Category Archives: science policy

Science pledge for Canadians launched on June 16, 2015 and a flashback to political parties and Canadian science policy (a lack of it)

H/t to Speaking Up For Canadian Science.

As noted in a previous post, I’m not super impressed with the ‘War on Science’ branding favoured by a distinct portion of the Canadian science community as I find it reductionist. After all, Canada’s current Conservative government is perfectly happy with certain kinds of science, just not climate science, most of the biological sciences, environmental sciences, … (I imagine you’ve gotten the drift). That said, I am sympathetic (admittedly self-serving) to the concerns over the government’s antipathy towards science communication of all kinds.

The latest news about the movement to change the attitude to many Canadian science efforts comes from a June 16, 2015 article by Fram Dinshaw for the National Observer,

Federal MPs from three opposition parties signed a pledge in support of science-driven policies after recent protests by federal scientists against the Harper government’s cuts to departments and its muzzling of research.

Signing on at the June 16 [2015] press conference by Evidence for Democracy were NDP’s Kennedy Stewart, the official opposition’s science and technology critic, Liberal MP and former astronaut Marc Garneau, and Green Party leader Elizabeth May.

Stewart has already tabled three bills before parliament to restore Ottawa’s scientific capacity, including restoration of the long form census, an ethical code to end muzzling of scientists, and the creation of a parliamentary science officer with the powers of an auditor-general.

Evidence for Democracy is pushing back in the run-up to October’s federal election by promoting the implementation of a new government-wide communications policy to ensure that government scientists can speak publicly about their research and creating a new federal science office to advise decision-makers, according to a media release dated June 16.

“Scientists are now supporting this issue publicly,” Dr. Katie Gibbs, Executive Director of Evidence for Democracy, said. “To my knowledge this is the first time Canadian scientists have mobilized to promote science as a federal election issue. The Pledge invites Parliamentarians and the broader community show their support for public-interest science and evidence-based decision-making.”

“The trends we’ve seen in recent years are deeply troubling to many in the scientific community,” Dr. Scott Findlay, Associate Professor of Biology at the University of Ottawa and Evidence for Democracy Board member, said. Trends include, “funding cuts to science, government scientists not being able to speak about their work, and decisions that appear to play fast and loose with scientific evidence.”

You can find Evidence for Democracy’s Science Pledge here.

Science policy flashback

One of my first science policy posts was a January 15, 2010 piece where I tried to find science policies for Canada’s four main political parties (Liberals, New Democrats [NDP], Conservatives, and Greens). The only party that mentioned science policy was the Conservative Party.

I followed up that first post with one dated January 22, 2010 where I tracked down then official ‘science’ critics for each party (Liberals, Marc Garneau; Greens, Frances Coates; and New Democrats, Jim Malloway) and the Ministry of State for Science and Technology (Conservative Member of Parliament, Gary Goodyear) and tried to find something about science on their websites and in their writings. Garneau was the only Member of Parliament to mention science. In fact, he’d written a science policy on his own.

The last election year (2011) produced a few posts on political parties and science policies. I’m particularly fond of my April 18, 2011 post,

It’s only in my dreams or, perhaps, my nightmares that science policy is considered an important issue in a Canadian federal election. Being an election issue can be a two-edged sword, you get more attention but that can work for you and/or against you. On balance, I think it’s better to be considered an election issue than to be ignored and it seems to me that there’s a lot more effort (not from the political parties) this election to put science policy in the limelight.

I posted two followups: April 26, 2011 (it features a visualization of the issues in the 2011 election; science did not rate a placement in the graphic) and April 29, 2011.

Things have changed since those first science policy posts. Some of the changes have been influenced by the international zeitgeist and some by individuals such as Pascal Lapointe and his team members at Agence Science- Presse in Québec, by politicians newly concerned about science issues, and new Canadian science organizations with  political outlooks such as Evidence for Democracy and Speak Up For Canadian Science, and, of course, individual scientists themselves.

We have a national science and technology museum in Canada, don’t we? A national public consultation

Before dashing off to participate in the consultation, here’s a little background information. At this moment in time, Canada’s national museum for science and technology is a truck, ‘Museum on the go‘. There was a museum building but that was closed in Sept. 2014 due to health and safety issues. (Btw, the ‘Museum on the go’ truck is a regular summer programme which staff are presenting in difficult circumstances.)

For those unfamiliar with the setup, Canada has three interlinked science and technology museum institutions (a) Canada Aviation and Space Museum (b) Canada Agriculture and Food Museum and (c) Canada Science and Technology Museum. The other two institutions are still open.

If memory serves, 2008 was when I first heard there was a problem with the Canada Science and Technology Museum. The details escape me but it had something to do with an unsuccessful attempt to get a new building or move to a new building. Presumably they were having health and safety problems dating from 2008 at least. That’s a long to time to wait for a solution but after closing in Sept. 2014, the federal government announced funds to repair and upgrade the current museum building. From a Nov. 17, 2014 announcement on the Canada Science and Technology Museum (CSTM) website,

The Government of Canada announced today an $80.5 million investment to repair and upgrade the Canada Science and Technology Museum. The work will be completed during the next two years and the Museum will re-open in 2017.

This funding is essential to address the health and safety issues that are of immediate concern, and to support the Museum’s work promoting Canada’s long history of scientific and technological achievement.

Specifically, the funds announced today will go toward:

  • Removing the mould and replacing the Museum’s roof, which will stop leaks. A new roof will ensure that artifacts and exhibitions are no longer in danger of damage;
  • Retrofitting and upgrading the Museum’s exhibition spaces and floor space;
  • Upgrading the building’s fire-suppression systems and its seismic structural strength; and,
  • Bringing the Museum’s exterior façade up to date to match the new, modern interior. …

$80M is not a lot of money for the repairs and there is no mention of any upgrades for technology used to display exhibits e.g., VR (or virtual reality is becoming popular) or ICT (information and communications technology such as mobile applications and perhaps even webcasting facilities so people living outside the Ottawa region might have chance to attend virtually).

It seems ironic that while the Canadian federal government wants to promote science culture and innovation, it refuses to adequately fund our national showcase. Where culture is concerned, the federal government can commission a report on science culture (my Dec. 31, 2014 post: Science Culture: Where Canada Stands; an expert assessment, Part 1 of 3: Canadians are doing pretty well) but it’s not inclined to support culture as can be seen in an April 17, 2015 article by Jeff Lee for the Vancouver Sun concerning the funding for arts museums,

There is also no indication that the Stephen Harper government would be willing to contribute such a large amount for cultural projects, given that it hasn’t done so elsewhere in Canada, with only two exceptions.

Both of those fulfilled commitments made by the previous federal Liberal government. One is the now federally owned Canadian Museum of Human Rights in Winnipeg, to which Ottawa contributed $100 million and then took over as the cost soared to $351 million. The other is the Royal Alberta Museum in Edmonton, first envisioned in 2003 at a cost of $200 million and now under construction at a new estimate of $340 million.

The feds, under Paul Martin, pledged $122 million — and the Harper government tried to back out of the deal. Last year [2014] it agreed to pay the remaining $92 million.

If the federal government is contributing to museum and art gallery projects, it is doing so in smaller amounts, such as $13 million for Saskatoon’s Remai Modern, once estimated to cost $55 million and now approaching $100 million. Or the $13 million for the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts’ $33-million conversion of the Erskine and American Church into the Claire and Marc Bourgie Pavilion of Quebec and Canadian Art, incorporating a concert hall.

