“The fact is that science is having a colossal effect on the world scene, and as a result we cannot responsibly opt out of the debate on world affairs.” (Interview with John Polanyi, Chemical Intelligencer, October 1996)

Nobel Laureate John Polanyi

John Polanyi celebrates his 90th birthday on January 23. Born in Berlin, Polanyi came to Canada from Manchester after postdoctoral studies at Canada’s National Research Council and Princeton University, and he has been a member of University of Toronto’s Department of Chemistry since 1956. In recognition of his contributions to the understanding of the dynamics of the chemical elementary processes, Polanyi received the 1986 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, along with American scientist Dudley Herschbach and Yuan T. Lee, Taiwan’s first Nobel laureate.

Polanyi comes from a creative and curiosity-driven family. His father, Michael Polanyi, who initially taught chemistry at Manchester, became a highly respected philosopher — one of his essays, “The Republic of Science: Its Political and Economic Theory” remains a classic in the field of science policy.

It is almost a given that many high profile scientists today recognize their responsibility to engage in global polity and social affairs. We have seen it from more recent Canadian Nobel laureates, including Art McDonald, Donna Strickland, and earlier with Gerhard Herzberg.

After all, science is embedded in culture, society and context; scientists are citizens. But not all are as eloquent or principled on the subject as Polanyi, who speaks and write about many topical matters including human rights and democracy, science and the power of ideas, peace and disarmament, the responsible role of the scientist as citizen, and the critical quality of excellence.

In 1960, Polanyi became the founding chair of the Canadian branch of Pugwash, an international organization dedicated to reducing the danger of armed conflict and seek solutions to global security threats. He held that position until 1978, when he chaired an international symposium, “Dangers of Nuclear War”, which was followed by a book of that same title.

He has also been active in various science policy debates over the past decades. In 1992, when the Progressive Conservative government eliminate the Science Council of Canada along with other think tanks and organizations, Polanyi appeared before a House of Commons Committee as a witness to defend the Council, noting that “every government is entitled to shoot itself in the foot, but when it shoots itself in the head, then citizens should try to prevent that from happening”.

Excepts of his other ideas continue to resonate:

On Democracy and Human Rights

(“On Balance” — Address to the 1998 M.D. graduates, Faculty of Medicine, University of Toronto, 1998)

We scientists do not grant a monopoly of the truth to any nationality, religion, or ethnicity. We are in conscience bound to combat any regime that stifles free debate and victimizes people for their beliefs. We are the natural allies of all who demand democracy and respect for human rights.

On Excellence vs Relevance

(“The Power of ideas: If Science is an investment in our future, that means it is everybody’s business”, University of Toronto Bulletin, November 10, 1997)

This shift in emphasis from excellence to relevance will fail to deliver value for money for two reasons. First of all because excellence is, of its nature, rare. We cannot take our federal or provincial shopping cart and select the excellence we prefer. What we can do, and are driven to do, is to compromise excellence in the interest of supposed relevance. That brings me to the second reason that this policy will fail. It is, most of the time, a very bad bargain to barter excellence for relevance since both the discovery that one wishes to see made and its application is well into the future. Of all things the future is the hardest to predict.

On the nature of research

(“Shackling Research Suffocates Creativity and Commerce”, The Toronto Star, February 5, 1998)

It is today widely accepted that government direction impedes creativity in commerce. And yet it is supposed to be just the ticket for university science. This is odd, since science, like commerce, is a creative enterprise, crucially dependent on individual initiative.

Academic science is, in fact, harder to plan than commerce. This is because it takes place at several removes from the consumer. In commerce the imponderable is, “What will people buy”? In science it is what will scientists discover, what devices will that lead to, and only then, what will people buy”?

How is it that governments that would not be so stupid as to micromanage commerce attempt to micromanage science? Briefly, it is because there are more businesspeople in government to object to over-management than there are scientists.

John Polanyi in his laboratory, 1986

John Polanyi, HFCIC, in his laboratory, 1986. Photo credit: Stephen Behal, University of Toronto.