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Discovery is about time and flexibility

(Photo credit: Dr. John Smol)

The Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) believes in backing people with bold, promising ideas and giving them the freedom to explore when their research points them in exciting, unexpected directions. Discovery research is all about chasing advances over the long term while having the freedom to adapt as new findings emerge—to innovate wherever the research leads.

We had the pleasure of sitting down with Dr. John Smol, Distinguished University Professor in the Department of Biology at Queen’s University, founder and co-director of the Paleoecological Environmental Assessment and Research Laboratory (PEARL) and long-time NSERC-funded researcher, to discuss the critical role of discovery research throughout his career and its undeniable impact in tackling today’s modern world issues.

Dr. Smol, how has discovery research led to your current research program in paleolimnology?

I would say my entire program is based on a foundation of discovery research and I think my career path is perhaps a good example of that. My PhD thesis was on paleolimnology, which is the discipline of reconstructing lake histories. One could ask, what could be more esoteric than that? It may be very esoteric, but it has also been shown to be important for many applied world issues.

At the beginning of my career as a researcher, there was a growing environmental problem caused by acid rain, and one of the biggest challenges was the lack of long-term data. Several of us saw a real opportunity to use these esoteric type techniques to gather these data and reconstruct how lakes acidify. For a few years I was seen as a classic discovery-type scientist, and then suddenly, in the blink of an eye, I was seen as an applied scientist.

I like to think of it as a pyramid: the applied sciences are at the top, but they’re based on a foundation of discovery science. The latter is critical to our day-to-day lives and how science moves forward.

In recent decades, we've witnessed an increase in climate-related disasters such as wildfires, intense storms, and droughts. How can discovery research help us understand and mitigate these events?

I would argue climate change is the biggest problem we have on this planet right now. If you want to look at how climate is changing, especially within a Canadian context, the Arctic is a very good place to go as it is most sensitive to environmental and climate change.

I had the opportunity early in my career, in the 1980s, to go to the high Arctic and do discovery research. We hardly knew anything about the vast majority of high Artic lakes and ponds, what lived there, what algae were there. The basic foundation was not there, so I spent about 10 years working on that with my students. We then started taking sediment cores and published our first results in Science, showing striking changes that we were already linking to climate warming. Everything we did in that paper, we couldn't have done without that foundation based on 11 years of discovery research, that bottom of the pyramid.

Does interdisciplinarity play an important role in discovery research?

As an ecologist, I’ve always been looking at connections and this is where I think interdisciplinary research is so important. It's very hard to understand your system without having colleagues and research ongoing in other areas.

With climate warming and episodic weather, we're going to have all sorts of these environmental issues. There are tremendous costs associated with this, but these are complex problems that require complex solutions and a lot of expertise, which no one person will have. Take extreme wildfire events for example, you have the meteorologists, the climatologists, the botanists, the foresters. They all come to the table with their different expertise and tools.

Interdisciplinary work also takes interpersonal skills, flexibility and an open mind. Once you put all that together, that's where you get the real big discoveries!

Certain science disciplines, such as paleolimnology, may seem distant, or esoteric as you’ve mentioned previously, to real world application, but they’re essential to understanding our past and predicting our future. How would you explain why discovery research is essential to understanding environmental changes?

In my field, we look at how lakes change over time and that's usually the biggest challenge in ecological and environmental research. We don't have the appropriate time frames of data collection to fully assess these important issues. We don't know what conditions were like before major human impacts. For example, if you go to a medical doctor, the first thing they do is a medical history of you. We should try to do the same with lakes. We have to find out what is natural, what is pre-anthropogenic, what are the major impacts and have lakes changed in response to these different types of stressors. Again, a lot of that is based on discovery science, that foundation of research, before you can make interpretations.

Funders shape what is possible, and I think that’s why we have to do a better job of explaining to the general public and policymakers the value of discovery research. It’s an investment that increases opportunities, contributes to the training of highly qualified personnel (HQP) and our investment multiplies many more times in the future. You're getting interest on the discovery and you’re also making discovery, which we can use to solve all sorts of problems that we're facing in the world today. I think we have a collective responsibility to be major players in the discovery research programs of the world.

NSERC has had the privilege of supporting you through several different programs, perhaps none more important than our flagship Discovery Grants. Can you describe the impact of your long-standing Discovery grant to your research program?

My whole research program is based on a backbone of Discovery grants. I think the Discovery grants program, although I would say underfunded, is still the envy of many other countries for a variety of reasons, but one of the key reasons is its flexibility. You have to do good science, you have to do good research in a certain area, but you have the flexibility to change over the 5-year term of the grant.

If I think back on the 10 publications that I'm most proud of, I don't think I predicted a single one. Over the 5-year period of my grant I got ideas by reading different papers, going to conferences, talking to my colleagues. A Discovery Grant allows you the flexibility to pivot, which is how real scientific discoveries happen. This is why it’s important to appreciate that investing in discovery research is not a cost, it’s an investment in everything from understanding how the world functions, to training HQP, to applied science breakthroughs.

Lastly, you've had the opportunity to mentor hundreds of students and fellows over the years. What advice would you like to share with early career researchers who are doing discovery research?

I would encourage students and early career researchers to continue on a research path that they love. If you love what you're doing, that's a tremendous catalyst.

Also, when doing discovery research, try and keep an open mind and have as broad of a research program or research colleagues as you can. If you work well with others, they will probably work well with you, and that's often where a lot of the major discoveries happen.

A third point might be the real challenge in science: asking the appropriate questions. We of course focus on getting answers, but it’s important to spend more time thinking hard about the big questions that need to be asked, because big questions typically get big answers. The big questions should also build on a foundation of discovery science; as I tell my students, “sometimes it's important to think outside the box, but not outside the warehouse”.

And finally, I'd say remember that research and teaching are fun. I try and laugh out loud with my students at least once a day!

This interview was condensed and edited for length and clarity.

About Dr. John Smol

Dr. John Smol is a Distinguished University Professor in the Department of Biology at Queen’s University, where he founded and co-directs the Paleoecological Environmental Assessment and Research Laboratory (PEARL). Throughout his career, Dr. Smol received many awards and recognitions, including the NSERC Gerhard Herzberg Canada Gold Medal for Science and Engineering in 2004 and the NSERC Brockhouse Canada Prize for Interdisciplinary Research in Science and Engineering in 2013. Among other distinguished recognitions, Dr. Smol was named an Officer of the Order of Canada in 2013 and more recently, was awarded the International Paleolimnology Association (IPA) Rick Battarbee Lifetime Achievement Medal, as well as the Vega Medal by the Swedish Society for Anthropology and Geography (SSAG) and his 4th medal from the Royal Society of Canada - the Sir John William Dawson Medal. To know more about Dr. Smol and his work, visit the PEARL website.