Category Archives: science funding

Canada-European Union research and Horizon 2020 funding opportunities

Thanks to the Society of Italian Researchers and Professionals of Western Canada (ARPICO), I received a Jan. 15, 2014 notice about ERA-Can‘s (European Research Area and Canada) upcoming Horizon 2020 information sessions, i.e., funidng opportunities for Canadian researchers,

The Canadian partners* to ERA-Can+ invite you to learn about Horizon 2020, a European funding opportunity that is accessible to Canadians working in science, technology, and innovation.

Horizon 2020 is a multi-year (2014-2020) program for science and technology funded by the European Commission. With a budget of almost Euro 80 billion (CAD $118 billion) Horizon 2020 forms a central part of the EU’s economic policy agenda. The program’s main goals are to encourage scientific excellence, increase the competitiveness of industries, and develop solutions to societal challenges in Europe and abroad.

ERA-Can+ has been established to help Canadians access Horizon 2020 funding. Building on several years of successful collaboration, ERA-Can+ will encourage bilateral exchange across the science, technology, and innovation chain. The project will also enrich the EU-Canada policy dialogue, enhance coordination between European and Canadian sector leaders, and stimulate transatlantic collaboration by increasing awareness of the funding opportunities available.

The European Commission released its first call for proposals under Horizon 2020 in December 2013. Canadian and European researchers and innovators can submit proposals for projects in a variety of fields including personalized health and care; food security; the sustainable growth of marine and maritime sectors; digital security; smart cities and communities; competitive low-carbon energy; efficient transportation; waste management; and disaster resilience. Further calls for proposals will be released later this year.

You are invited to attend one of four upcoming information sessions on Horizon 2020 opportunities for Canadians. These sessions will explain the structure of research funding in Europe and provide information on upcoming funding opportunities and the mechanisms by which Canadians can participate. Martina De Sole, Coordinator of ERA-Can+, and numerous Canadian partners will be on hand to share their expertise on these topics. Participants also will have the opportunity to learn about current and developing collaborations between Canadian and European researchers and innovators.

ERA-CAN+ Information Session Dates – Precise times to be confirmed.

Toronto: Morning of January 28th
MaRS Discovery District, 101 College Street

Kitchener-Waterloo: Morning of January 29th
Canadian Digital Media Network, 151 Charles Street West, Suite 100, Kitchener

Ottawa: Morning of January 30th
University of Ottawa; precise location on campus to be confirmed.

Montreal: Morning of January 31st
Intercontinental Hotel, 360 Rue Saint Antoine Ouest

This session is organised in partnership with the Ministère de l’Enseignement supérieur, de la Recherche, de la Science, de la Technologie du Québec.

For further information please contact [email protected]

* ERA-Can+ Project Partners
APRE – Agenzia per la Promozione della Ricerca Europea (Italy)
AUCC – Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada (Canada)
CNRS – Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (France)
DFATD – Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development Canada (Canada)
DLR – Deutsches Zentrum fur Luft- und Raumfahrt e.V. (Germany)
PPF – The Public Policy Forum (Canada)
ZSI – Zentrum fur Soziale Innovation (Austria)

You can go to ERA-Can’s Information Sessions webpage to register for a specific event.

There are plans to hold sessions elsewhere in Canada,

Plans to have Info Sessions in other parts of Canada are underway.

For further information please contact [email protected]

Researchers propose massive shift in science funding enterprise

The massive science funding shift that researchers are proposing won’t fundamentally change who or what research is funded so much as it will require fewer resources as described in a Jan. 8, 2014 news item on Nanowerk (Note: A link has been removed),

Researchers in the United States have suggested an alternative way to allocate science funding. The method, which is described in EMBO reports (“From funding agencies to scientific agency”), depends on a collective distribution of funding by the scientific community, requires only a fraction of the costs associated with the traditional peer review of grant proposals and, according to the authors, may yield comparable or even better results.

The Jan. 8, 2014 EMBO [European Molecular Biology Organization] news release, which originated the news item, quotes the lead author’s perspective on the current funding systems and describes the proposed solution which is meant for all science funding,

“Peer review of scientific proposals and grants has served science very well for decades. However, there is a strong sense in the scientific community that things could be improved,” said Johan Bollen, professor and lead author of the study from the School of Informatics and Computing at Indiana University. “Our most productive researchers invest an increasing amount of time, energy, and effort into writing and reviewing research proposals, most of which do not get funded. That time could be spent performing the proposed research in the first place.” He added: “Our proposal does not just save time and money but also encourages innovation.”

The new approach is possible due to recent advances in mathematics and  computer technologies. The system involves giving all scientists an annual, unconditional fixed amount of funding to conduct their research. All funded scientists are, however, obliged to donate a fixed percentage of all of the funding that they previously received to other researchers. As a result, the funding circulates through the community, converging on researchers that are expected to make the best use of it. “Our alternative funding system is inspired by the mathematical models used to search the internet for relevant information,” said Bollen. “The decentralized funding model uses the wisdom of the entire scientific community to determine a fair distribution of funding.”

The authors believe that this system can lead to sophisticated behavior at a global level. It would certainly liberate researchers from the time-consuming process of submitting and reviewing project proposals, but could also reduce the uncertainty associated with funding cycles, give researchers much greater flexibility, and allow the community to fund risky but high-reward projects that existing funding systems may overlook.

“You could think of it as a Google-inspired crowd-funding system that encourages all researchers to make autonomous, individual funding decisions towards people, not projects or proposals,” said Bollen. “All you need is a centralized web site where researchers could log-in, enter the names of the scientists they chose to donate to, and specify how much they each should receive.”

The authors emphasize that the system would require oversight to prevent misuse, such as conflicts of interests and collusion. Funding agencies may need to confidentially monitor the flow of funding and may even play a role in directing it. For example they can provide incentives to donate to specific large-scale research challenges that are deemed priorities but which the scientific community can overlook.

“The savings of financial and human resources could be used to identify new targets of funding, to support the translation of scientific results into products and jobs, and to help communicate advances in science and technology,” added Bollen. “This funding system may even have the side-effect of changing publication practices for the better: researchers will want to clearly communicate their vision and research goals to as wide an audience as possible.”

While the research is US-centric, it’s easy to see its applicabllity in many, if not all, jurisdictions around the world.

I have two links and two citations. The first is for the EMBO Reports paper,

From funding agencies to scientific agency; Collective allocation of science funding as an alternative to peer review by  Johan Bollen, David Crandall, Damion Junk, Ying Ding, & Katy Börner. Article first published online: 7 JAN 2014 DOI: 10.1002/embr.201338068

© 2014 The Authors

This paper is behind a paywall.

The second link and citation is for an earlier version of the paper on, which is an open access archive,

Collective allocation of science funding: from funding agencies to scientific agency
by Johan Bollen, David Crandall, Damion Junk, Ying Ding, & Katy Boerner.
(Submitted on 3 Apr 2013)

Here’s the abstract from the April 2013 version of the paper on,

Public agencies like the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) award tens of billions of dollars in annual science funding. How can this money be distributed as efficiently as possible to best promote scientific innovation and productivity? The present system relies primarily on peer review of project proposals. In 2010 alone, NSF convened more than 15,000 scientists to review 55,542 proposals. [emphasis mine] Although considered the scientific gold standard, peer review requires significant overhead costs, and may be subject to biases, inconsistencies, and oversights. We investigate a class of funding models in which all participants receive an equal portion of yearly funding, but are then required to anonymously donate a fraction of their funding to peers. The funding thus flows from one participant to the next, each acting as if he or she were a funding agency themselves. Here we show through a simulation conducted over large-scale citation data (37M articles, 770M citations) that such a distributed system for science may yield funding patterns similar to existing NIH and NSF distributions, but may do so at much lower overhead while exhibiting a range of other desirable features. Self-correcting mechanisms in scientific peer evaluation can yield an efficient and fair distribution of funding. The proposed model can be applied in many situations in which top-down or bottom-up allocation of public resources is either impractical or undesirable, e.g. public investments, distribution chains, and shared resource management.

