Category Archives: science policy

A study in contrasts: innovation and education strategies in US and British Columbia (Canada)

It’s always interesting to contrast two approaches to the same issue, in this case, innovation and education strategies designed to improve the economies of the United States and of British Columbia, a province in Canada.

One of the major differences regarding education in the US and in Canada is that the Canadian federal government, unlike the US federal government, has no jurisdiction over the matter. Education is strictly a provincial responsibility.

I recently wrote a commentary (a Jan. 19, 2016 posting) about the BC government’s Jan. 18, 2016 announcement of its innovation strategy in a special emphasis on the education aspect. Premier Christy Clark focused largely on the notion of embedding courses on computer coding in schools from K-12 (kindergarten through grade 12) as Jonathon Narvey noted in his Jan. 19, 2016 event recap for Betakit,

While many in the tech sector will be focused on the short-term benefits of a quick injection of large capital [a $100M BC Tech Fund as part of a new strategy was announced in Dec. 2015 but details about the new #BCTECH Strategy were not shared until Jan. 18, 2016], the long-term benefits for the local tech sector are being seeded in local schools. More than 600,000 BC students will be getting basic skills in the K-12 curriculum, with coding academies, more work experience electives and partnerships between high school and post-secondary institutions.

Here’s what I had to say in my commentary (from the Jan. 19, 2016 posting),

… the government wants to embed  computer coding into the education system for K-12 (kindergarten to grade 12). One determined reporter (Canadian Press if memory serves) attempted to find out how much this would cost. No answer was forthcoming although there were many words expended. Whether this failure was due to ignorance (disturbing!) or a reluctance to share (also disturbing!) was impossible to tell. Another reporter (Georgia Straight) asked about equipment (coding can be taught with pen and paper but hardware is better). … Getting back to the reporter’s question, no answer was forthcoming although the speaker was loquacious.

Another reporter asked if the government had found any jurisdictions doing anything similar regarding computer coding. It seems they did consider other jurisdictions although it was claimed that BC is the first to strike out in this direction. Oddly, no one mentioned Estonia, known in some circles as E-stonia, where the entire school system was online by the late 1990s in an initiative known as the ‘Tiger Leap Foundation’ which also supported computer coding classes in secondary school (there’s more in Tim Mansel’s May 16, 2013 article about Estonia’s then latest initiative to embed computer coding into grade school.) …

Aside from the BC government’s failure to provide details, I am uncomfortable with what I see as an overemphasis on computer coding that suggests a narrow focus on what constitutes a science and technology strategy for education. I find the US approach closer to what I favour although I may be biased since they are building their strategy around nanotechnology education.

The US approach had been announced in dribs and drabs until recently when a Jan. 26, 2016 news item on Nanotechnology Now indicated a broad-based plan for nanotechnology education (and computer coding),

Over the past 15 years, the Federal Government has invested over $22 billion in R&D under the auspices of the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) to understand and control matter at the nanoscale and develop applications that benefit society. As these nanotechnology-enabled applications become a part of everyday life, it is important for students to have a basic understanding of material behavior at the nanoscale, and some states have even incorporated nanotechnology concepts into their K-12 science standards. Furthermore, application of the novel properties that exist at the nanoscale, from gecko-inspired climbing gloves and invisibility cloaks, to water-repellent coatings on clothes or cellphones, can spark students’ excitement about science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).

An earlier Jan. 25, 2016 White House blog posting by Lisa Friedersdorf and Lloyd Whitman introduced the notion that nanotechnology is viewed as foundational and a springboard for encouraging interest in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) careers while outlining several formal and information education efforts,

The Administration’s updated Strategy for American Innovation, released in October 2015, identifies nanotechnology as one of the emerging “general-purpose technologies”—a technology that, like the steam engine, electricity, and the Internet, will have a pervasive impact on our economy and our society, with the ability to create entirely new industries, create jobs, and increase productivity. To reap these benefits, we must train our Nation’s students for these high-tech jobs of the future. Fortunately, the multidisciplinary nature of nanotechnology and the unique and fascinating phenomena that occur at the nanoscale mean that nanotechnology is a perfect topic to inspire students to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).

The Nanotechnology: Super Small Science series [mentioned in my Jan. 21, 2016 posting] is just the latest example of the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI)’s efforts to educate and inspire our Nation’s students. Other examples include:

The announcement about computer coding and courses being integrated in the US education curricula K-12 was made in US President Barack Obama’s 2016 State of the Union speech and covered in a Jan. 30, 2016 article by Jessica Hullinger for Fast Company,

In his final State Of The Union address earlier this month, President Obama called for providing hands-on computer science classes for all students to make them “job ready on day one.” Today, he is unveiling how he plans to do that with his upcoming budget.

The President’s Computer Science for All Initiative seeks to provide $4 billion in funding for states and an additional $100 million directly to school districts in a push to provide access to computer science training in K-12 public schools. The money would go toward things like training teachers, providing instructional materials, and getting kids involved in computer science early in elementary and middle school.

There are more details in the Hullinger’s article and in a Jan. 30, 2016 White House blog posting by Megan Smith,

Computer Science for All is the President’s bold new initiative to empower all American students from kindergarten through high school to learn computer science and be equipped with the computational thinking skills they need to be creators in the digital economy, not just consumers, and to be active citizens in our technology-driven world. Our economy is rapidly shifting, and both educators and business leaders are increasingly recognizing that computer science (CS) is a “new basic” skill necessary for economic opportunity and social mobility.

CS for All builds on efforts already being led by parents, teachers, school districts, states, and private sector leaders from across the country.

Nothing says one approach has to be better than the other as there’s usually more than one way to accomplish a set of goals. As well, it’s unfair to expect a provincial government to emulate the federal government of a larger country with more money to spend. I just wish the BC government (a) had shared details such as the budget allotment for their initiative and (b) would hint at a more imaginative, long range view of STEM education.

Going back to Estonia one last time, in addition to the country’s recent introduction of computer coding classes in grade school, it has also embarked on a nanotechnology/nanoscience educational and entrepreneurial programme as noted in my Sept. 30, 2014 posting,

The University of Tartu (Estonia) announced in a Sept. 29, 2014 press release an educational and entrepreneurial programme about nanotechnology/nanoscience for teachers and students,

To bring nanoscience closer to pupils, educational researchers of the University of Tartu decided to implement the European Union LLP Comenius project “Quantum Spin-Off – connecting schools with high-tech research and entrepreneurship”. The objective of the project is to build a kind of a bridge: at one end, pupils can familiarise themselves with modern science, and at the other, experience its application opportunities at high-tech enterprises. “We also wish to inspire these young people to choose a specialisation related to science and technology in the future,” added Lukk [Maarika Lukk, Coordinator of the project].

The pupils can choose between seven topics of nanotechnology: the creation of artificial muscles, microbiological fuel elements, manipulation of nanoparticles, nanoparticles and ionic liquids as oil additives, materials used in regenerative medicine, deposition and 3D-characterisation of atomically designed structures and a topic covered in English, “Artificial robotic fish with EAP elements”.

Learning is based on study modules in the field of nanotechnology. In addition, each team of pupils will read a scientific publication, selected for them by an expert of that particular field. In that way, pupils will develop an understanding of the field and of scientific texts. On the basis of the scientific publication, the pupils prepare their own research project and a business plan suitable for applying the results of the project.

In each field, experts of the University of Tartu will help to understand the topics. Participants will visit a nanotechnology research laboratory and enterprises using nanotechnologies.

