By day you can find Rui Resendes at the Kingston, Ont. headquarters of GreenCentre Canada, located in a research park just a few kilometres from the campus of Queen’s University. There he is executive director of a commercialization enterprise dedicated to sustainable chemistry. The work reflects his varied professional background, which includes stints as an industrial chemist as well as an entrepreneur.
By night that background gets even more colourful. You can find him in the Merchant Tap House, a local watering hole, where he plays bass for a funk, rock and R&B band called The Great Unwashed. He describes this as the ongoing expression of a passion he can pinpoint to first hearing The Who’s “My Generation” when he was 13 years old, so that within a few years he had inserted himself into the Toronto club scene.
The interface of these two worlds can be found in Resendes’ office at GreenCentre Canada, where a pair of guitars are mounted on his office wall. One of them, a cream-coloured Fender Stratocaster, is emblazoned with signatures — not from any musical idols, but rather from his lab mates, who presented it to him after he successfully defended his PhD thesis. That makes it all the more precious a keepsake, and an even more powerful symbol of what invigorates a scientific career.
“A technology can be likened to a talented musician,” he suggests. “By itself it’s full of tremendous potential but can only impact the lives of others when it becomes part of a group. If everyone knows their role, listens to the other players, executes their part and keeps a careful eye on timing, wonderful things can happen!”
For Resendes, this is far more than a cute analogy to be trotted out for luncheon talks. It is an anthem he would like students and newcomers in chemistry to hear loud and clear. However skilled they may be in the technical niceties of this field, it will matter little if nobody cares about your discovery, your innovation, or your goals.
“The first thing we ask ourselves is ‘who cares?’, ” he says, outlining the underlying business model for GreenCentre Canada, which is supported by the Ontario and federal governments. “And there’s different levels of ‘who cares?’. Why should the research community care? Is it unique, is it profound enough a discovery? Why should the industrial community care? These are the people who will ultimately mobilize this innovation in the form of a new product or new process. The third, and in my mind most important, is why should my parents care?”
Making people care is a matter of communication, he adds, a skill that is often neglected by researchers who assume that the quality of their scientific work will speak for itself. By focusing too sharply on data sets and publications, it is all too possible to overlook the other aspects of what goes into a successful scientific enterprise — a willingness to listen, to share ideas with others, and above all to build a network that transcends the academic boundaries of the discipline. Resendes likes to remind young chemists that prospective employers are looking for an appreciation of those other aspects.
“They don’t just want the chemists to know chemistry,” he says. “They want them to be able to function in an office setting or a lab setting or whatever role they’re going to be in. It takes a lot more than just chemistry to be able to do that.”
In fact, communication amounts to much more than assembling a clear, coherent poster or PowerPoint presentation, although the process can start there. But if the audience does not extend beyond a relatively confined circle of like-minded scientists, this kind of communications will not respond to the thorny question of “who cares?” And while that question can be dodged for some time, ignoring it altogether can sometimes lead to disastrous consequences.
Consider the example of the Experimental Lakes Area (ELA), an extraordinary and venerable environmental research institution that the federal government intends to close this year. This remote site in northwestern Ontario was set aside in the 1960s as the site for investigations of biochemical interactions at a scale closer to the workings of a natural ecosystem, rather than the limited setting of a laboratory or even a field station. Whole lakes can be isolated and manipulated to determine the role of particular agents, so that the resulting observations should faithfully reflect what happens generally in the environment.
Among the ELA’s shining moments were key findings about the role of phosphorus runoff and eutrophication, the uncontrolled growth of nutrients that were choking the life out of Lake Erie in the 1970s. This research was conclusive enough to shame major soap manufacturers into altering the formulation of their products and lowering the volume of phosphates that were being flushed into the lake from municipal wastewater streams.
In spite of prompting such a significant social and economic change, the ELA itself remained remote and low profile. Operated under the authority of Fisheries and Oceans Canada, the facility’s funding had repeatedly been called into question since the early 1990s. In 2008, a profile in Science noted the dozens of graduate students and technicians populating the place were transient, and only six government scientists were actually working there full time.
Word of the ELA’s closing prompted outrage from Canada’s scientific community, along with tributes to the site’s outstanding track record. There was even a protest rally on Parliament Hill that drew thousands of people in an unprecedented show of support for the value of publicly funded science. Yet even one of that rally’s organizers concedes the real challenge posed by the government’s decision.
“The value that science gives to society is being constantly degraded by people who don’t understand what it’s about, in part because we don’t tell them what it’s about,” explains Scott Findlay, former director of the University of Ottawa’s Institute of the Environment. “We have to get out in front of issues that we think are looming on the horizon.”