It’s interesting to note the agencies which supported the research (from the news release),

Awards from the National Science Foundation, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the National Institutes of Health supported the work.

It would seem there’s an appetite for change given the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) are the two largest science funding agencies in the US.

Two bits about the brain: fiction affects your brain and the US’s BRAIN Initiative is soliciting grant submissions

As a writer I love to believe my words have a lasting impact and while this research is focused on fiction, something I write more rarely than nonfiction, hope springs eternal that one day nonfiction too will be proved as having an impact (in a good way) on the brain. From a Jan. 3, 2014 news release on EurekAlert (or you can read the Dec. 17, 2013 Emory University news release by Carol Clark),

Many people can recall reading at least one cherished story that they say changed their life. Now researchers at Emory University have detected what may be biological traces related to this feeling: Actual changes in the brain that linger, at least for a few days, after reading a novel.

“Stories shape our lives and in some cases help define a person,” says neuroscientist Gregory Berns, lead author of the study and the director of Emory’s Center for Neuropolicy. “We want to understand how stories get into your brain, and what they do to it.”

His co-authors included Kristina Blaine and Brandon Pye from the Center for Neuropolicy, and Michael Prietula from Emory’s Goizueta Business School.

Neurobiological research using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) has begun to identify brain networks associated with reading stories. Most previous studies have focused on the cognitive processes involved in short stories, while subjects are actually reading them while they are in the fMRI scanner.

All of the study subjects read the same novel, “Pompeii,” a 2003 thriller by Robert Harris that is based on the real-life eruption of Mount Vesuvius in ancient Italy.

“The story follows a protagonist, who is outside the city of Pompeii and notices steam and strange things happening around the volcano,” Berns says. “He tries to get back to Pompeii in time to save the woman he loves. Meanwhile, the volcano continues to bubble and nobody in the city recognizes the signs.”

The researchers chose the book due to its page-turning plot. “It depicts true events in a fictional and dramatic way,” Berns says. “It was important to us that the book had a strong narrative line.”

For the first five days, the participants came in each morning for a base-line fMRI scan of their brains in a resting state. Then they were fed nine sections of the novel, about 30 pages each, over a nine-day period. They were asked to read the assigned section in the evening, and come in the following morning. After taking a quiz to ensure they had finished the assigned reading, the participants underwent an fMRI scan of their brain in a non-reading, resting state. After completing all nine sections of the novel, the participants returned for five more mornings to undergo additional scans in a resting state.

The results showed heightened connectivity in the left temporal cortex, an area of the brain associated with receptivity for language, on the mornings following the reading assignments. “Even though the participants were not actually reading the novel while they were in the scanner, they retained this heightened connectivity,” Berns says. “We call that a ‘shadow activity,’ almost like a muscle memory.”

Heightened connectivity was also seen in the central sulcus of the brain, the primary sensory motor region of the brain. Neurons of this region have been associated with making representations of sensation for the body, a phenomenon known as grounded cognition. Just thinking about running, for instance, can activate the neurons associated with the physical act of running.

“The neural changes that we found associated with physical sensation and movement systems suggest that reading a novel can transport you into the body of the protagonist,” Berns says. “We already knew that good stories can put you in someone else’s shoes in a figurative sense. Now we’re seeing that something may also be happening biologically.”

The neural changes were not just immediate reactions, Berns says, since they persisted the morning after the readings, and for the five days after the participants completed the novel.

“It remains an open question how long these neural changes might last,” Berns says. “But the fact that we’re detecting them over a few days for a randomly assigned novel suggests that your favorite novels could certainly have a bigger and longer-lasting effect on the biology of your brain.”

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Short- and Long-Term Effects of a Novel on Connectivity in the Brain by Gregory S. Berns, Kristina Blaine, Michael J. Prietula, and Brandon E. Pye. Brain Connectivity. 2013, 3(6): 590-600. doi:10.1089/brain.2013.0166.

This is an open access paper where you’ll notice the participants cover a narrow range of ages (from the Materials and Methods section of the paper,

A total of 21 participants were studied. Two were excluded from the fMRI analyses: one for insufficient attendance, and the other for image abnormalities. Before the experiment, participants were screened for the presence of medical and psychiatric diagnoses, and none were taking medications. There were 12 female and 9 male participants between the ages of 19 and 27 (mean 21.5). Emory University’s Institutional Review Board approved all procedures, and all participants gave written informed consent.

It’s always good to remember that university research often draws from student populations and the question one might want to ask is whether or not those results will remain the same, more or less, throughout someone’s life span.In any event, I find this research intriguing and hope they follow this up.

Currently known as the BRAIN (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies), I first wrote about the project under its old name BAM (Brain Activity Map) in two postings, first in a March 4, 2013 posting featuring brain-to-brain communication and other brain-related tidbits, then again, in an April 2, 2013 posting featuring an announcement about its federal funding. Today (Jan. 6, 2014), I stumbled across some BRAIN funding opportunities for researchers, from the BRAIN Initiative funding opportunities webpage,

NIH released six funding opportunity announcements in support of the President’s BRAIN Initiative. Collectively, these opportunities focus on building a new arsenal of tools and technologies for helping scientists unlock the mysteries of the brain. NIH [US National Institutes of Health] plans to invest $40 million in Fiscal Year 2014 through these opportunities, contingent upon the submission of a sufficient number of scientifically meritorious applications.

The opportunities currently available are as follows:

For the interested, in the near future there will be some informational conference calls regarding these opportunities,

Informational Conference Calls for Prospective Applicants

NIH will be hosting a series of informational conference calls to address technical questions regarding applications to each of the RFAs released under the BRAIN Initiative.   Information on dates and contacts for each of the conference calls is as follows:

January 10, 2014, 2:00-3:00 PM EST
RFA-MH-14-215, Transformative Approaches for Cell-Type Classification in the Brain

For call-in information, contact Andrea Beckel-Mitchener at [email protected].

January 13, 2014, 2:00-3:00 PM EST
RFA-MH-14-216, Development and Validation of Novel Tools to Analyze Cell-Specific and Circuit-Specific Processes in the Brain

For call-in information, contact Michelle Freund at [email protected].

January 15, 2014, 1:00-2:00 PM EST
RFA-MH-14-217, Planning for Next Generation Human Brain Imaging

For call-in information, contact Greg Farber at [email protected].

February 4, 2014, 1:00-2:30 PM EST
RFA-NS-14-007, New Technologies and Novel Approaches for Large-Scale Recording and Modulation in the Nervous System
RFA-NS-14-008, Optimization of Transformative Technologies for Large Scale Recording and Modulation in the Nervous System
RFA-NS-14-009, Integrated Approaches to Understanding Circuit Function in the Nervous System

For call-in information, contact Karen David at [email protected].
In addition to accessing the information provided in the upcoming conference calls, applicants are strongly encouraged to consult with the Scientific/Research Contacts listed in each of the RFAs to discuss the alignment of their proposed work with the goals of the RFA to which they intend to apply.

Good luck!