The interest in culture seems grudging. Even for an aspect of culture, science and technology, for which the federal government has expressed some enthusiasm. They are very interested in promoting innovation (code for commercializing science research) but, although they want science culture so all those young’uns will study science, engineering, technology, and mathematics, they aren’t willing to dedicate enough money so the museum has some chance of delivering on its mandate.

So please, do participate in the public consultation. Yes, it’s very Ottawa-centric and also Ontario- and Québec-centric, which is understandable. They are dependent on the people who are most likely to visit multiple time but it’s still irritating to those of us (me) who live outside those regions to be lumped into a category of ‘everybody else’.

As to why the consultation has such a depressive quality, the drawings are gray and faded and the written descriptions are somewhat flat, I can’t tell if that’s a problem with time, depressed staff, something I have failed to imagine, or some combination.

I know that sounds uninviting but let them know you care and you want to see a dynamic Science and Technology Museum that reaches out nationally.

Finally, here’s a June 4, 2015 CSTM announcement (with a link to the consultation),

Want to learn more about plans for a renewed
Canada Science and Technology Museum? 

As a friend of the Museum, this is your chance to get a sneak peek and provide feedback on the proposed concept plan.

Renewal of the Museum is underway, with many new exhibits, programs, and a striking redesigned façade on tap for its reopening in 2017. Staff, architects, and consultants have been hard at work on a new master plan for the interior — which, we are happy to confirm, will include the Museum’s ever-popular locomotives and Crazy Kitchen.

Here’s how you can participate:

Fill out the online survey below to see early sketches and concepts, and offer your thoughts on these potential new offerings. You can participate in this national survey until June 20.

Survey link: http://cstmc-smstc.fluidsurveys.com/s/CSTM_MSTC_2017/  

Visit the Museum team at a series of Open House events
  • St. Laurent Shopping Centre in Ottawa, June 6 from 9:30 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. and June 7 from 11:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.
  •  Canada Agriculture and Food Museum on June 13, and Canada Aviation and Space Museum on June 14 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

As the renewal project unfolds, additional opportunities for feedback on exhibitions will be shared via the Museum’s website. Stay tuned for updates!

I have filled it out and, as far as I can tell, you have to complete the survey in one session and the questions require open-ended answers (no multiple choice) .

Synthetic Aesthetics update and an informal Canadian synthetic biology roundup

Amanda Ruggeri has written a very good introduction to synthetic biology for nonexperts in her May 20, 2015 Globe and Mail article about ‘Designing for the Sixth Extinction’, an exhibit showcasing designs and thought experiments focused on synthetic biology ,

In a corner of Istanbul’s Design Biennial late last year [2014], photographs of bizarre creatures sat alongside more conventional displays of product design and typefaces. Diaphanous globes, like transparent balloons, clung to the mossy trunk of an oak tree. Rust-coloured patterns ran across green leaves, as if the foliage had been decorated with henna. On the forest floor, a slug-like creature slithered, its back dotted with gold markings; in another photograph, what looked like a porcupine without a head crawled over the dirt, its quills tipped blood-red.

But as strange as the creatures looked, what they actually are is even stranger. Not quite living things, not quite machines, these imagined prototypes inhabit a dystopic, future world – a world in which they had been created to solve the problems of the living. The porcupine, for example, is an Autonomous Seed Disperser, described as a device that would collect and disperse seeds to increase biodiversity. The slug would be programmed to seek out acidic soils and neutralize them by dispersing an alkali hygroscopic fluid.

They are the designs – and thought experiments – of London-based Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg, designer, artist and lead author of the book Synthetic Aesthetics: Investigating Synthetic Biology’s Designs on Nature. In her project Designing for the Sixth Extinction, which after Istanbul is now on display at the Design Museum in London, Ginsberg imagines what a synthetic biology-designed world would look like – and whether it’s desirable. “

I have a couple of comments. First, the ‘Synthetic Aesthetics: Investigating Synthetic Biology’s Designs on Nature’ book launch last year was covered here in a May 5, 2014 post. where you’ll notice a number of the academics included in Ruggeri’s article are contributors to the book (but not mentioned as such). Second, I cannot find ‘Design for the Sixth Extinction’ listed as an exhibition on London’s Design Museum website.

Getting back to the matter at hand, not all of the projects mentioned in Ruggeri’s article are ‘art’ projects, there is also this rather practical and controversial initiative,

Designing even more complex organisms is the inevitable, and controversial, next step. And those designs have already begun. The British company Oxitec has designed a sterile male mosquito. When the bugs are released into nature and mate, no offspring result, reducing the population or eliminating it altogether. This could be a solution to dengue fever, a mosquito-carried disease that infects more than 50 million people each year: In field trials in Cayman, Panama and Brazil, the wild population of the dengue-carrying mosquito species was reduced by 90 per cent. Yet, as a genetically engineered solution, it also makes some skittish. The consequences of such manipulations remain unforeseen, they say. Proponents counter that the solution is more elegant, and safer, than the current practice of spraying chemicals.

Even so, the engineered mosquito leads to overarching questions: What are the dangers of tinkering with life? Could this cause a slide toward eugenics? Currently, the field doesn’t have an established ethics oversight process, something some critics are pushing to change.

It’s a surprising piece for the Globe and Mail newspaper to run since it doesn’t have a Canadian angle to it and the Globe and Mail doesn’t specialize in science (not withstanding Ivan Semeniuk’s science articles) or art/science or synthetic biology writing, for that matter. Perhaps it bodes an interest and more pieces on emerging science and technology and on art/science projects?

In any event, it seems like a good time to review some of the synthetic biology work or the centres of activity in Canada.  I believe the last time I tackled this particular topic was in a May 24, 2010 post titled, Canada and synthetic biology in the wake of the first ‘synthetic’ bacteria.

After a brief search, I found three centres for research:

Concordia [University] Centre for Applied Synthetic Biology (CASB)

[University of Toronto] The Synthetic Biology and Cellular Control Lab

[University of British Columbia] Centre for High-Throughput Biology (CHiBi)

Following an Oct. 27 – 28, 2014 UK-Canada Synthetic Biology Workshop held at Concordia University, Rémi Quirion, Vincent Martin, Pierre Meulien and Marc LePage co-wrote a Nov. 4, 2014 Concordia University post titled, How Canada is poised to revolutionize synthetic biology,

Rémi Quirion is the Chief Scientist of Québec, Fonds de recherche du Québec. Vincent Martin is Canada Research Chair in Microbial Genomics and Engineering and a professor in the Department of Biology at Concordia University in Montreal. Pierre Meulien is President and CEO of Genome Canada. Marc LePage is the President and CEO of Génome Québec.

Canada’s research and business communities have an opportunity to become world leaders in a burgeoning field that is fast shaping how we deal with everything from climate change to global food security and the production of lifesaving medications. The science of synthetic biology has the transformative capacity to equip us with novel technology tools and products to build a more sustainable society, while creating new business and employment opportunities for the economy of tomorrow.

We can now decipher the code of life for any organism faster and less expensively than ever before. Canadian scientists are producing anti-malarial drugs from organic materials that increase the availability and decrease the cost of lifesaving medicines. They are also developing energy efficient biofuels to dramatically reduce environmental and manufacturing costs, helping Canadian industry to thrive in the global marketplace.

The groundwork has also been laid for a Canadian revolution in the field. Canada’s scientific community is internationally recognized for its leadership in genomics research and strong partnerships with key industries. Since 2000, Genome Canada and partners have invested more than $2.3 billion in deciphering the genomes of economically important plants, animals and microbes in order to understand how they function. A significant proportion of these funds has been invested in building the technological toolkits that can be applied to synthetic biology.

