Category Archives: science policy

Part 2 (b) of 3: Science Culture: Where Canada Stands; an expert assessment (reconstructed)

Carrying on from part 2 (a) of this commentary on the Science Culture: Where Canada Stands assessment by the Council of Canadian Academies (CAC).

One of the most intriguing aspects of this assessment was the reliance on an unpublished inventory of Canadian science outreach initiatives (informal science education) that was commissioned by the Korean Foundation for the Advancement of Science and Creativity,

The system of organizations, programs, and initiatives that supports science culture in any country is dynamic. As a result, any inventory provides only a snapshot at a single point in time, and risks quickly becoming out of date. No sustained effort has been made to track public science outreach and engagement efforts in Canada at the national or regional level. Some of the Panel’s analysis relies on data from an unpublished inventory of public science communication initiatives in Canada undertaken in 2011 by Bernard Schiele, Anik Landry, and Alexandre Schiele for the Korean Foundation for the Advancement of Science and Creativity (Schiele et al., 2011). This inventory identified over 700 programs and organizations across all provinces and regions in Canada, including over 400 initiatives related to museums, science centres, zoos, or aquariums; 64 associations or NGOs involved in public science outreach; 49 educational initiatives; 60 government policies and programs; and 27 media programs. (An update of this inventory completed by the Panel brings the total closer to 800 programs.) The inventory is used throughout the chapter [chapter five] to characterize different components of the Canadian system supporting public science outreach, communication, and engagement. (p. 130 PDF; p. 98 print)

I’m fascinated by the Korean interest and wonder if this due to perceived excellence or to budgetary considerations. The cynic in me suspects the Korean foundation was interested in the US scene but decided that information from the Canadian scene would be cheaper to acquire and the data could be extrapolated to give a perspective on the US scene.

In addition to the usual suspects (newspapers, television, radio, science centres, etc.), the Expert Panel did recognize the importance of online science sources (they would have looked foolish if they hadn’t),

Canadians are increasingly using the internet to seek out information relating to science. This activity can take the form of generalized searches about science-related issues or more targeted forms of information acquisition. For example, Canadians report using the internet to seek out information on health and medical issues an average of 47 times a year, or nearly every week. Other forms of online exposure to scientific content also appear to be common. For example, 46% of Canadians report having read a blog post or listserv related to science and technology at least once in the last three months, and 62% having watched an online video related to science and technology.

An increasing reliance on the internet as the main source of information about science and technology is consistent with the evolution of the media environment, as well as with survey data from other countries. Based on the Panel’s survey, 17% of Canadians, for example, report reading a printed newspaper daily, while 40% report reading about the news or current events online every day. (p. 13/2 PDF; p. 100/1 print)

In common with the rest of the world, Canadians are producing and enjoying science festivals,

In Canada there are two established, large-scale science festivals. Science Rendezvous [founded in 2008 as per its Wikipedia entry] takes place in about 20 cities across the country and combines a variety of programming to comprise a day-long free event (Science Rendezvous, 2013).

The annual Eureka! Festival in Montréal (see Figure 5.6 [founded in 2007 as per its program list]) has over 100 activities over three days; it attracted over 68,000 attendees in 2012 (Eureka! Festival, 2013). More science festivals have recently been created. The University of Toronto launched the Toronto Science Festival in fall 2013 (UofT, 2013), and Beakerhead, a new festival described as a “collision of art and culture, technology, and engineering,” was launched in 2013 in Calgary (Beakerhead, 2013). Two Canadian cities have also recently won bids to host STEMfest (Saskatoon in 2015 and Halifax in 2018), an international festival of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (Global STEM States, 2014). (pp. 145/6 PDF; pp. 113/4 PDF)

The assessment notes have a grand total of five radio and television programmes devoted to science: The Nature of Things, Daily Planet, Quirks and Quarks, Découverte, and Les années lumière (p. 150 PDF; p. 118 print) and a dearth of science journalism,

Dedicated science coverage is notably absent from the majority of newspapers and other print journalism in Canada. As shown in Table 5.3, none of the top 11 newspapers by weekly readership in Canada has a dedicated science section, including nationals such as The Globe and Mail and National Post. Nine of these newspapers have dedicated technology sections, which sometimes contain sub-sections with broader coverage of science or environment stories; however, story coverage tends to be dominated by technology or business (or gaming) stories. Few Canadian newspapers have dedicated science journalists on staff, and The Globe and Mail is unique among Canadian papers in having a science reporter, a medicine and health reporter, and a technology reporter. (p. 152 PDF; p. 120 print)

Not stated explicitly in the assessment is this: those science and technology stories you see in the newspaper are syndicated stories, i.e., written by reporters for the Associated Press, Reuters, and other international press organizations or simply reprinted (with credit) from another newspaper.

The report does cover science blogging with this,

Science blogs are another potential source of information about developments in science and technology. A database compiled by the Canadian Science Writers’ Association, as of March of 2013, lists 143 Canadian science blogs, covering all areas of science and other aspects of science such as science policy and science culture (CSWA, 2013). Some blogs are individually authored and administered, while others are affiliated with larger networks or other organizations (e.g., Agence Science-Presse, PLOS Blogs). Canadian science blogger Maryse de la Giroday has also published an annual round-up of Canadian science blogs on her blog (www.frogheart.ca) for the past three years, and a new aggregator of Canadian science blogs was launched in 2013 (www.scienceborealis.ca). [emphases mine]

Data from the Panel’s survey suggest that blogs are becoming a more prominent source of information about science and technology for the general public. As noted at the beginning of the chapter, 46% of Canadians report having read a blog post about science or technology at least once in the past three months. Blogs are also influencing the way that scientific research is carried out and disseminated. A technical critique in a blog post by Canadian microbiologist Rosie Redfield in 2010, for example, catalyzed a widely publicized debate on the validity of a study published in Science, exploring the ability of bacteria to incorporate arsenic into their DNA. The incident demonstrated the potential impact of blogs on mainstream scientific research. CBC highlighted the episode as the Canadian science story of the year (Strauss, 2011), and Nature magazine identified Redfield as one of its 10 newsmakers of the year in 2011 as a result of her efforts to replicate the initial study and publicly document her progress and results (Hayden, 2011).

The impact of online information sources, however, is not limited to blogs, with 42% of Canadians reporting having heard about a science and technology news story though social media sources like Twitter and Facebook in the last three months. And, as noted earlier, the internet is often used to search for information about specific science and technology topics, both for general issues such as climate change, and more personalized information on medical and health issues.(pp. 153/4 PDF; pp. 121/2 print)

Yes, I got a shout out as did Rosie Redfield. We were the only two science bloggers namechecked. (Years ago, the Guardian newspaper was developing a science blog network and the editor claimed he couldn’t find many female science bloggers after fierce criticism of its first list of bloggers. This was immediately repudiated not only by individuals but someone compiled a list of hundreds of female science bloggers.) Still, the perception persists and I’m thrilled that the panel struck out in a different direction. I was also pleased to see Science Borealis (a Canadian science blog aggregator) mentioned. Having been involved with its founding, I’m also delighted its first anniversary was celebrated in Nov. 2014.

I doubt many people know we have a science press organization in Canada, Agence Science-Presse, but perhaps this mention in the assessment will help raise awareness in Canada’s English language media,

Founded in 1978 with the motto Parce que tout le monde s’intéresse à la science (“because everyone is interested in science”), Agence Science-Presse is a not-for-profit organization in Quebec that supports media coverage of science by distributing articles on scientific research or other topical science and technology issues to media outlets in Canada and abroad. The organization also supports science promotion activities aimed at youth. For example, it currently edits and maintains an aggregation of blogs designed for young science enthusiasts and science journalists (Blogue ta science). (p. 154 PDF; p. 122)

The final chapter (the 6th) of the assessment makes five key recommendations for ‘Cultivating a strong science culture':

  1. Support lifelong science learning
  2. Make science inclusive
  3. Adapt to new technologies
  4. Enhance science communication and engagement
  5. Provide national or regional leadership

Presumably the agriculture reference in the chapter title is tongue-in-cheek. Assuming that’s not one of my fantasies, it’s good to see a little humour.

On to the first recommendation, lifelong learning,

… Science centres and museums, science programs on radio and television, science magazines and journalism, and online resources can all help fulfil this function by providing accessible resources for adult science learning, and by anticipating emerging information needs based on topical issues.

Most informal science learning organizations already provide these opportunities to varying degrees; however, this conception of the relative roles of informal and formal science learning providers differs from the traditional understanding, which often emphasizes how informal environments can foster engagement in science (particularly among youth), thereby triggering additional interest and the later acquisition of knowledge (Miller, 2010b). [emphasis mine] Such a focus may be appropriate for youth programming, but neglects the role that these institutions can play in ongoing education for adults, who often seek out information on science based on specific, well-defined interests or needs (e.g., a medical diagnosis, a newspaper article on the threat of a viral pandemic, a new technology brought into the workplace) (Miller, 2012). [emphases mine] Informal science learning providers can take advantage of such opportunities by anticipating these needs, providing useful and accessible information, and then simultaneously building and deepening knowledge of the underlying science through additional content.

I’m glad to see the interest in adult informal science education although the emphasis on health/medical and workplace technology issues suggests the panel underestimates, despite the data from its own survey, Canadians’ curiosity about and interest in science and technology. The panel also underestimates the tenacity with which many gatekeepers hold to the belief that no one is interested in science. It took me two years before a local organizer would talk to me about including one science-themed meeting in his programme (the final paragraph in my April 14, 2014 post describes some of the process  and my April 18, 2014 post describes the somewhat disappointing outcome). In the end, it was great to see a science-themed ‘city conversation’ but I don’t believe the organizer found it to be a success, which means it’s likely to be a long time before there’s another one.

The next recommendation, ‘Making science inclusive’, is something that I think needs better practice. If one is going to be the change one wants to see that means getting people onto your expert panels that reflect your inclusiveness and explaining to your audience how your expert panel is inclusive.

