Category Archives: science funding

Robots in Vancouver and in Canada (two of two)

This is the second of a two-part posting about robots in Vancouver and Canada. The first part included a definition, a brief mention a robot ethics quandary, and sexbots. This part is all about the future. (Part one is here.)

Canadian Robotics Strategy

Meetings were held Sept. 28 – 29, 2017 in, surprisingly, Vancouver. (For those who don’t know, this is surprising because most of the robotics and AI research seems to be concentrated in eastern Canada. if you don’t believe me take a look at the speaker list for Day 2 or the ‘Canadian Stakeholder’ meeting day.) From the NSERC (Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council) events page of the Canadian Robotics Network,

Join us as we gather robotics stakeholders from across the country to initiate the development of a national robotics strategy for Canada. Sponsored by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC), this two-day event coincides with the 2017 IEEE/RSJ International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems (IROS 2017) in order to leverage the experience of international experts as we explore Canada’s need for a national robotics strategy.

Where
Vancouver, BC, Canada

When
Thursday September 28 & Friday September 29, 2017 — Save the date!

Download the full agenda and speakers’ list here.

Objectives

The purpose of this two-day event is to gather members of the robotics ecosystem from across Canada to initiate the development of a national robotics strategy that builds on our strengths and capacities in robotics, and is uniquely tailored to address Canada’s economic needs and social values.

This event has been sponsored by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) and is supported in kind by the 2017 IEEE/RSJ International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems (IROS 2017) as an official Workshop of the conference.  The first of two days coincides with IROS 2017 – one of the premiere robotics conferences globally – in order to leverage the experience of international robotics experts as we explore Canada’s need for a national robotics strategy here at home.

Who should attend

Representatives from industry, research, government, startups, investment, education, policy, law, and ethics who are passionate about building a robust and world-class ecosystem for robotics in Canada.

Program Overview

Download the full agenda and speakers’ list here.

DAY ONE: IROS Workshop 

“Best practices in designing effective roadmaps for robotics innovation”

Thursday September 28, 2017 | 8:30am – 5:00pm | Vancouver Convention Centre

Morning Program:“Developing robotics innovation policy and establishing key performance indicators that are relevant to your region” Leading international experts share their experience designing robotics strategies and policy frameworks in their regions and explore international best practices. Opening Remarks by Prof. Hong Zhang, IROS 2017 Conference Chair.

Afternoon Program: “Understanding the Canadian robotics ecosystem” Canadian stakeholders from research, industry, investment, ethics and law provide a collective overview of the Canadian robotics ecosystem. Opening Remarks by Ryan Gariepy, CTO of Clearpath Robotics.

Thursday Evening Program: Sponsored by Clearpath Robotics  Workshop participants gather at a nearby restaurant to network and socialize.

Learn more about the IROS Workshop.

DAY TWO: NSERC-Sponsored Canadian Robotics Stakeholder Meeting
“Towards a national robotics strategy for Canada”

Friday September 29, 2017 | 8:30am – 5:00pm | University of British Columbia (UBC)

On the second day of the program, robotics stakeholders from across the country gather at UBC for a full day brainstorming session to identify Canada’s unique strengths and opportunities relative to the global competition, and to align on a strategic vision for robotics in Canada.

Friday Evening Program: Sponsored by NSERC Meeting participants gather at a nearby restaurant for the event’s closing dinner reception.

Learn more about the Canadian Robotics Stakeholder Meeting.

I was glad to see in the agenda that some of the international speakers represented research efforts from outside the usual Europe/US axis.

I have been in touch with one of the organizers (also mentioned in part one with regard to robot ethics), Ajung Moon (her website is here), who says that there will be a white paper available on the Canadian Robotics Network website at some point in the future. I’ll keep looking for it and, in the meantime, I wonder what the 2018 Canadian federal budget will offer robotics.

Robots and popular culture

For anyone living in Canada or the US, Westworld (television series) is probably the most recent and well known ‘robot’ drama to premiere in the last year.As for movies, I think Ex Machina from 2014 probably qualifies in that category. Interestingly, both Westworld and Ex Machina seem quite concerned with sex with Westworld adding significant doses of violence as another  concern.

