouver-based companies turned the expertise gained in building the cyclotron into a spin-off company – Advanced Cyclotron System Inc – which is now one of the world’s biggest builders of medical cyclotrons. A similar outcome arose from TRIUMF’s collaboration with PAVAC Industries Inc., which is a now global leader in hybrid electron beam products and services.

“Real Made-in-Canada technology came from partnering with a national lab,” said Bagger. “Put large concentrations of infrastructure in place and use them to attract talented people to solve technological problems … That’s how the World Wide Web came out of CERN.”

Big science facilities are also a potent generator of multidisciplinary, cross-sectoral research which is increasingly defining many fields of study, including the social sciences and humanities. The ability to access the advanced research computing represented by Compute Canada is essential for fostering such research, said O’Neil. Of the 2,700 faculty members who use Compute Canada services, the largest group is comprised of engineers, computer scientists and mathematicians. But there are also hundreds of users from medicine, biology and bioinformatics, as well as physicists, chemists and environmental chemist, and social scientists.

“At Compute Canada, we have expert staff who know how to support all disciplines and take knowledge from one discipline and apply it to others,” said O’Neil. “People in the digital humanities are using sequence alignment technologies that originate in bioinformatics to do text studies … Large science facilities are a fertile ground for people from different areas that come together to solve different problems with similar tools.”

Canada’s big science facilities are successful despite a less than optimal funding environment. Bagger said that, unlike the United States and other advanced nations, Canada lacks a cohesive funding structure that addresses these facilities holistically.

“We need to look at the connection between capital funding and operations because sometimes it seems a little chancy,” said Bagger. “You build these facilities and then put a mortgage on them for 20 or 30 years and this has to be fully understood.”



Chief Operating Officer
Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory

Tim Meyer is COO at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, America’s laboratory for particle physics and accelerators. He is a member of a four-person executive leadership team. Meyer earned his Ph.D. in experimental particle physics from... [ READ MORE ]


Director / Former Interim Vice-Provost
TRIUMF, Johns Hopkins University

Dr. Jonathan Bagger was elected Director of TRIUMF effective July 1st, 2014. Prior to his role at TRIUMF, he was appointed Vice Provost for Graduate and Postdoctoral Programs at Johns Hopkins University for six years. A faculty member since 1989... [ READ MORE ]

Chief Executive Officer
Canadian Light Source

Robert Lamb is the Chief Executive Officer of the Canadian Light Source, Canada’s national synchrotron facility in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.

Professor Lamb completed a PhD in Surface Chemistry at The University of Melbourne and a PhD in... [ READ MORE ]

Chief Science Officer
Compute Canada

Dugan O’Neil is Compute Canada’s Chief Science Officer. He is interested in particle physics at the energy frontier. His involvement in Compute Canada started in 2003 when he was an early user (beta tester) of WestGrid resources at SFU and UBC.... [ READ MORE ]


Nigel Smith joined SNOLAB as Director during July 2009. He currently holds adjunct Professor status at Queen’s and Laurentian Universities, a visiting research position at the U.K. STFC Rutherford Appleton Laboratory and a visiting Professorial... [ READ MORE ]