The ‘Adapting to new technologies’ recommendation is where I expected to see some mention of the social impact of such emerging technologies as robotics, nanotechnology, synthetic biology, etc. That wasn’t the case,

Science culture in Canada and other countries is now evolving in a rapidly changing technological environment. Individuals are increasingly turning to online sources for information about science and technology, and science communicators and the media are also adapting to the new channels of communication and outreach provided over the internet. As people engage more with new forms of technology in their home and work lives, organizations may be able to identify new ways to take advantage of available technologies to support learning and foster science interest and engagement. At the same time, as noted in Chapter 2, this transition is also challenging traditional models of operation for many organizations such as science centres, museums, and science media providers, forcing them to develop new strategies.

Examples of the use of new technologies to support learning are now commonplace. Nesta, an innovation-oriented organization based in the United Kingdom, conducted a study investigating the extent to which new technologies are transforming learning among students (Luckin et al., 2012) (p. 185 PDF; p. 153 print)

Admittedly, the panel was not charged with looking too far into the future but it does seem odd that in a science culture report there isn’t much mention (other than a cursory comment in an early chapter) of these emerging technologies and the major changes they are bringing with them. If nothing else, the panel might have wanted to make mention of artificial intelligence how the increasing role of automated systems may be affecting science culture in Canada. For example, in my July 16, 2014 post I made described a deal Associated Press (AP) signed with a company that automates the process of writing sports and business stories. You may well have read a business story (AP contracted for business stories) written by an artificial intelligence system or, if you prefer the term, an algorithm.

The recommendation for ‘Enhancing science communication and engagement’ is where I believe the Expert Panel should be offered a bouquet,

… Given the significance of government science in many areas of research, government science communication constitutes an important vector for increasing public awareness and understanding about science. In Canada current policies governing how scientists working in federal departments and agencies are allowed to interact with the media and the public have come under heavy criticism in recent years …

Concerns about the federal government’s current policies on government scientists’ communication with the media have been widely reported in Canadian and international
press in recent years (e.g., Ghosh, 2012; CBC, 2013c; Gatehouse, 2013; Hume, 2013; Mancini, 2013; Munro, 2013). These concerns were also recently voiced by the editorial board of Nature (2012), which unfavourably compared Canada’s current approach with the more open policies now in place in the United States. Scientists at many U.S. federal agencies are free to speak to the media without prior departmental approval, and to
express their personal views as long as they clearly state that they are not speaking on behalf of the government. In response to such concerns, and to a formal complaint filed by the Environmental Law Clinic at the University of Victoria and Democracy Watch, on April 2, 2013 Canada’s Information Commissioner launched an investigation into whether current policies and policy instruments in seven federal departments and agencies are “restricting or prohibiting government scientists from speaking with or sharing research with the media and the Canadian public” (OICC, 2013).

Since these concerns have come to light, many current and former government scientists have discussed how these policies have affected their interactions with the media. Marley Waiser, a former scientist with Environment Canada, has spoken about how that department’s policies prevented her from discussing her research on chemical pollutants in Wascana Creek near Regina (CBC, 2013c). Dr. Kristi Miller, a geneticist with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, was reportedly prevented from speaking publicly about a study she published in Science, which investigated whether a viral infection might be the cause of declines in Sockeye salmon stocks in the Fraser River (Munro, 2011).

According to data from Statistics Canada (2012), nearly 20,000 science and technology professionals work for the federal government. The ability of these researchers to communicate with the media and the Canadian public has a clear bearing on Canada’s science culture. Properly supported, government scientists can serve as a useful conduit for informing the public about their scientific work, and engaging the public in discussions about the social relevance of their research; however, the concerns reported above raise questions about the extent to which current federal policies in Canada are limiting these opportunities for public communication and engagement. (pp. 190/1 PDF; p. 158/9 print)

Kudos for including the information and for this passage as well,

Many organizations including science centres and museums, research centres, and even governments may be perceived as having a science promotion agenda that portrays only the benefits of science. As a result, these organizations are not always seen as promoters of debate through questioning, which is a crucial part of the scientific process. Acknowledging complexity and controversy is another means to improve the quality of public engagement in science in a range of different contexts. (p. 195 PDF; p. 163 print)

One last happy note, which is about integrating the arts and design into the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics communities),

Linking Science to the Arts and Design U.S. advocates for “STEM to STEAM” call for an incorporation of the arts in discussions of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics in an effort to “achieve a synergistic balance” (Piro, 2010). They cite positive outcomes such as cognitive development, reasoning skills, and concentration abilities. Piro (2010) argues that “if creativity, collaboration, communication, and critical thinking — all touted as hallmark skills for 21st-century success — are to be cultivated, we need to ensure that STEM subjects are drawn closer to the arts.” Such approaches offer new techniques to engage both student and adult audiences in science learning and engagement opportunities.

What I find fascinating about this STEM to STEAM movement is that many of these folks don’t seem to realize is that until fairly recently the arts and sciences recently have always been closely allied.  James Clerk Maxwell was also a poet, not uncommon amongst 19th century scientists.

In Canada one example of this approach is found in the work of Michael R. Hayden, who has conducted extensive genetic research on Huntington disease. In the lead-up to the 2000 Human Genome Project World Conference, Hayden commissioned Vancouver’s Electric Company Theatre to fuse “the spheres of science and art in a play that explored the implications of the revolutionary technology of the Human Genome Project” (ECT, n.d.). This play, The Score, was later adapted into a film. Hayden believes that his play “transforms the scientific ideas explored in the world of the laboratory into universal themes of human identity, freedom and creativity, and opens up a door for a discussion between the scientific community and the public in general” (Genome Canada, 2006). (p. 196 PDF; p. 164 print)

I’m not sure why the last recommendation presents an either/or choice, ‘Providing national or regional leadership’, while the following content suggests a much more fluid state,

…  it should be recognized that establishing a national or regional vision for science culture is not solely the prerogative of government. Such a vision requires broad support and participation from the community of affected stakeholders to be effective, and can also emerge from that community in the absence of a strong governmental role.

The final chapter (the seventh) restates the points the panel has made throughout its report. Unexpectedly, part 2 got bigger, ’nuff said.

Part 2 (a) of 3: Science Culture: Where Canada Stands; an expert assessment (reconstructed)

Losing over 2000 words, i.e., part 2 of this commentary on the Science Culture: Where Canada Stands assessment by the Council of Canadian Academies (CAC) on New Year’s Eve 2014 was a bit of blow. So, here’s my attempt at reconstructing my much mourned part 2.

There was acknowledgement of Canada as a Arctic country and an acknowledgement of this country’s an extraordinary geographical relationship to the world’s marine environment,

Canada’s status as an Arctic nation also has a bearing on science and science culture. Canada’s large and ecologically diverse Arctic landscape spans a substantial part of the circumpolar Arctic, and comprises almost 40% of the country’s landmass (Statistics Canada, 2009). This has influenced the development of Canadian culture more broadly, and also created opportunities in the advancement of Arctic science. Canada’s northern inhabitants, the majority of whom are Indigenous peoples, represent a source of knowledge that contributes to scientific research in the North (CCA, 2008).

These characteristics have contributed to the exploration of many scientific questions including those related to environmental science, resource development, and the health and well-being of northern populations. Canada also has the longest coastline of any country, and these extensive coastlines and marine areas give rise to unique research opportunities in ocean science (CCA, 2013a). (p. 55 PDF; p. 23 print)

Canada’s aging population is acknowledged in a backhand way,

Like most developed countries, Canada’s population is also aging. In 2011 the median age in Canada was 39.9 years, up from 26.2 years in 1971 (Statistics Canada, n.d.). This ongoing demographic transition will have an impact on science culture in Canada in years to come. An aging population will be increasingly interested in health and medical issues. The ability to make use of this kind of information will depend in large part on the combination of access to the internet, skill in navigating it, and a conceptual toolbox that includes an understanding of genes, probability, and related constructs (Miller, 2010b). (p. 56 PDF; p. 24 print)

Yes, the only science topics of interest for an old person are health and medicine. Couldn’t they have included one sentence suggesting an aging population’s other interests and other possible impacts on science culture?

On the plus side, the report offers a list of selected Canadian science culture milestones,

• 1882 – Royal Society of Canada is established.
• 1916 – National Research Council is established.
• 1923 – Association canadienne-française pour l’avancement des sciences (ACFAS) is established.
• 1930 – Canadian Geographic is first published by the Royal Canadian Geographical Society.
• 1951 – Massey–Lévesque Commission calls for the creation of a national science and technology museum.
• 1959 – Canada sees its first science fairs in Winnipeg, Edmonton, Hamilton, Toronto, Montréal, and Vancouver; volunteer coordination eventually grows into Youth Science Canada.
• 1960 – CBC’s Nature of Things debuts on television; Fernand Séguin hosts “Aux frontières de la science.”
• 1962 – ACFAS creates Le Jeune scientifique, which becomes Québec Science in 1970.
• 1966 – Science Council of Canada is created to advise Parliament on science and technology issues.
• 1967 – Canada Museum of Science and Technology is created.
• 1969 – Ontario Science Centre opens its doors (the Exploratorium in San Francisco opens the same year).
• 1971 – Canadian Science Writers’ Association is formed.
• 1975 – Symons Royal Commission on Canadian Studies speaks to how understanding the role of science in society is important to understanding Canadian culture and identity.
• 1975 – Quirks and Quarks debuts on CBC Radio.
• 1976 – OWL children’s magazine begins publication.
• 1977 – Association des communicateurs scientifiques du Québec is established.
• 1978 – L’Agence Science-Presse is created.
• 1981 – Association des communicateurs scientifiques creates the Fernand-Séguin scholarship to identify promising young science journalists.
• 1982 – Les Débrouillards is launched in Quebec. (p. 58 PDF; p. 26 print)

The list spills onto the next page and into the 2000’s.