It’s kind of fascinating to see this much emphasis on brains what with the BRAIN Initiative in the US and the Human Brain Project in Europe (my Jan. 28, 2013 posting announcing the European Union’s winning Future and Emerging Technologies (FET) research projects, The prizes (1B Euros to be paid out over 10 years to each winner) had been won by the Human Brain FET project and the Graphene FET project, respectively

Funding opportunities from the European Union’s Horizon 2010 programme and US DARPA’s Young Faculty Award program

A Dec. 12, 2013 news item on Nanowerk announces a call for proposals from the European Union’s (EU) massive science funding programme, Horizon 2020, which replaces the EU’s previous Framework Programme 7 initiative,

The European Commission presented for the first time today calls for Proposals under Horizon 2020, the European Union’s new 80 billion euro research and innovation program, which runs from 2014 to 2020. Worth more than 15 billion euros over the first two years, the funding is intended to help boost Europe’s knowledge-driven economy, and tackle issues that will make a difference in people’s lives. International cooperation is a priority in Horizon 2020 with the program open to participation of researchers from across the world, including the United States.

“It’s time to get down to business,” said European Research, Innovation and Science Commissioner Maire Geoghegan-Quinn. “Horizon 2020 funding is vital for the future of research and innovation in Europe, and will contribute to growth, jobs and a better quality of life. We have designed Horizon 2020 to produce results, and we have slashed red tape to make it easier to participate. So I am calling on researchers, universities, businesses including SMEs, and others to sign up!”

A Dec. 11, 2013 EU press release provides more details about the call and about Horizon 2020,

For the first time, the Commission has indicated funding priorities over two years, providing researchers and businesses with more certainty than ever before on the direction of EU research policy. Most calls from the 2014 budget are already open for submissions as of today, with more to follow over the course of the year. Calls in the 2014 budget alone are worth around €7.8 billion, with funding focused on the three key pillars of Horizon 2020:

  • Excellent Science: Around €3 billion, including €1.7 billion for grants from the European Research Council for top scientists and €800 million for Marie Skłodowska-Curie fellowships for younger researchers (see MEMO/13/1123).
  • Industrial Leadership: €1.8 billion to support Europe’s industrial leadership in areas like ICT, nanotechnologies, advanced manufacturing, robotics, biotechnologies and space.
  • Societal challenges: €2.8 billion for innovative projects addressing Horizon 2020′s seven societal challenges, broadly: health; agriculture, maritime and bioeconomy; energy; transport; climate action, environment, resource efficiency and raw materials; reflective societies; and security.


Horizon 2020 is the EU’s biggest ever research and innovation framework programme with a seven year budget worth nearly €80 billion. Most EU research funding is allocated on the basis of competitive calls, but the budget for Horizon includes funding also for the Joint Research Centre, the European Commission’s in-house science service; the European Institute for Innovation and Technology and research carried out within the framework of the Euratom Treaty. Separate calls will also be published under specific Partnerships with industry and with Member States (see IP/13/668). In 2014 the total EU research budget, including these items and administrative expenditure, will be around €9.3 billion, rising to around €9.9 billion in 2015. Final 2015 amounts are subject to the decision on the 2015 annual budget.

The funding opportunities under Horizon 2020 are set out in work programmes published on the EU’s digital portal for research funding, which has been redesigned for quicker, paperless procedures. Participants will also find simpler programme architecture and funding, a single set of rules, and a reduced burden from financial controls and audits.

The 2014-15 calls include €500 million over two years dedicated to innovative small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) through a brand new SME Instrument. Gender aspects are expected to be included in many of the projects, and there is funding to further stimulate debate on science’s role within society. There are also new rules to make ‘open access’ a requirement for Horizon 2020, so that publications of project results are freely accessible to all.

The EU’s Horizon 2010 programme has created a How to get funding? webpage, which should answer your questions and does provide links to applications and more.

Moving on: Jessica Leber writes about a US DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) call for research proposals in her Dec. 11, 2013 article for Fast Company (Note: Links have been removed),

The Pentagon’s advanced research arm is always dreaming up crazy, futuristic technologies that will shape the future of the military and society. DARPA was involved in early Internet development, and these days the agency works on everything from drone-slaying lasers to humanoid robots that could save your life.

Every year, DARPA gives out young faculty awards aimed at recruiting the “rising star” researchers in academia to devote their brains to the military’s technological needs. “The long-term goal of the program is to develop the next generation of scientists and engineers in the research community who will focus a significant portion of their future careers on DoD and National Security issues,” this year’s grant program announcement reads.

A Nov. 19, 2013 DARPA news release describes the Young Faculty Awards program, eligibility (you must be employed in a US institution of higher learning), and their areas of interest,

2014 YFA announcement increases the number of research topics from 13 to 18 and for the first time permits teaming with subcontractors

DARPA defines its research portfolio within a framework that puts the Agency’s enduring mission in the context of tomorrow’s environment for national security and technology. An integral part of this strategy includes establishing and sustaining a pipeline of talented scientists, engineers, and mathematicians who are motivated to pursue high risk, high payoff fundamental research in disciplines that are critical to maintaining the technological superiority of the U.S. military.

DARPA’s Young Faculty Awards (YFA) program addresses this need by funding the work of promising researchers and pairing them with DARPA program managers.  This pairing provides YFA researchers with mentoring and networking opportunities as well as exposure to DoD technology needs and the overall research and development process. The 2014 YFA solicitation includes technical topic areas in the physical sciences, engineering, materials, mathematics, biology, computing, informatics and manufacturing disciplines that are relevant to the research interests of DARPA’s Defense Sciences and Microsystems Technology Offices.

“YFA offers promising junior faculty members and their peers at nonprofit research institutions the chance to do potentially revolutionary work much earlier in their careers than they otherwise could,” said William Casebeer, DARPA program manager for the 2014 class. “By expanding the list of research topics this year from 13 to 18—our largest portfolio since the program started in 2006—we hope to attract even more creative proposals that could lead to future breakthroughs on critical defense challenges. The growth reflects how successful past awardees have been in supporting DARPA’s mission.”

Eligible applicants must be employed in U.S. institutions of higher learning and within five years of appointment to a tenure-track position, or hold equivalent positions at non-profit research institutions.

Researchers selected for YFA grants receive up to $500,000 in funding over a 24-month period. As many as four of the most exceptional performers may be selected to receive up to another $500,000 over an additional year under a DARPA Director’s Fellowship.

DARPA is, for the first time, permitting proposers to form partnerships with subcontractors. The subcontractor relationship cannot exceed 30 percent of the total grant value. In addition to enhancing the competitiveness of proposed research plans, this change is designed to provide young investigators with the opportunity to manage a multidisciplinary team and gain a better understanding of the work performed by a DARPA program manager.

“The YFA program represents a strategic investment in fundamental research and professional development of the next generation of scientists and engineers focused on defense and national security issues,” said Mari Maeda, director of DARPA’s Defense Sciences Office. “It also benefits the young researchers and their institutions by engaging them in valuable, high-risk, high-impact research, providing a mentoring relationship with a DARPA program manager, expanding channels for future ideas to flow, and, now, exposing them to the rigors of managing a multidisciplinary team.”