I am going to focus on another robot story, the 2012 movie, Robot & Frank, which features a care robot and an older man,

Frank (played by Frank Langella), a former jewel thief, teaches a robot the skills necessary to rob some neighbours of their valuables. The ethical issue broached in the film isn’t whether or not the robot should learn the skills and assist Frank in his thieving ways although that’s touched on when Frank keeps pointing out that planning his heist requires he live more healthily. No, the problem arises afterward when the neighbour accuses Frank of the robbery and Frank removes what he believes is all the evidence. He believes he’s going successfully evade arrest until the robot notes that Frank will have to erase its memory in order to remove all of the evidence. The film ends without the robot’s fate being made explicit.

In a way, I find the ethics query (was the robot Frank’s friend or just a machine?) posed in the film more interesting than the one in Vikander’s story, an issue which does have a history. For example, care aides, nurses, and/or servants would have dealt with requests to give an alcoholic patient a drink. Wouldn’t there  already be established guidelines and practices which could be adapted for robots? Or, is this question made anew by something intrinsically different about robots?

To be clear, Vikander’s story is a good introduction and starting point for these kinds of discussions as is Moon’s ethical question. But they are starting points and I hope one day there’ll be a more extended discussion of the questions raised by Moon and noted in Vikander’s article (a two- or three-part series of articles? public discussions?).

How will humans react to robots?

Earlier there was the contention that intimate interactions with robots and sexbots would decrease empathy and the ability of human beings to interact with each other in caring ways. This sounds a bit like the argument about smartphones/cell phones and teenagers who don’t relate well to others in real life because most of their interactions are mediated through a screen, which many seem to prefer. It may be partially true but, arguably,, books too are an antisocial technology as noted in Walter J. Ong’s  influential 1982 book, ‘Orality and Literacy’,  (from the Walter J. Ong Wikipedia entry),

A major concern of Ong’s works is the impact that the shift from orality to literacy has had on culture and education. Writing is a technology like other technologies (fire, the steam engine, etc.) that, when introduced to a “primary oral culture” (which has never known writing) has extremely wide-ranging impacts in all areas of life. These include culture, economics, politics, art, and more. Furthermore, even a small amount of education in writing transforms people’s mentality from the holistic immersion of orality to interiorization and individuation. [emphases mine]

So, robotics and artificial intelligence would not be the first technologies to affect our brains and our social interactions.

There’s another area where human-robot interaction may have unintended personal consequences according to April Glaser’s Sept. 14, 2017 article on Slate.com (Note: Links have been removed),

The customer service industry is teeming with robots. From automated phone trees to touchscreens, software and machines answer customer questions, complete orders, send friendly reminders, and even handle money. For an industry that is, at its core, about human interaction, it’s increasingly being driven to a large extent by nonhuman automation.

But despite the dreams of science-fiction writers, few people enter a customer-service encounter hoping to talk to a robot. And when the robot malfunctions, as they so often do, it’s a human who is left to calm angry customers. It’s understandable that after navigating a string of automated phone menus and being put on hold for 20 minutes, a customer might take her frustration out on a customer service representative. Even if you know it’s not the customer service agent’s fault, there’s really no one else to get mad at. It’s not like a robot cares if you’re angry.

When human beings need help with something, says Madeleine Elish, an anthropologist and researcher at the Data and Society Institute who studies how humans interact with machines, they’re not only looking for the most efficient solution to a problem. They’re often looking for a kind of validation that a robot can’t give. “Usually you don’t just want the answer,” Elish explained. “You want sympathy, understanding, and to be heard”—none of which are things robots are particularly good at delivering. In a 2015 survey of over 1,300 people conducted by researchers at Boston University, over 90 percent of respondents said they start their customer service interaction hoping to speak to a real person, and 83 percent admitted that in their last customer service call they trotted through phone menus only to make their way to a human on the line at the end.

“People can get so angry that they have to go through all those automated messages,” said Brian Gnerer, a call center representative with AT&T in Bloomington, Minnesota. “They’ve been misrouted or been on hold forever or they pressed one, then two, then zero to speak to somebody, and they are not getting where they want.” And when people do finally get a human on the phone, “they just sigh and are like, ‘Thank God, finally there’s somebody I can speak to.’ ”

Even if robots don’t always make customers happy, more and more companies are making the leap to bring in machines to take over jobs that used to specifically necessitate human interaction. McDonald’s and Wendy’s both reportedly plan to add touchscreen self-ordering machines to restaurants this year. Facebook is saturated with thousands of customer service chatbots that can do anything from hail an Uber, retrieve movie times, to order flowers for loved ones. And of course, corporations prefer automated labor. As Andy Puzder, CEO of the fast-food chains Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s and former Trump pick for labor secretary, bluntly put it in an interview with Business Insider last year, robots are “always polite, they always upsell, they never take a vacation, they never show up late, there’s never a slip-and-fall, or an age, sex, or race discrimination case.”