But science cannot do it alone. Innovation on this scale requires multiple forms of expertise in order to be successful. Research in law, business, social sciences and humanities is vital to addressing questions of ethics, supply chain management, social innovation and cultural adaptation to new technologies. Industry knowledge and investments, as well as the capacity to incentivize entrepreneurship, are key to devising business models that will enable new products to thrive. Governments and funding agencies also need to do their part by supporting multidisciplinary research, training and infrastructure.

It’s a bit ‘hype happy’ for my taste but it does provide some fascinating insight in what seems to be a male activity in Canada.

Counterbalancing that impression is an Oct. 6, 2013 article by Ivan Semeniuk for the Globe and Mail about a University of Lethbridge team winning the top prize in a synthetic biology contest,

If you want to succeed in the scientific revolution of the future, it helps to think about life as a computer program.

That strategy helped University of Lethbridge students walk away with the top prize in a synthetic biology competition Sunday. Often touted as the genetic equivalent of the personal computer revolution, synthetic biology involves thinking about cells as programmable machines that can be designed and built to suit a particular need – whether it’s mass producing a vaccine or breaking down a hazardous chemical in the environment.

The five member Lethbridge team came up with a way to modify how cells translate genetic information into proteins. Rather than one bit of DNA carrying the information to make one protein – the usual way cells go about their business – the method involves inserting a genetic command that jiggles a cell’s translational machinery while it’s in mid-operation, coaxing it to produce two proteins out of the same DNA input.

“We started off with a computer analogy – kind of like zipping your files together – so you’d zip two protein sequences together and therefore save space,” said Jenna Friedt, a graduate student in biochemistry at Lethbridge. [emphasis mine]

There are concerns other than gender issues, chief amongst them, ethics. The Canadian Biotechnology Action Network maintains an information page on Synthetic Biology which boasts this as its latest update,

October 2014: In a unanimous decision of 194 countries, the United Nation’s Convention on Biological Diversity formally urged countries to regulate synthetic biology, a new extreme form of genetic engineering. The landmark decision follows ten days of hard-fought negotiations between developing countries and a small group of wealthy biotech-friendly economies. Until now, synthetic organisms have been developed and commercialized without international regulations. …

Finally, there’s a June 2014 synthetic biology timeline from the University of Ottawa’s Institute for Science, Society, and Policy (ISSP) which contextualizes Canadian research, policy and regulation with Australia, the European Union, the UK, and the US.

(On a closely related note, there’s my May 14, 2015 post about genetic engineering and newly raised concerns.)

US White House establishes new initiatives to commercialize nanotechnology

As I’ve noted several times, there’s a strong push in the US to commercialize nanotechnology and May 20, 2015 was a banner day for the efforts. The US White House announced a series of new initiatives to speed commercialization efforts in a May 20, 2015 posting by Lloyd Whitman, Tom Kalil, and JJ Raynor,

Today, May 20 [2015], the National Economic Council and the Office of Science and Technology Policy held a forum at the White House to discuss opportunities to accelerate the commercialization of nanotechnology.

In recognition of the importance of nanotechnology R&D, representatives from companies, government agencies, colleges and universities, and non-profits are announcing a series of new and expanded public and private initiatives that complement the Administration’s efforts to accelerate the commercialization of nanotechnology and expand the nanotechnology workforce:

  • The Colleges of Nanoscale Science and Engineering at SUNY Polytechnic Institute in Albany, NY and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health are launching the Nano Health & Safety Consortium to advance research and guidance for occupational safety and health in the nanoelectronics and other nanomanufacturing industry settings.
  • Raytheon has brought together a group of representatives from the defense industry and the Department of Defense to identify collaborative opportunities to advance nanotechnology product development, manufacturing, and supply-chain support with a goal of helping the U.S. optimize development, foster innovation, and take more rapid advantage of new commercial nanotechnologies.
  • BASF Corporation is taking a new approach to finding solutions to nanomanufacturing challenges. In March, BASF launched a prize-based “NanoChallenge” designed to drive new levels of collaborative innovation in nanotechnology while connecting with potential partners to co-create solutions that address industry challenges.
  • OCSiAl is expanding the eligibility of its “iNanoComm” matching grant program that provides low-cost, single-walled carbon nanotubes to include more exploratory research proposals, especially proposals for projects that could result in the creation of startups and technology transfers.
  • The NanoBusiness Commercialization Association (NanoBCA) is partnering with Venture for America and working with the National Science Foundation (NSF) to promote entrepreneurship in nanotechnology.  Three companies (PEN, NanoMech, and SouthWest NanoTechnologies), are offering to support NSF’s Innovation Corps (I-Corps) program with mentorship for entrepreneurs-in-training and, along with three other companies (NanoViricides, mPhase Technologies, and Eikos), will partner with Venture for America to hire recent graduates into nanotechnology jobs, thereby strengthening new nanotech businesses while providing needed experience for future entrepreneurs.
  • TechConnect is establishing a Nano and Emerging Technologies Student Leaders Conference to bring together the leaders of nanotechnology student groups from across the country. The conference will highlight undergraduate research and connect students with venture capitalists, entrepreneurs, and industry leaders.  Five universities have already committed to participating, led by the University of Virginia Nano and Emerging Technologies Club.
  • Brewer Science, through its Global Intern Program, is providing more than 30 students from high schools, colleges, and graduate schools across the country with hands-on experience in a wide range of functions within the company.  Brewer Science plans to increase the number of its science and engineering interns by 50% next year and has committed to sharing best practices with other nanotechnology businesses interested in how internship programs can contribute to a small company’s success.
  • The National Institute of Standards and Technology’s Center for Nanoscale Science and Technology is expanding its partnership with the National Science Foundation to provide hands-on experience for students in NSF’s Advanced Technology Education program. The partnership will now run year-round and will include opportunities for students at Hudson Valley Community College and the University of the District of Columbia Community College.
  • Federal agencies participating in the NNI [US National Nanotechnology Initiative], supported by the National Nanotechnology Coordination Office [NNCO], are launching multiple new activities aimed at educating students and the public about nanotechnology, including image and video contests highlighting student research, a new webinar series focused on providing nanotechnology information for K-12 teachers, and a searchable web portal on nano.gov of nanoscale science and engineering resources for teachers and professors.

Interestingly, May 20, 2015 is also the day the NNCO held its second webinar for small- and medium-size businesses in the nanotechnology community. You can find out more about that webinar and future ones by following the links in my May 13, 2015 posting.

Since the US White House announcement, OCSiAl has issued a May 26, 2015 news release which provides a brief history and more details about its newly expanded NanoComm program,

OCSiAl launched the iNanoComm, which stands for the Integrated Nanotube Commercialization Award, program in February 2015 to help researchers lower the cost of their most promising R&D projects dedicated to SWCNT [single-walled carbon nanotube] applications. The first round received 33 applications from 28 university groups, including The Smalley-Curl Center for Nanoscale Science and Technology at Rice University and the Concordia Center for Composites at Concordia University [Canada] among others. [emphasis mine] The aim of iNanoComm is to stimulate universities and research organizations to develop innovative market products based on nano-augmented materials, also known as clean materials.

Now the program’s criteria are being broadened to enable greater private sector engagement in potential projects and the creation of partnerships in commercializing nanotechnology. The program will now support early stage commercialization efforts connected to university research in the form of start-ups, technology transfers, new businesses and university spinoffs to support the mass commercialization of SWCNT products and technologies.