The list of technical topic areas for 2014 includes:

  • Optimizing Supervision for Improved Autonomy
  • Neurobiological Mechanisms of Social Media Processing
  • Next-generation Neural Sensing for Brain-Machine Interfaces
  • Mathematical and Computational Methods to Identify and Characterize Logical and Causal Relations in Information
  • Time-Dependent Integrated Computational Materials Engineering
  • Long-range Detection of Special Nuclear Materials
  • Alternate Fusion Concepts
  • New Materials and Devices for Monitoring and Modulating Local Physiology
  • Methods and Theory for Fundamental Circuit-Level Understanding of the Human Brain
  • Hierarchically Complex Materials that Respond and Adapt
  • Disruptive Materials Processing
  • Disruptive Computing Architectures
  • Appliqué Antenna Elements for Platform Integration
  • Modeling Phonon Generation and Transport in the Near Junction Region of Wide-Bandgap Transistors
  • Advanced Automation and Microfluidic Technologies for Engineering Biology
  • Energy Recovery in Post-CMOS Technologies
  • Thin Film Transistors for High-performance RF and Power Electronics
  • Neural-inspired Computer Engineering

You can go here for all the details about DAARPA’s YFA call for proposals,

As for deadlines, I had some difficulty finding one for the current 2020 Horizon call for proposals, as I gather there a number of calls being announced in the news item on Nanowerk,. You can find more information on the How to participate page but it is only one of several starting points for your journey through this remarkable and huge funding programme.

Meanwhile ,the current deadline for the DARPA YRA proposals is Jan. 7, 2014.

Good luck!

OECD Technology and Industry 2013 Scorecard: Canada highlights and key nanotechnology indicators

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has released its 2013 scorecard or, more officially, the OECD Science, Technology and Industry Scoreboard 2013 (which you can find here). There’s a brief description of the 2013 scorecard on the webpage housing the complete report/scorecard and various publications derived from it,

Science, technology, innovation and entrepreneurship – which foster competitiveness, productivity, and job creation – are important mechanisms for encouraging sustainable growth. The 260 indicators in the OECD Science, Technology and Industry (STI) Scoreboard 2013 show how OECD and partner economies are performing in a wide range of areas to help governments design more effective and efficient policies and monitor progress towards their desired goals.

The 2013 scorecard highlights concerning Canada are (from the OECD Science, Technology and Industry Scoreboard 2013
: Canada publication),

Canada experienced a decline in business spending on R&D between 2001 and 2011, despite generous public support, mainly through tax incentives for business R&D. As a percentage of GDP, Canada’s tax incentives for R&D were the largest after France in 2011. [emphasis mine]
Despite relatively limited investment in R&D, a large share of Canada’s manufacturing and services firms are involved in innovation. Canada is among the group of countries where high-technology industries still dominate patenting activity, while in several other OECD countries business services now account for the largest share of patents. Canada lags somewhat in the proportion of young firms applying for patents, however.
 Canada achieves a relatively high impact with its scientific research. Compared with other large OECD economies, Canada has a very high rate of international mobility of researchers, mostly with the United States. Returning researchers and new inflows tend to publish in journals with higher quality than researchers that have not engaged in international mobility.
 Canada’s trade performance is characterised by a strong focus on primary products, which affects its positioning in global value chains. This contributes to a relatively low foreign (and thus a high domestic) value added content in Canada’s exports, which declined between 1995 and 2009. In 2009, over 26% of jobs in the business sector were sustained by demand from abroad, down from just over 30% in 1995.

So, despite some of the best tax incentives amongst OECD countries, business in Canada spent less on R&D as the decade wore on. Interesting. Especially so since the government, realizing there were problems of some kind, commissioned Tom Jenkins (Chairman, OpenText Corporation), along with a committee,, to examine the various government tax incentive programmes developed for business R&D. This resulted in what  is known as the Jenkins report (featured in my Oct. 21, 2011 posting) and changes, based on the recommendations, such as more incentives for partnerships between universities and businesses and a major change of focus (funds for science that will make money) for one of the granting agencies (mentioned in my May 22, 2013 posting). Given that Canada already had good incentives for business R&D before 2011, why did the government implement more incentives after the 2011 Jenkins report since it seems that the incentives might not be the problem. Here’s more about the situation prior to the changes stemming from the 2011 Jenkins report, from the OECD’s 2013 scorecard: Canada Highlights,

Canada is among the few OECD countries where R&D expenditure declined between 2000 and 2011 (Figure 1). This decline was mainly due to reduced business spending on R&D. It occurred despite relatively generous public support for business R&D, primarily through tax incentives. In 2011, Canada was amongst the OECD countries with the most generous tax support for R&D and the country with the largest share of government funding for business R&D being accounted for by tax credits (Figure 2). …

OECD and key nanotechnology indicators

At roughly the same time as the OECD Science, Technology and Industry Scoreboard was released, there was this Oct. 25, 2013 news item on Nanowerk about an October 2013 update of the OECD’s key nanotechnology indicators (Note: A link has been removed),

The ‘Key Nanotechnology Indicators’ are produced by the OECD’s Directorate for Science Technology and Industry (DSTI) and recently have been updated in October 2013. These latest numbers are available as Excel spreadsheets and can be found here on the OECD DSTI page and include the following:
Nanotechnology firms
KNI 1 Number of firms active in nanotechnology, 2011 or latest available year
KNI 2 Percentage of small nanotechnology firms, 2011 or latest available year
Number of firms active in nanotechnology
Number of firms active in nanotechnology (OECD). (click image to enlarg

i have looked at some of the nanotechnology key indicator spreadsheets provided by the OECD and the only one of my admittedly small sample that lists Canadian performance was in the Share of countries in nanotechnology patents filed under PCT, 2008-10. Apparently Canada did not submit data about Number of firms active in nanotechnology, 2011 or latest available year or Nanotechnology R&D expenditures in the business sector, 2011 or latest available year.

Should October 2013 be called ‘the month of graphene’?

Since the Oct. 10-11, 2013 Graphene Flagship (1B Euros investment) launch, mentioned in my preview Oct. 7, 2013 posting, there’ve been a flurry of graphene-themed news items both on this blog and elsewhere and I’ve decided to offer a brief roundup what I’ve found elsewhere.

Dexter Johnson offers a commentary in the pithily titled, Europe Invests €1 Billion to Become “Graphene Valley,” an Oct. 15, 2013 posting on his Nanoclast blog (on the IEEE [Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers] website) Note: Links have been removed,

The initiative has been dubbed “The Graphene Flagship,” and apparently it is the first in a number of €1 billion, 10-year plans the EC is planning to launch. The graphene version will bring together 76 academic institutions and industrial groups from 17 European countries, with an initial 30-month-budget of €54M ($73 million).

Graphene research is still struggling to find any kind of applications that will really take hold, and many don’t expect it will have a commercial impact until 2020. What’s more, manufacturing methods are still undeveloped. So it would appear that a 10-year plan is aimed at the academic institutions that form the backbone of this initiative rather than commercial enterprises.

Just from a political standpoint the choice of Chalmers University in Sweden as the base of operations for the Graphene Flagship is an intriguing choice. …

I have to agree with Dexter that choosing Chalmers University over the University of Manchester where graphene was first isolated is unexpected. As a companion piece to reading Dexter’s posting in its entirety and which features a video from the flagship launch, you might want to try this Oct. 15, 2013 article by Koen Mortelmans for Youris (h/t Oct. 15, 2013 news item on Nanowerk),

Andre Konstantin Geim is the only person who ever received both a Nobel and an Ig Nobel. He was born in 1958 in Russia, and is a Dutch-British physicist with German, Polish, Jewish and Ukrainian roots. “Having lived and worked in several European countries, I consider myself European. I don’t believe that any further taxonomy is necessary,” he says. He is now a physics professor at the University of Manchester. …

He shared the Noble [Nobel] Prize in 2010 with Konstantin Novoselov for their work on graphene. It was following on their isolation of microscope visible grapheme flakes that the worldwide research towards practical applications of graphene took off.  “We did not invent graphene,” Geim says, “we only saw what was laid up for five hundred year under our noses.”