But those robots are backstopped by human beings. How does interacting with more automated technology affect the way we treat each other? …

“We know that people treat artificial entities like they’re alive, even when they’re aware of their inanimacy,” writes Kate Darling, a researcher at MIT who studies ethical relationships between humans and robots, in a recent paper on anthropomorphism in human-robot interaction. Sure, robots don’t have feelings and don’t feel pain (not yet, anyway). But as more robots rely on interaction that resembles human interaction, like voice assistants, the way we treat those machines will increasingly bleed into the way we treat each other.

It took me a while to realize that what Glaser is talking about are AI systems and not robots as such. (sigh) It’s so easy to conflate the concepts.

AI ethics (Toby Walsh and Suzanne Gildert)

Jack Stilgoe of the Guardian published a brief Oct. 9, 2017 introduction to his more substantive (30 mins.?) podcast interview with Dr. Toby Walsh where they discuss stupid AI amongst other topics (Note: A link has been removed),

Professor Toby Walsh has recently published a book – Android Dreams – giving a researcher’s perspective on the uncertainties and opportunities of artificial intelligence. Here, he explains to Jack Stilgoe that we should worry more about the short-term risks of stupid AI in self-driving cars and smartphones than the speculative risks of super-intelligence.

Professor Walsh discusses the effects that AI could have on our jobs, the shapes of our cities and our understandings of ourselves. As someone developing AI, he questions the hype surrounding the technology. He is scared by some drivers’ real-world experimentation with their not-quite-self-driving Teslas. And he thinks that Siri needs to start owning up to being a computer.

I found this discussion to cast a decidedly different light on the future of robotics and AI. Walsh is much more interested in discussing immediate issues like the problems posed by ‘self-driving’ cars. (Aside: Should we be calling them robot cars?)

One ethical issue Walsh raises is with data regarding accidents. He compares what’s happening with accident data from self-driving (robot) cars to how the aviation industry handles accidents. Hint: accident data involving air planes is shared. Would you like to guess who does not share their data?

Sharing and analyzing data and developing new safety techniques based on that data has made flying a remarkably safe transportation technology.. Walsh argues the same could be done for self-driving cars if companies like Tesla took the attitude that safety is in everyone’s best interests and shared their accident data in a scheme similar to the aviation industry’s.

In an Oct. 12, 2017 article by Matthew Braga for Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) news online another ethical issue is raised by Suzanne Gildert (a participant in the Canadian Robotics Roadmap/Strategy meetings mentioned earlier here), Note: Links have been removed,

… Suzanne Gildert, the co-founder and chief science officer of Vancouver-based robotics company Kindred. Since 2014, her company has been developing intelligent robots [emphasis mine] that can be taught by humans to perform automated tasks — for example, handling and sorting products in a warehouse.

The idea is that when one of Kindred’s robots encounters a scenario it can’t handle, a human pilot can take control. The human can see, feel and hear the same things the robot does, and the robot can learn from how the human pilot handles the problematic task.

This process, called teleoperation, is one way to fast-track learning by manually showing the robot examples of what its trainers want it to do. But it also poses a potential moral and ethical quandary that will only grow more serious as robots become more intelligent.

“That AI is also learning my values,” Gildert explained during a talk on robot ethics at the Singularity University Canada Summit in Toronto on Wednesday [Oct. 11, 2017]. “Everything — my mannerisms, my behaviours — is all going into the AI.”

At its worst, everything from algorithms used in the U.S. to sentence criminals to image-recognition software has been found to inherit the racist and sexist biases of the data on which it was trained.

But just as bad habits can be learned, good habits can be learned too. The question is, if you’re building a warehouse robot like Kindred is, is it more effective to train those robots’ algorithms to reflect the personalities and behaviours of the humans who will be working alongside it? Or do you try to blend all the data from all the humans who might eventually train Kindred robots around the world into something that reflects the best strengths of all?