The project lasts for two years and it is also implemented in Belgium, Switzerland and Greece.

As they say, time will tell.

Montreal Neuro goes open science

The Montreal Neurological Institute (MNI) in Québec, Canada, known informally and widely as Montreal Neuro, has ‘opened’ its science research to the world. David Bruggeman tells the story in a Jan. 21, 2016 posting on his Pasco Phronesis blog (Note: Links have been removed),

The Montreal Neurological Institute (MNI) at McGill University announced that it will be the first academic research institute to become what it calls ‘Open Science.’  As Science is reporting, the MNI will make available all research results and research data at the time of publication.  Additionally it will not seek patents on any of the discoveries made on research at the Institute.

Will this catch on?  I have no idea if this particular combination of open access research data and results with no patents will spread to other university research institutes.  But I do believe that those elements will continue to spread.  More universities and federal agencies are pursuing open access options for research they support.  Elon Musk has opted to not pursue patent litigation for any of Tesla Motors’ patents, and has not pursued patents for SpaceX technology (though it has pursued litigation over patents in rocket technology). …

Montreal Neuro and its place in Canadian and world history

Before pursuing this announcement a little more closely, you might be interested in some of the institute’s research history (from the Montreal Neurological Institute Wikipedia entry and Note: Links have been removed),

The MNI was founded in 1934 by the neurosurgeon Dr. Wilder Penfield (1891–1976), with a $1.2 million grant from the Rockefeller Foundation of New York and the support of the government of Quebec, the city of Montreal, and private donors such as Izaak Walton Killam. In the years since the MNI’s first structure, the Rockefeller Pavilion was opened, several major structures were added to expand the scope of the MNI’s research and clinical activities. The MNI is the site of many Canadian “firsts.” Electroencephalography (EEG) was largely introduced and developed in Canada by MNI scientist Herbert Jasper, and all of the major new neuroimaging techniques—computer axial tomography (CAT), positron emission tomography (PET), and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) were first used in Canada at the MNI. Working under the same roof, the Neuro’s scientists and physicians made discoveries that drew world attention. Penfield’s technique for epilepsy neurosurgery became known as the Montreal procedure. K.A.C. Elliott identified γ-aminobutyric acid (GABA) as the first inhibitory neurotransmitter. Brenda Milner revealed new aspects of brain function and ushered in the field of neuropsychology as a result of her groundbreaking study of the most famous neuroscience patient of the 20th century, H.M., who had anterograde amnesia and was unable to form new memories. In 2007, the Canadian government recognized the innovation and work of the MNI by naming it one of seven national Centres of Excellence in Commercialization and Research.

For those with the time and the interest, here’s a link to an interview (early 2015?) with Brenda Milner (and a bonus, related second link) as part of a science podcast series (from my March 6, 2015 posting),

Dr. Wendy Suzuki, a Professor of Neural Science and Psychology in the Center for Neural Science at New York University, whose research focuses on understanding how our brains form and retain new long-term memories and the effects of aerobic exercise on memory. Her book Healthy Brain, Happy Life will be published by Harper Collins in the Spring of 2015.

  • Totally Cerebral: Untangling the Mystery of Memory: Neuroscientist Wendy Suzuki introduces us to scientists who have uncovered some of the deepest secrets about our brains. She begins by talking with experimental psychologist Brenda Milner [interviewed in her office at McGill University, Montréal, Quebéc], who in the 1950s, completely changed our understanding of the parts of the brain important for forming new long-term memories.
  • Totally Cerebral: The Man Without a Memory: Imagine never being able to form a new long term memory after the age of 27. Welcome to the life of the famous amnesic patient “HM”. Neuroscientist Suzanne Corkin studied HM for almost half a century, and gives us a glimpse of what daily life was like for him, and his tremendous contribution to our understanding of how our memories work.

Brief personal anecdote
For those who just want the science, you may want to skip this section.

About 15 years ago, I had the privilege of talking with Mary Filer, a former surgical nurse and artist in glass. Originally from Saskatchewan, she, a former member of Wilder Penfield’s surgical team, was then in her 80s living in Vancouver and still associated with Montreal Neuro, albeit as an artist rather than a surgical nurse.

Penfield had encouraged her to pursue her interest in the arts (he was an art/science aficionado) and at this point her work could be seen many places throughout the world and, if memory serves, she had just been asked to go MNI for the unveiling of one of her latest pieces.

Her husband, then in his 90s, had founded the School of Architecture at McGill University. This couple had known all the ‘movers and shakers’ in Montreal society for decades and retired to Vancouver where their home was in a former chocolate factory.

It was one of those conversations, you just don’t forget.

More about ‘open science’ at Montreal Neuro

Brian Owens’ Jan. 21, 2016 article for Science Magazine offers some insight into the reason for the move to ‘open science’,

Guy Rouleau, the director of McGill University’s Montreal Neurological Institute (MNI) and Hospital in Canada, is frustrated with how slowly neuroscience research translates into treatments. “We’re doing a really shitty job,” he says. “It’s not because we’re not trying; it has to do with the complexity of the problem.”

So he and his colleagues at the renowned institute decided to try a radical solution. Starting this year, any work done there will conform to the principles of the “open-
science” movement—all results and data will be made freely available at the time of publication, for example, and the institute will not pursue patents on any of its discoveries. …

“It’s an experiment; no one has ever done this before,” he says. The intent is that neuroscience research will become more efficient if duplication is reduced and data are shared more widely and earlier. …”

After a year of consultations among the institute’s staff, pretty much everyone—about 70 principal investigators and 600 other scientific faculty and staff—has agreed to take part, Rouleau says. Over the next 6 months, individual units will hash out the details of how each will ensure that its work lives up to guiding principles for openness that the institute has developed. …

Owens’ article provides more information about implementation and issues about sharing. I encourage you to read it in its entirety.

As for getting more research to the patient, there’s a Jan. 26, 2016 Cafe Scientifique talk in Vancouver (my Jan. 22, 2016 ‘Events’ posting; scroll down about 40% of the way) regarding that issue although there’s no hint that the speakers will be discussing ‘open science’.

A Russia-China high technology investment fund announced

My Sept. 12, 2014 posting mentioned a proposed joint China-Russia nanotechnology investment fund which has now been realized (and changed somewhat). From a Jan. 19, 2016 news item on sputniknews.com,

Russia’s Rusnano nanotechnology company has established a $500-million joint investment fund with the Chinese Zhongrong International Trust, Rusnano CEO Anatoly Chubais said Tuesday.

The agreement between the companies was signed by Chubais and Zhongrong International Trust Chairman Fang Tao, the statement by Rusnano confirmed.

“Zhongrong is one of the largest financial institutes in the Asia-Pacific region that specializes in private equity and financing of large-scale innovative projects… Our partnership is aimed at the creation of new competitive products with the prospect of their launch both in Russia and China, as well as worldwide,” Chubais said, as quoted by Rusnano’s press center.

A Jan. 19, 2016 RUSNANO press release, which originated the news item, provides more details abut the deal and about RUSNANO (Note: A link has been removed),

At the first stage, the RUSNANO Zhongrong United Investment Fund will have $500 mln of capital under management. The Partners of the Fund, RUSNANO Group and Zhongrong Trust International Co., LTD. (Zhongrong), will provide their equity investments in equal portions and establish a joint management company.

The Fund’s investment focus will be concentrated on projects in the growth stage aimed at application, development, and transfer of high technologies (related to electric power industry (including RES), oil and gas industry, as well as microelectronics and biotechnologies) to Russia. It is envisaged that investments into the projects and project companies will be effected on the territory of Russia (not less than 70 %), China, and other countries.