Geim and Novoselov are often thought to have succeeded in separating graphene from graphite by peeling it off with ordinary duct tape until there only remained a layer. Graphene could then be observed with a microscope, because of the partial transparency of the material. That is, after dissolving the duct tape material in acetone, of course. That is also the story Geim himself likes to tell.

However, he did not use – as the urban myth goes – graphite from a common pencil. Instead, he used a carbon sample of extreme purity, specially imported. He also used ultrasound techniques. But, probably the urban legend will survive, as did Archimedes’ bath and Newtons apple. “It is nice to keep some of the magic,” is the expression Geim often uses when he does not want a nice story to be drowned in hard facts or when he wants to remain discrete about still incomplete, but promising research results.

Mortelmans’ article fills in some gaps for those not familiar with the graphene ‘origins’ story while Tim Harper’s July 22, 2012 posting on Cientifica’s (an emerging technologies consultancy where Harper is the CEO and founder) TNT blog offers an insight into Geim’s perspective on the race to commercialize graphene with a paraphrased quote for the title of Harper’s posting, “It’s a bit silly for society to throw a little bit of money at (graphene) and expect it to change the world.” (Note: Within this context, mention is made of the company’s graphene opportunities report.)

With all this excitement about graphene (and carbon generally), the magazine titled Carbon has just published a suggested nomenclature for 2D carbon forms such as graphene, graphane, etc., according to an Oct. 16, 2013 news item on Nanowerk (Note: A link has been removed),

There has been an intense research interest in all two-dimensional (2D) forms of carbon since Geim and Novoselov’s discovery of graphene in 2004. But as the number of such publications rise, so does the level of inconsistency in naming the material of interest. The isolated, single-atom-thick sheet universally referred to as “graphene” may have a clear definition, but when referring to related 2D sheet-like or flake-like carbon forms, many authors have simply defined their own terms to describe their product.

This has led to confusion within the literature, where terms are multiply-defined, or incorrectly used. The Editorial Board of Carbon has therefore published the first recommended nomenclature for 2D carbon forms (“All in the graphene family – A recommended nomenclature for two-dimensional carbon materials”).

This proposed nomenclature comes in the form of an editorial, from Carbon (Volume 65, December 2013, Pages 1–6),

All in the graphene family – A recommended nomenclature for two-dimensional carbon materials

  • Alberto Bianco
    CNRS, Institut de Biologie Moléculaire et Cellulaire, Immunopathologie et Chimie Thérapeutique, Strasbourg, France
  • Hui-Ming Cheng
    Shenyang National Laboratory for Materials Science, Institute of Metal Research, Chinese Academy of Sciences, 72 Wenhua Road, Shenyang 110016, China
  • Toshiaki Enoki
    Department of Chemistry, Graduate School of Science and Engineering, Tokyo Institute of Technology, Tokyo, Japan
  • Yury Gogotsi
    Materials Science and Engineering Department, A.J. Drexel Nanotechnology Institute, Drexel University, 3141 Chestnut Street, Philadelphia, PA 19104, USA
  • Robert H. Hurt
    Institute for Molecular and Nanoscale Innovation, School of Engineering, Brown University, Providence, RI 02912, USA
  • Nikhil Koratkar
    Department of Mechanical, Aerospace and Nuclear Engineering, The Department of Materials Science and Engineering, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, 110 8th Street, Troy, NY 12180, USA
  • Takashi Kyotani
    Institute of Multidisciplinary Research for Advanced Materials, Tohoku University, 2-1-1 Katahira, Aoba-ku, Sendai 980-8577, Japan
  • Marc Monthioux
    Centre d’Elaboration des Matériaux et d’Etudes Structurales (CEMES), UPR-8011 CNRS, Université de Toulouse, 29 Rue Jeanne Marvig, F-31055 Toulouse, France
  • Chong Rae Park
    Carbon Nanomaterials Design Laboratory, Global Research Laboratory, Research Institute of Advanced Materials, Department of Materials Science and Engineering, Seoul National University, Seoul 151-744, Republic of Korea
  • Juan M.D. Tascon
    Instituto Nacional del Carbón, INCAR-CSIC, Apartado 73, 33080 Oviedo, Spain
  • Jin Zhang
    Center for Nanochemistry, College of Chemistry and Molecular Engineering, Peking University, Beijing 100871, China

This editorial is behind a paywall.

Social and/or scientific unrest in Spain, Canada, the UK, Egypt, and Turkey

The latest scientist protest took place in Spain on Friday, June 14, 2013 according to Michele Catanzaro’s June 14, 2013 article for Nature magazine,

Scientists gathered in public meetings in 19 Spanish cities this morning under the slogan ‘Let’s save research’. The gatherings were called by the Letter for Science movement, a coalition that includes the main scientific organizations of the country.

According to the movement, 5,000 scientists in Madrid marched …

Scientists, after seeing Spain’s investment in science double from the late 1990s to 2009, have watched as budgets have been cut and the science ministry has been eliminated (2011). Earlier this year, the government announced that science funding would not be increased until 2014. A recent June 4,2013 announcement that science projects would receive some additional funding does not appear to have appeased scientists.

While Spanish scientists are the latest to protest, they are not alone.

In Canada, there was a July 10, 2012 protest, the Death of Evidence Rally, which attracted either 1,500 or several hundred protestors (as is often the case, police estimates were considerably lower than organizers’ estimates). I have coverage from the day of the event in my July 10, 2013 posting and a roundup of  post-event commentary in my July 13, 2013 posting. Again, the issue was funding but the situation seems to have been exacerbated by the ‘muzzle’ put on Canadian government scientists.

For anyone not familiar with the situation, scientists working for various government departments have been informed over a period of years (muzzle edicts have been handed out in a staggered fashion to various departments; there’s a brief description in my Sept. 16, 2010 posting; and, there’s an update about the current legal action regarding the ‘muzzle’ in my April 8, 2013 posting [scroll down about 75% of the way])  that they could no longer speak directly to media. Since this is often a Canadian scientist’s primary form of public outreach, having to to hand all requests to the communications section of their department means that someone not familiar with the science may be crafting the messages or simply refusing to answer any or all questions for reasons that may not be clear to the scientist or the person asking the questions.

Getting back to last year’s Canadian rally, it seems to have been modeled on a UK protest where scientists gathered in London and staged a mock funeral to protest science funding policies, according to Adam Smith in a May 15, 2012 article for the Guardian newspaper.

Egyptian scientists too have expressed their displeasure. In 2011, they contributed to the ‘Arab Spring’ uprising against Hosni Mubarak as I noted in my Feb. 4, 2011 posting. For an insider’s perspective, you may want to check out, Eyptian journalist and Nature Middle East editor, Mohammed Yahia’s Feb. 2, 2011 article for Nature Middle East,

Anti-Mubarak protests continued into their eighth day across Egypt yesterday culminating in mass demonstrations in Egypt’s three main cities of Cairo, Alexandria and Suez. While the academic community did not kick-start the popular uprising, academics joined the ranks of protesters on the streets to demand political reform and an end to President Mubarak’s three decades in power.

Several senior academics took to the streets of Cairo to have their voices heard. Nature Middle East was on the ground to hear what they had to say on the state of science under Mubarak’s regime and what hopes they have for science under any new government.

Also in 2011, there was a situation with scientists in Turkey. According to my Sept. 9, 2011 posting, Turkish scientists were threatening to “resign en masse” from the Turkish Academy of Sciences when the government stripped the academy of its autonomy. The current protests in Turkey do not feature scientists and are focused on other issues (according to a June 17, 2013 article by Graham E. Fuller for the Christian Science Monitor). In Egypt, they were protesting a dictatorship; in Turkey, they are protesting an arrogant prime minister’s actions.  Although I have to wonder how Turkey’s Prime Minister and/or its military are going to react as the protests are continuing; I can’t be the only person concerned that a coup may be in Turkey’s near future.

