It Takes 10,000 Hours
Most of us can reflect back on the Olympics and appreciate that in addition to inherent natural skills those outstanding athletes have devoted a tremendous time, energy, dedication and passion to reach that exceptional level of excellence. Chances are they spent 2,000 hours to get to the point where their outstanding potential was recognized. From that beginning, they likely spent another 8,000-16,000 hours to reach the Olympics. For each of those select few that reach their Olympic goal, many others spent upwards of 10,000 hours to achieve excellence. Turns out, 10,000 hours is a good rule of thumb for achieving a high level of performance in any pursuit—that amounts to full time for five years!
Media, the general public and especially our policy makers need to understand and appreciate that is what it takes: 5 years to become highly knowledgeable in a field, 10-20 years to become an internationally recognized expert, and to become a world-leading expert requires not just the years of devotion and passion, but exceptional ability as well. This does not count the hours spent by graduate students, post-doctoral fellows and research associates achieve the hallmark of excellence.
It is only when this is appreciated that one can fathom the impact an ill-informed, inappropriately-motivated decision can make on the country’s standing in global science excellence. A capacity that has taken tens of person-years to develop can be quickly lost, and to rebuild will take a much greater investment than the cost of retention.
Scientists and innovators are creative people drawn to leaders and opportunity created in countries that make investments in science infrastructure, especially bold new investments. For example, Canada’s investments the Sudbury Neutrino Laboratory, the Canada-Hawaii Telescope, the Canadian Light Source, the NRX & NRU reactors, nuclear accelerators and the unique facilities within the NRC have attracted and retained some of the best and brightest and paid socio-economic dividends—not to mention Nobel Prizes—that far exceed the initial investments.
Actions of the past government have put many of Canada’s areas of excellence at risk. Urgent action is needed by the current Government to halt and reverse some of these decisions. But more importantly, the Government needs to put in place a structure that not just allows but requires that this and future governments make decisions with sound, impartial advice from the experts Canada develops and retains augmented by foreign experts.
I am encouraged by the composition of The Honourable Kirsty Duncan’s Fundamental Science Review panel (http://www.sciencereview.ca/eic/site/059.nsf/eng/home), but this needs to be a first step toward development of an enduring mechanism within the federal system, to guide and inform science policy makers who are unlikely to be scientific experts themselves about the small and large investments Canada needs to make to stay strong and remain competitive. It is simply far too easy to lose and too hard to rebuild to simply roll the dice on such decisions.