The announcement of the program’s expansion took place at the 2015 Roundtable of the US NanoBusiness Commercialization Association (NanoBCA), the world’s first non-profit association focused on the commercialization of nanotechnologies. NanoBCA is dedicated to creating an environment that nurtures research and innovation in nanotechnology, promotes tech-transfer of nanotechnology from academia to industry, encourages private capital investments in nanotechnology companies, and helps its corporate members bring innovative nanotechnology products to market.

“Enhancing iNanoComm as a ‘start-up incubator’ is a concrete step in promoting single-wall carbon nanotube applications in the commercial world,” said Max Atanassov, CEO of OCSiAl USA. “It was the logical thing for us to do, now that high quality carbon nanotubes have become broadly available and are affordably priced to be used on a mass industrial scale.”

Vince Caprio, Executive Director of NanoBCA, added that “iNanoComm will make an important contribution to translating fundamental nanotechnology research into commercial products. By facilitating the formation of more start-ups, it will encourage more scientists to pursue their dreams and develop their ideas into commercially successful businesses.”

For more information on the program expansion and how it can reduce the cost of early stage research connected to university projects, visit the iNanoComm website at www.inanocomm.org or contact info@inanocomm.org.

h/t Azonano May 27, 2015 news item

Canadian scientists in a national protest on May 19, 2015 and some thoughts on a more nuanced discussion about ‘science muzzles’

For anyone unfamiliar with Canada’s science muzzle, government scientists are not allowed to speak directly to the media and all requests must be handled by the communications department in the ministry. For one of the odder consequences of that policy, there’s my Sept. 16, 2010 posting about a scientist who wasn’t allowed to talk to media about his research on a 13,000 year old flood that took place in the Canadian North. Adding insult to injury, his international colleagues were giving out all kinds of interviews.

Here’s a more recent incident (h/t Speaking Up For Canadian Science, May 20, 2015) recounted in a May 19, 2015 news item by  Nicole Mortillaro for CTV (Canadian television) news online ,

“Unlike Canadian scientists, I don’t have to ask permission to talk to you.”

That was one of the first things National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) scientist Pieter Tans said when I called to reach him for comment about rising carbon dioxide levels reaching historic levels.

The topic itself was controversial: climate change is a hot-button topic for many. But getting in touch with NOAA was easy. In total, there were five email exchanges, all providing information about the topic and the arrangement of the interview.

Compare that to trying to get response from a Canadian federal department.

While I’ve had many frustrating dealings with various federal agencies, my most recent experience came as I was working on a story about ways Canadians could protect themselves as severe weather season approached. I wanted to mention the new federal national emergency warning system, Alert Ready. I reached out to Environment Canada for more information.

You’d think the federal government would want to let Canadians know about a new national emergency warning system and they do, in their fashion. For the whole story, there’s Mortillaro’s piece (which has an embedded video and more) but for the fast version, Mortillaro contacted the communications people a day before her Friday deadline asking for a spokesperson. The communications team missed the deadline although they did find a spokesperson who would be available on the Monday. Strangely or not, he proved to be hesitant to talk about the new system.

Getting back to the science muzzle protest of 2015 and the muzzle itself, there’s a May 17, 2015 article by Ivan Semeniuk for the Globe and Mail providing more detail about the muzzle and the then upcoming protest organized by the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada (PIPSC) currently in contract negotiations with the federal government. (Echoing what I said in my Dec. 4, 2014 posting about the contract negotiations, the union is bargaining for the right to present science information which is unprecedented in Canada (and, I suspect, internationally). Back to Semeniuk’s article,

With contract negotiations set to resume this week, there will also be a series of demonstrations for the Ottawa area on Tuesday to focus attention on the issue.

If successful, the effort could mark a precedent-setting turn in what the government’s critics portray as a struggle between intellectual independence and political prerogative.

“Our science members said to us: What’s more important than anything else is our ability to do our jobs as professionals,” said Peter Bleyer, an adviser with the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada, whose membership includes some 15,000 scientists and engineers.

Government scientists have always been vulnerable to those who hold the reins of power, but tensions have grown under the Conservatives. After the Tories enacted a wave of research program and facility cancellations in 2012, stories began to emerge of researchers who were blocked from responding to media requests about their work.

The onerous communications protocols apply even for stories about scientific advancements that are likely to reflect positively on the federal government. Last month [April 2015], after it was announced that Canada would become a partner in the Thirty Meter Telescope, The Globe and Mail had to appeal to the Prime Minister’s Office to facilitate an interview with the National Research Council astronomer leading the development of the telescope’s sophisticated adaptive-optics system.

Federal Information Commissioner Suzanne Legault is currently conducting an investigation into complaints that scientists have been muzzled by the Conservative government.

As Semeniuk notes at the end of his article in a quote from the US-based Union of Concerned Scientists’ representative, the problem is not new and not unique to Canada. For a ‘not unique’ example, the UK government seems to be interested in taking a similar approach to ‘muzzling’ scientists, according to an April 1, 2015 post by Glyn Moody for Techdirt (Note: Links have been removed),

Techdirt has been following for a while Canada’s moves to stop scientists from speaking out about areas where the facts of the situation don’t sit well with the Canadian government’s dogma-based policies. Sadly, it looks like the UK is taking the same route. It concerns a new code for the country’s civil servants, which will also apply to thousands of publicly-funded scientists. As the Guardian reports:

Under the new code, scientists and engineers employed at government expense must get ministerial approval before they can talk to the media about any of their research, whether it involves GM crops, flu vaccines, the impact of pesticides on bees, or the famously obscure Higgs boson.

The fear — quite naturally — is that ministers could take days before replying to requests, by which time news outlets will probably have lost interest. As a result of this change, science organizations have sent a letter to the UK government, expressing their “deep concern” about the code. …

As for ‘not new’, there’s always a tension between employer and employee about what constitutes free speech. Does an employee get fired for making gross, sexist comments in their free time at a soccer game? The answer in Ontario, Canada is yes according to a May 14, 2015 article by Samantha Leal for Marie Claire magazine. Presumably there will be a law suit and we will find out if the firing is legally acceptable. Or more cynically, this may prove to be a public relations ploy designed to spin the story in the employer’s favour while the employee takes some time off and returns unobtrusively at a later date.

I have a couple of final comments about free speech and employers’ and employees’ rights and responsibilities.First, up until the muzzles were applied, the Canadian government and its scientists seemed to have had a kind of unspoken agreement as to what constituted fair discussion of scientific research in the media. I vaguely recall a few kerfuffles over the years but nothing major. (If someone can recall an incident where a scientist working for the Canadian government seriously embarrassed it, please let me know in the comments.)  So, this relatively new enthusiasm for choking off  media coverage of Canadian science research seems misplaced at best. Unfortunately, it has exacerbated standard tensions about what employees can and can’t say to new heights. Attempting to entrench the right to share science research in a bureaucratic process (a union contract) seems weirdly similar to the Harper government’s approach, which like the union’s proposition added a bureaucratic layer.

As for my second thought, I’m wondering how many people who cheered that soccer fan’s firing for making comments (albeit sexist comments) in his free time are protesting for free speech for Canadian government scientists.

It comes down to* matters of principle. Which ones do we want to follow and when do we apply them? Do principles apply only for those people and ideas we find acceptable?

I just wish there was a little more nuance brought to the ‘science muzzle in Canada’ discussion so we might veer away from heightened adversarial relationships between the government and its scientists.

* The phrase was originally published as “to a matters of principle …” and was corrected on May 22, 2015.