Getting to my point and eliminating the segues, it seems that over the last two years scientists in various countries have been taking political action of one kind or another and my impression is that this represents a substantive shift in how scientists view their role in society.

What kind of science do we want? A few thoughts on the National Research Council of Canada and its new dedication to business

Last week in its May 7, 2013 news release, the National Research Council of Canada flung open the doors of its closet and declared itself ‘open for business’,

The National Research Council of Canada (NRC) has transformed into an industry-focused research and technology organization. The refocused NRC will work with Canadian industries to bridge technology gaps, helping build a more innovative Canadian economy.

“NRC plays a pivotal role at the heart of Canada’s innovation system,” said the Honourable Gary Goodyear, Minister of State (Science and Technology). “The refocused NRC will provide Canadian industries with access to strategic research and development, technical services and specialized scientific infrastructure they need to succeed.”

“The Government’s top priority is jobs, growth and long-term prosperity for all Canadians,” said the Honourable Claude Carignan, Deputy Leader of the Government at the Senate. “By refocusing the NRC into a research and technology organization, our Government is ensuring that Canadian firms have the instruments and tools they need to become even more successful on the global stage.”

The refocused NRC will support Canadian industries by investing in large-scale research projects that are directed by and for Canadian business. It will also develop international networks to ensure timely access to primary research and will open the doors to world class scientific infrastructure, technical expertise and people.

“We are very excited about this change. Our organization is now easier for business to understand and access,” said John R. McDougall, President of the National Research Council. “We are committed to being a strong partner for innovation, and focused on achieving the concrete outcomes that will contribute to a stronger and more prosperous Canada. We will measure our success by the success of our clients.”

Research and technology organizations are mission-oriented providers of innovation services to firms and governments, dedicated to building economic competitiveness and, in doing so, improving quality of life. The refocused NRC will strengthen Canadian industry by encouraging more business investment to develop innovative products and services.

Response has ranged from mild interest to apoplexy and heartbreak.

Phil Plait, a US astronomer and creator of the Bad Astronomy blog/book/website, has opined in a May 13, 2013 posting at (Note: A link has been removed),

This is not a joke. I wish it were.

John MacDougal [sic], President of the NRC, literally said, “Scientific discovery is not valuable unless it has commercial value”. Gary Goodyear, the Canadian Minister of State for Science and Technology, also stated “There is [sic] only two reasons why we do science and technology. First is to create knowledge … second is to use that knowledge for social and economic benefit. Unfortunately, all too often the knowledge gained is opportunity lost.”

This is monumentally backwards thinking. That is not the reason we do science. Economic benefits are results of doing research, but should not be the reason we do it. Basic scientific research is a vast endeavor, and some of it will pay off economically, and some won’t. In almost every case, you cannot know in advance which will do which.

… If proposed and immediate economic benefits are the prime factors in choosing what science to fund, then the freedom of this human endeavor will be critically curtailed. It’s draining the passion and heart out of one of the best things we humans do.

This intensity suggests that Plait is unaware that the changeover has been taking place over a number of years. Hannah Hoag in an April 19, 2011 piece for Nature magazine noted this about the changeover which was even then taking place,

Canada’s largest research entity has a new focus — and some disaffected scientists. On 1 April [2011], the National Research Council (NRC), made up of more than 20 institutes and programmes with a total annual budget larger than Can$1 billion (US$1 billion), switched to a funding strategy that downplays basic research in favour of programmes designed to attract industry partners and generate revenue. [emphasis mine] Some researchers suggest that the shift is politically driven, because it brings the agency into philosophical alignment with the governing Conservative Party of Canada, which is in the middle of an election campaign.

The change was announced in a memo from NRC president John McDougall on 2 March [2011], and involves the transfer of authority over 20% of the agency’s research funds and the entire Can$60-million budget for large equipment and building costs to the NRC’s senior executive committee, which will direct it towards research with a focus on economic development, rather than pure science. Until now, individual institutes have had authority over research spending. McDougall wrote that in future, 80% of the research budget will be centralized, with “curiosity and exploratory activities” to be funded by the remaining 20%.

In Canada, most funding for academic researchers flows through agencies other than the NRC. [emphasis mine] However, with 4,700 scientists, guest researchers, technologists and support staff pursuing specialities from astrophysics to plant biotechnology at its institutes, the NRC plays a vital part in the nation’s scientific community, as a generator of original research and a service provider to government and industry.

While I’m no friend of the current Canadian government or John McDougall for that matter, this is an attempt to dealt with a longstanding issue, Canada’s failure with industrial research. From the Feb. 27, 2013 article, which prefigures the current discussion by a little over two months, by Tom Spears  in the Ottawa Citizen,

In October [2012], members of the House of Commons Industry Committee challenged McDougall to justify the changes.

Now McDougall has responded that Canada’s economy can’t wait for slow advances.

As science investment has grown in Canada, “our productivity and competitiveness, as measured by various organizations in the world, has been going in exactly the opposite direction,” he said in an interview.

“The primary reason for that is entirely speculative … But it would appear that Canada’s balance is quite different from other countries.”

That means we’re good at academic research, he says. We’re not so good at putting new knowledge to work.

“We’re not doing the things that take technology and ‘productize’ it.” (He makes exceptions to that: We’re strong in informational technology and in space-related industries such as robotics and building satellites.)

And he argues the answer lies in involving industry with the research from the start “rather than shoving it down their throat and hoping they’ll take it.”

For example, one new “flagship program” at NRC is to develop wheat that will resist cold and drought better than today’s, require less fertilizer, and produce greater yields.

“The timeline for this kind of thing is in the order of seven or eight years, which left to normal — I’ll call it traditional approaches — would typically be 20,” he said.

A similar ‘Canada is poor at commercializing research’ theme is mentioned in a May 7, 2013 article by Barrie McKenna and Ivan Semeniuk for the Globe and Mail,

The National Research Council, which gave the country canola and the atomic clock, will now be taking its scientific cues from Canadian industry as part of a makeover of the country’s flagship research labs.

The overhaul, quietly begun two years ago and formally unveiled Tuesday, means the 97-year-old NRC will focus on a clutch of large-scale, business-driven research projects at the expense of the basic science that was once at its core. The Conservative government says it wants to leverage the NRC’s world-class resources – everything from wind tunnels and ice tanks to high-powered microscopes – to help reverse the country’s chronically lagging innovation performance.

“Our businesses are not doing the research that they need to do,” Gary Goodyear, the minister of state for science and technology, told reporters in Ottawa. “So something had to be done.”

The move is in keeping with the Conservative government’s emphasis on a business model for public policy, such as tying foreign aid to economic development. It is also another significant foray into the science file, with critics saying the new approach is shortsighted and may shut the door on vast areas of promising fundamental research.

Mr. Goodyear insisted the government isn’t abandoning basic science, just shifting its focus to commercializing discoveries. “The day is past when a researcher could hit a home run simply by publishing a paper on some new discovery,” he said. “The home run is when somebody utilizes the knowledge that was discovered for social or economic gain.”

As part of the overhaul, the NRC is consolidating its disparate operations into a dozen business units and will focus on just five core areas of research: health costs, manufacturing, community infrastructure, security, and natural resources and the environment. Companies, or industries, will be able to tap the NRC’s expertise and labs, while sharing the cost of projects – as well as the intellectual property that results.