RUSNANO was founded as an open joint stock company in March 2011, through reorganization of state corporation Russian Corporation of Nanotechnologies. RUSNANO is instrumental in realizing government policies for nanoindustry growth, investing in financially effective high-technology projects that guarantee the development of new manufacturing within the Russian Federation. The company invests in nanotechnology companies directly and through investment funds. Its primary investment focus is in electronics, optoelectronics and telecommunications, healthcare and biotechnology, metallurgy and metalwork, energy, mechanical engineering and instrument making, construction and industrial materials, and chemicals and petrochemicals. The Government of the Russian Federation owns 100 percent of the shares in RUSNANO.

Work to establish nanotechnology infrastructure and carry out educational programs is fulfilled by RUSNANO’s Fund for Infrastructure and Educational Programs, which was also established during the reorganization of the Russian Corporation of Nanotechnologies.

Management of the investment assets of RUSNANO are carried out by a limited liability company established in December 2013, RUSNANO Asset Management. Anatoly Chubais is chairman of its Executive Board.

Presumably, the amount is in US dollars (USD). In 2014 when I first stumbled across an English language media announcement about this fund, China was considering ways to make its own currency (Renmibis) an international standard (mentioned in the Sept. 12, 2014 posting). Of course, China’s recent stock market collapse (a Jan. 18, 2016 CNN news article by Andrew Stevens with
Jessie Jiang and Shen Lu provides more details and insight into the collapse) must have been a setback for those currency plans but it’s interesting to see China has pushed ahead with this investment fund.

#BCTECH: being at the Summit (Jan. 18-19, 2016)

#BCTECH Summit 2016*, a joint event between the province of British Columbia (BC, Canada) and the BC Innovation Council (BCIC), a crown corporation formerly known as the Science Council of British Columbia, launched on Jan. 18, 2016. I have written a preview (Jan. 17, 2016 post) and a commentary on the new #BCTECH strategy (Jan. 19, 2016 posting) announced by British Columbia Premier, Christy Clark, on the opening day (Jan. 18, 2016) of the summit.

I was primarily interested in the trade show/research row/technology showcase aspect of the summit focusing (but not exclusively) on nanotechnology. Here’s what I found,

Nano at the Summit

  • Precision NanoSystems: fabricates equipment which allows researchers to create polymer nanoparticles for delivering medications.

One of the major problems with creating nanoparticles is ensuring a consistent size and rapid production. According to Shell Ip, a Precision NanoSystems field application scientist, their NanoAssemblr Platform has solved the consistency problem and a single microfluidic cartridge can produce 15 ml in two minutes. Cartridges can run in parallel for maximum efficiency when producing nanoparticles in greater quantity.

The NanoAssemblr Platform is in use in laboratories around the world (I think the number is 70) and you can find out more on the company’s About our technology webpage,

The NanoAssemblr™ Platform

The microfluidic approach to particle formulation is at the heart of the NanoAssemblr Platform. This well-controlled process mediates bottom-up self-assembly of nanoparticles with reproducible sizes and low polydispersity. Users can control size by process and composition, and adjust parameters such as mixing ratios, flow rate and lipid composition in order to fine-tune nanoparticle size, encapsulation efficiency and much more. The system technology enables manufacturing scale-up through microfluidic reactor parallelization similar to the arraying of transistors on an integrated chip. Superior design ensures that the platform is fast and easy to use with a software controlled manufacturing process. This usability allows for the simplified transfer of manufacturing protocols between sites, which accelerates development, reduces waste and ultimately saves money. Precision NanoSystems’ flagship product is the NanoAssemblr™ Benchtop Instrument, designed for rapid prototyping of novel nanoparticles. Preparation time on the system is streamlined to approximately one minute, with the ability to complete 30 formulations per day in the hands of any user.

The company is located on property known as the Endowment Lands or, more familiarly, the University of British Columbia (UBC).

A few comments before moving on, being able to standardize the production of medicine-bearing nanoparticles is a tremendous step forward which is going to help scientists dealing with other issues. Despite all the talk in the media about delivering nanoparticles with medication directly to diseased cells, there are transport issues: (1) getting the medicine to the right location/organ and (2) getting the medicine into the cell. My Jan. 12, 2016 posting featured a project with Malaysian scientists and a team at Harvard University who are tackling the transport and other nanomedicine) issues as they relate to the lung. As well, I have a Nov. 26, 2015 posting which explores a controversy about nanoparticles getting past the ‘cell walls’ into the nucleus of the cell.

The next ‘nano’ booths were,

  • 4D Labs located at Simon Fraser University (SFU) was initially hailed as a nanotechnology facility but these days they’re touting themselves as an ‘advanced materials’ facility. Same thing, different branding.

They advertise services including hands-on training for technology companies and academics. There is a nanoimaging facility and nanofabrication facility, amongst others.

I spoke with their operations manager, Nathaniel Sieb who mentioned a few of the local companies that use their facilities. (1) Nanotech Security (featured here most recently in a Dec. 29, 2015 post), an SFU spinoff company, does some of their anticounterfeiting research work at 4D Labs. (2) Switch Materials (a smart window company, electrochromic windows if memory serves) also uses the facilities. It is Neil Branda’s (4D Labs Executive Director) company and I have been waiting impatiently (my May 14, 2010 post was my first one about Switch) for either his or someone else’s electrochromic windows (they could eliminate or reduce the need for air conditioning during the hotter periods and reduce the need for heat in the colder periods) to come to market. Seib tells me, I’ll have to wait longer for Switch. (3) A graduate student was presenting his work at the booth, a handheld diagnostic device that can be attached to a smartphone to transmit data to the cloud. While the first application is for diabetics, there are many other possibilities. Unfortunately, glucose means you need to produce blood for the test when I suggested my preference for saliva the student explained some of the difficulties. Apparently, your saliva changes dynamically and frequently and something as simple as taking a sip of orange juice could result in a false reading. Our conversation (mine, Seib’s and the student’s) also drifted over into the difficulties of bringing products to market. Sadly, we were not able to solve that problem in our 10 minute conversation.

  • FPInnovations is a scientific research centre and network for the forestry sector. They had a display near their booth which was like walking into a peculiar forest (I was charmed). The contrast with the less imaginative approaches all around was striking.

FPInnovation helped to develop cellulose nanocrystals (CNC), then called nanocrystalline cellulose (NCC), and I was hoping to be updated about CNC and about the spinoff company Celluforce. The researcher I spoke to was from Sweden and his specialty was business development. He didn’t know much about CNC in Canada and when I commented on how active Sweden has been its pursuit of a CNC application, he noted Finland has been the most active. The researcher noted that making the new materials being derived from the forest, such as CNC, affordable and easily produced for use in applications that have yet to be developed are all necessities and challenges. He mentioned that cultural changes also need to take place. Canadians are accustomed to slicing away and discarding most of the tree instead of using as much of it as possible. We also need to move beyond the construction and pulp & paper sectors (my Feb. 15, 2012 posting featured nanocellulose research in Sweden where sludge was the base material).

Other interests at the Summit

I visited:

  • “The Wearable Lower Limb Anthropomorphic Exoskeleton (WLLAE) – a lightweight, battery-operated and ergonomic robotic system to help those with mobility issues improve their lives. The exoskeleton features joints and links that correspond to those of a human body and sync with motion. SFU has designed, manufactured and tested a proof-of-concept prototype and the current version can mimic all the motions of hip joints.” The researchers (Siamak Arzanpour and Edward Park) pointed out that the ability to mimic all the motions of the hip is a big difference between their system and others which only allow the leg to move forward or back. They rushed the last couple of months to get this system ready for the Summit. In fact, they received their patent for the system the night before (Jan. 17, 2016) the Summit opened.