Kenya and a draft nanotechnology policy

I don’t often stumble across information about Kenya’s nanotechnology efforts (my last was in a Sept. 1, 2011 posting) but I’m going include my latest find here even though I can’t track down the original source for the information. From an April 29, 2015 news item on SpyGhana (original source: Xinhua News Agency,  official press agency of the People’s Republic of China),

The Kenyan government will soon adopt a comprehensive policy to promote use of nanotechnology in diverse fields like medicine, agriculture, manufacturing and environment.

“Nanotechnology as a science promises more for less. The competitive edge for Kenya as a developing nation lies in robust investments in this technology,” Njeri Wamae, chairman of National Commission for Science, Technology and Innovation (NACOSTI), said in Nairobi.

Nanotechnology is relatively new in Kenya though the government has prioritized its development through research, training and setting up of supportive infrastructure.

Wamae noted that enactment of a nanotechnology policy will position Kenya as a hub for emerging technologies that would revolutionalize key sectors of the economy.

Policy briefs from Kenya’s scientific research body indicates that globally, nanotechnology was incorporated into manufacturing goods worth over 30 billion U.S. dollars in 2005.

The briefs added that nanotechnology related business was worth 2.6 trillion dollars by 2015. Kenya has borrowed best practices from industrialized countries and emerging economies to develop nanotechnology.

Professor Erastus Gatebe, an official at Kenya Industrial Research and Development Institute (KIRDI), noted that China and India offers vital lessons on harnessing nanotechnology to propel industrial growth.

This draft policy seems to be the outcome of a number of initiatives including Nanotechnologies for Development in India, Kenya and the Netherlands: Towards a Framework for Democratic Governance of Risks in Developing Countries, WOTRO (2010 – 2014) from the African Technology Policy Studies (ATPS) Network,

The ATPS has secured funding for a new Integrated Program (IP) on “Nanotechnologies for Development in India, Kenya and the Netherlands: Towards a Framework for Democratic Governance of Risks in Developing Countries, January 2010 – 2014, in liaison with partners in Europe and India. This IP which is led by Prof. Wiebe Bijker of the University of Maastricht, the Netherlands addresses the inevitable risks and benefits associated with emerging technologies, such as nanotechnology through a triangulation of PhD and Post-Doctoral positions drawn from Africa (2), India (1) and the Netherlands (2) based at the University of Maastricht but address core areas of the nanotechnology governance in Africa, India and the Netherlands. The program will be coordinated by Prof. Wiebe Bijker, the University of Maastricht, in the Netherlands; with the University of Hyderabad, India; the ATPS and the University of Nairobi, Kenya as partners.

Nanotechnology events and discussions played in important role in Kenya’s 2013 National Science, Technology and Innovation (ST&I) Week by Daphne Molewa (on the South African Agency for Science and Technology Advancement [SAASTA] website),

The National Science, Technology and Innovation (ST&I) Week, organised by the Ministry of Higher Education, Science and Technology, is a major event on the annual calendar of the Kenyan Government.

The theme for 2013, “Science, Technology and Innovation for the realisation of Kenya’s Vision 2030 and beyond” is aligned with the national vision to transform Kenya into a newly industrialised, middle-income country providing a high-quality life to all its citizens in a safe and secure environment by the year 2030. pemphasis mine]

Nanotechnology, the science of the future

SAASTA representatives Mthuthuzeli Zamxaka and Sizwe Khoza were invited to participate in this year’s festival in Nairobi [Kenya] on behalf of the Nanotechnology Public Engagement Programme (NPEP).

Zamxaka delivered a stirring presentation titled Nanotechnology Public Engagement: The Case of South Africa. He introduced the topic of nanotechnology, focusing on engagement, outreach and awareness. …

Zamxaka touched on a number of nanotechnologies that are currently being applied, such as the research conducted by the Johns Hopkins University in Maryland on biodegradable nano-sized particles that can easily slip through the body’s sticky and viscous mucus secretions to deliver a sustained-release medication cargo. It is believed that these nanoparticles, which degrade over time into harmless components, could one day carry life-saving drugs to patients suffering from dozens of health conditions, including diseases of the eye, lung, gut or female reproductive tract.

For anyone interested , look here for Kenya’s Vision 2030. Harkening back to the first news item and the mention of NACOSTI, Kenya’s National Commission for Science, Technology and Innovation, it can be found here.

2015 Canadian federal budget and science

Think of this post as a digest of responses to and analyses of the ‘science component’ of the Canadian federal government’s 2015 budget announcement made on April 21, 2015 by Minister of Finance, Joe Oliver. First off the mark, the Canadian Science Policy Centre (CSPC) has featured some opinions about the budget and its impact on Canadian science in an April 27, 2015 posting,

Jim Woodgett
Director, Lunenfeld-Tanenbaum Research Institute of Sinai Health System

Where’s the Science Beef in Canadian Budget 2015?

Andrew Casey
President and CEO, BIOTECanada

Budget 2015: With the fiscal balance restored where to next?

Russ Roberts
Senior Vice President – Tax & Finance, CATA Alliance

Opinion on 2015 Federal Budget

Ron Freeman
CEO of Innovation Atlas Inc. and Research Infosource Inc. formerly co-publisher of RE$EARCH MONEY and co-founder of The Impact Group

Workman-Like Budget Preserves Key National Programs

Paul Davidson
President, Universities Canada

A Reality Check on Budget 2015

Dr. Kamiel Gabriel
Associate Provost of Research and Graduate Programs at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology (UOIT), Science Adviser and Assistant Deputy Minister (ADM) of Research at the Ontario Ministry of Research & Innovation

The 2015 Federal Budget Targets Key Segments of Voters

I suggest starting with Woodgett’s piece as he points out something none of the others who chose to comment on the amount of money dedicated to the tricouncil funding agencies (Canadian Institutes of Health Research [CIHR], Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council [NSERC], and Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council [SSHRC]) seemed to have noticed or deemed important,

The primary source of science operating funds are provided by the tricouncils, CIHR/NSERC and SSHRC, which, when indirect costs and other flow through dollars (e.g. CRCs) are included, accounts for about $2.5 billion in annual funding. There are no new dollars added to the tricouncil budgets this year (2015/16) but there is a modest $46 million to be added in 2016/17 – $15 million to CIHR and NSERC, $7.5 million to SSHRC and the rest in indirects. [emphases mine] This new money, though, is largely ear-marked for new initiatives, such as the CIHR Strategy on Patient Oriented Research ($13 million) and an anti-microbial resistant infection program ($2 million). Likewise for NSERC and SSHRC although NSERC enjoys around $16 million relief in not needing to support industrial postgraduate scholarships as this responsibility moves to MITACS with no funding loss at NSERC. Alex Usher of Higher Education Strategy Associates, estimates that, taking inflation into account, tricouncil funding will be down 9% since 2008. [emphasis mine] It is hardly surprising that funding applications to these agencies are under enormous competitive pressure. At CIHR, the last open operating grant competition yielded unprecedented low success rates of ~14% along with across-the-board budget cuts of grants that were funded of 26%. This agency is in year 1 of major program reforms and has very little wiggle-room with its frozen budget.

To be fair, there are sources other than the tricouncil for science funding although their mandate is for ‘basic’ science, more or less. Over the last few years, there’s been a greater emphasis on tricouncil funding that produces economic results and this is in line international trends.