I notice Gildert distinguishes her robots as “intelligent robots” and then focuses on AI and issues with bias which have already arisen with regard to algorithms (see my May 24, 2017 posting about bias in machine learning, AI, and .Note: if you’re in Vancouver on Oct. 26, 2017 and interested in algorithms and bias), there’s a talk being given by Dr. Cathy O’Neil, author the Weapons of Math Destruction, on the topic of Gender and Bias in Algorithms. It’s not free but  tickets are here.)

Final comments

There is one more aspect I want to mention. Even as someone who usually deals with nanobots, it’s easy to start discussing robots as if the humanoid ones are the only ones that exist. To recapitulate, there are humanoid robots, utilitarian robots, intelligent robots, AI, nanobots, ‘microscopic bots, and more all of which raise questions about ethics and social impacts.

However, there is one more category I want to add to this list: cyborgs. They live amongst us now. Anyone who’s had a hip or knee replacement or a pacemaker or a deep brain stimulator or other such implanted device qualifies as a cyborg. Increasingly too, prosthetics are being introduced and made part of the body. My April 24, 2017 posting features this story,

This Case Western Reserve University (CRWU) video accompanies a March 28, 2017 CRWU news release, (h/t ScienceDaily March 28, 2017 news item)

Bill Kochevar grabbed a mug of water, drew it to his lips and drank through the straw.

His motions were slow and deliberate, but then Kochevar hadn’t moved his right arm or hand for eight years.

And it took some practice to reach and grasp just by thinking about it.

Kochevar, who was paralyzed below his shoulders in a bicycling accident, is believed to be the first person with quadriplegia in the world to have arm and hand movements restored with the help of two temporarily implanted technologies. [emphasis mine]

A brain-computer interface with recording electrodes under his skull, and a functional electrical stimulation (FES) system* activating his arm and hand, reconnect his brain to paralyzed muscles.

Does a brain-computer interface have an effect on human brain and, if so, what might that be?

In any discussion (assuming there is funding for it) about ethics and social impact, we might want to invite the broadest range of people possible at an ‘earlyish’ stage (although we’re already pretty far down the ‘automation road’) stage or as Jack Stilgoe and Toby Walsh note, technological determinism holds sway.

Once again here are links for the articles and information mentioned in this double posting,

That’s it!

ETA Oct. 16, 2017: Well, I guess that wasn’t quite ‘it’. BBC’s (British Broadcasting Corporation) Magazine published a thoughtful Oct. 15, 2017 piece titled: Can we teach robots ethics?

Model-type coding

By model, I mean Karlie Kloss whose computer coding camp project was profiled in an August 31, 2017 article by Elizabeth Segran for Fast Company (Note: Links have been removed),

It all started on a whim. Four years ago, supermodel Karlie Kloss decided to take an intensive coding course at New York Flatiron School. She had never written a lick of code in her life, but she wanted to see what the fuss about coding was all about. Between runway shows in Paris and Milan, and magazine shoots in London and New York, she would sit down with her instructor, Avi Flombaum, and learn the basics of Ruby on Rails.

“It was sheer curiosity that led me to take that class,” the 25-year-old Kloss tells Fast Company. “But it was really eye-opening to learn about the hardware and the software that goes into the tech we use every day.”

As a successful model, Kloss didn’t have any immediate reason to learn how to code, but she soon realized the activity could bring sweet rewards–literally. “One of the first things I learned how to program was a drone that could pick up a cookie on one side of the room and deliver it to the other side of the room,” she says with a twinkle in her eye. “It’s still one of my favorite things I’ve learned to do with code.”

Around 2012, coding bootcamps like the Flatiron course began popping up all over the country with the promise of equipping people with no prior training with the basics of computer science. In Kloss’s case, she was surprised to discover that coding wasn’t an impenetrable skill. “It’s a language just like any other language,” she says. “And the way our world is going, learning to code should be just as important as learning your mother tongue.”

There’s a persistent narrative in our culture that women are less inclined to pursue computer science. This was evident in the infamous Google memo, in which an employee, James Damore, claimed that women are genetically less inclined to code. This hasn’t been Kloss’s experience, though. She’s encountered many young women who are just as curious as she is about the technology that surrounds them. “They are aware of the power of these technical skills and how they are shaping the world today,” Kloss says. “These young women grew up with this technology embedded and they’re not scared to try building things. They are more forward-thinking than we sometimes give them credit for.”

