The Encyclopedia of Saskatchewan


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Science and Technology

By: Diane Secoy

Left to right, Dr. Leon Katz, Dr. V.V. Vladimirskii, President J. W. T. Spinks examining equipment in Linear Accelerator Lab, November 1964.
University of Saskatchewan Archives A-7563

Science (from Latin scientia) originally meant knowledge of any kind; we now use this word to mean the rational examination of the natural world without resort to supernatural explanations for conditions or events. Technology originally meant the study (Greek logos) of tools and activities or crafts (Greek techne) that transform the natural environment and make life easier. The word is now used to mean the tools and techniques themselves; increasingly, it also means the application of scientific knowledge to the solving of industrial problems. Humans are not the only species whose members make things to protect themselves or use tools to help them in acquiring food: some bird species build elaborate nests, sea otters use stones to crack open shells, and chimpanzees prepare sticks to prod anthills. But humans make a far greater range of immensely more complex tools. 

Saskatchewan Research Council Building, University of Saskatchewan, Saskatoon 1964
Saskatchewan Archives Board 64-412-07

Technology is considerably older than science. Humans, including our hominid ancestors, have been using tools for over three million years, as attested by stone axes and scrapers dating from that time in eastern Africa. Over the ages, all societies have developed technology to better their lives in providing food and shelter. Technology is therefore ancient and universal; science, on the other hand, is of much more recent origin and was limited to a handful of civilized societies until a few hundred years ago. The search for natural explanations of the world and the universe began in ancient Greece around 500 BCE, but did not really become widespread until after the 17th century in Europe and elsewhere. Worldwide, science and technology are now major influences on our lives and have created domains of increased specialization.

Robert Coupland, director of the Matador Project, taking a soil sample in a field of grass, 1969.
University of Saskatchewan Archives A-7740

Following the clearance of the land by the melting of the most recent glaciers, starting certainly 25,000 years ago but possibly as early as 70,000 years ago, Palaeo-Indians moved from Siberia into the Americas, bringing with them their traditional technology. Life would not be possible in the climatic conditions of post-glacial Saskatchewan without the tools to hunt animals, dig out and prepare plants for food and medicines, build shelters and boats, prepare skins for clothing, and start and maintain fires. This technology thus involved materials such as stone, bone, antler, horn and wood, as well as animal hides, teeth and claws. Dyes were also prepared from natural pigments to add an aesthetic value to purely utilitarian functions.

Gerhard Herzberg, at a dinner to honour him for his 1971 Nobel Prize in Chemisrty, Febuary 2, 1972 in Marquis Hall.
University of Saskatchewan Archives A-5289

The exploring and colonizing Europeans brought their own technologies with them, as well as their early science. Peter Pond and other early 18th-century explorers brought steel tools, guns, powder and the compass to the region. The use of steel (rather than stone or copper) axes and knives as well as the introduction of guns for hunting and armament made a great impression on the indigenous inhabitants, as always happens with the advent of new technology. These objects quickly became prized trading items, which could be obtained in exchange for furs, hides, meat and other local products.

Henry Taube, winner of the 1983 Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1983, giving a lecture, Saskatoon, May 1984.
Saskatchewan Archives Board S-SP-A 21886-16, Saskatoon Starphoenix Fonds

During the 19th century, work on Saskatchewan's natural environment and its population was carried out by people from outside the area. Early in the century, the nature of exploring changed from the individuals or small groups sent out by the fur companies to larger groups sent by the British government to map northwestern Canada and identify travel routes. Of great importance were the British naval expeditions of the 1820s led by Sir John Franklin: these expeditions, intended at first to find the hypothetical Northwest Passage to the Pacific Ocean, were broadened to map not only the coast but the interior drained by the rivers which emptied into the polar seas. The natural history notes and collections kept by Dr. John Richardson resulted in a number of informative writings—most notably the first scientific treatise on the birds of North America. Many North American bird species were first described from skins collected in the central and northern areas of what is now Saskatchewan.

At the Petroleum Technology Research Centre, Regina Research Park, University of Regina, technologist Kevin Rispler uses the spinning drop tensiometer to screen chemicals for an optimal combination that can be used to enhance oil recovery.
Petroleum Technology Research Centre

The process of cataloguing the natural resources of the province continued with the formal establishment in 1842 of the Canadian Geological Survey, the oldest scientific agency in Canada. The Survey mapped the mineral deposits of the province, particularly in the northern Shield. In the 1860s and 1870s, the southern parts of the province were surveyed for possible transcontinental railway routes. By intent and interest the surveyors, who might be engineers, geologists or natural historians such as John Macoun, also catalogued the soils as well as the plant and animal species they encountered. Such surveys of the prairie soils led to the federal government encouraging farmers from eastern Canada and western Europe to settle on the prairies. The federal government also developed in 1881 the Indian Head Experimental Farm, a part of the network of Agriculture Canada Research Stations, to assist immigrant prairie farmers to adjust to the special practices needed to till cold prairie soils under dry climatic conditions.

Natural history surveys identified the Saskatchewan prairies as an important part of the mid-continental migration flyways, and led to the establishment of the Last Mountain Lake Bird Sanctuary in 1887—the first Canadian sanctuary for wild species, and the second in North America. This early protection of the migrating flocks of birds from their northern breeding grounds to their wintering ground further south was an important part of the growing recognition of the need for the conservation of the wild species which had been so abundant when the first European settlers came to North America.