“Our job is to change innovation performance,” NRC president John McDougall explained in an interview. “So we have to do the things that will make that happen. Discovery science is necessary, but it’s not sufficient.”

Kennedy Stewart, the NDP (New Democratic Party; the official opposition) Member of Parliament expresses his opinion in his May 7, 2013 news release,

“Conservative incompetence meets Conservative narrow-mindedness,” said NDP Science and Technology critic Kennedy Stewart (Burnaby–Douglas). “They don’t want research driven by researchers themselves or public funding for science going towards actual scientific advancement. Their short-sighted approach will in fact hurt economic growth in the long run because it shuts the door on the long-view fundamental research that truly leads to scientific breakthroughs.”

Widespread dissatisfaction among the over 4,000 NRC employees and the change of focus away from basic research, patents and publications will increase the drain of Canada’s best and brightest minds to other OECD countries that are investing in scientific research heavily. Under the Conservatives, Canada just can’t compete.

“The government has been handing pink slips to scores of NRC scientists and researchers, lowering the organization’s research capacity and devastating internal morale,” said Stewart.  “It is hard to see how business will get scientific advice from the NRC if they fire all the scientists. Who they keep will spend their time trying to get off this runaway train.”

As best as I can unravel, there are several issues in the material I have excerpted:

  • what is the right mix of science, basic to applied/industrial?
  • it’s widely acknowledged that Canadians have done more poorly in the area of industrial science than colleagues in other OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) countries
  • how do we address the issue?

The solution that the current Canadian government has arrived *at is impossible to assess at this point (although I have a guess as to the outcome) and something needed to be done with the National Research Council of Canada as noted in an April 7, 2010 posting on the Don’t leave Canada behind; Researcher Forum blog (I believe the writer was Rob Annan),

The NRC is a mess.

And the mess of the NRC neatly encapsulates much that’s wrong with Canadian science policy. No direction, no cohesion, multiple conflicting purposes.

Rob goes on to discuss the NRC’s mandate (Note: A link has been removed),

Well, the NRC is mandated, by the original NRC Act of 1916, “to undertaking, assisting or promoting scientific and industrial research in different fields of importance to Canada”. It did this very successfully into the 1960s, at which point, its greatest successes were carved out and handed to new organizations.

So what’s left? Well the NRC Act has a few specific mandates that the NRC fulfills: standards of measurement, manage observatories, investigate and standardize industrial materials, perform agricultural research, and maintain a national science library (which is under major financial stress, but let’s save that for another time). But the general mandate to “undertake, assist, or promote” scientific and industrial research is open to interpretation, and is a source of conflict.

I’m not sure if the NRC Act has been amended since 2010 to allow for these latest changes but Rob goes on to make, what is for me, a more interesting point (Note: A link has been removed),

But since the 1980s, the NRC has been without a strong sense of self. Is it a basic research organization or an applied research organization? Does it exist to perform independent, government-sponsored research, or does it provide research services in support of the private sector? Does it perform early-stage research and then partner with industry, or is it a fee-for-service research organization? The answer is yes.

The NRC is being pulled in too many directions.

What does our Minister of Industry [at the time, Tony Clement] have to say about the NRC?

NRC‘s aim is to bring timely solutions to market in areas of national importance: clean energy, health and wellness, and the environment. NRC will continue to partner with Canadian firms to deliver tangible, market-oriented results in high-impact and emerging industry sectors, such as the automotive sector.

But the NRC isn’t designed to do this – this is a different mandate than what is laid out in the Act. Which would be fine – maybe it’s time for a change – except that the NRC institutes have been, not surprisingly, built according to the mandate outlined in the NRC Act – as research laboratories, not product development laboratories or partnership incubators. And the people recruited to run these labs are scientists, not business-people. They want to do science, not chase down industrial partnerships in the automotive sector or take their clean energy products to market. They’ve been recruited for their scientific abilities; it’s a bit of a stretch to expect them also to be market innovators.

Furthermore, because the government does not fund the full cost of research at the institutes, these labs are dependent on research funding from external sources. If the funding was coming from Canadian business, then the vision of our Industry minister would be fulfilled. Unfortunately, Canadian business is notoriously averse to investing in academic or government research. So these labs are dependent on CIHR, NSERC, or private funding – mostly basic science funding. So, the government builds a system of research laboratories, forces them into dependence on basic science funding, and then complains that there isn’t enough market-driven research going on? [all emphases mine]

I realize that CIHR and NSERC funding programs have changed but the issue with Canadian business paying for research has not. It is, as I have noted in other pieces, a cultural issue with the key question being, How do you inculcate a business culture that innovates? What we have now is a ‘start-up’ culture where people found businesses based on exciting research and plan on growing those businesses to a point where they can be sold to larger companies from the US or Britain or elsewhere. Based on these comments, my guess is that the current changes to the NRC will not result in the ‘innovation’ the government has repeatedly stated is its primary goal since our basic business culture will remain untouched. One last thing, I think people are going to figure out how to game this new NRC.

*at added on May 22, 2013

Nanotechnology and the US mega science project: BAM (Brain Activity Map) and more

The Brain Activity Map (BAM) project received budgetary approval as of this morning, Apr. 2, 2013 (I first mentioned BAM in my Mar. 4, 2013 posting when approval seemed imminent). From the news item, Obama Announces Huge Brain-Mapping Project, written by Stephanie Pappas for Yahoo News (Note: Links have been removed),

 President Barack Obama announced a new research initiative this morning (April 2) to map the human brain, a project that will launch with $100 million in funding in 2014.

The Brain Activity Map (BAM) project, as it is called, has been in the planning stages for some time. In the June 2012 issue of the journal Neuron, six scientists outlined broad proposals for developing non-invasive sensors and methods to experiment on single cells in neural networks. This February, President Obama made a vague reference to the project in his State of the Union address, mentioning that it could “unlock the answers to Alzheimer’s.”

In March, the project’s visionaries outlined their final goals in the journal Science. They call for an extended effort, lasting several years, to develop tools for monitoring up to a million neurons at a time. The end goal is to understand how brain networks function.

“It could enable neuroscience to really get to the nitty-gritty of brain circuits, which is the piece that’s been missing from the puzzle,” Rafael Yuste, the co-director of the Kavli Institute for Brain Circuits at Columbia University, who is part of the group spearheading the project, told LiveScience in March. “The reason it’s been missing is because we haven’t had the techniques, the tools.” [Inside the Brain: A Journey Through Time]

Not all neuroscientists support the project, however, with some arguing that it lacks clear goals and may cannibalize funds for other brain research.


I believe the $100M mentioned for 2014 would one installment in a series totaling up to $1B or more. In any event, it seems like a timely moment to comment on the communications campaign that has been waged on behalf of the BAM. It reminds me a little of the campaign for graphene, which was waged in the build up to the decision as to which two projects (in a field of six semi-finalists, then narrowed to a field of four finalists) should receive a FET (European Union’s Future and Emerging Technology) 1 billion euro research prize each. It seemed to me even a year or so before the decision that graphene’s win was a foregone conclusion but the organizers left nothing to chance and were relentless in their pursuit of attention and media coverage in the buildup to the final decision.

The most recent salvo in the BAM campaign was an attempt to link it with nanotechnology. A shrewd move given that the US has spent well over $1B since the US National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) was first approved in 2000. Linking the two projects means the NNI can lend a little authority to the new project (subtext: we’ve supported a mega-project before and that was successful) while the new project BAM can imbue the ageing NNI with some excitement.