It’s a relief to see the Expert Panel give a measured response to the claims made about science culture and its various impacts, especially on the economy (in my book, some of the claims have bordered on hysteria),

The Panel found little definitive empirical evidence of causal relationships between the dimensions of science culture and higher-level social objectives like stronger economic performance or more effective public policies. As is the case with much social science research, isolating the impacts of a single variable on complex social phenomena is methodologically challenging, and few studies have attempted to establish such relationships in any detail. As noted in 1985 by the Bodmer report (a still-influential report on public understanding of science in the United Kingdom), although there is good reason prima facie to believe that improving public understanding of science has national economic benefits, empirical proof for such a link is often elusive (RS & Bodmer, 1985). This remains the case today. Nevertheless, many pieces of evidence suggest why a modern, industrialized society should cultivate a strong science culture. Literature from the domains of cognitive science, sociology, cultural studies, economics, innovation, political science, and public policy provides relevant insights. (p. 63 PDF; p. 31 print)

Intriguingly, while the panel has made extensive use of social science methods for this assessment there are some assumptions made about skill sets required for the future,

Technological innovation depends on the presence of science and technology skills in the workforce. While at one point it may have been possible for relatively low-skilled individuals to substantively contribute to technological development, in the 21st century this is no longer the case. [emphasis mine] Advanced science and technology skills are now a prerequisite for most types of technological innovation. (p. 72 PDF; p. 40 print)

Really, it’s no longer possible for relatively low-skilled individuals to contribute to technological development? Maybe the expert panel missed this bit in my March 27, 2013 post,

Getting back to Bittel’s Slate article, he mentions Foldit (here’s my first piece in an Aug. 6, 2010 posting [scroll down about 1/2 way]), a protein-folding game which has generated some very exciting science. He also notes some of that science was generated by older, ‘uneducated’ women. Bittel linked to Jeff Howe’s Feb. 27, 2012 article about Foldit and other crowdsourced science projects for Slate where I found this very intriguing bit,

“You’d think a Ph.D. in biochemistry would be very good at designing protein molecules,” says Zoran Popović, the University of Washington game designer behind Foldit. Not so. “Biochemists are good at other things. But Foldit requires a narrow, deeper expertise.”

Or as it turns out, more than one. Some gamers have a preternatural ability to recognize patterns, an innate form of spatial reasoning most of us lack. Others—often “grandmothers without a high school education,” says Popovic—exercise a particular social skill. “They’re good at getting people unstuck. They get them to approach the problem differently.” What big pharmaceutical company would have anticipated the need to hire uneducated grandmothers? (I know a few, if Eli Lilly HR is thinking of rejiggering its recruitment strategy.) [emphases mine]

It’s not the idea that technical and scientific skills are needed that concerns me; it’s the report’s hard line about ‘low skills’ (which is a term that is not defined). In addition to the notion that future jobs require only individuals with ‘high level’ skills; there’s the notion (not mentioned in this report but gaining general acceptance in the media) that we shouldn’t ever have to perform repetitive and boring activities. It’s a notion which completely ignores a certain aspect of the learning process. Very young children repeat over and over and over and over … . Apprenticeships in many skills-based crafts were designed with years of boring, repetitive work as part of the training. It seems counter-intuitive but boring, repetitive activities can lead to very high level skills such as the ability to ‘unstick’ a problem for an expert with a PhD in biochemistry.

Back to the assessment, the panel commissioned a survey, conducted in 2013, to gather data about science culture in Canada,

The Panel’s survey of Canadian science culture, designed to be comparable to surveys undertaken in other countries as well as to the 1989 Canadian survey, assessed public attitudes towards science and technology, levels and modes of public engagement in science, and public science knowledge or understanding. (The evidence reported in this chapter on the fourth dimension, science and technology skills, is drawn from other sources such as Statistics Canada and the OECD).

Conducted in April 2013, the survey relied on a combination of landline and mobile phone respondents (60%) and internet respondents (40%), randomly recruited from the general population. In analyzing the results, responses to the survey were weighted based on Statistics Canada data according to region, age, education, and gender to ensure that the sample was representative of the Canadian public. 7 A total of 2,004 survey responses were received, with regional breakdowns presented in Table 4.1. At a national level, survey results are accurate within a range of plus or minus 2.2% 19 times out of 20 (i.e., at the 95% confidence interval), and margins of error for regional results range from 3.8% to 7.1%). Three open-ended questions were also included in the survey, which were coded using protocols previously applied to these questions in other international surveys. 8 All open-ended questions were coded independently by at least three bilingual coders, and any discrepancies in coding were settled through a review by a fourth coder. (p. 79 PDF; p. 47 print)

The infographic’s data in part 1 of this commentary, What Do Canadians Think About Science and Technology (S&T)? is based on the survey and other statistical information included in the report especially Chapter four focused on measurements (pp. 77  – 127 PDF; pp. 45 – 95 print). While the survey presents a somewhat rosier picture of the Canadian science culture than the one I experience on a daily basis, the data seems to have been gathered in a thoughtful fashion. Regardless of the assessment’s findings and my opinions,  how Canadians view science became a matter of passionate debate in the Canadian science blogging community (at least parts of it) in late 2014 as per a Dec. 3, 2014 posting by the Science Borealis team on their eponymous blog (Note: Links have been removed),

The CBC’s Rick Mercer is a staunch science advocate, and his November 19th rant was no exception. He addressed the state of basic science in Canada, saying that Canadians are “passionate and curious about science.”

In response, scientist David Kent wrote a post on the Black Hole Blog in which he disagreed with Mercer, saying, “I do not believe Mr. Mercer’s idea that Canadians as a whole are interested although I, like him, would wish it to be the case.”

Kent’s post has generated some fierce discussion, both in the comments on his original post and in the comments on a Facebook post by Evidence for Democracy.

Here at Science Borealis, we rely on a keen and enthusiastic public to engage with the broad range of science-based work our bloggers share, so we decided to address some of the arguments Kent presented in his post.

Anecdotal evidence versus data

Kent says “Mr. Mercer’s claims about Canadians’ passions are anecdotal at best, and lack any evidence – indeed it is possible that Canadians don’t give a hoot about science for science’s sake.”

Unfortunately, Kent’s own argument is based on anecdotal evidence (“To me it appears that… the average Canadian adult does not particularly care about how or why something works.”).

If you’re looking for data, they’re available in a recent Council of Canadian Academies report that specifically studied science culture in Canada. Results show that Canadians are very interested in science.

You can find David Kent’s Nov. 26, 2014 post about Canadians, Rick Mercer and science here. Do take a look at the blog’s comments which feature a number of people deeply involved in promoting and producing Canadian science culture.

I promised disturbing statistics in the head for this posting and here they are in the second paragraph,

Canadian students perform well in PISA [Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s (OECD) Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA)] , with relatively high scores on all three of the major components of the assessment (reading, science, and mathematics) compared with students in other countries (Table 4.4). In 2012 only seven countries or regions had mean scores on the science assessment higher than Canada on a statistically significant basis: Shanghai–China, Hong Kong–China, Singapore, Japan, Finland, Estonia, and Korea (Brochu et al., 2013). A similar pattern holds for mathematics scores, where nine countries had mean scores higher than Canada on a statistically significant basis: Shanghai–China, Singapore, Hong Kong–China, Chinese Taipei, Korea, Macao–China, Japan, Lichtenstein, and Switzerland (Brochu et al., 2013). Regions scoring higher than Canada are concentrated in East Asia, and tend to be densely populated, urban areas. Among G8 countries, Canada ranks second on mean science and mathematics scores, behind Japan.

However, the 2012 PISA results also show statistically significant declines in Canada’s scores on both the mathematics and science components. Canada’s science score declined by nine points from its peak in 2006 (with a fall in ranking from 3rd to 10th), and the math score declined by 14 points since first assessed in 2003 (a fall from 7th to 13th) (Brochu et al., 2013). Changes in Canada’s standing relative to other countries reflect both the addition of new countries or regions over time (i.e., the addition of regions such as Hong Kong–China and Chinese Taipei in 2006, and of Shanghai–China in 2009) and statistically significant declines in mean scores.

My Oct. 9, 2013 post discusses the scores in more detail and as the Expert Panel notes, the drop is disconcerting and disturbing. Hopefully, it doesn’t indicate a trend.

Part 2 (b) follows immediately.

Science Culture: Where Canada Stands; an expert assessment, Part 3 of 3: where were …?

I did have some major issues with this report. I’ve already touched on the makeup of the Expert Panel in my Feb. 22, 2013 post (Expert panel to assess the state of Canada’s science culture—not exactly whelming). There could have been more women on the panel (also noted in part 2 of this commentary) and they could have included a few culture makers (writers, visual artists, performing artists). Also mentioned in part 2 of this commentary, it would have been nice to have seen a few people from the aboriginal communities and a greater age range represented on the panel or on advisory committees.

In a discussion about science culture, I am somewhat shocked that the Situating Science; Science in Human Contexts research cluster was never mentioned. From the programme’s About Us page,

Created in 2007 with the generous funding of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada Strategic Knowledge Cluster grant, Situating Science is a seven-year project promoting communication and collaboration among humanists and social scientists that are engaged in the study of science and technology.

A Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) seven-year programme devoted to Canada’s science culture and it wasn’t mentioned??? An oversight or a symptom of a huge disconnection within Canada’s science culture? I vote for disconnection but please do let me know what you think in the comments section.

As for the assessment’s packaging (cover, foreword, and final words), yikes! The theme colour (each CAC assessment has a theme colour; their policing assessment is blue) for Canada’s science culture is red, perhaps evoking the Canadian maple leaf on the flag. The picture on the cover depicts a very sweet, blond(e), white child with glasses too big for his/her face rimmed in thick black. Glasses are a long established symbol for nerds/intellectual people. So, it would seem Canada’s science culture is blond, nerdy, and, given the child’s clothing, likely male, though in this day and age not definitively so. Or perhaps the child’s hair is meant to signify the maple leaf on the flag with a reversed field (the cover) being red and the leaf being white.