Getting back to the CSPC’s opinions, Davidson’s piece, notes some of that additional funding,

With $1.33 billion earmarked for the Canada Foundation for Innovation [CFI], Budget 2015 marks the largest single announcement of Canadian research infrastructure funding. This is something the community prioritized, given the need for state-of-the-art equipment, labs, digital tools and high-speed technology to conduct, partner and share research results. This renewed commitment to CFI builds on the globally competitive research infrastructure that Canadians have built over the last 15 years and enables our researchers to collaborate with the very best in the world. Its benefits will be seen in universities across the country and across disciplines. Key research infrastructure investments – from digital to major science infrastructure – support the broad spectrum of university research, from theoretical and discovery to pre-competitive and applied.

The $45 million announced for TRIUMF will support the laboratory’s role in accelerating science in Canada, an important investment in discovery research.

While the news about the CFI seems to have delighted a number of observers, it should be noted (as per Woodgett’s piece) that the $1.3B is to be paid out over six years ($220M per year, more or less) and the money won’t be disbursed until the 2017/18 fiscal year. As for the $45M designated for TRIUMF (Canada’s National Laboratory for Particle and Nuclear Physics), this is exciting news for the lab which seems to have bypassed the usual channels, as it has before, to receive its funding directly from the federal government.

Another agency which seems to have received its funding directly from the federal government is the Council of Canadian Academies (CCA), From an April 22, 2015 news release,

The Council of Canadian Academies welcomes the federal government’s announcement of new funding for in-depth, authoritative, evidence-based assessments. Economic Action Plan 2015 allocated $15 million over five years [$3M per year] for the Council of Canadian Academies.

“This is welcome news for the Council and we would like to thank the Government for this commitment. Over the past 10 years the Council has worked diligently to produce high quality reports that support policy and decision-making in numerous areas,” said Janet Bax, Interim President. “We appreciate the support from Minister Holder and his predecessors, Minsters Goodyear and Rickford, for ensuring meaningful questions have been referred to the Council for assessment.” [For anyone unfamiliar with the Canadian science minister scene, Ed Holder, current Minister of State for Science and Technology, and previous Conservative government ministers, Greg Rickford and Gary Goodyear]

As of March 31st, 2015 the Council has published 31 reports on topics as diverse as business innovation, the future of Canadian policing models, and improving medicines for children. The Council has worked with over 800 expert volunteers from across Canada and abroad. These individuals have given generously of their time and as a result more than $16 million has been leveraged in volunteer support. The Council’s work has been used in many ways and had an impact on national policy agendas and strategies, research programs, and supported stakeholders and industry groups with forward looking action plans.

“On behalf of the Board of Governors I would like to extend our thanks to the Government,” said Margaret Bloodworth, Chair of the Board of Governors.  “The Board is now well positioned to consider future strategic directions for the organization and how best to further expand on the Council’s client base.”

The CCA news is one of the few item about social science funding, most observers such as Ivan Semeniuk in an April 27, 2015 article for the Globe and Mail, are largely focused on the other sciences,

Last year [2014], that funding [for the tricouncil agencies] amounted to about$2.7-billion, and this year’s budget maintains that. Because of inflation and increasing competition, that is actually a tightening of resources for rank-and-file scientists at Canada’s universities and hospitals. At the same time, those institutions are vying for a share of a $1.5-billion pot of money called the Canada First Research Excellence Fund, which the government unveiled last year and is aimed at helping push selected projects to a globally competitive level.

“This is all about creating an environment where our research community can grow,” Ed Holder, Minister of State for Science and Technology, told The Globe and Mail.

One extra bonus for science in this year’s budget is a $243.5-million commitment to secure Canada’s partnership in the Thirty Meter Telescope, a huge international observatory that is slated for construction on a Hawaiian mountain top. Given its high price-tag, many thought it unlikely that the Harper government would go for the project. In the end, the telescope likely benefited from the fact that had the Canada committed less money, most of the economic returns associated with building it would flow elsewhere.

The budget also reflects the Harper government’s preference for tying funding to partnerships with industry. A promised increase of $46-million for the granting councils next year will be largely for spurring collaborations between academic researchers and industrial partners rather than for basic research.

Whether or not science becomes an issue in the upcoming election campaign, some research advocates say the budget shows that the government’s approach to science is still too narrow. While it renews necessary commitments to research infrastructure, they fear not enough money will be left for people doing the kind of work that expands knowledge but does not always produce an immediate economic return.

An independent analysis of the 2015 budget prepared by Higher Education Strategy Associates, a Toronto based consulting firm, shows that when inflation is factored in, the money available for researchers through the granting councils has been in decline since 2009.

Canadian scientists are the not only ones feeling a pinch. Neal V. Patel’s April 27, 2015 article (originally published on Wired) on the Slate website discusses US government funding in an attempt to contextualize science research crowdfunding (Note: A link has been removed),

In the U.S., most scientific funding comes from the government, distributed in grants awarded by an assortment of federal science, health, and defense agencies. So it’s a bit disconcerting that some scientists find it necessary to fund their research the same way dudebros raise money for a potato salad. Does that migration suggest the current grant system is broken? If it is, how can we ensure that funding goes to legitimate science working toward meaningful discoveries?

On its own, the fact that scientists are seeking new sources of funding isn’t so weird. In the view of David Kaiser, a science historian at MIT, crowdfunding is simply the latest “pendulum swing” in how scientists and research institutions fund their work. Once upon a time, research at MIT and other universities was funded primarily by student tuition and private philanthropists. In 1919, however, with philanthropic investment drying up, MIT launched an ambitious plan that allowed local companies to sponsor specific labs and projects.

Critics complained the university had allowed corporate interests to dig their claws into scientific endeavors and befoul intellectual autonomy. (Sound familiar?) But once WWII began, the U.S. government became a force for funding, giving huge wartime grants to research groups nationwide. Federal patronage continued expanding in the decades after the war.

Seventy years later, that trend has reversed: As the federal budget shrinks, government investment in scientific research has reached new lows. The conventional models for federal grants, explains University of Iowa immunologist Gail Bishop, “were designed to work such that 25 to 30 percent of studies were funded. Now it’s around 10 percent.”

I’m not sure how to interpret the Canadian situation in light of other jurisdictions. It seems clear that within the Canadian context for government science funding that research funding is on a downward trend and has been going down for a few years (my June 2, 2014 posting). That said, we have another problem and that’s industrial research and development funding (my Oct. 30, 2013 posting about the 2013 OECD scorecard for science and technology; Note: the scorecard is biannual and should be issued again in 2015). Businesses don’t pay for research in Canada and it appears the Conservative and previous governments have not been successful in reversing that situation even marginally.

“No badge? No water!” at the Trottier Observatory opening (Simon Fraser University, Canada)

Being refused a sip of water at a media event is one of those experiences that has you shaking your head in bemusement.  The event was held at Simon Fraser University (SFU)  on Friday, April 17, 2015* (today) between 10:30 and 11:30 am PST to celebrate the opening of the Trottier Observatory and Courtyard. Here’s how it was billed in the April 15, 2015 SFU media advisory I received,

What better way to celebrate the lead up to International Astronomy Week than the grand opening of a new observatory at Simon Fraser University?

Media are cordially invited to the grand opening of the Trottier Observatory and Science Courtyard, happening this Friday, April 17. This facility represents the most recent commitment by Lorne Trottier and Louise Rousselle Trottier towards science education at SFU.

A private event to formally open the observatory and recognize donor support will take place at SFU’s Burnaby campus on Friday, April 17 from 10:30-11:30 a.m. Members of the Trottier Family will be in attendance along with Government and other key VIPs. SFU will also host a public “Star Party” event to celebrate the grand opening during the evening.