Here’s more about nanotechnology and BAM from a Mar. 27, 2013 Spotlight article by Michael Berger on Nanowerk,

A comprehensive understanding of the brain remains an elusive, distant frontier. To arrive at a general theory of brain function would be an historic event, comparable to inferring quantum theory from huge sets of complex spectra and inferring evolutionary theory from vast biological field work. You might have heard about the proposed Brain Activity Map – a project that, like the Human Genome Project, will tap the hive mind of experts to make headway in the understanding of the field. Engineers and nanotechnologists will be needed to help build ever smaller devices for measuring the activity of individual neurons and, later, to control how those neurons function. Computer scientists will be called upon to develop methods for storing and analyzing the vast quantities of imaging and physiological data, and for creating virtual models for studying brain function. Neuroscientists will provide critical biological expertise to guide the research and interpret the results.

Berger goes on to highlight some of the ways nanotechnology-enabled devices could contribute to the effort. He draws heavily on a study published Mar. 20, 2013 online in ACS (American Chemical Society)Nano. Shockingly, the article is open access. Given that this is the first time I’ve come across an open access article in any of the American Chemical Society’s journals, I suspect that there was payment of some kind involved to make this information freely available. (The practice of allowing researchers to pay more in order to guarantee open access to their research in journals that also have articles behind paywalls seems to be in the process of becoming more common.)

Here’s a citation and a link to the article about nanotechnology and BAM,

Nanotools for Neuroscience and Brain Activity Mapping by A. Paul Alivisatos, Anne M. Andrews, Edward S. Boyden, Miyoung Chun, George M. Church, Karl Deisseroth, John P. Donoghue, Scott E. Fraser, Jennifer Lippincott-Schwartz, Loren L. Looger, Sotiris Masmanidis, Paul L. McEuen, Arto V. Nurmikko, Hongkun Park, Darcy S. Peterka, Clay Reid, Michael L. Roukes, Axel Scherer, Mark Schnitzer, Terrence J. Sejnowski, Kenneth L. Shepard, Doris Tsao, Gina Turrigiano, Paul S. Weiss, Chris Xu, Rafael Yuste, and Xiaowei Zhuang. ACS Nano, 2013, 7 (3), pp 1850–1866 DOI: 10.1021/nn4012847 Publication Date (Web): March 20, 2013
Copyright © 2013 American Chemical Society

As these things go, it’s a readable article for people without a neuroscience education provided they don’t mind feeling a little confused from time to time. From Nanotools for Neuroscience and Brain Activity Mapping (Note: Footnotes and links removed),

The Brain Activity Mapping (BAM) Project (…) has three goals in terms of building tools for neuroscience capable of (…) measuring the activity of large sets of neurons in complex brain circuits, (…) computationally analyzing and modeling these brain circuits, and (…) testing these models by manipulating the activities of chosen sets of neurons in these brain circuits.

As described below, many different approaches can, and likely will, be taken to achieve these goals as neural circuits of increasing size and complexity are studied and probed.

The BAM project will focus both on dynamic voltage activity and on chemical neurotransmission. With an estimated 85 billion neurons, 100 trillion synapses, and 100 chemical neurotransmitters in the human brain,(…) this is a daunting task. Thus, the BAM project will start with model organisms, neural circuits (vide infra), and small subsets of specific neural circuits in humans.

Among the approaches that show promise for the required dynamic, parallel measurements are optical and electro-optical methods that can be used to sense neural cell activity such as Ca2+,(7) voltage,(…) and (already some) neurotransmitters;(…) electrophysiological approaches that sense voltages and some electrochemically active neurotransmitters;(…) next-generation photonics-based probes with multifunctional capabilities;(18) synthetic biology approaches for recording histories of function;(…) and nanoelectronic measurements of voltage and local brain chemistry.(…) We anticipate that tools developed will also be applied to glia and more broadly to nanoscale and microscale monitoring of metabolic processes.

Entirely new tools will ultimately be required both to study neurons and neural circuits with minimal perturbation and to study the human brain. These tools might include “smart”, active nanoscale devices embedded within the brain that report on neural circuit activity wirelessly and/or entirely new modalities of remote sensing of neural circuit dynamics from outside the body. Remarkable advances in nanoscience and nanotechnology thus have key roles to play in transduction, reporting, power, and communications.

One of the ultimate goals of the BAM project is that the knowledge acquired and tools developed will prove useful in the intervention and treatment of a wide variety of diseases of the brain, including depression, epilepsy, Parkinson’s, schizophrenia, and others. We note that tens of thousands of patients have already been treated with invasive (i.e., through the skull) treatments. [emphases mine] While we hope to reduce the need for such measures, greatly improved and more robust interfaces to the brain would impact effectiveness and longevity where such treatments remain necessary.

Perhaps not so coincidentally, there was this Mar. 29, 2013 news item on Nanowerk,

Some human cells forget to empty their trash bins, and when the garbage piles up, it can lead to Parkinson’s disease and other genetic and age-related disorders. Scientists don’t yet understand why this happens, and Rice University engineering researcher Laura Segatori is hoping to change that, thanks to a prestigious five-year CAREER Award from the National Science Foundation (NSF).

Segatori, Rice’s T.N. Law Assistant Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering and assistant professor of bioengineering and of biochemistry and cell biology, will use her CAREER grant to create a toolkit for probing the workings of the cellular processes that lead to accumulation of waste material and development of diseases, such as Parkinson’s and lysosomal storage disorders. Each tool in the kit will be a nanoparticle — a speck of matter about the size of a virus — with a specific shape, size and charge.  [emphases mine] By tailoring each of these properties, Segatori’s team will create a series of specialized probes that can undercover the workings of a cellular process called autophagy.

“Eventually, once we understand how to design a nanoparticle to activate autophagy, we will use it as a tool to learn more about the autophagic process itself because there are still many question marks in biology regarding how this pathway works,” Segatori said. “It’s not completely clear how it is regulated. It seems that excessive autophagy may activate cell death, but it’s not yet clear. In short, we are looking for more than therapeutic applications. We are also hoping to use these nanoparticles as tools to study the basic science of autophagy.”

There is no direct reference to BAM but there are some intriguing correspondences.

Finally, there is no mention of nanotechnology in this radio broadcast/podcast and transcript but it does provide more information about BAM (for many folks this was first time they’d heard about the project) and the hopes and concerns this project raises while linking it to the Human Genome Project. From the Mar. 31, 2013 posting of a transcript and radio (Kera News; a National Public Radio station) podcast titled, Somewhere Over the Rainbow: The Journey to Map the Human Brain,

During the State of the Union, President Obama said the nation is about to embark on an ambitious project: to examine the human brain and create a road map to the trillions of connections that make it work.

“Every dollar we invested to map the human genome returned $140 to our economy — every dollar,” the president said. “Today, our scientists are mapping the human brain to unlock the answers to Alzheimer’s.”

Details of the project have slowly been leaking out: $3 billion, 10 years of research and hundreds of scientists. The National Institutes of Health is calling it the Brain Activity Map.

Obama isn’t the first to tout the benefits of a huge government science project. But can these projects really deliver? And what is mapping the human brain really going to get us?

Whether one wants to call it a public relations campaign or a marketing campaign is irrelevant. Science does not take place in an environment where data and projects are considered dispassionately. Enormous amounts of money are spent to sway public opinion and policymakers’ decisions.

ETA Ap. 3, 2013: Here are more stories about BAM and the announcement:

BRAIN Initiative Launched to Unlock Mysteries of Human Mind

Obama’s BRAIN Only 1/13 The Size Of Europe’s

BRAIN Initiative Builds on Efforts of Leading Neuroscientists and Nanotechnologists