New Science Model is a “Recipe for Anything But Innovation”

An award-winning atmospheric scientist says his work “could not have been accomplished under the kind of science management that has emerged”.

The highest honour for an Atmospheric Scientist in Canada is the Patterson Medal for distinguished service to Meteorology. The most recent winner, named at this past May’s CMOS Congress, was Prof. C. Thomas McElroy from York University. McElroy has had a long and celebrated career in Atmospheric Science. For years he was a Senior Scientist at Environment Canada in the Ozone Group, where he co-invented the UV Index and the Brewer Spectrophotometer. The UV Index is used worldwide to alert the public to the dangers of UV exposure, and the Brewer is used in more than 40 countries around the world to monitor the ozone layer.

Michel Jean (left), Director General of the Canadian Centre for Meteorological and Environmental Prediction at Environment Canada, presents Prof. McElroy (right) with the Patterson Medal. (Image source)
Michel Jean (left), Director General of the Canadian Centre for Meteorological and Environmental Prediction at Environment Canada, presents Prof. McElroy (right) with the Patterson Medal. (Image source)

Despite his many accomplishments, McElroy is deeply concerned about what has happened to science in Canada and around the world. In his acceptance speech, he lamented:

“The new concepts and instruments my colleagues and I were able to bring forward were made possible in a research environment much different than the one being developed today. It was an environment that encouraged creativity and provided the flexibility to pursue new ideas - even though they sometimes led to failure. What I see now is a system that has changed radically so that support is only provided if the outcome is known in advance. Clearly this is a recipe for anything but innovation.”

He went on to say that

“…. the work we accomplished in the nearly 4 decades I was with Environment Canada could not have been accomplished under the kind of science management that has emerged around the world over the last decade or so.”

The present system of unchecked managerialism undoubtedly is a drag on scientific progress. Having distinguished scientists like McElroy step up to remind us that there is a better way is helpful.

I emailed Prof. McElroy and he kindly sent me a copy of his speech. The full text is reproduced below (with permission).

Patterson Medal CMOS Address

31 May 2016

Mes collegues et mes amis, cet un plaisir singulier d’être ici pour accepter la médaille Patterson.

To start, I want to thank the Meteorological Service and Environment Canada for awarding me the Patterson medal. It is very important that we recognize the contribution that science makes to our society. For those of you who do not know me, I had a long - 36 years - productive and enjoyable career as a research scientist with with EC. I am indebted to my many colleagues for the support I received throughout that time. I would like to thank Paulina Karwowska- Desaulniers and Shabnam Nikfar of the Dean’s office at York for organizing the nomination for the Patterson, Michel Beland for making the nomination and those who provided letters of support for the nomination including Gordon Shepherd, Bob Evans, Irina Petrapavlovskikh, Alkis Bais, Johannes Staehelin and Anna Maria Siani.

I would like to share a few thoughts based on my 45 years of active experimental research in Canada.

I began my research career in second year at the University of Toronto. Alan Brewer - of the Brewer-Dobson circulation - Jim Kerr and I developed a spectrometer to measure NO2 in the stratosphere. There was a grave concern at the tme that supersonic passenger jets would destroy the ozone layer by injecting NO and water vapour into the stratosphere. I flew on Concorde 002 while it was still an experimental aircraft in 1973 to make occultation measurements of NO2. The pilots still had ejection seats!

Jim Kerr, David Wardle and I developed the Brewer Ozone Spectrophotometer, the UV Index and the UV Index forecast. This is the most visible public impact of our research. The Brewer is now in use in 45 countries and 25 countries use the UV Index, which became an international standard through the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

Clearly, climate change is the greatest threat to the survival of our species. In my new career as a professor at York University, I am pursuing the development of an instrument to fly on a satellite and measure methane and carbon dioxide in the Arctic. If we haven’t managed to make sufficient progress on climate change in the next 5 or 10 years, images of greenhouse gases coming out of the melting permafrost may provide the kind of impetus for change that the TOMS ozone maps did for ozone depletion.

In another vein, I would like to leave you with a few thoughts based on observations I have made during my 45 years in experimental research. The new concepts and instruments my colleagues and I were able to bring forward were made possible in a research environment much different than the one being developed today. It was an environment that encouraged creativity and provided the flexibility to pursue new ideas - even though they sometimes led to failure. What I see now is a system that has changed radically so that support is only provided if the outcome is known in advance. Clearly this is a recipe for anything but innovation. When I wrote the proposal for my Chair at York I had to prepare a five-year plan with milestones and deliverables. This seems to be the research funding model being used for funding research in government, universities and industry in many countries. While this appears to be sensible management it leaves no room for recognizing and pursuing new ideas.

In closing, I feel compelled to say that the work we accomplished in the nearly 4 decades I was with Environment Canada could not have been accomplished under the kind of science management that has emerged around the world over the last decade or so. Research must be based on trust and managed by research managers who know something about the research subject. It cannot be done using simple metrics that are open to abuse. The system being implemented over the last decade or so is not the one that produced the great scientific advances of the post-war period. It has not been tested and in some cases it has already been proven wrong.

I hope we can quickly recover from the sad place we are in and see science moving forward again in our country and abroad.

My thanks to EC for the Patterson and to you for listening to my comments.

Merci, et bonne journée.

C. Thomas McElroy, FRSC
Professor, NSERC Industrial Research Chair
Dept. of Earth & Space Science & Engineering
York University