SFU Physics professor Howard Trottier and his brother Lorne Trottier will be available for interviews on Friday, April 17th from 9:30-10:15 AM and from 11:30-12:30 PM.

WHAT:

–       Grand-opening of the Trottier Observatory and Science Courtyard

WHEN:

–       Friday, April 17

–       10:30-11:30 AM (Private Opening Ceremony and Site Tour)

7:00-11:00 PM (Public Star Party-currently full)

WHERE:

–       SFU’s Burnaby campus, 8888 University Drive, Burnaby, in front of Strand Hall

I hadn’t realized I was supposed to RSVP and so arrived to learn that I needed a badge to sit in the area for invited guests. Sadly, there was no fence to indicate where I might be free to stand. There were chairs for guests and it was very important that I not stand behind the chairs. This was a special standing zone for people with badges who could sit or stand wherever they liked. I, on the other hand, was allowed to stand back further in some mythical zone (about 18 inches away from the invited zone) where the unwashed were allowed to gaze longingly at the invitees.

Getting back to the observatory, a lot of thought seems to have been put into the design inside and outside. Unfortunately, there aren’t many details available as I can’t find anything more than this (scroll down about 75% of the way for the fact sheet) in the way of backgrounders, An April 12, 2015 article by Shawn Conner for the Vancouver Sun offers some details,

The facility features a large dome housing a 0.7-metre diameter (27-inch) reflector telescope, bigger than the one at the HR MacMillan Space Centre.

The observatory, Trottier [Howard Trottier, physics professor at SFU] says, is much more advanced since he visited his first one while in middle school.

“There’ve been a number of revolutions in telescopes,” the 55-year-old said. “Manufacturing costs are lower, much bigger telescopes are built. Even portable telescopes can be really quite big on a scale that was impossible when I was first into astronomy.”

One of the observatory’s features is a digital feed that community groups and schools across Canada can remotely access and deploy. Schools in B.C. will be invited to tender proposals to run the telescope from wherever they are.

Apparently, the plantings outside the observatory have an astronomical meaning. More immediately communicative are a series of four incised plaques which show the northern and southern skies in the autumn and spring respectively. Stone benches nearby also have meaning although what that might be is a mystery. Perhaps more information will become available online at SFU’s Trottier Observatory webspace.

As for my sip of water, I was gobsmacked when I was refused after standing in the sun for some 40 minutes or more (and a 1 hour transit trip) by Tamra Morley of SFU. Only invited people with badges were to be allowed water. She did note that there was water on campus elsewhere for me, although no directions were forthcoming.

Amusingly, Ms. Morley (who stood about 5’8″ in her shoes)* flung her arms out to either side making a barrier of her body while refusing me. For the record, on a good day I’m 5’4″. I’m also female and over the age of 60. And, there was more than enough water, coffee, and tea for invited and uninvited guests.

These things happen. Sometimes, the person just isn’t having  good day or is overzealous.

One final note, I met Kennedy Stewart, Member of Parliament and the New Democratic Party’s science critic at the event. He’s busy preparing for the upcoming election (either Spring or Fall 2015*) and hoping to get science policy included on the party’s 2015* election platform. I wish him good luck!

* ‘April 17, 2017′ changed to ‘April 17, 2015′; ‘Spring or Fall 2017′ changed to ‘Spring or Fall 2015′; ‘the party’s 2017 election platform’ changed to ‘the party’s 2015′ election platform and (who stood about 5’8″ in her shoes) added on April 17, 2015 at 1630 PST. Yikes, I seem invested in the year 2017.

Canadian Science Policy Conference Call for Proposals

I missed the first call for the 7th annual Canadian Science Policy Conference but luckily it has been extended to either May 1, 2015 (on the website) or May 8, 2015 (in the news release). First, here are some details about where and when the conference is being held (from the Canadian Science Policy Conference (CSPC) April 10, 2015 news release),

The 7th Canadian Science Policy Conference (CSPC) is returning to the nation’s capital after four years. This year the CSPC will be held in Ottawa, Ontario, on November 25-27th, 2015, at the Delta Ottawa City Centre Hotel. The CSPC draws representatives from the business, government, academic and research, media, non-profit, and education sectors across Canada to discuss the present and future of Canadian science, technology, and innovation policy.

Should you be interested in submitting a proposal, here are the themes and formats to consider,

CSPC 2015 themes are:

The Impact of Transformative and Converging Technologies on Private Sector Innovation and Productivity

Big Science in Canada: Realizing the Benefits

Transformation of Science, Society and Research in the Digital Age: Open Science, Participation, Security and Confidentiality

Science and Innovation for Development

Evidence-Based Decision Making: The Challenge of Connecting Science and Policy Making

CSPC 2015 Panel Format (Streams)

Green Paper Discussions

Case Studies

Lightning/TED-type Talks

Interactive Learning Session

Debate Format

At Issue Format

Proposals are welcome from organizations and individuals from across all sectors and disciplines. This year CSPC encourages proposals with a future oriented approach, a focus on solutions to challenges, and using interactive formats.

You can found out more about the evaluation criteria and the formats on the Canadian Science Policy Conference Call for Proposals webpage. As for the deadline, I’m making the assumption that the date on the website (May 1, 2015) is the one to work towards.

Bring back the mandatory Canadian long form census: a long shot private member’s bill in Parliament

It’s been over four years since I last mentioned the mandatory Canadian long form census, a topic which seems to be enjoying some new interest. For those unfamiliar or whose memory of the controversy is foggy, here’s a brief description of the situation. The mandatory aspect of the long form census was abolished by the Conservative government despite serious opposition from core Conservative supporters in the business community and at least two of the Prime Minister’s own cabinet members. There’s more about the discussion at the time in my July 20, 2010 posting (scroll down about 25% of the way).

Thanks to David Bruggeman’s Feb. 1, 2015 post cleverly titled, Counting The Impact Of How A Government Counts, on his Pasco Phronesis blog, I can update the situation (Note: Links have been removed).

Back in 2010, the Canadian government opted to make the long form portion of its 2011 census voluntary.  Researchers who use the data in their work, and policymakers who use the data to make decisions were concerned about how a voluntary survey would impact the resulting data.

As expected, the early analysis suggests that the lower quality data will lead to higher spending. …

Ted Hsu, Liberal member of Parliament (MP), introduced Bill C-626 An Act to amend the Statistics Act (appointment of Chief Statistician and long-form census in Sept. 2014 when it received its first reading. Last week, Jan. 29, 2015, the bill received its second reading and was referred to committee according to this Bill C-626 webpage on the openparliament.ca website. I’m excerpting portions of Ted Hsu’s Jan. 29, 2015 (?)  comments from the House of Commons floor, (from openparliament.ca’s Bill C-626 webpage; Note: Links have been removed),

Today I rise to present my private member’s bill, Bill C-626. It is a bill that reflects the belief that people must have trustworthy information about themselves to govern themselves wisely.

Indeed, the Prime Minister himself said in his recent speech to the United Nations:

…vital statistics are critical.

You can’t manage what you can’t measure.

We parliamentarians should aspire to safeguard the integrity and quality of fundamental information about the people of Canada, whom we endeavour to serve. Is that not what we seek when we pray at the beginning of each day in the House of Commons: Grant us wisdom, knowledge, and understanding to preserve the blessings of this country for the benefit of all, and to make good laws and wise decisions?

However, the quality of national statistics has been compromised. In 2011, the voluntary national household survey replaced the long form census. Researchers have publicly called that survey worthless.