The problem here is not a single image of a blond(e) child, the problem is the frequency with which blond(e) children are used to signify Canadians. Thankfully, advertising images are becoming more diverse but there’s still a long way to go.

There are also issues with the beginning and the end of the report. Two scientists bookend the report: both male, both physicists, one from the UK and the other from the US.

C. P. Snow and his 1959 lecture ‘Two Cultures’ about science and society is mentioned by the Expert Panel’s Chair, Arthur Carty (himself from the UK). In his foreword/message, Carty speculates about how C. P. Snow would respond to today’s science culture environment in a fashion that brings to mind William Lyon MacKenzie King, Canada’s Prime Minister from December 1921 – June 1926;  September 1926 – August 1930; and October 1935 – November 1948, Mackenzie King regularly communed with the dead. From the Wikipedia entry on William Lyon Mackenzie King (Note: Links have been removed),

Privately, he was highly eccentric, with his preference for communing with spirits, using seances and table-rapping, including those of Leonardo da Vinci, Sir Wilfrid Laurier, his dead mother, his grandfather William Lyon Mackenzie, and several of his Irish Terrier dogs, all named Pat except for one named Bob. He also claimed to commune with the spirit of the late President Roosevelt. He sought personal reassurance from the spirit world, rather than seeking political advice. Indeed, after his death, one of his mediums said that she had not realized that he was a politician. King asked whether his party would win the 1935 election, one of the few times politics came up during his seances. His occult interests were kept secret during his years in office, and only became publicized later. Historians have seen in his occult activities a penchant for forging unities from antitheses, thus having latent political import. In 1953, Time stated that he owned—and used—both an Ouija board and a crystal ball.

However, historian Charles Perry Stacey, author of the 1976 book A Very Double Life, which examined King’s secret life in detail, with work based on intensive examination of the King diaries, concluded, despite long-running interests in the occult and spiritualism, that King did not allow his beliefs to influence his decisions on political matters. Stacey wrote that King entirely gave up his interests in the occult and spiritualism during World War II.[80]

At the end of the report, Carty quotes Brian Greene, a US physicist,  p. 218 (PDF) thereby neatly framing Canada between the UK and the US,

However, as stated by physicist Brian Greene (2008), one of the simplest reasons for developing a stronger science culture is that doing so helps foster a fuller, richer experience of science itself:

Science is a way of life. Science is a perspective. Science is the process that takes us from confusion to understanding in a manner that’s precise, predictive, and reliable — a transformation, for those lucky enough to experience it, that is empowering and emotional. To be able to think through and grasp explanations — for everything from why the sky is blue to how life formed on earth — not because they are declared dogma, but because they reveal patterns confirmed by experiment and observation, is one of the most precious of human experiences.

Couldn’t we have found one Canadian thinker or perhaps a thinker from somewhere else on the globe? Assuming there’s a next time, I hope the approach evolves to something more reflective of Canadian society.

In the meantime there is more, much more in the assessment  including a discussion of science-based policy and including the arts to turn STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) to STEAM and I encourage you take a look at either the full version, the executive summary, or the abridged version, all of which can be found here.

Science Culture: Where Canada Stands; an expert assessment, Part 1 of 3: Canadians are doing pretty well

After almost two years, Science Culture: Where Canada Stands (256 pp. PDF; 222 pp. print) was released in August  2014 by the Council of Canadian Academies (CAC). The assessment as the CAC calls these reports was first mentioned here in a Dec. 19, 2012 post about the questions being asked and with a follow up Feb. 22, 2013 post when its Expert Panel was announced.

I believe this is the first document of its kind, i.e., assessing science culture in Canada, and it is very welcome. I have mixed feelings about the report; there’s some excellent content packaged in a rather unfortunate manner. (BTW, I was chuffed to find that my blog and I were mentioned in it.)

I will start with the good stuff first. The CAC has provided an infographic of how Canada compares to other countries where science culture is concerned,

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It’s encouraging to see how well we’re doing globally although the report does note that some countries don’t have data for comparison and other countries’ may have older data (Canadian data gathered for this report is relatively recent as per one of the excerpts [further in this post] from Ivan Semeniuk’s August 28, 2014 Globe and Mail article) so the rankings may not reflect a truly accurate global ranking.

Here’s another infographic; this one describing Canadians’ attitudes towards and beliefs about science and technology,

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As encouraging as these infographics are, Ivan Semeniuk (also namechecked in the report) notes some of the concerns broached in the assessment in his Aug, 28, 2014 Globe and Mail article,

From knowing what a molecule is to endorsing government support for basic research, Canadians as a whole display a clearer understanding of and a more positive attitude toward science than people in most other developed countries.

Overall, the report’s message is a positive one for Canada. “Canadians rank quite highly when it comes to science knowledge, attitudes and engagement in comparison with other countries in the world,” said Arthur Carty, chair of the panel that produced the report and a former national science adviser.

But despite high levels of interest, the report also reveals that in practical terms, most Canadians have an arm’s-length relationship with science. [emphasis mine] Only 20 per cent of first university degrees in Canada are awarded in science and engineering fields and only 30 per cent of employed Canadians work at science and technology related jobs – fewer than in the majority of other countries with a comparable standard of living.

It seems Semeniuk and the expert panel subscribe to the notion that formal science education is the only true measure of a ;close’ relationship with science. Neither party seems to take much comfort in the fact that Canadians keep up with science once their formal education (scientific or otherwise) is over (from Semeniuk’s article,

Among the most striking results from the survey is that Canada ranks first in science literacy, with 42 per cent of Canadians able to read and understand newspaper stories detailing scientific findings.

The comparatively high interest in science that Canadians express suggests they may be doing better than most at keeping up with the discoveries that have come along since their formal education ended. [emphasis mine] An emphasis on lifelong learning is important for cultivating a national science culture, the report’s authors say, because the leading edge of research is driven by knowledge that was not available 10 or 20 years ago.

The comparatively recent Canadian data, as mentioned earlier, may not provide a true picture of Canada’s ranking (from Semeniuk’s article),

But ongoing research by Dr. Miller [Jon Miller, a panel member and director of the International Center for the Advancement of Scientific Literacy at the University of Michigan] and others suggest that science literacy is on the rise everywhere, and therefore Canada’s high ranking could also be a function of how recently it was surveyed relative to other countries. Whatever the reason, the report’s numbers suggest there is more to be learned about precisely how Canadians are relating to science and how that is changing, says broadcaster and author Jay Ingram, who was also on the panel.

Getting on to the report/assessment proper, I do like the note of skepticism about the impact a strong science culture has on society given the somewhat hysterical claims made by some adherents to this philosophy,

Many claims have been advanced about the impacts of a strong science culture. Such claims are often plausible given the extent to which science and technology feature in most aspects of individual and social life. However, there is limited empirical evidence to substantiate these claims, and in some cases that evidence points to more complexity in the way these impacts are manifested than is typically acknowledged. Much of this evidence suggests that, while a stronger science culture may contribute to a range of personal or social benefits, it is not always in itself sufficient to ensure the realization of those benefits.(p. 24 PDF; p. xxii print]

It’s a thoughtfulness I very much appreciate.

The report offers a definition of science that could include social science but, given a rather egregious omission (more about that in part 3 of this commentary), does not appear to do so,

Science is a systematic means of discovery and exploration that enriches our collective understanding of the world and universe around us. It is a fundamental part of Canadian culture and society, implicated in nearly every aspect of individual and social life. (p. 34 PDF; p. 2 print)

I was intrigued to learn the term ‘science culture’ is specific to Canada,

One of the first challenges faced by the Panel was to define science culture. While often used in Canadian discussions of science and technology policy, the term is rarely defined with precision. It is most frequently used to convey the degree to which society and the public are broadly engaged in, and supportive of, science. For example, at the launch of Canada’s National Science and Technology Week in 1990, the then Minister for Science, William Winegard, stated that “a science culture means a society that embraces science, involves itself in the development, application and use of new technologies, and celebrates national achievements [in science] with pride and enthusiasm” (National Science and Technology Week, 1990).

The use of this term in Canada partly reflects Canada’s bilingual heritage. In other English-speaking countries, terms such as science literacy, public understanding of science, public engagement in science, and public communication of science are more common (Durant, 1993). These terms are not synonymous with each other, or with science culture. However, they are related concepts, representing a range of perspectives that have been applied to the study of how the public relates to, interacts with, and develops views about science and technology. Patterns in the use of these terms in the literature over time also reflect an evolution in the way in which scholars, scientists, and policy-makers discuss science and society issues (Bauer, 2009). In French, the preferred term is generally la culture scientifique or la culture scientifique et technique, and the use of these terms in Quebec may have contributed to the use of the English science culture throughout Canada.

Compared with science literacy or public understanding of science, science culture is a more expansive concept, encompassing different aspects of the relationship between society and science. (p. 39 PDF; p, 7 print)

Globally, discussions about science are necessary,

Public discussions about the role of science in society are now dominated by a number of critical issues. Debates about nuclear power, climate change, biotechnology, nanotechnology, and stem cells are common across many countries and have been frequently the source of both national and international studies. For example, concern about anthropogenic global warming has generated a significant amount of research on public perception and attitudes related to science and technology. … The global reach of many of these issues requires international policy responses involving coordination and alignment of many governments. Both government actions and media coverage of these issues can have an impact on public perception of science and technology on an international scale.