In other words, the question of “who cares?” should have been especially significant to justify the existence of a research body that remained effectively out of sight and out of mind for most of the Canadian population. Findlay doubts that even the most ambitious marketing strategy would have saved the ELA in the face of a government that he regards as having an ideological bias against the application of scientific evidence for public policy. Nevertheless, he argues that scientists should take advantage of every opportunity to tackle such biases head-on.
As dramatic as that kind of confrontation might sound, Findlay notes that it means inserting yourself into the often mundane political machinery that might otherwise yield these undesirable decisions. In his case, this step led him to spend three years as a member of the Challenge Advisory Panel that helped the federal government frame a new regulatory regime for managing the use of chemicals. It was a time-consuming effort that reviewed risk assessments for more than 100 agents, but when it was done, he felt it was a better investment of his energies than much of his traditional laboratory work.
“I started to see that I had things to contribute that could potentially change the way we do risk assessment of toxics in Canada,” he recalls.
Philip Jessop, GreenCentre Canada’s Technical Director, gained a similar insight when he joined a provincial government expert panel dealing with Ontario’s Toxics Reduction Act. He turned out to be the only member who was a chemist, in a position that gave him the ear of the Minister of the Environment.
“I really felt that I made a difference there,” he says. “And I was really delighted about how willing they were to listen to the scientist’s viewpoint. It was actually easy. I just had to make the first move. The idea that politicians don’t want to listen — that’s not where the problem lies.”
Unfortunately, it is all too easy to subscribe to a caricature of government representatives as know-nothing bureaucrats with no interest in educating themselves on the value of science. And even if this prejudice can be set aside, there remain some serious disincentives for working scientists to build stronger relationships with these officials. Such activities eat into time that would otherwise be spent in the lab conducting research or in the office preparing publications, activities that will yield the tangible results necessary to maintain one’s standing in the job.
“It’s very easy, but you have to pay a price,” admits Jessop. “You have to be willing to help.”
And that willingness, insists Resendes, ultimately yields its own set of results that can be even more valuable.
“It’s a snowball effect,” he argues. “If you play nice with the political audiences, if you actually become an integral part of their strategy, you’re positioned for research funding, students are going to want to work with you because you have a more influential group, you’re consequently going to get more papers, your university is going to be happy because there’s more overhead. It’s all linked in to an ability to sell yourself in multiple stakeholder groups, whether it’s industry, whether it’s policy makers in government, whether it’s philanthropic groups.”
As enticing as these advantages might be, most scientists veer away from them, according to University of Ottawa biologist Rees Kassen. Instead, they act on a desire to defend basic research as a pursuit that should be sheltered from the day-to-day demands of budgets and progress reports, an outlook that he traces back to traditional images of independent, gentleman-practitioner scientists who were free to muse on the natural world at their leisure. Kassen appreciates this sentiment all too well, especially whenever he finds himself wrapped up in some esoteric exchange with colleagues on topics that would make absolutely no sense to a disinterested onlooker.
“On the one hand, this stuff is fascinating, and it does matter to the science,” he says. “On the other hand, sometimes it matters less to the bigger picture, and I find myself trying to make my own work more relevant.”
For several years he has been helping the scientific community build bridges to government as chair of the Partnership Group for Science and Engineering (PAGSE) (a position from which he recently stepped down), a collaboration amongst various pure and applied scientific organizations. PAGSE annually compiles briefs for Parliament on the state of research and development in Canada, based on input from these various member organizations. The content is specifically intended to outline the perceived priorities of scientists and engineers without any specific intent to lobby, an approach that has been welcomed by MPs braced for yet another request for more funding.
“We’ve been working to educate the government that a vigorous and healthy economy requires a pipeline from fundamental research to applied innovation and economic growth,” he says. “With this particular government that we have now, I think they have come to see the value of basic research.”
That claim flies in the face of criticism being hurled at the government in the wake of the ELA closure, not to mention other cutbacks in direct federal support for basic scientific work. While the leading-from-behind approach of PAGSE will not necessarily satisfy individuals who simply want to take government to task, Kassen maintains that the stakes are even higher.
“Science is not seen as a regular part of civil society, but removed from it,” he says. “I would like to see it brought into civil society discussion.”
Resendes agrees, calling on scientists to volunteer for that discussion, and to do so in a way that will engage the broadest possible audience. That means setting aside the many details of scientific endeavour in order to tell a story that commands public attention. Those details will not be lost, only set aside until the discussion inspires participants to want to know more.
Getting people to love music is no less a challenge, he concludes. He continues to play bass because of The Who, not because he was intrigued with the note structure and timing.
“If you take a promising young student with a guitar, sit them down, then you go into musical theory — talk about chord structures and harmony and melody — I guarantee they will never touch that guitar again,” he says. “But what if you sit them down and teach them how to play a couple of popular songs? Then they’re hooked.”