What are some of the effects? In May 2014, the Progressive Conservative premier of New Brunswick said that the elimination of the long form census makes it hard to track the outcomes of the province’s poverty program. That is, it is hard to figure out what New Brunswick got from the money spent to help the poor.

National household survey data were too meaningless to be published for 25% of Canada’s towns and cities because of low response rates, rising to 30% in Newfoundland and Labrador’s and 40% in Saskatchewan.

All levels of government and the private sector have been handicapped by bad data here in Canada. What is worse is that the one mandatory long form census forms an essential anchor that is needed to adjust for errors in many other voluntary surveys. We have lost that data anchor.

Why is the voluntary national household survey so poor? The problem is that certain groups of people tended not to fill out the voluntary survey. Rural residents, single parents, one-person households, renters, the very rich, the poor, and younger people all tended not to complete the national household survey. The result is a biased and misleading picture of Canada and Canadians. This is what scientists call a systematic error. A systematic error, unlike a random error, cannot be corrected by sending out more census forms.

This systematic error is eliminated if everyone who receives a long form survey fills it out. Not filling out the long form census is a disservice to the country. That is why filling out the census should be considered a civic duty.

In 2011, the government went ahead and sent out more voluntary surveys to compensate for the lower response rate. This inflated the cost of the census by approximately $20 million, but it gave us poorer information. Avoiding such waste is another reason we should restore the mandatory long form census.

More importantly, making business and investment decisions and managing the economy and the affairs of the people all require trustworthy information about the people. That is why, just this past summer, the Canadian Chamber of Commerce passed a policy resolution calling for the restoration of the mandatory long form census. That is why, in 2010, groups such as the Canadian Association for Business Economics, the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, the Conference Board of Canada, and the Toronto Region Board of Trade opposed the elimination of the mandatory long form census.

Let me say this again. The Canadian Chamber of Commerce, the Canadian Association for Business Economics, the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, the Conference Board of Canada, and the Toronto Region Board of Trade want the mandatory long form census.

It’s well worth reading all of the comments as they run both pro and con. BTW, kudos to the openparliament.ca website for making information about legislation and the legislative process so accessible!

The Globe & Mail newspaper ran a Nov. 6, 2014 editorial about six weeks after the bill was first introduced,

Bill C-626, a private member’s bill that would restore the mandatory long-form census and shield the Chief Statistician of Canada from political interference, has no chance of becoming law. It was introduced by a Liberal MP, Ted Hsu, and has limited support in Parliament. Even more foreboding, its adoption would require the Harper government [Stephen Harper, Prime Minister, Canada] to do something it loathes: admit an error.

But an error it was – and a now well-documented one – for the government to eliminate the mandatory long-form census in 2010 and replace it with the voluntary National Household Survey.

To be fair, I don’t know of any government that admits its errors easily but, even by those standards, the Harper government seems extraordinarily loathe to do so.

More of the new National Household Survey’s shortcomings come to light in a Jan. 29, 2015 article by Tavia Grant for the Globe & Mail,

The cancellation of the mandatory long-form census has damaged research in key areas, from how immigrants are doing in the labour market to how the middle class is faring, while making it more difficult for cities to ensure taxpayer dollars are being spent wisely, planners and researchers say.

Statistics Canada developed a voluntary survey after Ottawa cancelled the long-form census in 2010. Many had warned that the switch would mean lower response rates and policies based on an eroded understanding of important trends. Now researchers – from city planners to public health units – say they have sifted through the 2011 data and found it lacking.

Their comments come as a private member’s bill to reinstate the mandatory long-form census will be debated in the House of Commons Thursday [Jan. 29, 2015]. The bill, expected to be voted on next week, has slim odds of passing, given the Conservative majority. But it is drawing attention to the impact of the switch, which has created difficulties in determining income-inequality trends, housing needs and whether low-income families are getting adequate services.

The impact isn’t just on researchers. Cities, such as Toronto, say it’s become more expensive and requires more staffing to obtain data that’s of lower quality. …

Sara Mayo, social planner at the Social Planning and Research Council of Hamilton [Ontario], says the result of the census changes has been less data for more money. “In terms of fiscal prudence, this made no sense. Why would any government want to pay more for worse-quality data?” [emphasis mine]

Many, many people noted in 2010 that we would be paying more for lower quality data. Adding insult to injury, the cancellation was not made due to a huge public outcry demanding the end of the mandatory long form census, In fact, as I noted earlier, many of Stephen Harper’s core supporters were not in favour of his initiative.

Moving on to Ted Hsu for a moment, I was interested to note that he will not be running for election later this year (2015) according to an Aug.7, 2014 article on thestar.com website. For now, according to his Wikipedia entry, Hsu is the the Liberal Party’s Critic for Science and Technology, Post-Secondary Education, Federal Economic Development Agency for Southern Ontario and Federal Economic Development Initiative in Northern Ontario. By training, Hsu is a physicist.

While no one seems to hold much hope for Hsu’s bill, there is a timeline provided for its passage through Parliament before the final vote (from tedshu.ca’s C-626 webpage),

First reading: September 22, 2014
First hour of second reading debate: November 7, 2014
Second hour of second reading debate: January 29, 2015
Second reading vote to send the bill to committee: February 4, 2015
Committee hearings: March-April (expected)
Report Stage to vote on any amendments and the report from committee: April 2015 (expected)
Final hour of debate and third reading vote to send the bill to the Senate: April 2015 (expected)

According to the openparliament.ca website the Jan. 29, 2015 reading was the one where the bill was sent to committee but Ted Hsu’s site suggests that today’s Feb. 4, 2015 reading  is when the vote to send the bill to committee will be held.

ETA Feb. 4, 2014 1420 PDT: Apparently, city governments are weighing in the discussion, from a Feb. 3, 2015 article by Tavia Grant and Elizabeth Church for the Globe & Mail,

The debate over the demise of the mandatory long-form census has reached the city level in Canada, where mayors and local officials say the cancellation has hampered the ability to plan and support the needs of their communities.

Toronto Mayor John Tory told The Globe and Mail he plans to raise the issue at the big city mayors’ meeting this week.

Across the country, cities are feeling the impact of the census changes, said Brad Woodside, president of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities and mayor of Fredericton [New Brunswick].

“We’ve heard from our members that the change to the new National Household Survey [NHS] is impacting their ability to effectively plan and monitor the changing needs of their communities,” he said in an e-mailed statement to The Globe. “We support all efforts to increase the reliability of the data from the census.”

A website that lobbies for more accessible data, called Datalibre.ca, lists 11 individuals and organizations that supported the government’s decision to scrap the census and 488 who oppose it. Those who were against the move include 42 cities – from Red Deer to Montreal, Victoria and Fredericton.

Regina’s mayor said the loss of detailed data is a concern. He wants the long-form reinstated.

In Vancouver, city planner Michael Gordon said the end of the mandatory census is a “significant issue,” hampering the ability to analyze infrastructure needs, such as transportation planning, along with housing, particularly affordable housing. Mr. Gordon, president of the Canadian Institute of Planners, has found some data from NHS “fishy,” and says there has been a “very disappointing” impact in the ability to provide sound advice based on factual information.

Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to find any information as to whether today’s vote to send this bill committee was successful or not.

ETA Feb. 5, 2015 0840 PDT: The bill did not make it past the second reading, from a Feb. 4, 2015 news item (posted at 2000 hours EDT) on the Huffington Post,

Liberal MP Ted Hsu’s drive to resurrect the long-form census has come to an end.

His private member’s bill to bring back the long-form census and bolster the independence of the chief statistician was voted down on second reading in the Commons on Wednesday.