Presentation of the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) Awards

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Rideau Hall, Wednesday, February 27, 2013


Welcome to Rideau Hall.

It is a privilege to present these awards to our country’s top researchers. Let me begin by briefly exploring the etymology of that word which is so familiar to us: research.

It comes from the Old French recerchier, which consists of the prefix “re-”—which expresses “intensive force”—and “cerchier,” which, of course, simply means “to search.”

To search intensively, then, is what our researchers do, day after day, year after year, in pursuit of new facts and conclusions.

That much is clear to us, but what is omitted from that definition is the scope and depth of research being done today. As these awards demonstrate, this is certainly the case in Canada.

You, our laureates, are computer scientists and mathematicians, evolutionary biologists and quantum physicists. You are geologists, nanotechnologists, aerospace engineers and micro-roboticists.

Together, you represent the explosion of scientific and technical knowledge that characterizes the age in which we live. You are at the leading edge of science, which is expected to create more knowledge over the next 40 years than has been created in the history of our species!

The mind boggles at the pace of discovery. 

Partly as a result of this knowledge revolution, our world is being rapidly and profoundly reshaped on many levels.

Kevin Lynch, former clerk of the Privy Council and current vice-chair of BMO Financial Group, has identified five global drivers of change: (1) pervasive globalization; (2) global competitiveness and the innovation imperative; (3) a hyper-connected world; (4) major demographic shifts; and (5) a decline in public trust in leadership.

What do these trends have to do with Canadian science and engineering research?

In a word: everything, because this is the context in which we live and work. Each advance in our learning has a ripple effect on our society and culture, which makes it all the more important to consider the big picture even while focusing on the details of discovery.

Put another way, we must strive to balance our intensive research with an extensive view of the world in which we live.

As governor general, I have tried to achieve this balance by calling on Canadians to contribute to the building of a smart and caring nation, where our “smartness” supports and reinforces our “caring,” and vice versa.

Reading over your accomplishments, I am struck by the potential of your research to make us not only smarter, but also more caring. Your work is helping us to improve our health, protect the environment, increase our prosperity and better understand the natural world.

As top student and professional researchers, you also have a key role to play in educating the public in the significance of basic and applied research. I say this because the decline in public trust that I mentioned earlier also extends to science. In Canada and around the world today, a considerable number of people today are questioning the methods, aims and conclusions of scientific research, and it is up to those of us who practice and support science to respond.

We must make the case that what is needed is in fact more reason and critical thinking, not less.

Each of you can make a real contribution to reinforcing Canadians’ trust in and understanding of science. You can do this by ensuring integrity in your methods, and by widely sharing and explaining the importance of your work. This is essential so that people have the capacity to make informed decisions about the scientific research that affects their lives.  

In this, I am reminded of another great Canadian scientist: astronaut Chris Hadfield, who has done so much to raise public awareness of the importance of space science and exploration. He understands that our future in space hinges upon public interest in and support for science and discovery.

Asked on Twitter what motivates him, he tweeted:

“What motivates me, at my core, is the desire to use the very limits of my ability to accomplish the things I believe in.”

Thank you for using your remarkable abilities and dedication to increase our store of knowledge and our grasp of its significance.

I offer my congratulations on your achievements, and look forward to your discoveries yet to come.