It’s the least imposing of the exoskeletons I’ve seen (there’s a description of one of the first successful exoskeletons in a May 20, 2014 posting; if you scroll down to the end you’ll see an update about the device’s unveiling at the 2014 World Cup [soccer/football] in Brazil).

Unfortunately, there aren’t any pictures of WLLAE yet and the proof-of-concept version may differ significantly from the final version. This system could be used to help people regain movement (paralysis/frail seniors) and I believe there’s a possibility it could be used to enhance human performance (soldiers/athletes). The researchers still have some significant hoops to jump before getting to the human clinical trial stage. They need to refine their apparatus, ensure that it can be safely operated, and further develop the interface between human and machine. I believe WLLAE is considered a neuroprosthetic device. While it’s not a fake leg or arm, it enables movement (prosthetic) and it operates on brain waves (neuro). It’s a very exciting area of research, consequently, there’s a lot of international competition.

  • Delightfully, after losing contact for a while, I reestablished it with the folks (Sean Lee, Head External Relations and Jim Hanlon, Chief Administrative Officer) at TRIUMF (Canada’s national laboratory for particle and nuclear physics). It’s a consortium of 19 Canadian research institutions (12 full members and seven associate members).

It’s a little disappointing that TRIUMF wasn’t featured in the opening for the Summit since the institution houses theoretical, experimental, and applied science work. It’s a major BC (and Canada) science and technology success story. My latest post (July 16, 2015) about their work featured researchers from California (US) using the TRIUMF cyclotron for imaging nanoscale materials and, on the more practical side, there’s a Mar. 6, 2015 posting about their breakthrough for producing nuclear material-free medical isotopes. Plus, Maclean’s Magazine ran a Jan. 3, 2016 article by Kate Lunau profiling an ‘art/science’ project that took place at TRIUMF (Note: Links have been removed),

It’s not every day that most people get to peek inside a world-class particle physics lab, where scientists probe deep mysteries of the universe. In September [2015], Vancouver’s TRIUMF—home to the world’s biggest cyclotron, a type of particle accelerator—opened its doors to professional and amateur photographers, part of an event called Global Physics Photowalk 2015. (Eight labs around the world participated, including CERN [European particle physics laboratory], in Geneva, where the Higgs boson particle was famously discovered.)

Here’s the local (Vancouver) jury’s pick for the winning image (from the Nov. 4, 2015 posting [Winning Photographs Revealed] by Alexis Fong on the TRIUMF website),

Caption: DESCANT (at TRIUMF) neutron detector array composed of 70 hexagonal detectors Credit: Pamela Joe McFarlane

Caption: DESCANT (at TRIUMF) neutron detector array composed of 70 hexagonal detectors Credit: Pamela Joe McFarlane

With all those hexagons and a spherical shape, the DESCANT looks like a ‘buckyball’ or buckminsterfullerene or C60  to me.

I hope the next Summit features TRIUMF and/or some other endeavours which exemplify, Science, Technology, and Creativity in British Columbia and Canada.

Onto the last booth,

  • MITACS was originally one of the Canadian federal government’s Network Centres for Excellence projects. It was focused on mathematics, networking, and innovation but once the money ran out the organization took a turn. These days, it’s describing itself as (from their About page) “a national, not-for-profit organization that has designed and delivered research and training programs in Canada for 15 years. Working with 60 universities, thousands of companies, and both federal and provincial governments, we build partnerships that support industrial and social innovation in Canada.”Their Jan. 19, 2016 news release (coincidental with the #BCTECH Summit, Jan. 18 – 19, 2016?) features a new report about improving international investment in Canada,

    Opportunities to improve Canada’s attractiveness for R&D investment were identified:

    1.Canada needs to better incentivize R&D by rebalancing direct and indirect support measures

    2.Canada requires a coordinated, client-centric approach to incentivizing R&D

    3.Canada needs to invest in training programs that grow the knowledge economy”

    Oddly, entrepreneurial/corporate/business types never have a problem with government spending when the money is coming to them; it’s only a problem when it’s social services.

    Back to MITACS, one of their more interesting (to me) projects was announced at the 2015 Canadian Science Policy Conference. MITACS has inaugurated a Canadian Science Policy Fellowships programme which in its first year (pilot) will see up up to 10 academics applying their expertise to policy-making while embedded in various federal government agencies. I don’t believe anything similar has occurred here in Canada although, if memory serves, the Brits have a similar programme.

    Finally, I offer kudos to Sherry Zhao, MITACS Business Development Specialist, the only person to ask me how her organization might benefit my business. Admittedly I didn’t talk to a lot of people but it’s striking to me that at an ‘innovation and business’ tech summit, only one person approached me about doing business.  Of course, I’m not a male aged between 25 and 55. So, extra kudos to Sherry Zhao and MITACS.

Christy Clark (Premier of British Columbia), in her opening comments, stated 2800 (they were expecting about 1000) had signed up for the #BCTECH Summit. I haven’t been able to verify that number or get other additional information, e.g., business deals, research breakthroughs, etc. announced at the Summit. Regardless, it was exciting to attend and find out about the latest and greatest on the BC scene.

I wish all the participants great and good luck and look forward to next year’s where perhaps we’ll here about how the province plans to help with the ‘manufacturing middle’ issue. For new products you need to have facilities capable of reproducing your devices at a speed that satisfies your customers; see my Feb. 10, 2014 post featuring a report on this and other similar issues from the US General Accountability Office.

*’BCTECH Summit 2016′ link added Jan. 21, 2016.

#BCTECH: funding and strategy

Yesterday, Jan. 18, 2016, British Columbia’s premier, Christy Clark ,announced the second and third pillars of the #BCTECH strategy:  talent and markets [ETA Jan. 21, 2016: the announcement was made at the #BCTECH Summit, Jan. 18 – 19, 2016]. It was one of a series of announcements about the province’s interest and investment in technology under the #BCTECH banner. The first announcement (first pillar) was the $100M BC Tech Fund in December 2015. Before moving on to pillars two and three, here’s a BC Technology Industry Association (BCTIA) Dec. 8, 2015 news release about the fund,

The Province of British Columbia is creating a $100-million venture capital fund as it builds the foundation for a comprehensive technology strategy aimed at stimulating growth in the fast-moving sector, creating jobs and strengthening a diverse economy.

Premier Christy Clark today announced the new BC Tech Fund as part of the first of three economy-building pillars in the B.C. government’s multi-year #BCTECH Strategy that will drive growth and job creation in the multi-billion dollar tech sector.

“B.C.’s technology sector is consistently growing faster than the overall economy making this the perfect time to catch the wave and help smaller companies join in the ranks of economy builders,” said Premier Clark. “With this fund we’re creating a stronger foundation for B.C.’s technology sector, which is a major employer in communities across the province, to shine on the global stage while creating well-paying jobs back at home for British Columbians.”

The BC Tech Fund will help promising tech companies in B.C.’s tech sector by creating an avenue for capital funding, enabling them to take the next step towards joining the ranks of other job-creating tech companies.

The new fund will also help develop a sustainable venture capital system in the province, building on the success of the B.C. Renaissance Capital Fund (BCRCF), the province’s well developed Angel investment community, and responding to current funding needs.

