SPECIAL REPORT

Tale Of Two Nobels

Sidney Altman went off to Yale and John Polanyi stayed at home. Canada needs them both.

BARRY CAME October 21 1991
SPECIAL REPORT

Tale Of Two Nobels

Sidney Altman went off to Yale and John Polanyi stayed at home. Canada needs them both.

BARRY CAME October 21 1991

Tale Of Two Nobels

Sidney Altman went off to Yale and John Polanyi stayed at home. Canada needs them both.

In 1956, when he was 17 years old, Sidney Altman embarked upon his still unfulfilled quest. Armed with a passion for science and a diploma from Montreal’s West Hill High School, he left Canada to pursue university-level studies at the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge.

Recalled Altman, now 52: “I was determined to succeed—and I was also determined to return home.”

By any measure, he has accomplished the first of those objectives. Altman crowned a long and distinguished career as scientist and educator by winning a share of the 1989 Nobel Prize for chemistry. But despite this success, he has yet to find a path home. And for that, he blames the authorities in the land of his birth, who rebuffed repeated attempts to secure funding for his postgraduate studies and his early work. “The reception was not very friendly,” he told Maclean ’s earlier this month, leaning across his littered desk in a cramped office at Yale University in New Haven, Conn., where he has taught biochemistry and genetics since 1971. “I found to my dismay that Canada had a very narrow attitude towards Canadian researchers who had earned degrees abroad.”

The situation may well have changed in the quarter-century that has elapsed since Altman searched for Canadian financing to launch his career. Indeed, there are some in Canada’s academic community who fault Altman for failing to explore fully the avenues that existed even then. “I think that he may have been misinformed,” suggested the

University of Toronto’s John Polanyi, whose experience is in many ways a mirror image of Altman’s. German-bom and British-educated, the 62-year-old Polanyi, currently a professor of chemistry at U of T, moved from Europe to Canada in 1952 precisely because of the available opportunities for research. His inquiries into what he has described as “the molecular dance underlying chemical reactions” won him a share of the 1986 Nobel Prize in chemistry.

But no matter what the disagreement about the adequacy of Canadian policies, few dispute that the future of advanced Canadian research will depend on the ability to attract—and hold on to—individuals very much like Sidney Altman. “People like him should be our prime target,” says Polanyi. “If we cannot get bright scientists with roots in Canada to throw in their lot with this country, then we are lost.” Both Nobel laureates agree that nurturing and retaining the kind of scientific talent capable of operating along the cutting edge of human knowledge has never been an easy task in Canada. "I’m afraid that it all boils down to money,” says Altman. “I know several Canadians here in the United States, outstanding people, who would go home if they could match the conditions they have here—money for facilities, money for students and postdoctoral fellows, money for the next several years for their research.”

Polanyi’s view is similar. “Where do bright young Canadian scientists go to get a job?” he asked a visitor in the tidy suite of offices he occupies

at the University of Toronto’s downtown campus. “They can look for it in the Canadian academic world, where employment is scarce because universities are trying to shrink their faculties. They can look for it in Canadian government laboratories, where exactly the same situation prevails. Or they can look for it in Canadian industry, which, as is well known, has yet to commit itself to high technology.”

Indeed, in 1988, the National Advisory Board on Science and Technology, a federal advisory committee composed of leading members of the political, business and academic communities, recommended that Ottawa double the amount of money allocated to Canadian university research funding over a three-year period. The recommendation is still awaiting action. Earlier this year, the parliamentary standing committee on science and technology arrived at exactly the same conclusion. That committee’s report, as well, is awaiting a response from the federal government.

In addition to the scarcity of funds, advanced Canadian research also suffers from another, subtler handicap.

“There is always pressure in this country to try to make fundamental science responsive to the marketplace,” claimed Polanyi. He mentioned by way of example the fact that both the Ontario and federal governments have attempted to justify the recent creation of networks of university-based “centres of excellence” on the grounds of industrial spin-offs. In the view of Polanyi and Altman, that is a dangerous rationale. “If basic science is being sacrificed for applied science, it is a huge mistake,” says Altman, underlining the vast differences in time pressures in the two approaches. Polanyi voiced

the same opinion. “To do well in basic science, you have to look for a payoff that is 10 or 15 or 20 years hence,” he explained. “Industry wants results in two or three years. In Japan, even the big companies understand the need for patience.”

Both laureates point to their own prize-winning research to illustrate the necessity of forbearance. It took nearly two decades before Polanyi’s early observations about molecular excitation during chemical reactions eventually led to the creation of a marketable chemical laser. Similarly, while Altman’s discoveries concerning the catalytic nature of the genetic material ribonucleic acid opened the door to the development of new methods to prevent viral diseases, those methods remain possibilities rather than realities.

Polanyi and Altman agree on another point, as well, but their views run counter to some long-standing Canadian ideals. “Canada has always been constrained by the notion that everybody across the country should get a little bit of the pie so that everybody feels part of the country,” explained Altman. “But for a country with limited resources, the best strategy is to create a few outstanding centres and try to put the best talent you have in those centres.” To some Canadian ears, Altman’s suggestion may sound alarmingly elitist. But as Polyani, leaping to the defence of his fellow Nobel laureate, argued, “Elitism in academe is no more vicious that elitism in, say, hockey. And in hockey I’ll bet there are not many Canadians who think that all teams should be roughly equal.”

In any case, there are some clear moves in the direction suggested by the two Nobel laureates: the Ontario government has established seven centres of research excellence, and Ottawa has subsequently decided to develop 14 networks of research centres involving 30 universities from across Canada. Despite some skepticism, Polanyi greets those measures as largely positive. He says that the twinned Ontario-Ottawa initiatives have increased Canadian funding for research by about 10 per cent. “It’s far less than the doubling that has been repeatedly recommended,” he says, “but it is, at least, a hopeful development.” Altman, too, is encouraged. “It’s a sign that Canada is drifting very, very slowly towards adopting the kind of policies needed to create the proper environment for firstclass research,” he said. But the Yale scientist is still not completely convinced: “I think that there’s a lot more that has to be done.” Has there been enough progress to persuade him that it might be time finally to come home? “I’ve never given up the hope that I might one day return to Canada,” he replied non-committally, before pausing to add with a smile: “And I still have my Canadian passport.”

BARRY CAME