Specific events abroad can also have a major impact on science culture around the world. The crisis at the Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan in 2011, for example, caused widespread concern over nuclear safety across many countries and significantly affected public perception of the safety of these technologies (Kim et al., 2013). In Canada this event precipitated a review of all major nuclear facilities and the development of a four-year action plan to strengthen the safety of the nuclear industry (Canadian Nuclear Association, 2012; Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, 2012) (pp. 46/7 PDF; pp. 14/5 print)

In a description of how new technologies are changing society and affecting the practice of science, the expert panel introduces the notion of ‘citizen science’ (Note: I agree with the notion and have a category for citizen science on this blog),

One such impact concerns how the public can participate in and contribute to scientific work. Canadian physicist Michael Nielsen argues that new possibilities for large-scale scientific collaboration resulting from web-based platforms can potentially transform the practice of science due to changes in how scientists collaborate, and to the development of online platforms for engaging the public in scientific research (Nielsen, 2012). “Citizen science” initiatives allow the public to contribute to many kinds of scientific activity, often through collaborative, web-based platforms … (p. 47 PDF; p. 15 print)

I was pleased to see that the influence of popular culture was also mentioned although I did feel it was a bit lacking,

First, popular culture can influence attitudes towards science and technology and perceptions of scientists and their role in society. The foundation of science is the acquisition of knowledge. Ungar (2000) argues that in some segments of society, attaining highly specialized knowledge is viewed as elitist. [emphasis mine] As such, it is sometimes popular to denigrate intellectualism in favour of a more egalitarian and conversational ethos, which may devalue the contributions of scientists. In a review of U.S. children’s educational science programs, Long and Steinke (1996) report that images of science have emphasized characteristics such as truth, fun, accessibility, and ubiquity. Scientists were portrayed through several stereotypes in these shows, ranging from being omniscient and elite to eccentric and antisocial. (p. 51 PDF; p. 19 print)

The panel adopted a rather interesting approach to a fairly complex topic and, in my view, gave it shorter shrift than it deserved. Frankly, the view that the science community is elitist has some merit. How do you like someone using the term ‘dumbing down’ in your presence?

Getting back to the assessment, I was happy to see that Québec was more or less given its due,

As the only Canadian province with a predominantly French-speaking population, Quebec has its own organizations dedicated to the promotion of science in the public (e.g., Association francophone pour le savoir); its own set of French- language science media organizations and programs (e.g., Agence Science-Presse, “Découverte,” “Le Code Chastenay”); French-language science museums and centres (e.g., Centre des sciences de Montréal); science festivals (e.g., Festival Eurêka!); and many other organizations and programs involved in supporting science culture and communication for the Francophone population. The formal science education and training system also differs in Quebec, given the role of institutions such as the collèges d’enseignement général et professionnel (CEGEP). The historical development of science culture in Quebec is also distinct from that of Anglophone Canada, more firmly rooted in French and European discourses about science, culture, and cultural policies (Chartrand et al., 1987; Schiele et al., 1994). As a result of these differences, past inquiries into science culture in Canada have often treated Quebec as separate from the rest of Canada, and the Quebec government has sponsored its own investigations into science culture in the province (e.g., CST, 2002a). (p. 53 PDF; p. 21 print)

I believe it’s the province with the most support of any for science culture and it cannot be an accident that Seed (a former Canadian and once successful English language science magazine and enterprise) was founded in Montréal, Québec.

The report also notes Aboriginal contributions to Canadian science culture,

Canada’s Aboriginal cultures also play a role in defining the science culture landscape in Canada, both through their own knowledge traditions and their impacts on science education and outreach. Aboriginal knowledge has also been incorporated into some provincial science curricula, and some science textbooks now teach students about both scientific and Aboriginal knowledge systems, as a result of the collaboration between ministries of education, Aboriginal Elders, and one Canadian publisher (Aikenhead & Elliott, 2010). Aboriginal knowledge and traditions have also had impacts on scientific research in Canada, with biologists, ecologists, climatologists, and geologists incorporating Aboriginal knowledge in their research in a number of ways … (pp. 53/4 PDF; pp. 21/2 print)

It would have been nice to know if any experts of Aboriginal origin were included in the expert panel and/or in the group of reviewers as it would have been nice to see more women in those groups. If you’re going to discuss diversity and opening things up then perhaps you should consider ‘being the change’ rather than simply discussing it.

The report also mentioned Canada’s ageing population never once suggesting there might be ways to integrate that population into the larger science culture. The report’s bias was definitely youthful. Again on the subject of ‘being the change’, it might have been interesting to include youth and seniors in an advisory capacity to the panel.

On to part 2 and part 3.

Canada’s federal scientists bargain for the right to present scientific results without government interference

I believe this latest bargaining round (h/t Dec. 3, 2014 news item on phys.org) between the Canadian federal government (Treasury Board) and the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada (PIPSC; a multi-disciplinary professional union representing 60,000 members employed by the Canadian federal government) is extraordinary. To my knowledge, no other union in this country has ever bargained for the right to present information without political interference or, more briefly, integrity. (Should you know otherwise, please let me know.)

Kathryn May in a Dec. 2, 2014 article for the Ottawa Citizen seems to have broken the news,

The Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada, which represents more than 15,000 scientists, researchers and engineers, is tabling a negotiating position for managing science in the “public interest” with a list of demands for Treasury Board negotiators that dramatically push the boundaries of traditional collective bargaining in the public service.

The 7,000 members of PIPSC’s large applied science and patent examination group are the first at the table with Treasury Board this week, followed by 2,300 members of the research group next week.

A document obtained by the Citizen shows the union is looking for changes to deal with the ongoing spending cuts in science and “interference” in the integrity of scientific work.

The integrity policies will ensure science is done in the public interest; information and data is shared; scientists can collaborate, seek peer review and be protected from political meddling, “intimidation,” “coercion” or pressure to alter data.

It’s hard to tell how much of this is political grandstanding but it should be noted that there has been international notice of the situation in Canada (from the news article),

About a month ago [late October or early November 2014], hundreds of scientists from around the world signed an open letter appealing to Prime Minister Stephen Harper to end the “burdensome restrictions” Canada’s scientists face in talking about their work and collaborating with international colleagues.

The letter, signed by 800 scientists from 32 countries, was drafted by the Union of Concerned Scientists, which represents U.S. scientists.

May’s article goes on to note,

The union has extensively surveyed federal scientists in recent years and issued two major reports that found scientists don’t feel they can freely speak and that spending cuts are affecting Canadians’ health, safety and environment.

A quarter of scientists surveyed said they have been asked to exclude or alter information. That request, whether explicit or implicit, came from the department, ministers’ offices or the Prime Minister’s Office. At the same time, nearly three-quarters of scientists believe policy is being compromised by political interference.

Specifically, PIPSC wants a scientific integrity policy for Treasury Board and the 40 science-based departments and agencies. The union would be consulted in the drafting and the final policy would be part of the collective agreements and made public.

The policy would touch on a range of issues and existing policies, but the key proposal is the “right to speak.” The union wants a clause guaranteeing scientists the right to express their personal views while making clear they don’t speak for government.

The other big demand is professional development, allowing scientists to attend meetings, conferences and courses to maintain their professional standards.

Do please read May’s article in its entirety (assuming the news paper continues to make it freely available) as it is riveting for anyone interested in this topic.

A Dec. 3, 2014 PIPSC news release provides more details about specific negotiating points,

The proposal being tabled would see enforceable policies negotiated that, among other things, ensure:

  • federal scientists have the right to speak;
  • reinvestment in research programs;
  • adequate national and international collaboration among scientists;
  • preservation of government science knowledge and libraries, and;
  • a guaranteed role in informing evidence-based public policy.

“It’s sad, frankly, that it’s come to this,” added Daviau [Debi Daviau, PIPSC president]. “But negotiating provisions in our collective agreements seems to be the only way to get this government’s attention and adopt meaningful, enforceable scientific integrity standards. At least this way our members would have the chance to grieve violations of standards they argue are essential to maintaining adequate public science services.”

The negotiating point (4th bullet) about libraries seems to have arisen from a specific cost-cutting exercise involving the Dept. of Fisheries and Oceans libraries mentioned in my Jan. 30,  2014 posting. (The disbursement of some priceless volumes along with standard texts appeared to have been done with all the grace and thoughtfulness one would expect from a mindless mob.)

On a related note, I attended a four-day international congress in August 2014 and was surprised by the lack of Canadian scientists at this meeting. Perhaps this is not an area (alternatives to animal testing) where we have invested much research money but it was surprising and somehow shocking that so few Canadian scientists were giving presentations; there was one scientific presentation from a group at the University of British Columbia.

The issues around scientific integrity are complex and I’m not comfortable with the notion of including the principles in a union contract. My experience is that unions can be just as repressive and reductive as any government agency. That said, I think the practice of scientific integrity in Canada needs to be addressed in some fashion and if the only means we have is a union contract then, so be it.

It may be a few weeks before I get back to the topic of scientific integrity and the right to speak as I’m still catching up from all that teaching but I hope to have a more thoughtful and complex piece on these issues written before the year’s end.

ETA Dec. 4, 2014 1245 hours (PDT), coincidentally or not the Canadian federal government announced today * a $1.5 billlion fund (over 10 years) for research (from a Dec. 4, 2014 University of British Columbia [UBC) news release),

The University of British Columbia [UBC] welcomes today’s announcement of the $1.5-billion Canada First Research Excellence Fund (CFREF), designed to significantly enhance the capabilities and competitiveness of Canada’s post-secondary institutions, says President Arvind Gupta.

“Thanks to this investment by the Government of Canada, our universities have an extraordinary opportunity to foster globally significant research on issues that have the capacity to change people’s lives and shape our future,” said Gupta. “Excellence in research makes our reputation, and enables us to attract the best faculty, students and staff from around the world.”

UBC will be among Canada’s top universities competing for up to tens of millions of dollars annually in CFREF funding over the course of the 10-year program. These new funds could support UBC’s emerging research and innovation strategy, designed to put students at the cutting edge of knowledge, providing access to the latest discoveries and revelations, noted Gupta.

UBC is internationally recognized for research excellence in such areas as: Quantum materials; translational genomics and precision oncology; economics; neurosciences; biodiversity; bio-economics; and microbial diversity, among others.

