Can you spare 25 years?

By Dick Bourgeois-Doyle

 

In November 1988, I had a good idea for science promotion.

You may be thinking, “He had so few ideas that he knows their dates?”

But I remember the timing of this idea not for my genius but because of the advice I received. I bounced my proposition off Dr. Bernie Gingras, then the National Research Council (NRC) Vice-President of External Relations. I probably chose him as my abat-voix because he was a kind, encouraging man, and I just wanted to be told “good idea.”

Instead, Bernie asked me a question.

“Would you be willing to commit twenty-five years to this project?”

I thought a bit, wondered why he was asking this, and lied.

“I guess so, probably.”

That idea did survive for almost twenty-five years thanks to the ingenuity and dedication of others, and Bernie’s challenge has stuck with me even longer. In the years since, haunted by that question, I noticed something mystical about this stretch of time in the gestation of scientific innovation. 

Two and a half decades may seem inordinate today when applications of the blockchain and backpropagation fly from the lab to the market on a whirlwind.

Yet I have been indelibly impressed by how many celebrated Canadian innovations and science successes endured ups and downs, dry periods, and darkness of about twenty-five years before bearing fruit and fame. Even the idea of creating a National Research Council for Canada, hatched in 1916 to mobilize resources for war, did not really realize its intentions until the early days of another global conflict just about twenty-five years later. 

I can think of many examples. But three stories flood my brain when I ponder this principle. 

One is the development of conjugate vaccines. Many cite the touchstone date as January 1999 when the meningitis deaths of school children in south Wales brought anxiety to a head in the United Kingdom. Parents marched in the streets. Under pressure for a new intervention, the British government launched a blanket immunization program using a novel new serum from across the pond. Millions of children were protected, the outbreaks were stopped, and special attention fell on a now celebrated Canadian federal scientist Dr. Harry Jennings.

While this event brought highlighting interest to Harry and his work, this moment and the capacity to respond had its origins in the 1970s when Dr. Jennings and his colleagues started playing around with NMR techniques. Their work on bacterial polysaccharides drew collaborations and the insights leading to a first conjugate vaccine patent, a world’s first, in the early 1980s. Business interests saw the coupling technology as ready for commercial production and the manufacture of human vaccines.

Others have documented the science and the important medical implications of the discovery.

But when I recall this science success, I think of the human dimension as expressed in a sensitive speech Harry Jennings gave to graduates at Carleton University in 2004. In giving credit to others like BioChem Pharma founder Francesco Bellini, he indirectly, but effectively described the years of commitment and tenacity it takes to bring such an insight to life.

I am sure Dr. Jennings and those who work in these sectors look back on the conjugate vaccine story as the norm and even one of the easy ones today. But you could tell from his emotional words to the students that day that there were times in his career when he felt baffled. He had a proven, viable innovation that had clear human benefit and commercial potential, but it still struggled to retain support and find its way into production. It is something for people like me to keep in mind when advancing “good ideas” with lesser ambitions.

Another story from this era that brings the image of a twenty-five-year calendar to my mind relates to the Academy Award for Computer Animation Technology presented to two Canadian scientists, Nestor Burtnyk and Marcelli Wein, in 1997. Unlike the Oscars for best performances or films, the Academy’s science and technology awards honour not achievement of the previous year, but rather impact on the film industry. In this context, two and a half decades of activity can be an advantage.

Nestor is now recognized as the inventor of key frame technology, the basic process of generating transitions from one key image to another. Marcelli, Nestor’s collaborator, helped sustain the Canadian base in the ensuing years, mentoring students at the University of Waterloo, applying the techniques in high-profile engineering projects, and helping pioneer human-computer interface.

Their technology still underpins almost all computer animation, even the most sophisticated systems. Though Burtnyk and Wein developed the technique in the early 1970s, their work did not generate that Academy recognition until the 1990s when blockbuster movies like the first Toy Story and Jurassic Park highlighted the impact and the strength of the derivative Canadian computer animation industry.

If you look for them with this bias, one can easily find similarly illustrative, twenty-five-year-plus science and technology stories, but if I had to choose a case study to be taught in all Canadian schools, it would be the development of Canola, the multi-billion-dollar crop and unique food source.

Today when we celebrate the plant breeding work that produced the specific strain of edible oilseed and transformed prairie agriculture, the merit of the scientific enterprise may seem obvious, and the process of testing plants might strike some as straightforward and conventional. But when I review the history of Canola, I am intrigued by all the other disciplines involved, the times when business and political decisions threatened the work, and diversity of players that remained engaged for over twenty-five years. Elements of the success can be traced to post-war efforts to find alternative uses for rapeseed plants and to basic research on chromatography in the 1950s. But I think it is fair to say that it was not until the late 1970s when the first truly viable strains, so-called “double-low” (rapeseed with zero erucic acid and low glucosinolate) sand northern climate ready, were registered and market opportunities coalesced to prompt trademarking of the name “canola.”

In a way, these projects never end. 

International competition, climate changes, and new technologies demand continual refinement of agricultural crops like Canola, many other diseases and strains of meningitis beg application of conjugate vaccine technology, and computer animation permeates almost all human endeavor and are continuously advancing.

But I still see something magical about that initial twenty-five-year, foundational, foothold-establishing period – even with respect to those whirlwind innovations making headlines today.

It is certainly easy to recognize these chunks of time in the artificial intelligence realm and even to trace some of today’s hottest techniques to ideas congealed in the 1980s, nurtured by enthusiasts, and let loose by the 21st century flood of big data and data storage. Even the blockchain that seemed to burst onto the world a decade ago has its conceptual origins to papers on cryptography in the early 1990s.

It would therefore be a little precious for modern Canada to claim long term thinking as its purview. In fact, many ancient cultures have such a philosophy at their core. The Seventh Generation Principle of The Great Law of the Iroquois Confederacy is a societal-level enunciation, and many individuals in history have advocated such an approach. 

One person who consistently thought this way was Sir John Maddox.

One of the great privileges to cross my career path was the opportunity to get to know him a bit, arranging his visit to Ottawa, helping with his presentations, and chauffeuring him around town. The late Sir John, a scientist, author, and educator renowned as the Editor of Nature for two terms and a period stretching close to twenty-five-years, lived in the long-term world. 

He often challenged people like me to think in terms of thousands or tens of thousands of years when considering issues that affect humanity or, alternatively, to confess that our decisions had a shorter, self-interest-based timeline.

The magic sparkled for me years ago at an Ottawa workshop for university students that referenced Sir John’s counsel and invited participants to suggest social, economic, and intellectual challenges for Canadian science to tackle in the 21st century. When the proposed timeframes were limited, the proffered challenges were modest and pedestrian. But when the students were given twenty-five years to address an issue, nothing seemed beyond possibility: finding life on other planets, curing dreadful disease, or bringing fresh water and peace to troubled places.

The most inspiring moments of my government science bureaucrat career came in sitting a table and realizing that none of the people around it would ever personally benefit from the projects under discussion: ventures that would only come to fruition decades down the road after all careers and many lives had expired. I saw this same perspective in the scientists and engineers, administrators and animators, farmers and physicians, parents, and politicians behind those Canadian science successes, and I now recognize it in Bernie Gingras’ teasing response to my good idea of November 1988.

Thinking in a twenty-five-year way empowers planning, encourages collaborations, values mentoring, and impels a vision beyond self-interest. It also makes you appreciate being part of something bigger and more enduring than yourself: like an institution, a government, a country. I have certainly found it helpful in the long-term project that is my life.

Try it the next time you think you have a good idea.

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