Canadian winner bemoans bureaucracy

Jill Mahoney and Elizabeth Church

Globe and Mail

he Canadian inventor of technology that led to the birth of digital photography won a Nobel Prize Tuesday. But physicist Willard Boyle had to move to the United States to do his cutting-edge work.

Dr. Boyle, who won the award with former colleague George Smith, warned that managers need to give scientists leeway to come up with the kinds of transformative inventions that are too often stifled by paperwork and red tape.

What scientists face today is “almost disgraceful … The bureaucrats want to get a hold of the money and ask for business plans. Now do you think that George Smith and I ever wrote a business plan? Not at all,” Dr. Boyle, now 85 and retired, told a reporter Tuesday. “You don’t have time to do that kind of baloney.”

Early in his career, Dr. Boyle got a job at Bell Laboratories, a private research lab in New Jersey where he was given free rein to pursue his interests. He and Dr. Smith, who is American, came up with their invention while sketching possibilities on a blackboard in October, 1969.

“There was something about that institution,” Dr. Boyle told The Chronicle-Herald in Halifax, where he lives with his wife of 62 years, Betty.

“I guess it was the management and the style and the general environment of the place.”

The former co-workers shared part of the Nobel Prize for physics for inventing the first successful imaging technology using a digital sensor: the charge-coupled device, an imaging semiconductor circuit that serves as the “electronic eye” of digital cameras. In addition, the technology, which quickly transforms light into a large number of image points, or pixels, is used in microsurgery instruments and was used to take the first photographs of Mars.

Dr. Boyle, who retired from Bell Labs in 1979, said policy-makers should look at the practices of think tanks that produce Nobel Prize-winners and their useful technology, instead of “pouring money randomly into [things], expecting the same results.”

“Usually most of the management people or the politicians haven’t got the foggiest idea of what science is all about,” he told the paper. What is needed is “an appreciation for the free will, free spirit of scientists. Give them a chance to do the things they want to do.”

Dr. Boyle and Dr. Smith shared the Nobel Prize for physics with Charles Kao, who discovered how to transmit light signals over long distances through thin glass fibres.

Dr. Boyle, who was born in Amherst, N.S., was home-schooled by his mother until he started high school at Lower Canada College in Montreal. He attended McGill University, earning a PhD in physics in 1950.

News of the prize comes as scholars in Canada and around the world are becoming increasingly concerned about the tendency of governments to wade into research by putting strings on funding. In Canada, moves by the federal government to fund projects directly rather than through arms-length granting councils have come under fire by the academic community, as have restrictions on some money given to the councils.

Chaviva Hosek, head of the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research, a non-profit group that receives federal and provincial funding as well as private sector support, said there needs to be a mix of funding that includes support and freedom for researchers taking “the big risks.”

Opportunities to do research in the private sector are rare in Canada, where research and development investment by business lags that of other developed nations. Business spending on R&D is equal to about 1 per cent of GDP. That’s well below the 1.56-per-cent average for OECD countries and the 1.89 per cent spent by U.S. industry.

“The question we really have to ask is where are the next Bell Labs?” said Arvind Gupta, a computer science professor at the University of British Columbia and scientific director of MITACS, a national organization that promotes the value of research to businesses.

While Canada has attracted scholars and fostered talent with programs such as the Canada Research Chairs, the country is struggling to hold on to top graduates and create the kind of culture of research in industry that exists in the United States, Prof. Gupta said.

“How can you get young people to stay here when the research jobs are in the U.S.? I think we as a country have to think about how we can encourage more research-intensive jobs here and who are going to be the research drivers of the future. We are punching below our weight on this one,” he said.

Tom Jenkins, chief executive officer of Open Text Corp., a software company that grew out of the University of Waterloo, said research capacity in Canada is evolving. In the past decade, he noted that Open Text and RIM, the Blackberry maker based in Waterloo, Ont., are in the top 20 spenders on research in the private and public sector in Canada.

“This is a natural outcome of our shift from a manufacturing economy to a services economy,” he said in an e-mail from Japan where he is attending a science and technology conference

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