Back in 2014, Kloss put out a call on her social media channels, asking if there were like-minded young women out there who wanted to code but didn’t have access to a course. She received an avalanche of responses from young women and ultimately offered scholarships to 21 young women to attend a two-week summer camp at the Flatiron School.

Three years later, Kloss says that this initiative–called Kode With Klossy–has grown and evolved. So far, more than 400 girls age 13 to 18 have gone through the Kode With Klossy summer camps. Kloss can now track where these students have ended up, and the results have been impressive. One of the original beneficiaries just won the grand prize at the TechCrunch Disrupt Hackathon, together with three other high school girls. (The team beat out 750 engineers with a virtual reality app that can help treat and diagnose ADHD efficiently.) …

There’s a bit more about Kloss and her camps, although it’s mostly about Kloss’s career, in a June 2017 article by Laura Brown for In Style magazine.

You can find Kode with Klossy here; the efforts are concentrated in the US. For anyone interested in coding initiatives in Canada, there’s Ladies learning Code, which offers both girls only and co-ed opportunities amongst others. Also, the Canadian federal government is getting in on the act with a $50M programme as I noted in my June 16, 2017 posting,

Government officials are calling the new $50M programme to teach computer coding skills to approximately 500,000 Canadian children from kindergarten to grade 12, CanCode (h/t June 14, 2017 news item on phys.org). Here’s more from the June 14, 2017 Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada news release,,

Young Canadians will get the skills they need for the well-paying jobs of the future as a result of a $50-million program that gives them the opportunity to learn coding and other digital skills.

The Honourable Navdeep Bains, Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development, together with the Honourable Kirsty Duncan, Minister of Science, today launched CanCode, a new program that, over the next two years, will give 500,000 students from kindergarten to grade 12 the opportunity to learn the in-demand skills that will prepare them for future jobs.

The program also aims to encourage more young women, Indigenous Canadians and other under-represented groups to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and math. In addition, it will equip 500 teachers across the country with the training and tools to teach digital skills and coding.

 Getting back to Segran’s article about Kloss’s coding camps, the writer describes the current approach to coding camps in the US,

The problem, she [Kloss] believes, is access. Many middle and high schools don’t offer coding courses, although this is slowly changing. And when they are offered, they tend to be oversubscribed by male students, creating an uncomfortable imbalance in the classroom. Then there are the popular coding bootcamps, such as the one that Kloss took, but they often come with hefty price tags: Tuition can cost upward of $1,000 a week. There have also been questions about how sustainable the coding bootcamp business model really is, since several companies, like The Iron Yard and Dev Bootcamp, have had to shut down recently.

I guess we’ll see what happens with the Canadian $50M in the next few years and whether it proves a more effective approach (i.e., government and not-for-profit) than the individual business and not-for-profit efforts seen in the US.

Canadian science policy news and doings (also: some US science envoy news)

I have a couple of notices from the Canadian Science Policy Centre (CSPC), a twitter feed, and an article in online magazine to thank for this bumper crop of news.

 Canadian Science Policy Centre: the conference

The 2017 Canadian Science Policy Conference to be held Nov. 1 – 3, 2017 in Ottawa, Ontario for the third year in a row has a super saver rate available until Sept. 3, 2017 according to an August 14, 2017 announcement (received via email).

Time is running out, you have until September 3rd until prices go up from the SuperSaver rate.

Savings off the regular price with the SuperSaver rate:
Up to 26% for General admission
Up to 29% for Academic/Non-Profit Organizations
Up to 40% for Students and Post-Docs

Before giving you the link to the registration page and assuming that you might want to check out what is on offer at the conference, here’s a link to the programme. They don’t seem to have any events celebrating Canada’s 150th anniversary although they do have a session titled, ‘The Next 150 years of Science in Canada: Embedding Equity, Delivering Diversity/Les 150 prochaine années de sciences au Canada:  Intégrer l’équité, promouvoir la diversité‘,

