Nobel laureate delivers first President's Lecture of 2019

Future innovations rely on researchers doing basic science, Canada’s newest Nobel laureate told a near-capacity crowd during the President’s Lecture at the University of Waterloo.

Donna Strickland, a professor of physics at Waterloo, advocated for support of curiosity-driven research during a thought-provoking discussion with Kate Lunau, senior editor at Motherboard, VICE’s science and technology site.

“We can’t keep coming up with new applications if we don’t keep having a better understanding of the world around us,” said Strickland. “If we stop doing fundamental research, in 20 or 30 years we’ll run out of a bank of all of these ideas and it will be hard to move forward.”

Watch the full fireside chat

During Strickland’s lecture, she explained how she developed chirped pulse amplification (CPA), the research that won her a Nobel Prize in 2018. CPA enables the most intense laser pulses. Current applications include laser eye surgery and the machining of small glass parts. But as Strickland indicated, she was trying to find out how high-intensity light affects matter.

When asked whether in Canada we are doing enough to support researchers conducting basic science, Strickland said the situation keeps changing. She referred to Canada’s Fundamental Science Review, also known as the Naylor report, a government-commissioned report from 2017 that examined funding for basic science in Canada. It calls for an increase in financial support from federal sources.

“I think it did help convince the federal government that they were putting too much emphasis on industrially relevant research,” said Strickland. “A lot of that is short-term research, not the long-term where you let us think about it for a few years and over the course of a PhD, flesh out an idea.” She added that the situation is improving somewhat, but that some other countries support fundamental research a lot more.

In his opening remarks for the event, Feridun Hamdullahpur, Waterloo’s president and vice-chancellor, stressed the importance of fundamental research, using Strickland’s results to help make his point.

“The whole world is benefitting from her curiosity,” he said.