Concordia's Thursday Report

Vol. 29, No.5

November 4, 2004


Deep blue sea holds secrets

By Sylvain Comeau

The funding environment for Canadian research may be growing more hostile to basic, fundamental science, Neptune project director Christopher Barnes suggested in a Concordia Science College lecture on Oct. 21.

Barnes, an oceanographer at the University of Victoria, B.C., noted that today’s increasingly stringent governmental accountability is now extending to the researchers who depend on public funding of their work.

“The result of things like the sponsorship scandal is, inevitably, another level of accountability in public life. One of the problems with more and more accountability is that it stifles risk-taking and ideas.

“There’s always someone questioning why you are doing what you are doing, with a greater emphasis on checks and balances.”

Neptune is a joint U.S./-Canada megaproject to gather vast amounts of oceanic data using sub-sea observatories linked by over 3,300 kilometers of fibreoptic cables in the Juan de Fuca Plate.

Research themes include the structure and seismic behaviour of the ocean crust, which will likely increase scientific understanding of why earthquakes occur.

The project will also study ocean climate change and the ecosystem dynamics and biodiversity of the deep-sea. Because of global warming and the impact of the oceans on climate change, there is a sense of urgency to the search for understanding of those vital systems.

“We have, I think, maybe a few decades left, before we are over the critical edge.”

The research is inherently speculative and unpredictable because, as Barnes noted, the oceans are still largely uncharted territory. That makes it tricky when applying for government grants, as even the scientists can only speculate rather than predict.

“Cutting edge science is serendipitous; although when applying for a grant, you have to explain what you are going to do for the next five years. In truth, you don’t know what life will be like four or five years from now. Researchers often find that they have to change directions and follow a different path.”

Barnes, who is applying for a grant application from NSERC, said that researchers must now strike a delicate balance.

“In grant applications, we can’t stick our necks out too far because people say certain things are impossible in five years. But they may enter the realm of the possible if we put in the right new technologies.
Barnes said that “prophesy is a lost art,” and cited the infamous example of former IBM chairman Thomas Watson’s less-than-prescient observation in 1943: “I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.”

Up to now, oceanography has been conducted by research vessels, which suffer from physical limitations. The Neptune project is an example of what Barnes calls “next generation” science, an innovative way of studying the oceans covering 70 per cent of the Earth’s surface.

Applying new techniques and technology to an old science will open up brand new possibilities; for example, real-time data about what is happening under the sea will be disseminated on the Internet.

“When we are working with next generation science, it’s very hard to predict where it is going; we will be dealing with a chaotic system of which we have to try to make some sense, so we need people who are receptive to new ideas, and who understand what research is all about.”

For Barnes, research incorporates a sense of adventure and willingness to be led by new discoveries. Despite the explosion of new knowledge in the past century, “not much is known about what is left to be discovered.”

This talk was sponsored by Concordia’s Science College, which provides chosen undergraduate science students with the opportunity to do original research.