Enhancing equity, diversity, and inclusivity (EDI) in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) has been described as being a human rights issue and an economic development issue by various individuals and organizations (e.g. OECD). Recent federal policy initiatives in Canada have focused on increasing participation of women (a designated under-represented group) in science through increased reporting, program changes, and institutional accountability. However, the Employment Equity Act requires employers to act to ensure the full representation of the three other designated groups: Aboriginal peoples, persons with disabilities and members of visible minorities. Significant structural and systemic barriers to full participation and employment in STEM for members of these groups still exist in Canadian institutions. Since data support the positive role of diversity in promoting innovation and economic development, failure to capture the full intellectual capacity of a diverse population limits provincial and national potential and progress in many areas. A diverse international panel of experts from designated groups will speak to the issue of accessibility and inclusion in STEM. In addition, the discussion will focus on evidence-based recommendations for policy initiatives that will promote full EDI in science in Canada to ensure local and national prosperity and progress for Canada over the next 150 years.

There’s also this list of speakers . Curiously, I don’t see Kirsty Duncan, Canada’s Minister of Science on the list, nor do I see any other politicians in the banner for their conference website  This divergence from the CSPC’s usual approach to promoting the conference is interesting.

Moving onto the conference, the organizers have added two panels to the programme (from the announcement received via email),

Friday, November 3, 2017
10:30AM-12:00PM
Open Science and Innovation
Organizer: Tiberius Brastaviceanu
Organization: ACES-CAKE

10:30AM- 12:00PM
The Scientific and Economic Benefits of Open Science
Organizer: Arij Al Chawaf
Organization: Structural Genomics

I think this is the first time there’s been a ‘Tiberius’ on this blog and teamed with the organization’s name, well, I just had to include it.

Finally, here’s the link to the registration page and a page that details travel deals.

Canadian Science Policy Conference: a compendium of documents and articles on Canada’s Chief Science Advisor and Ontario’s Chief Scientist and the pre-2018 budget submissions

The deadline for applications for the Chief Science Advisor position was extended to Feb. 2017 and so far, there’s no word as to whom it might be. Perhaps Minister of Science Kirsty Duncan wants to make a splash with a surprise announcement at the CSPC’s 2017 conference? As for Ontario’s Chief Scientist, this move will make province the third (?) to have a chief scientist, after Québec and Alberta. There is apparently one in Alberta but there doesn’t seem to be a government webpage and his LinkedIn profile doesn’t include this title. In any event, Dr. Fred Wrona is mentioned as the Alberta’s Chief Scientist in a May 31, 2017 Alberta government announcement. *ETA Aug. 25, 2017: I missed the Yukon, which has a Senior Science Advisor. The position is currently held by Dr. Aynslie Ogden.*

Getting back to the compendium, here’s the CSPC’s A Comprehensive Collection of Publications Regarding Canada’s Federal Chief Science Advisor and Ontario’s Chief Scientist webpage. Here’s a little background provided on the page,

On June 2nd, 2017, the House of Commons Standing Committee on Finance commenced the pre-budget consultation process for the 2018 Canadian Budget. These consultations provide Canadians the opportunity to communicate their priorities with a focus on Canadian productivity in the workplace and community in addition to entrepreneurial competitiveness. Organizations from across the country submitted their priorities on August 4th, 2017 to be selected as witness for the pre-budget hearings before the Committee in September 2017. The process will result in a report to be presented to the House of Commons in December 2017 and considered by the Minister of Finance in the 2018 Federal Budget.

NEWS & ANNOUNCEMENT

House of Commons- PRE-BUDGET CONSULTATIONS IN ADVANCE OF THE 2018 BUDGET

https://www.ourcommons.ca/Committees/en/FINA/StudyActivity?studyActivityId=9571255

CANADIANS ARE INVITED TO SHARE THEIR PRIORITIES FOR THE 2018 FEDERAL BUDGET

https://www.ourcommons.ca/DocumentViewer/en/42-1/FINA/news-release/9002784

The deadline for pre-2018 budget submissions was Aug. 4, 2017 and they haven’t yet scheduled any meetings although they are to be held in September. (People can meet with the Standing Committee on Finance in various locations across Canada to discuss their submissions.) I’m not sure where the CSPC got their list of ‘science’ submissions but it’s definitely worth checking as there are some odd omissions such as TRIUMF (Canada’s National Laboratory for Particle and Nuclear Physics)), Genome Canada, the Pan-Canadian Artificial Intelligence Strategy, CIFAR (Canadian Institute for Advanced Research), the Perimeter Institute, Canadian Light Source, etc.