You can read the full UBC news release here. There were a few details more to be had in a U15 Group of Canadian Research Universities Dec. 4, 2014 news release,

The U15 Group of Canadian Research Universities applauds the official launch of the Canada First Research Excellence Fund (CFREF). Prime Minister Stephen Harper launched the Fund today, accompanied by Ed Holder, minister of state for science and technology, at an event attended by representatives from the post-secondary education sector and industry.

“Since its announcement in Budget 2014, The U15 has been looking forward to the official launch of CFREF as a significant commitment by Canada to support globally competitive research excellence,” said Dr. Feridun Hamdullahpur, chair of The U15 and president and vice-chancellor of the University of Waterloo. “This Fund will allow successful institutions to better compete on the international stage in established areas of research strength as well as new and emerging areas that will support Canada’s scientific standing and long-term economic advantage.”

Interesting timing, non?

* ‘of’ removed from sentence on Dec. 4, 2014.

Update on proposal for a science watchdog in Canada and a change for the Chief Public Health Officer

“Round and round it goes, where it stops nobody knows.” I always think of roulette wheels when I hear that one but now I’m going to be thinking about the mysterious ways of the internet.

David Bruggeman in a Nov. 26, 2014 posting on his Pasco Phronesis blog writes about a bill before the Canadian Parliament to create a position for a Parliamentary Science Officer. Interestingly, he got the information from FrogHeart Daily. It’s a paper I created a few years ago and had forgotten until now. So, I guess thanks  to David and to me (?). In any event I had written about this proposed position (months after the fact) in July 30, 2014 post regarding science policy and advice in Canada and in New Zealand.

Getting back to David’s Nov. 26, 2014 posting (Note: A link has been removed),

The bill, introduced in December of last year [2013], would establish a Parliamentary Science Officer.  As outlined in the bill, the position would be an independent officer of Parliament, meaning the person would be appointed with the approval of Parliament, and serve a term of seven years.  The position would appear to be on par with the Information Commissioner of Canada and other appointed positions.  (MP [Kennedy] Stewart [NDP] has referred to the Parliamentary Budget Officer, likely because that position is more advisory than the Information Commissioner.)

Here’s Kennedy Stewart’s Nov. 21, 2013 news release regarding his proposed Parliamentary Science Officer bill,

Bill C-558: Parliamentary Science Officer

“This bill represents the strongest effort yet to protect the pursuit and use of scientific research in the federal government. It goes beyond what we had in the past and charts a bold vision for where we need to go,” said MP Kennedy Stewart (Burnaby-Douglas), an Associate Professor on leave from Simon Fraser University’s School of Public Policy. “After years of muzzling, mismanagement, and misuse of science by the Conservative government, this new office will promote real transparency and ensure decisions made in Ottawa are based on the best available scientific evidence.”

Modeled on the current Parliamentary Budget Officer, the UK’s Parliamentary Office of Science & Technology, and the White House Office of Science & Technology Policy, the Parliamentary Science Officer would be established as an independent agent of Parliament. It would have a legislated mandate to:

Assess the state of scientific evidence relevant to any proposal or bill before Parliament;
Answer requests from Committees and individual Members for unbiased scientific information;

Conduct independent analysis of federal science and technology policy;
Raise awareness of scientific issues across government and among Canadians;
Encourage coordination between departments and agencies conducting scientific research.

“Beginning with the closure of the National Science Advisor to the Prime Minister, the Conservatives have used every tool at their disposal to prevent, limit, and restrict Canadian scientists from sharing their research with policy-makers and the public,” said MP Laurin Liu (Rivière-des-Mille-Îles), Deputy Critic for Science and Technology. “Being independent from the government and responsible for serving the needs of the legislature, a Parliamentary Science Officer would revitalize scientific integrity in Ottawa.”

I’m not sure chiding the Conservative government is necessarily the best way to go about establishing this new position and, as noted in the 2013 news release and elsewhere, this government axed the National Science Advisor position when they first came to power with a minority in the House of Commons. At this juncture, it seems unlikely that the government which has a healthy majority in the House of Commons will vote to create a Parliamentary Science Officer position.

Nonetheless, Kennedy Stewart has issued a Nov. 26, 2014 news release about Bill C-558,

Important members of the scientific community are endorsing the NDP’s proposal to create an independent science watchdog with responsibility to curb the muzzling of public scientists and provide Parliament with sound information and expert advice on scientific issues.

“Science in Canada is at a crossroads. After years of government scientists being muzzled by the Conservatives, this new office will promote real transparency and ensure decisions made in Ottawa are based on the best available scientific evidence,” said NDP Science & Technology Critic Kennedy Stewart (Burnaby-Douglas).

The Parliamentary Science Officer Act, Bill C-558, introduced by Dr. Stewart will be a first practical step to mend the relationship between scientists and politicians, and will give public science a more robust voice in the federal government.

“For too long we have heard that scientific evidence is ignored by policy-makers and that federal scientists are being unduly prevented from sharing their research with Canadians. I’m proud that the scientific community is rallying behind the NDP’s proposal for a Parliamentary Science Officer,” said Dr. Stewart, an Associate Professor on-leave from Simon Fraser University’s School of Public Policy.

Endorsement Quotes

“Public interest science and smart government decision-making are essential for keeping Canadians safe, healthy and prosperous. Yet there is growing concerns that the role of science and evidence in informing smart policy decisions is being eroded. Creating a Parliamentary Science Officer to be a dedicated office that provides non-partisan, independent, objective, and readily available analysis of the science relevant for public policy issues would be a huge step in the right direction. It’s time for Canada to create a Parliamentary Science Officer to give science a stronger voice in the federal government.”

– Katie Gibbs, Executive Director, Evidence for Democracy

“Canadians and their elected representatives need unbiased and non-partisan advice on science policy. The Office of the National Science Advisor had been designed to fill this role, however imperfectly, until it was eliminated in 2008 by the Conservative government. One potential new approach would be to create a Parliamentary Science Officer that provides independent advice and analysis to Parliament about the adequacy and effectiveness of the nation’s scientific policies, priorities, and funding. Bill C-558 would bring evidence back to Parliament.”

– Sylvain Schetagne, Associate Executive Director, Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT)

“Federal scientists and researchers who inspect the food we eat, monitor our environment, approve our medications, and contribute to Canada’s innovative capacity have repeatedly and increasingly expressed concern with the direction of science in Canada in recent years. Restrictive communication policies, cuts to science programs and personnel, political interference in research, and the misuse of evidence are systematically dismantling Canada’s scientific capacity and placing the health and safety of Canadians at risk. The Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada (PIPSC), which represents over 15,000 federal scientists and researchers, endorses Bill C-558 to establish a Parliamentary Science Officer. The need for unbiased and independent advice on science policy is essential in order to protect the health and safety of Canadians and the environment.”

–  Debi Daviau, President, Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada (PIPSC)

“Parliament routinely makes decisions with mighty consequences for millions of Canadians.  For MPs to cast informed votes, and make smart spending and legislative judgements they need to have a dependable, independent sounding board.  The breadth of scientific research methodologies and sheer volume of accumulated knowledge about social, health, and physical sciences alone would be daunting even if food, drug, alcohol, and other vested interests weren’t also trying to bend the ears and steer the actions of MPs.  I urge all MPs to support the speedy passage of Bill C-558 – The Parliamentary Science Officer Act – in the short time remaining in the current session of Parliament.”

– Bill Jeffery, National Coordinator, Centre for Science in the Public Interest

“The state of Canada’s finances is important — but so is the state of Canada’s public interest science. Perhaps the time has come to create a well-resourced Parliamentary Science Officer (PSO), charged with providing independent analysis to Parliament on the state of Canada’s public interest science. Such an office would also provide an objective analysis of the current state of scientific understanding on a range of policy and legislative issues and, perhaps most importantly, synthesize and evaluate the scientific evidence relevant to policy or management alternatives. This oversight function would serve to expose instances where scientific evidence has been misrepresented or ignored, and highlight where there is simply little scientific evidence on which to draw. Does Canada need such an institution? Yes, desperately.”

– Paul Dufour, former Executive Director of the Office of the National Science Advisor; Fellow and Adjunct Professor with the Institute for Science, Society and Policy at the University of Ottawa.

While many sectors of the Canadian scientific community are distressed at the government’s approach to science, in particular, environmental science, there are some sectors that are content. I’d suggest the Canadian physics community, for one,  is quite happy.

Finally getting to the the second item noted in the headline, David Bruggeman’s Nov. 28, 2014 post concerns a change for a parliamentary officer position already in place, the Chief Public Health Officer (CPHO), Note: Links have been removed,

This commentary in The Toronto Star notes a plan by the Canadian government to change the status of the country’s Chief Public Health Officer (CPHO).  Part of the current omnibus budget legislation before the Canadian Parliament, the Officer would no longer be the chief executive of the Public Health Agency (PHA), but simply an officer.  A President would be appointed to run the PHA.  Presumably this would mean that the President would become the public health face of the agency and the government, with the CPHO holding a strictly advisory role.

A Nov. 12, 2014 article by Kelly Grant in the Globe and Mail describes the proposed new roles for the CPHO and the PHA president,

The proposed changes, which are tucked into Ottawa’s most recent omnibus budget bill, would make the top doctor an “officer” who would keep providing scientific advice to the health minister but who would no longer be deputy head of the agency.

That role would now be carried out by a president, a new post that Prime Minister Stephen Harper has already recommended be filled by Krista Outhwaite, the civil servant who led the agency while the government left the chief public health officer job vacant for 16 months.

Health Minister Rona Ambrose says the idea for the new structure came from the agency itself and that it “makes a lot of common sense” to permanently relieve the busy top doctor, Gregory Taylor, of the burden of overseeing 2,500 employees and a $615-million budget.