The maturation of Canadian science and technology continued in the 20th century. In Saskatchewan, work in these areas began to be done by local people, and not only by outsiders.

A major factor was the development of the University of Saskatchewan (U of S). Established in Saskatoon in 1909, it was intended from the outset that part of its mandate was to be applied research, particularly in agriculture, as well as general education in the arts and sciences. It was the first university in Canada to integrate agriculture with the traditional disciplines in a single institution. As it grew, it added various branches of engineering as well as the health sciences, which were becoming increasingly dependent on technology. The philosophy of sponsoring research applied to local problems is seen in the first grant bestowed by the Saskatchewan government to the university: in 1918 a sum of $25,000 was granted, of which $10,000 went to Professor R.D. McLaurin, a chemist, to investigate the production of methane from straw. In the 1930s, emphasis was placed on drought problems and on means of controlling grasshopper outbreaks, although the economic depression obviously reduced the ability of the government to fund the university. The addition of the chemist John Spinks to the faculty in the early 1930s illustrates the “coming of age” of the scientific capabilities of the province and the West as a whole, a process which was accelerated when Spinks succeeded in providing refuge for the German chemist Gerhard Herzberg when he was forced to flee Nazi Germany. Herzberg, who received a Nobel prize in chemistry, is one of two Nobel-winning chemists associated with Saskatchewan; the other is Henry Taube, born in Neudorf, who received his prize in 1983.

The expansion of the scientific and technological capabilities of Canada to meet the demands of World War II led to important changes in the structures of support for these activities. The National Research Council (NRC), formed originally in 1916 to conduct applied research for industrial concerns, expanded during the war under the direction of C.J. Mackenzie. Following the war, Mackenzie strove to place Canada within the internationally recognized research countries by strengthening the support for pure or basic science as well as for project or targeted research; he also increased the level of extramural funding, particularly to the universities. This increase in scientific research necessitated expansion, and the NRC gave rise to a number of other agencies to lead and support research in science and technology, defense, medicine, atomic energy, and space. This increased attention to high-level technology was further stimulated by the launching of the Sputnik satellite by the USSR in 1957. With expansion, NRC was able to fund large-scale projects involving great numbers of researchers and major pieces of equipment.

The first of these “Big Science” projects in 1962 was the Linear Accelerator at the University of Saskatchewan, under the direction of Leon Katz. Another ambitious initiative in 1966 was the Matador Project, under Robert Coupland, aimed at the long-term study of a natural grasslands community. This project was also significant because it involved a new institution: the small church-run Regina College was linked to the University of Saskatchewan and became the Regina Campus of the university in 1961. Expansion of the institution followed, including the hiring of a number of faculty members in all of the basic sciences, and, shortly afterwards, the addition of faculty members in engineering. Following the development of the University of Regina (U of R) as a separate institution in 1974, both universities have continued to expand their research capabilities in a wide range of scientific and technological areas, both in research units and as individuals.

This expansion has been enhanced by partnerships between the two universities, the government, agencies, and industrial partners. These partnerships can take the form of funding, but increasingly they result in the growth of research parks on or near university land. The Saskatchewan Research Council, started by the provincial government to fund targeted university research, opened a laboratory on the U of S campus in 1958, in order to benefit from this close association. Agriculture Canada, a natural partner for the College of Agriculture, set up the Saskatoon Research Station at the university in 1957. The research parks at both institutions continue to grow while science-based technologies are becoming more and more important as determinants of economic growth. The U of S has a number of agriculture-based units, particularly in biotechnology as well as in health and engineering; the Canadian Light Source is a scion of the early Linear Accelerator. The U of R, as a younger institution, has fewer such units so far; these are in petroleum engineering, as well as in information and environmental sciences. The addition of the third university, the First Nations University of Canada, has provided possibilities of greater participation by First Nations people in both research and industry. The presence of the Saskatchewan Institute of Applied Science and Technology and of the Saskatchewan Indian Institute of Technologies allows for the provincial training of the workforce so important for the successful development of technology-based industry.

In addition to the universities, research and development take place in government agencies and in the industry. The potash industry has developed processes, such as the world’s first solution mine at Kalium in 1964, which allow easier access to the type of mineral that would otherwise require excavation. The Royal Saskatchewan Museum in Regina undertakes significant studies into the ecology and paleontology of the province; the Subsurface Geology Laboratory continues to explore the mineral deposits of the province; and the Saskatchewan Science Centre ensures that simpler aspects of science and technology are popularized and made accessible to children and adults alike.

At the beginning of the 21st century, Saskatchewan’s research and development activities are performed and funded by a network of university researchers, federal and provincial government agencies, international agencies, and industry. The conspicuous presence of these institutions within the province indicates the importance of their activities to all areas of society, as well as the “coming of age” of Saskatchewan: the bread basket of the world has become a region where increasing diversification reflects the more dynamic role played on the national and international stage. (See History of Saskatchewan)

Diane Secoy

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This web site was produced with financial assistance
provided by Western Economic Diversification Canada and the Government of Saskatchewan.
University of Regina Government of Canada Government of Saskatchewan Canadian Plains Research Center
Ce site Web a été conçu grâce à l'aide financière de
Diversification de l'économie de l'Ouest Canada et le gouvernement de la Saskatchewan.