Scientists solved the problem of the Ghost Particle in less time than it’s taken the Alberta government to come up with a creative approach to economic diversification.
For 40 years Tory premiers talked a good line about diversification but with the exception of Premier Lougheed, they failed to deliver.
Now, after five short months in office, the NDP government is tackling diversification head on.
Budget 2015 allocates $2.1 billion to support job creation and diversification by encouraging government-owned entities (ATB Financial, the Alberta Enterprise Corporation and the AIMCo) to help companies get the financial capital they need.
Opposition critics and academics panned the idea saying the government can’t tell its arms-length financial institutions what to do. Former Tory finance minister, Ted Morton suggested that the boards of these institutions would resign en masse.
This fear mongering is about as frightening as the werewolf who rang your doorbell last night threatening to trick you if you didn’t give him a treat.
The critics ignore three important differences between the NDP government and the Tories:
- the NDP plan requires all investment decisions to be made by the financial institutions, not the government
- the financial institutions came to the government offering to do more—hardly what you’d expect from an arms-length board fearful of losing its autonomy to a pack of meddling politicians
- the NDP, unlike the Tories, don’t have friends in industry who expect to be rewarded with diversification dollars
Diversification through education
Budget 2015 includes another mechanism to support diversification–$17.6 billion allocated to the department of Advanced Education over the next three years. This includes a two year tuition freeze and increased support for scholarships, grants and student loans.
However, before the government can use any of this amount to support diversification it will have to come to grips with the Tory government’s Campus Alberta strategy.
Campus Alberta was touted as a way to enhance communication across Alberta’s universities, colleges and technical schools. In reality it was nothing more than an effort to reduce costs and increase the industry focus of Alberta’s educational institutions in order to address industry’s complaint that universities and trade schools weren’t churning out enough tradesmen and engineers to meet industry’s needs. The inanity of that complaint in a province roiled by a boom/bust economy is obvious.
If Alberta is to succeed in diversifying its economy it must take a long view and invest in pure research that will create opportunities we can’t even imagine today.
The Ghost Particle
This is where the Ghost Particle or neutrino comes in.
In the 1960s Ray Davis, a physicist, and John Bahcall, a theorist, began to investigate neutrinos, the particles inside the sun that give it energy and make it shine. Bahcall created a mathematical model to determine how many neutrinos the sun created. Davis designed a neutrino trap, essentially 600 tons of cleaning fluid, in a lab buried deep in a goldmine in South Dakota. Capturing a neutrino was quite a feat notwithstanding the zillions of neutrinos flying through the atmosphere—there are 100 trillion neutrinos streaming through your body this very second.
In any event, something went wrong.
Davis was able to capture only one-third of the neutrinos that Bahcall’s predicted were coming from the sun. The scientific community was convinced either Davis or Bahcall had gotten it horribly wrong. Undeterred, the scientists spent 30 years perfecting their models and experiments but the results never changed.
Then in the 1970s scientists discovered that neutrinos come in three “flavours” (don’t you just love physics talk)—electron, muon and tau. Davis’s neutrino trap was designed to capture only one flavour, the electron neutrino. They needed a new experiment.
Enter the Canadians who together with university teams from the US and the UK built the $73 million Sudbury Neutrino Observatory (SNO). It was constructed piece by piece, like a ship in a bottle, deep underground in an unused part of an INCO mine. It’s huge. The neutrino detector is tucked away in a rock cavity 10 stories high.
In 2001 Dr Art McDonald proved Davis and Bahcall were both right. The sun emits electron neutrinos, but they constantly change flavour as they travel through space. By capturing all three flavours Dr McDonald was able to explain why Davis saw only one-third of the neutrinos called for by Bahcall’s model. He also learned some amazing things about particles that can pass through the centre of the earth and create the energy that fuels the sun.
Fourteen years later, smack in the middle of the federal election, Dr McDonald was awarded the Nobel Prize in physics.
Education and industry
Three lessons can be taken from the SNO project. Basic research is driven by academics and the scientific community, not industry. It takes time and requires government funding.
The academics and scientists pursued the neutrino for over four decades. INCO enthusiastically supported the SNO project by providing the mine shaft and carrying out the preparatory work at cost, but it didn’t fund the research, “partner” with the scientists or influence the purpose of the research. Funding came from the federal and provincial governments.
Why would a government fund such an esoteric venture? No one put it better than the NDP politician Floyd Laughren when Robert Nixon, Ontario government Treasurer, balked at kicking in $7 million to support the project. Laughren said, “There is a gap in the Treasurer’s education, because there is such a thing as pure research. For the Treasurer not to recognize that pure research is legitimate…does not comment well on his ability to look into the future or at least to try to think ahead as to the society we are going to have.”
The Notley government’s plan to diversify the economy is an attempt to look into the future and think ahead about the society Alberta is going to have. It requires ongoing stable funding for advanced education so that Alberta’s universities and colleges aren’t forced into “partnerships” with industry in order to satisfy industry’s need for skill sets that are useful today but obsolete tomorrow.