The change would leave him to concentrate on the rest of the job’s original mandate, namely providing public-health advice to the government, delivering health messages to Canadians and co-ordinating with provinces and international health bodies, as he has done recently in preparing the country for potential cases of Ebola.

“He will focus primarily on communicating and engaging in public-health issues,” Ms. Ambrose said.

Interestingly, Dr. Taylor, the current CPHO incumbent, did not offer any quotes for this article and was not able to be interviewed on the matter although he does seem amenable to this new structure. It would appear the change has already occurred in practice; the proposed legislation will merely legitimize it (from Grant’s article),

He [Taylor] became the acting chief public health officer after David Butler-Jones, the first person to hold the job, suffered a stroke in May, 2012 and formally stepped down in June of 2013. Ms. Outhwaite, who is not a medical doctor, was temporarily made deputy head of the agency in May 2012, a post she has held since.

Dr. Taylor, meanwhile, was officially elevated to the role of chief public health officer on Sept. 24 [2014]. Under the existing legislation, that job is still designated as the agency deputy head. In an interview with The Globe and Mail that day [Sept. 24, 2014], he said the stopgap approach of running the agency in co-operation with Ms. Outhwaite had been working very well.

According to Grant’s article, Taylor has acquitted himself well as a national spokesperson on public health issues concerning Canadians. However, this is a rather disturbing omission with regard to Ebola and the processing of visa applications from three countries hard hit by the disease in West Africa,

… Since his [Dr. Gregory Taylor’s] appointment, he has appeared alongside Ms. Ambrose [Health Minister Rona Ambrose] at several news conferences on Ebola, taking questions and offering calm and common-sense advice about the virus.

The exception to that has been the government’s controversial decision to stop processing visa applications from the three West African countries hardest hit by Ebola, a move that the World Health Organization says is not supported by the science and runs afoul of International Health Regulations.

Dr. Taylor has not spoken publicly on the matter and the Public Health Agency of Canada has referred all questions about the policy to Citizenship and Immigration Canada, which oversees visa rules.

Questions as to whether Dr. Taylor had privately provided advice to the government on this matter were left unanswered.

It seems odd that Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer has no comment about visa applications from three West African countries not being processed due to the Ebola outbreak when this decision is contrary to scientific evidence and international regulations. What is a CPHO for if not to offer advice and commentary based on scientific evidence?

2014 Canadian Science Policy Conference extends early bird registration until Sept. 30, 2014

If you register before Oct. 1, 2014 (tomorrow), you will be eligible to receive an ‘early bird’ discount for the 6th annual (2014) Canadian Science Policy Conference being held in Halifax, Nova Scotia from Oct. 15 – 17, 2014.

The revolving/looping banner on the conference website, on Monday, Sept. 29, 2014 featured an all male, all white set of speakers intended to lure participants. An unusual choice in this day and age. In any event, the revolving banner seems to have disappeared.

The agenda for the 2014 conference was previously included in a Sept. 3, 2014 posting about it and a super-saver registrationdiscount available to Sept. 9. As I noted at the time, the organizers needed at least one or two names that would attract registrants and I imagine that having the federal Canadian government Minister of State responsible for Science and Technology, Ed Holder, and, the province of Nova Scotia’s Minister of Economic and Rural Development and Tourism, Minister of Acadian Affairs and the Minister responsible for Nova Scotia Business Inc., and the Innovation Corporation Act – Cape Breton-Richmond, Michael P. Samson, have helped to fill that bill.

The two co-chairs for the 2014 version of this Canadian Science Policy Conference reflect the increasing concern about science, economics, and monetary advancement. Frank McKenna, a former premier of the province of New Brunswick, and a former Canadian ambassador to Washington, DC, is currently, according to his Wikipedia entry,

… Deputy Chair, TD Bank Financial Group effective May 1, 2006.[8] McKenna is responsible for helping to build long-term business relationships that support TD’s growth strategy in Canada and the United States.

McKenna is responsible for supporting the company in its customer acquisition strategy, particularly in the areas of wholesale and commercial banking. In addition, he is responsible for representing TD as it works to expand its North American presence as one of the continent’s ten largest banks, as measured by market capitalization.

As for John Risley, there’s this from a Dec. 19, 2013 article by Stephen Kimber for Canadian publication, Atlantic Business,

Billionaire seafood baron insists that business, not government, must lead Atlantic Canada out of its economic malaise

“The problem with doing profiles…” John Risley begins, and I realize I’ve already lost control of this particular interview before I even ask my first question. “I mean, look,” he continues, kindly enough, “this is your editorial licence, not mine.”

It had all seemed simple enough back in July 2013 during an editorial meeting in St. John’s [Newfoundland and Labrador]. In 2014, Atlantic Business Magazine would celebrate its 25th anniversary – no mean feat in the publishing business anywhere these days – and editor Dawn Chafe and I were trying to figure out an appropriate editorial way to mark that milestone. I’m not sure which of us came up with the idea to profile a series of key Atlantic Canadian business makers and economy shakers, but we quickly agreed John Risley had to be one of them.

Risley, after all, is a member in good standing in Canadian Business magazine’s Top 100 Wealthiest Canadians, the billionaire co-founder of Clearwater Seafoods Inc., “one of North America’s largest vertically integrated seafood companies and the largest holder of shellfish licences and quotas in Canada;” the driving force behind the evolution of Ocean Nutrition, the 16-year-old Nova Scotiabased company that had become the world’s largest producer of Omega-3 fatty acids by the time Risley sold it last year to Dutch-based Royal DSM for $540 million; and a major investor in Columbus Communications, a 10-year-old Barbados-based company providing cable TV‚ digital video, high speed internet access‚ digital telephones and corporate data services in 42 countries in the Caribbean, Central and South America.

These days, Risley lives with his wife Judy in a 32,000-square-foot Georgian-style mansion on a 300-acre sweet spot of ocean-fronted land near idyllic Chester, N.S., that once belonged to the founder of Sunoco, the American petrochemical giant. When he needs to go somewhere, or just get away from it all, he can hop aboard one of his small fleet of corporate aircraft or sail away in a luxurious 240-foot super-yacht “equipped with a helipad and a grand ‘country-house’- style interior.”

It’s not immediately apparent what these two individuals bring to a meeting on Canadian science policy but given the increasing insistence on the commercialization of science, perhaps they don’t really need to know anything about science but can simply share their business insights.

The first plenary session as you might expect from co-chairs whose interests seem to be primarily financial is titled: Procurement and Industrial Technological Benefits (ITB) and Value Propositions on the conference agenda webpage,

The Inside Story: Procurement, Value Propositions, and Industrial and Technological Benefits

Canada’s procurement policy and its associated value proposition and Industrial and Technological Benefit (ITB) policies have the potential to create powerful strategic opportunities for Canadian industry and R&D. These opportunities include increasing demand-side pull instead of the more common supply-side push. In addition, ITBs and value propositions can provide new opportunities for Canadian companies to enter and move up sophisticated global supply chains.

On the other hand, these policies might potentially further complicate an already complicated procurement process and mitigate the primary objective of equipping the Canadian Forces in a timely way. To achieve the significant potential economic development benefits, ITBs and value propositions must be designed and negotiated strategically. This will therefore require priority attention from the responsible departments of government.

An authoritative panel will bring a variety of perspectives to the policy issues. The panel will include members from: a Canadian company with a contract for naval vessel construction; a federal regional development program; a federal ministry responsible for the operation of the policies; a provincial government; and a retired military officer. The panel is chaired by Peter Nicholson who has had extensive experience in science and innovation policy, including its relationship with defense procurement.

An interesting way to kick off the conference: business and military procurement. Happily, there are some more ‘sciencish’ panels but the business theme threatens to dominate the 2014 conference in such a way as to preclude other sorts of conversations and to turn even the more classically ‘science’ panels to business discussions.

While my perspective may seem a little dour, David Bruggeman in his Sept. 26, 2014 posting on the Pasco Phronesis blog offers a more upbeat perspective.

2014 Canadian Science Policy Conference—super saver early bird registration ends Sept. 9*, 2014

The 2014 Canadian Science Policy Conference (CSPC 2014) is being held from Oct. 15 – 17, 2014 in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and is offering 40% off from the regular rates until Sept. 8, 2014 (from the CSPC 2014 registration rate webpage),

Super Saver; 40% discount, Regular Delegate – $510 (Register before Sept 8th)
Super Saver, 40% discount, Academic/NGO – $270 (Register before Sept 8th)
Super Saver, 40% discount, Student – $75 (Register before Sept 8th)

Early Bird Regular Delegate – $725 (on or before Sept 28th)
Early Bird Academic/NGO – $350 (on or before Sept 28th)
Early Bird Student – $100 (on or before Sept 28th)

Regular Delegate Rate – $850 (after Sept 28th)
Regular Academic/NGO – $450 (after Sept 28th)
Regular Student – $150 (after Sept 28th)

This will be the sixth annual CSPC and it features this agenda (from the Agenda at a Glance webpage), Note: Links have been removed,

Wednesday, October 15th, 2014
Time     Activity
3:00pm – 8:00pm     CSPC 2014 Special Workshop     From Research to Implementation: A Lean Entrepreneurship Approach to Advancing Innovation

Thursday, October 16th, 2014
Time     Activity
8:00am – 8:30am     Opening Ceremony

8:30am – 10:00am     Plenary Session     The Inside Story of Procurement and Industrial Technological Benefits (ITB) and Value Propositions

10:00am – 10:30am     Coffee Break

10:30am – 12:00pm

Panel 2     Big problems, big networks, big data
Panel 3     Mitigating the risk of marine geohazards
Panel 4     Building opportunities for collaboration between government and academia to inform public policy

12:00pm- 2:00pm     Lunch

2:00pm – 3:30pm

Panel 5     Partnership that move innovation from Campus to Commerce
Panel 6     The crucial role of small and medium size universities for advancing Canadian social and econ development
Panel 7     Industry-Academic Partnerships in Canada: A View from the Trenches

3:30pm – 4:30pm     Break & Exhibit Display

4:30pm – 6:30pm     Keynote session     Audit on Science Panel

Friday, October 17th, 2014
Time     Activity
8:30am – 10:00am     Panel 8     TBA

10:00am – 10:30am     Coffee Break

10:30am – 12:00pm

Panel 9     Looking to 2020 and beyond: Training the next generation of innovation leaders in Canada
Panel 10     From Excellence to Impact: How Large Infrastructure Stimulate Growth
Panel 11     Communication and Collaboration: Government Science as a Partner for Innovation

12:00pm – 1:30pm     Lunch

1:30pm – 3:00pm

Panel 12     Data management plans- Policy and Practice
Panel 13     Complex International Science, Technology and Innovation Partnerships: Lessons for Canada
Panel 14     Entrepreneurship and Innovation Success in Atlantic

3:00pm – 3:30pm     Coffee Break

3:30pm – 5:00pm     Closing Panel

Oddly, for this gathering, there don’t seem to be any politicians scheduled to speak. Perhaps the organizers are still negotiating; I notice there are some gaps in the agenda.