Capital is one of three pillars in the forthcoming #BCTECH Strategy. This first pillar, announced today, also includes continuing to support B.C.’s competitive tax system and research environment.

The remaining two pillars, talent and markets, include actions to deepen the B.C. technology talent pool by developing and attracting the highest quality talent, and actions to make it easier to access new markets. The complete #BCTECH Strategy will be announced in January.

The BC Tech Fund will be in operation in 2016 following an open procurement process to secure a private sector fund manager to administer it. [emphasis mine] The process for identifying a fund manager begins today with a posting for a Negotiated Request for Proposal (NRFP).

B.C.’s technology sector, a key pillar of the BC Jobs Plan, is consistently growing faster than the economy overall. Its continued growth is integral to diversifying the Province’s economy, strengthening B.C.’s business landscape, and creating jobs in B.C. communities. The BC Jobs Plan builds on the strengths of B.C.’s key sectors and its educated and skilled workforce, keeping the province diverse, strong and growing.

In partnership with the BC Innovation Council, the province is hosting B.C.’s first #BCTECH Summit, Jan. 18-19, 2016, where the #BCTECH Strategy will be released in full. The summit will showcase our tech industry and offer opportunities to connect to this growing sector. To register or learn more, go to: http://bctechsummit.ca/

Quotes:

Amrik Virk, Minister of Technology, Innovation and Citizens’ Services –

“We’ve seen phenomenal growth in the technology sector in recent years. The B.C. Tech Strategy will further increase that growth by giving early-stage companies greater access to the venture capital they need to start off their business on the right footing. The access to capital is the boost entrepreneurs need to build their companies, commercialize and create high-paying, skilled jobs.”

Teresa Wat, Minister of International Trade and Minister Responsible for Asia Pacific Strategy and Multiculturalism –

“Venture capital is a critical building block to stimulating innovative ideas in the marketplace and this new fund reflects our commitment to creating an investment environment that stimulates new economic growth.”

Shirley Bond, Minister of Jobs, Tourism and Skills Training and Responsible for Labour –

“The technology sector is one of eight key sectors identified in the BC Jobs Plan and it is a crucial job creator, supporting innovation and productivity across all industries. All British Columbians stand to benefit from the sector fulfilling its potential.”

Greg Peet, chair, Premier’s Technology Council –

“Government gained a better understanding of what was needed to support growth of the technology sector by speaking with its leaders and influencers. Putting those needs into action has resulted in a strategy that provides promising tech companies with access to the capital they need, and reaffirms government’s commitment to help researchers and innovators succeed in building world class new businesses that create high paying jobs in B.C.”

Bill Tam, president and CEO of the BC Technology Industry Association –

“B.C. is already home to an amazing technology sector, and today’s announcement provides needed support for business development and growth. Government’s venture capital investment is a great start in terms of helping companies expand, and will solidify what many already know: B.C. is the best place to grow a tech company.”

Igor Faletski, chief executive officer, co-founder, Mobify –

“Increasing access to venture capital in British Columbia will be a major boost to many growing technology companies here. At Mobify we know from personal experience how useful early stage programs like the BC Venture Acceleration Program are to startups. The $100 million investment by the B.C. government into the BC Tech Fund will help our companies grow and achieve global leadership even faster.”

Mike Woollatt, chief executive officer, Canadian Venture Capital and Private Equity Association –

“Like B.C., governments around the world recognize that being a strong partner of the venture community reaps rewards for the economy and productivity. This new venture capital fund will be a source of innovations and jobs.”

Paris Gaudet, executive director, Innovation Island –

“Working closely with tech startups delivering the Venture Acceleration Program, I know how venture capital significantly increases a company’s chance of success. That is why I’m thrilled about this announcement as it will propel growth, increase jobs in the tech sector, and expand the number of opportunities available to entrepreneurs.”

Yesterday’s (Jan. 18, 2016) announcement focused largely on the other two pillars of the #BCTECH Strategy, although remarkably few details about any of these pillars have been shared.

Technical briefing or stonewalling?

Four BC government officials were answering questions at the technical briefing but not of them wanted (or was allowed?) to be identified as a specific source for information (i.e., quoted). Since they didn’t have much information to give, it wasn’t much of a problem. Here are the names of the four BC government officials: Bobbi Plecas, Associate Deputy Minister, Corporate Inititiatives; John Jacobson, Deputy Minister, Technology, Innovation, and Citizens’ Services; Shannon Baskerville, Deputy Minister, Deputy Minister’s Office; and Bindi Sawchuk, Executive Director, Investment Capital (job titles are from the BC Government online directory as of Jan. 18, 2016).

Let’s start with the money.  Apparently, the $100M fund will be ‘evergreen’ (somehow the money that goes out will be replenished) but no real details were offered as to how that might be achieved. Perhaps they’re hoping for a ‘return on investment’? They weren’t clear. Also, this fund will be in existence for 15 years. No reason was given for the fund’s end date. The government did consult with industry and the $100M amount was considered the optimal size for the fund, not big enough to scare away private investment but enough to ensure adequate government capitalization. Apparently, the plan is to start disbursing funds in 2016 (?) but they have yet to “secure a private sector fund manager to administer it.”

The second pillar is talent. The BC government is trying to make it easier for companies to bring talent from elsewhere (immigrants) while training more people here. No mention was made of the Syrian refugees currently settling here (other jurisdictions such as the UK and Germany, in their distinctive ways, are extending a special welcome to Syrian scientists as I noted in a Dec. 22, 2015 posting). [ETA Jan. 21, 2016: Arizona State University (US) has established an education fund for Syrian refugee students who want to complete their undergraduate or graduate programmes as per a Dec. 31, 2015 posting on the 2020 Science blog.]

Back to talent and training here, the government wants to embed  computer coding into the education system for K-12 (kindergarten to grade 12). One determined reporter (Canadian Press if memory serves) attempted to find out how much this would cost. No answer was forthcoming although there were many words expended. Whether this failure was due to ignorance (disturbing!) or a reluctance to share (also disturbing!) was impossible to tell. Another reporter (Georgia Straight) asked about equipment (coding can be taught with pen and paper but hardware is better). It seems the BC school system is beginning to resemble school systems in the US where districts with parents who can afford to fundraise have an advantage over other districts. Getting back to the reporter’s question, no answer was forthcoming although the speaker was loquacious.

Another reporter asked if the government had found any jurisdictions doing anything similar regarding computer coding. It seems they did consider other jurisdictions although it was claimed that BC is the first to strike out in this direction. Oddly, no one mentioned Estonia, known in some circles as E-stonia, where the entire school system was online by the late 1990s in an initiative known as the ‘Tiger Leap Foundation’ which also supported computer coding classes in secondary school (there’s more in Tim Mansel’s May 16, 2013 article about Estonia’s then latest initiative to embed computer coding into grade school.) There was a review of various countries’ efforts in a March 31, 2012 article for the Guardian; notice what they had to say about South Korea and there’s a more recent and brief mention of the international situation in an Aug. 31, 2015 article on CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) news online.

Returning yet again to the #BCTECH Strategy, there was a question about BC teachers being able to teach coding (I think it was Canadian Press again). It doesn’t seem the government has thought that aspect through. The speaker who answered most of these questions talked about the coding camps (another initiative with trainers who have specific skill sets [?]) and also noted there would be professional days to help BC teachers figure how to teach coding in the regular classes. No details were given as to how much training and support the teachers would receive. By contrast, the Estonians trained 60 teachers before implementing the initiative.