I have some suggestions: someone or several someones from the expert panel that just (late August 2014) launched its report on ‘Science Culture in Canada’ along with the new CEO of the Canada Science and Technology Museums Corp. (Alex Benay) and maybe one or two people who could generate some excitement (e.g. Justin Trudeau, Tom Jenkins).

By the way, I’m available.

* Sept. 8 changed to Sept. 9, 2014 as per a CSPC update notice (change made Sept. 5, 2014).

Nanotechnology announcements: a new book and a new report

Two quick announcements. The first concerns a forthcoming book to be published in March 2015. Titled, Nanotechnology Law & Guidelines: A Practical Guide for the Nanotechnology Industries in Europe, the book is featured in an Aug. 15, 2014 news item on Nanowerk,

The book is a concise guideline to different issues of nanotechnology in the European Legislation.- It offers an extensive review of all European Patent Office (EPO) cases on nanotechnological inventions. The challenge for new nanotechnology patents is to determine how patent criteria could be met in a patent application. This book shows how to identify the approach and the ways to cope with this challenge.

More about the book and purchasing options can be found on the publisher’s (Springer) Nanotechnology Law & Guidelines webpage,

[Table of Contents:]

Introduction.- Part I Nanotechnology from Research to Manufacture: The legal framework of the nanotechnology research and development.- Structuring the research and development of nanotechnologies.- Manufacturing nanotechnologies.-

Part II Protecting Nanotechnological Inventions: A Matter of Strategy : Trade Secrets vs. Patents and Utility Models.- Trade Secrets and Nanotechnologies.- International, European or National Patent for Nanotechnological Inventions ?- Nanotechnology Patents and Novelty.- Nanotechnology Patents and the Inventive Step.- Nanotechnology Patents and the Industrial Application.- Drafting Nanotechnology Patents Applications.- Utility Models as Alternative Means for Protecting Nanotechnological Inventions.- Copyright, Databases and Designs in the Nano Industry.- Managing and Transferring Nanotechnology Intellectual Property.-

Part III Nanotechnologies Investment and Finance.- Corporate Law and the nanotechnology industry.- Tax Law for the nanotechnology industry.- Investing and financing a nanotechnological project.-

Part IV Marketing Nanotechnologies.- Authorization and Registration Systems.- Product Safety and Liability.- Advertising “Nano”.- “Nano” Trademarks.- Importing and Exporting Nanotechnologies. Annexes: Analytic Table of EPO Cases on Nanotechnologies.- Analytic Table of National Cases on Nanotechnologies.- Analytic Table of OHIM Cases on Nano Trademarks.

I was able to find some information about the author, Anthony Bochon on his University of Stanford (where he is a Fellow) biography page,

Anthony Bochon is an associate in a Brussels-based law firm, an associate lecturer in EU Law & Trade Law/IP Law at the Université libre de Bruxelles and a lecturer in EU Law at the Brussels Business Institute. He is an associate researcher at the unit of Economic Law of the Faculty of Law of the Université libre de Bruxelles. Anthony graduated magna cum laude from the Université libre de Bruxelles in 2010 and received a year later an LL.M. from the University of Cambridge where he studied EU Law, WTO Law and IP Law. He has published on topics such as biotechnological patents, EU trade law and antitrust law since 2008. Anthony is also the author of the first European website devoted to the emerging legal area of nanotechnology law, a field about which he writes frequently and speaks regularly at international conferences. His legal practice is mainly focussed on EU Law, competition law and regulatory issues and he has a strong and relevant experience in IP/IT Law. He devotes his current research to EU and U.S. trade secrets law. Anthony has been a TTLF Fellow since June 2013.

On a completely other note and in the more recent future, there’s a report about the US National Nanotechnology Initiative to be released Aug. 28, 2014 as per David Bruggeman’s Aug. 14. 2014 posting on his Pasco Phronesis blog, (Note: A link has been removed)

On August 28 PCAST [President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology] will hold a public conference call in connection with the release of two new reports.  One will be a review of the National Nanotechnology Initiative (periodically required by law) … .

The call runs from 11:45 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Eastern.  Registration is required, and closes at noon Eastern on the 26th..

That’s it for nanotechnology announcements today (Aug. 15, 2014).

The imperfections of science advice noted amidst rumblings in Europe

The current science advice rumblings in Europe seem to have been launched on Tuesday, July 22, 2014 with an open letter to Jean-Claude Juncker, President-elect of the European Commission, from representatives of nine nongovernmental agencies (NGOs).

From the July 22, 2014 letter on the Corporate Europe Observatory website,

We are writing to you to express our concerns regarding the position of Chief Scientific Advisor to the President of the European Commission. This post was created by Commission President Barroso at the suggestion of the United Kingdom, and was held by Ms Anne Glover since January 2012. The mandate of the Chief Scientific Adviser (CSA) is “to provide independent expert advice on any aspect of science, technology and innovation as requested by the President”.1

We are aware that business lobbies urge you to continue with the practice established by Mr Barroso and even to strengthen the chief adviser’s formal role in policy making.2 We, by contrast, appeal to you to scrap this position. The post of Chief Scientific Adviser is fundamentally problematic as it concentrates too much influence in one person, and undermines in-depth scientific research and assessments carried out by or for the Commission directorates in the course of policy elaboration.

Interestingly, they offer only one specific instance of Glover’s  advice with which they disagree: genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Note: Links have been removed,

To the media, the current CSA presented one-sided, partial opinions in the debate on the use of genetically modified organisms in agriculture, repeatedly claiming that there was a scientific consensus about their safety3 whereas this claim is contradicted by an international statement of scientists (currently 297 signatories) saying that it “misrepresents the currently available scientific evidence and the broad diversity of opinion among scientists on this issue.”4

Unfortunately, that argument renders the letter into an expression of political pique especially since  the signatories are described as anti-GMO both in Roger Pielke’s July 24, 2014 opinion piece for the Guardian newspaper and in Sile Lane’s July 25, 2014 opinion piece for the New Scientist journal. As Pielke notes, the reference to GMOs overshadows some reasonable concerns expressed in their letter (from Pielke’s opinion piece; Note: Links have been removed),

While it is easy to ridicule the recommendation to abolish the science adviser, there is some merit in the complaints levied by the disaffected NGOs. They express concern that the CSA has been “unaccountable, intransparent and controversial”, singling out public statements by Anne Glover on genetically modified organisms. [emphasis mine]

Perhaps surprisingly, these groups find an ally in these complaints in none other than Glover herself who recently complained about the politicization of science advice within the European Union: “What happens at the moment – whether it’s in commission, parliament or council – is that time and time again, if people don’t like what’s being proposed, what they say is that there is something wrong with the evidence.” [emphasis mine]

Pielke’s piece draws parallels between the US situation (in particular but not confined to Richard Nixon’s policies in the 1970s) and Europe’s current situation. It is well worth reading as is Lane’s piece (Sile Lane is Director of Campaigns for Sense about Science; scroll down about 25% of the way), which amongst other arguments, provides a counter-argument to the criticism of Glover’s advice on GMOs,

… No matter that Glover has faithfully and accurately represented the strong scientific consensus on the safety of GMOs – that, in the words of a commission report, are “no more risky than conventional plant breeding technologies”.

This is a position supported by every major scientific institution in the world, and all the scientific academies of countries and regions, but denied by the anti-GMO lobby, which promotes its own alternative “consensus” of a small ragtag group of academics out on the fringes of the mainstream.

There are a number of letters from various organizations countering the July 22, 2014 salvo/letter including this from Sense about Science,

Many other organisations are sending their own letters including nine European medical research organisations and the European Plant Science Organisation representing 227 public research institutions across Europe.

Dear Mr Juncker

We write to you with some urgency in response to a letter you will have just received from nine NGOs urging you to abolish the position of Chief Scientific Advisor to the President of the European Commission. The letter, which includes Greenpeace as a signatory as well as other prominent NGO voices, alleges that the “post of Chief Scientific Adviser is fundamentally problematic” and asks you to “scrap this position”1.

As organisations and individuals who share a commitment to improving the evidence available to policy makers, we cannot stress strongly enough our objection to any attempt to undermine the integrity and independence of scientific advice received at the highest level of the European Commission. …

You can add your name to the letter by going here.

There is a July 28, 2014 posting on the Science Advice to Governments; a global conference website which provides a listing of the various opinion pieces, letters, and other responses. (Note: This global science advice conference being held in Auckland, New Zealand, Aug. 28 – 29, 2014 was first mentioned here in an April 8, 2014 posting which lists the then confirmed speakers and notes a few other tidbits.)

In the end, it seems that everyone can agree as per the comments in the July 22, 2014 letter from the nine NGOs that science advice needs to be transparent and accountable. As for controversy, that will remain a problem as long as human beings live on the earth.