Hopefully, BC will take notice and adopt the policy although it is  currently embroiled in a dispute with teachers which has reached Canada’s Supreme Court, from a Jan. 14, 2016 article by Ian Bailey for the Globe and Mail,

Canada’s highest court has agreed to hear an appeal in a dispute that has fuelled the volatile relationship between British Columbia teachers and the provincial government in a case that could affect labour relations across the country.

B.C. Premier Christy Clark was education minister [14 years ago] when the province first stripped the teachers’ contract.

This week’s developments come after a bitter, months-long teachers’ strike in 2014 that ended with a six-year contract that included a 7.25-per-cent raise and a $400-million fund to hire bargaining unit members to address class size and composition issues.

Despite past battles, both Mr. Iker [Jim Iker, president of the BC Teachers’ Federation] and Mr. Bernier [current B.C. Education Minister Mike Bernier] insisted there was a good relationship between teachers and the government.

Mr. Iker said teachers are working well with the Liberals on revisions to curriculum, but it was up to teachers to advocate for more funding to address student needs.

Now, the third pillar of the #BCTECH strategy, new markets. The BC government has decided it is one of the best markets for new technology. I am intrigued but not convinced that the average government bureaucrat is going to make any decisions about adopting new technologies as that requires confidence and risk-taking abilities. Looking at those four bureaucrats none of whom was to be quoted in any story about the #BCTECH Strategy that they are charged with implementing, it seems unlikely that any one of those four (or others of their ilk) would make that kind of decision. To be fair, there are reasons why you don’t want bureaucrats to jump on every new idea as these people are the guardians of public welfare and public monies. The question then becomes, how do you get bureaucrats to take some risks without going overboard? As well, bureaucratic systems are not designed for risk-taking. So the next question is, how do you redesign your bureaucratic system to encourage some risk-taking? It’s not fair to ask people to do this sort of thing if you’re not going to support them. On the plus side, they are eliminating some of the red tape. For projects under $250K, requests for proposals are just two pages.

Disappointingly, the emphasis was largely on data and computer coding. There was some talk about life sciences but no larger vision of science and culture was offered. Creativity was mentioned, which seems odd since the presentations were markedly lacking in that quality. (The presentations at the opening were well done and, at times, even I was stirred [mildly] but no creative ground was broken or even hinted at.) The #BCTECH strategy 2016 document does mention creativity (sort of) on page 25 of the print document,

Promote creative thinking as a core competency across the entire curriculum including technical and business education

As part of this move to embed computer coding classes and creativity into the curriculum, they are introducing (from page 25),

New Applied Design, Skills and Technologies education: an experiential, hands-on learning through design and creation that includes skills and concepts from Information Technology Education

The applied design is being offered from K-9 (from page 25),

Students will have the opportunity to specialize in Information Technology, Technology Education or emerging disciplines.

Interestingly, Emily Carr University of Art + Design was not present at the Tech Summit (no presentation, no keynote address, no booth, no mention in the documents). It should be noted that the Council of Canadian Academies included visual and performing arts in its State of Science and Technology in Canada, 2012 (link to full PDF report).

Hole in the strategy and final comments

Don Mattrick is well known locally as a BC technology success story and he was the Industry Chair for this summit. He is one of the province’s pioneers in the field of video games and, according to Premier Clark, he’d achieved enough financial success that by grade 11 (he was probably 16), he went out to buy a Ferrari for which he had the funds.  He was unsuccessful in his quest to purchase a Ferrari or his next quest to get a loan from the bank. Despite these setbacks, he did found one of the first video games companies in BC, which he later sold to Electronic Arts, a US games and entertainment giant.

In the early 1980s when Mattrick started out, he had very little support there wasn’t a video game industry n Canada. (Hard to believe now but games were leading/bleeding edge.) That lack of support for new, emerging fields can be seen even with this new #BCTECH strategy where Premier Clark announced very clearly that education in the new technology sectors had to be tied to jobs. Sensible but problematic. A ‘Don Mattrick’ type wouldn’t have had a job since the industry wasn’t yet established.

The truly groundbreaking, new technologies are highly disruptive and risky which Clark acknowledged and dismissed (she exhorted people not to give up) in her speech.

With an international race to ‘innovate’, all governments face the issues of disruption and risk taking. Bureaucracies are not designed to engage in those activities. To a large extent, they’ve been designed to control and minimize disruption and risk taking.

I’m sympathetic to the problem, I just wish the BC government had been more forthcoming about the issues and about the details of how they are going to implement this new strategy.

I’m also curious as to whether the government is interested in changing the ‘found a start-up company and sell to a corporate giant’ culture which reigns here in BC. That’s what Don Mattrick and a century or more’s worth of innovative BC entrepreneurs have done.

Finally, I gather Clark wants to commercialize our data further. She talked about opportunities to do that although no details were forthcoming nor was there any mention of privacy issues.

Nanoparticles for infections delivered via hair follicles and Syrian refugee scientists are being welcomed

Hair follicles, nanoparticles, and infections

This first story does mention a Syrian researcher in a subtle fashion which suggests that immigrants (and I imagine refugees too) are welcome as they can be a huge boost to a country, in this case, the UK.

A Dec. 15, 2015 news item on ScienceDaily announces some research focused on using hair follicles to deliver nanoparticles carrying medication,

Many surgery patients develop infections and are a major source of prolonged illness and significant cause of death. Now, a research project is investigating the use of nanoparticles as a way to disinfect wounds. It could prove to be much more effective than existing techniques because the particles would be tiny enough to enter the skin via hair follicles, ensuring much better penetration of the area affected by surgery.

Here’s a close up of some hairy skin,

Courtesy: University Huddersfield

Courtesy: University Huddersfield

A Dec. 14, 2015 University of Huddersfield (UK) press release, which originated the news item, expands on the theme (Note: Links have been removed),

Infections contracted during surgical operations are a serious healthcare problem, leading to death in some cases.  Now, a research project at the University of Huddersfield is investigating the use of nanoparticles as a way to disinfect wounds.  It could prove to be much more effective than existing techniques because the particles would be tiny enough to enter the skin via hair follicles, ensuring much better penetration of the area affected by surgery.

The University’s Head of Pharmacy, Professor Barbara Conway (…), has developed the nanoparticle concept and it will now be further refined during a doctoral programme that she supervises.  Syrian-born [emphasis mine] researcher Khaled Aljammal has begun work on the project and receives funding via a new scheme, which means he is part of a network of bioscience and health researchers at go-ahead universities around the UK.

The issue addressed by Professor Conway’s project is that of surgical site infections, or SSIs.  It is estimated that every year, five per cent of patients who undergo surgery in England and Wales develop one of these infections and they are major source of prolonged illness and a significant cause of death in patients.  Also, they add strain on healthcare resources and fighting the infections is becoming more difficult because of growing resistance to antibiotics.

More effective use of antiseptics to treat the area affected by surgery is vital.  Professor Conway’s strategy is to develop a system of delivering the antiseptic drugs via minute particles less than a billionth of a metre in dimension.

“Making them nanoparticle size will help them to carry things into the skin better than current antiseptic regimes,” said the Professor.  “We think they will penetrate the skin better by the hair follicle route – and that is the site where bacteria will sit in the skin.”

Professor Conway – who is a member of the University of Huddersfield’s Institute of Skin Integrity and Infection Prevention – has been working for several years on methods for improving the delivery of antiseptics to reduce the incidence of SSIs.  Now, she is exploring the use of nano-sized formulations that have an antiseptic drug incorporated into them.  They could be administered in the form of a liquids, gels or even creams.

Khaled Al-Jammal (…) will be carrying out lab-based research aimed at developing and demonstrating the practicality of nanoparticle drug delivery.  He has been awarded full funding through the recently-launched Doctoral Training Alliance (DTA), an initiative of University Alliance, the organisation that unites UK universities with a mission to provide high-quality teaching and research that makes a real-world impact.

The Syrian researcher is one of two University of Huddersfield researchers who have begun their doctoral programmes under the DTA.  His gained his first degree in his native Syria before relocating to the UK four years ago for a Master’s in Pharmaceutical Technology.  This was followed by a spell working as a formulation scientist for the company Lena Nanoceutics.

His passion for research then led him to apply for the DTA project supervised at Huddersfield by Professor Conway.  As the project progress, it is intended that scientific articles and presentations will reveal its findings and these will be used to inform improved strategies to reduce the incidence and severity of such infections.

While the UK seems to be opening up its arms to scientists and researchers from Syria in an understated way, the Germans are being more direct.

A welcome mat for Syrian scientists

A Dec. 17, 2015 Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG; German Research Foundation) press release on EurekAlert describes an initiative developed for refugee scientists,

The Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG, German Research Foundation) plans to help scientists and academics who have fled their home countries to participate in DFG-funded research projects and thus contribute to the integration of refugees in research and society. DFG President Professor Dr. Peter Strohschneider has presented a package of measures to the Joint Committee of Germany’s largest research funding organisation. The basic aim of these measures is to allow supplemental proposals to be submitted for existing funding projects which would enable the participation of qualified researchers or those in training.

“The integration of people who have been forced to flee in fear of their lives is a duty for all groups in society. The academic and research community, which has always been based on openness and plurality, can and must do its part,” said Strohschneider. “Although we cannot say for sure how many, it is certain that the people now coming to us as refugees include researchers at the training stage or people already established as researchers. We know this from enquiries that have already been sent to the DFG regarding funding opportunities.”

To use DFG funds to help improve the situation at least a little for refugee scientists and academics, there is no need to set up new funding programmes, the DFG President continued. In fact, there is already scope within existing project funding to integrate qualified individuals into funded projects. In particular, this can be achieved through supplemental proposals for existing projects, which the original applicants are free to submit in certain circumstances – for example if additional researchers, whose participation would bring additional benefit to the research, become available after the project is approved.

“We want to expressly encourage all higher education institutions and project leaders to make use of these additional opportunities,” said Strohschneider.

Various concrete options are available to refugees with an academic research background. For the short-term integration of refugees at all academic qualification levels, supplemental proposals can be submitted for guest funding. For the longer-term integration of established researchers, the Mercator module is a suitable option. This can be used to cover accommodation and travel costs and also provide remuneration at a level which, as with guest funding, is based on academic qualification. Both guest funding and Mercator funding can be applied for in all DFG funding programmes. The budget for this will be dependent on the number of people who can be integrated in funded projects in this way.

Refugee scientists and academics can also participate in Research Training Groups, Collaborative Research Centres and other DFG-funded coordinated projects. The financial resources for this do not have to be specially requested with a supplemental proposal; appropriate measures can also be financed from previously approved funds. For example, refugees with a bachelor’s degree or comparable qualification can receive a qualifying fellowship for later doctoral research in a Research Training Group or be accepted directly into such a group.

Project leaders and higher education institutions are responsible for deciding how researchers should be integrated in a project, said the DFG President. It is also up to the higher education institutions to work out the legal details, such as appraisal of academic qualifications or the signing of fellowship or employment contracts.

Strohschneider concluded: “We as the DFG want to create the financial and organisational framework needed for participation in the projects we fund in an efficient, flexible way. We are confident that this will make a positive contribution to the integration of refugees in our research system and our society.”

I have yet to hear of any other countries specifically focused on refugee scientists but perhaps this is just the beginning.

Policymakers do read science blogs

The policymakers who attended the ‘science blogging’ session at the 7th annual (2015) Canadian Science Policy Conference (Nov. 25 – 27, 2015) read blogs according to a Dec. 7, 2015 posting by Lisa Willemse and Stephanne Taylor for the Science Borealis blog/aggregator,

Several attendees who represented policy/government bodies said that they do, in fact, watch science blogs closely and do not necessarily view them the same way they do mainstream media. They look to science blogs to ask big, broad questions, to identify grassroots movements that could be brought into policy debates, and to identify key issues in need of further research. To be effective in these ways, the blogs need to be credible. They should present research in narrative, with implications for society rather than a set of uncontextualized data. And they have to be on the policymaker’s radar.

Similar to acquiring a public audience, getting a science blog onto the screen of a policymaker takes additional work, particularly since scientists and policymakers do not necessary belong to similar online communities.

Suggestions for tackling this challenge included creating a database of all MPs [Members of Parliament] or government officials of interest, which includes political and personal interests as well as handles for all of their social media accounts.

When a blog post or other online media is created, it becomes an easy task to identify potential policy targets and direct tweets or other social media messaging to them. Using this method, Genome Alberta was able to garner attention, direct replies and/or retweets from the targeted MPs and MLAs [Members of the Legislative Assembly, the Legislative Assembly is the provinces’ equivalent to Parliament’s House of Commons].

The post covers also covers these topics,

The Scientist Blogger — Speaking to the Curious

Gaining Public Trust — Truth, Passion and Plain Language

There were some additional comments by Willemse and Taylor,

Our original goal was to write a collaborative blog post about the connections between science blogging and policymakers, but this proved awkward to do on the floor.  Instead, we had an organic, wide-ranging conversation with the audience, which was ultimately more productive than sticking to our initial script.

In my Aug. 18, 2015 posting, I critiqued this notion that somehow the participants and panelists would be able to create one or more science policy blog posts in a “hands-on session”,

… Just how are the participants going to have a “hands-on” experience of “interactively writing up a science policy blog post?” There aren’t that many ways to operationalize this endeavour. It’s either a session where people have access to computers and collectively write and post individual pieces under one banner or they submit their posts and someone edits in real time or someone is acting as secretary taking notes from the discussion and summarizing it in a post (not exactly hands-on for anyone except the writer).

Interesting, eh? It seemed obvious to me but not to the organizers, until they were conducting the session.  In any event, I’m glad to see they were able to adjust and the session was successful (in Willemse’s and Taylor’s estimation).

An open science policy platform for Europe and a technology programme for the arts community

Thanks to David Bruggeman’s Dec. 8, 2015 posting on his Pasco Phronesis blog, I’ve gotten some details about the European Union’s (EU) Open Science Policy Platform and about a science, technology and arts programme to connect artists with scientists (Note: Links have been removed),

Recently the European Commission’s [EC] Directorate-General for Research and Development announced the development of an Open Science Policy Platform.  In the European Commission context, Open Science is one of its Digital Government initiatives, but this Policy Platform is not technical infrastructure.  It is a communications mechanism for stakeholders in open access, new digital tools for research and joint arts and research communities.

David goes on to contrast the open science situation in the US with the approach being taken in the EU. Unfortunately, I do not have  sufficient knowledge of the Canadian open science scene to offer any opinion.

Getting back to Europe, there is some sort of a government document from the EC’s Directorate-General for Research and Innovation (RTD [Research and Technological Development]) titled, New policy initiative: The establishment of an Open Science Policy Platform,

The Open Science Policy Platform will be governed by a Steering Group composed of top-leading individuals of (European) branch organisations with the required decision-power. DG RTD will seek to appoint individuals from the following stakeholder groups:

-universities;
-academies of science;
-research funding bodies;
-research performing organisations;
-Citizen Science;
-scientific publication associations;
-Open Science platforms and intermediaries;
-(research) libraries.

The Open Science Policy Platform will advise the Commission on the development and implementation  of open science policy on the basis of the draft European Open Science Agenda.

The steering group for this platform will be set up in early 2016 according to the undated document describing this new policy initiative.

Regarding the arts project mentioned earlier, it’s part of the European Union’s Digital Agenda for Europe, from the ICT (information and communication technology) and art – the StARTS platform webpage on the European Commission’s website,

Scientific and technological skills are not the only forces driving innovation. Creativity and the involvement of society play a major role in the innovation process and its endorsement by all. In this context, the Arts serve as catalysts in an efficient conversion of Science and Technology knowledge into novel products, services, and processes.

ICT can enhance our capacity to sense the world, but an artwork can reach audiences on intrinsic emotional levels.

The constant appropriation of new technologies by artists allows them to go further in actively participating in society. By using ICT as their medium of expression, artists are able to prototype solutions, create new products and make new economic, social and business models. Additionally, by using traditional mediums of expression and considering the potentials of ICT, they propose new approaches to research and education.

The European Commission recognised this by launching the Starts programme: Innovation at the nexus of Science, Technology and the Arts  (Starts) to foster the emergence of joint arts and research communities. It supported the ICT Art Connect study which lead the way to the StARTS initiative by revealing new evidence for the integration of the Arts as an essential and fruitful component within research and innovation in ICT.

A Call for a Coordination and support action (CSA) has been launched to boost synergies between artists, creative people and technologists under Horizon 2020 Work Programme 2016/17.

You can find out more on events that are taking place throughout Europe. Follow StARTS on Facebook or via #StartsEU.

You can find the Starts website here.

“Science is too important to be left to scientists alone”

The quote (“Science is too important to be left to scientists alone”) is from an essay/speech in the UK’s Guardian newspaper in their political science section. Written by Imran Khan, chief executive of the British Science Association, it marks the association’s relaunch (from a Guardian Dec. 1, 2015 piece),

No-one should feel the need to apologise for not being a scientist. And yet when I tell people I work for the British Science Association (BSA), embarrassment is a common response. “I don’t really understand science”, I hear. “Oh, I’m more of an arty person”, they say, or, “the last time I did science was at school”.

Such embarrassment is misplaced; not liking science is fine. The real concern is when people are excluded when they don’t need to be – and this happens with science more than it does for many other parts of our culture. Music, literature, politics, and sport, for instance, can all be shaped by anyone who consumes, creates, or critiques them – not just by their respective professional classes.

… Science is too important, valuable and fascinating to be left to professional scientists alone. For the good of society, the public, and scientific progress itself, science needs a broader community.

The scientific method can explain the world around us in an elegant and creative way, but scientists cannot escape the influence of external pressures and personal bias. Scientists have been put on a pedestal and are often seen as entirely rational, objective and expert – but this paints science as a near-infallible institution that doesn’t want or require engagement from non-scientists.

That is asking for trouble.

Given how strongly I agree with Khan’s comments, I’m not sure I can give his essay my usual critical eye on his writing. Here’s more,

As Richard Horton, editor of the Lancet, argues, a reduction in trust can be beneficial for those involved. In medicine, decades of activism and the prevalence of health information online is forcing greater transparency and improvements in medical practice. Can this approach be extended to the rest of science? Could we have a citizenship that critically questions all of the UK’s public institutions, including science?

Khan goes on to make some suggestions for more thoughtful science involvement,

For more people to be involved in science, we have to create a shared understanding of what science is. For instance, it’s tempting to see science as fundamentally progressive, an inherently benevolent force. But we have to recognise that it can have a dark side as well. This isn’t just an issue for scientists; the BSA believes that society as a whole should be able to bear some responsibility for how science is used.

Last year, for instance, we marked the centenary of the start of the First World War. It was one of the earliest – but certainly not the last – conflicts where the products of science were used to gas other human beings in their hundreds of thousands. Mustard gas, chlorine and phosgene were developed and deployed by both sides, despite previous treaties having banned them.

Nearly 200,000 British troops alone were struck by chemical attacks; non-fatal doses often scarred or afflicted soldiers for life. For many, this was the moment when we really became aware of the indiscriminately destructive potential of science. But, as part of the same conflict, science was also used to develop innovations such as blood transfusion, prosthetic limbs and reconstructive surgery.

Science does not exist in a moral vacuum. It is not inherently good or evil, but a platform for expressing human instincts, whether they be violence, kindness or creativity. We should celebrate new discoveries such as the Higgs Boson and the Mars Rover but we also need to find a space where scientists and the public can be involved in a debate about responsible scientific innovation. Both the innovators and the rest of us need to be held to account.

It is vital that the processes and products of science are readily available for the public to understand and interrogate. This is not to say that science isn’t regulated. One of the distinctive strengths of science is peer review; the process by which scientists hold each other to account. [emphasis mine]

Theoretically, peer review is the process by which scientists are held accountable by other scientists. However, it is an imperfect process as you can see in my Nov. 26, 2015 posting (A view to controversies about nanoparticle drug delivery, sticky-flares, and a PNAS surprise) which outlines one very current example of the difficulty two scientists have encountered when questioning results from a very prominent scientist in the field of nanomedicine. (There’s a formal peer review process which takes place prior to publication but informally scientists also respond to published  research with letters to the journal editors critiquing the work.)

Getting back to Khan, he provides an example of a broad-based group with authority over experts in medicine and science (Note: A link has been removed),

As an example, when the Human Fertilisation & Embryology Authority was created in 1991, its rules stipulated that the Chair, Deputy Chair and at least half of HFEA members needed to come from outside medicine or science. The group currently includes several people who have undergone IVF – people who are directly affected by the technology that the authority regulates.

This is a strong first step towards making funding and regulatory bodies truly representative of the population. While it has been good to see more diversity, we need to take this further. Key decisions on scientific innovation should always involve public dialogue, and it should be the responsibility of such boards to ensure that this happens.

For my last excerpt, Khan discusses education (Note: A link has been removed),

A scientific profession that looked more like the rest of the UK, and where a greater diversity of people knew scientists personally, should be something that we all aim for.

But, for the benefit of those who don’t rub shoulders with scientists, we also need to challenge the assumption that the study of science is primarily for the training of future experts. Although a report by the Royal Academy of Engineering states that one million engineers are needed by 2020 to meet the UK’s demands, we can’t let such figures instrumentalise education. The core aim of science education should be to ensure students leave school with the skills and confidence to discuss and shape scientific and technological advances in society, whatever their career choices.

One way to do this would be to stop segregating science into disciplines at school. In an age of inter-disciplinarity, studying physics, biology, and chemistry as supposedly separate subjects could be seen as an anachronism even for those going on to become scientists. But it’s perhaps even less helpful for those who we simply want to be members of a scientifically literate society; might a better route be having young people look at the science of, say, climate change, alongside its historical, geographic, and political elements?

(For a somewhat related piece, see my Aug. 7, 2015 posting titled: Science snobbery and the problem of accessibility.)

A provocative set of ideas, I encourage you to read Khan’s piece where he takes his ideas much further than I did mine. Khan’s thoughts can be found in their entirety in his Dec. 1, 2015 piece for the Guardian.

For the curious, the British Science Association can be found here.