Twitter and the Naylor Report under a microscope

This news came from University of British Columbia President Santa Ono’s twitter feed,

 I will join Jon [sic] Borrows and Janet Rossant on Sept 19 in Ottawa at a Mindshare event to discuss the importance of the Naylor Report

The Mindshare event Ono is referring to is being organized by Universities Canada (formerly the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada) and the Institute for Research on Public Policy. It is titled, ‘The Naylor report under the microscope’. Here’s more from the event webpage,

Join Universities Canada and Policy Options for a lively discussion moderated by editor-in-chief Jennifer Ditchburn on the report from the Fundamental Science Review Panel and why research matters to Canadians.

Moderator

Jennifer Ditchburn, editor, Policy Options.

Jennifer Ditchburn

Editor-in-chief, Policy Options

Jennifer Ditchburn is the editor-in-chief of Policy Options, the online policy forum of the Institute for Research on Public Policy.  An award-winning parliamentary correspondent, Jennifer began her journalism career at the Canadian Press in Montreal as a reporter-editor during the lead-up to the 1995 referendum.  From 2001 and 2006 she was a national reporter with CBC TV on Parliament Hill, and in 2006 she returned to the Canadian Press.  She is a three-time winner of a National Newspaper Award:  twice in the politics category, and once in the breaking news category. In 2015 she was awarded the prestigious Charles Lynch Award for outstanding coverage of national issues. Jennifer has been a frequent contributor to television and radio public affairs programs, including CBC’s Power and Politics, the “At Issue” panel, and The Current. She holds a bachelor of arts from Concordia University, and a master of journalism from Carleton University.

@jenditchburn

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

 12-2 pm

Fairmont Château Laurier,  Laurier  Room
 1 Rideau Street, Ottawa

 rsvp@univcan.ca

I can’t tell if they’re offering lunch or if there is a cost associated with this event so you may want to contact the organizers.

As for the Naylor report, I posted a three-part series on June 8, 2017, which features my comments and the other comments I was able to find on the report:

INVESTING IN CANADA’S FUTURE; Strengthening the Foundations of Canadian Research (Review of fundamental research final report): 1 of 3

INVESTING IN CANADA’S FUTURE; Strengthening the Foundations of Canadian Research (Review of fundamental research final report): 2 of 3

INVESTING IN CANADA’S FUTURE; Strengthening the Foundations of Canadian Research (Review of fundamental research final report): 3 of 3

One piece not mentioned in my three-part series is Paul Wells’ provocatively titled June 29, 2017 article for MacLean’s magazine, Why Canadian scientists aren’t happy (Note: Links have been removed),

Much hubbub this morning over two interviews Kirsty Duncan, the science minister, has given the papers. The subject is Canada’s Fundamental Science Review, commonly called the Naylor Report after David Naylor, the former University of Toronto president who was its main author.

Other authors include BlackBerry founder Mike Lazaridis, who has bankrolled much of the Waterloo renaissance, and Canadian Nobel physicist Arthur McDonald. It’s as blue-chip as a blue-chip panel could be.

Duncan appointed the panel a year ago. It’s her panel, delivered by her experts. Why does it not seem to be… getting anywhere? Why does it seem to have no champion in government? Therein lies a tale.

Note, first, that Duncan’s interviews—her first substantive comment on the report’s recommendations!—come nearly three months after its April release, which in turn came four months after Duncan asked Naylor to deliver his report, last December. (By March I had started to make fun of the Trudeau government in print for dragging its heels on the report’s release. That column was not widely appreciated in the government, I’m told.)

Anyway, the report was released, at an event attended by no representative of the Canadian government. Here’s the gist of what I wrote at the time:

 

Naylor’s “single most important recommendation” is a “rapid increase” in federal spending on “independent investigator-led research” instead of the “priority-driven targeted research” that two successive federal governments, Trudeau’s and Stephen Harper’s, have preferred in the last 8 or 10 federal budgets.

In English: Trudeau has imitated Harper in favouring high-profile, highly targeted research projects, on areas of study selected by political staffers in Ottawa, that are designed to attract star researchers from outside Canada so they can bolster the image of Canada as a research destination.

That’d be great if it wasn’t achieved by pruning budgets for the less spectacular research that most scientists do.

Naylor has numbers. “Between 2007-08 and 2015-16, the inflation-adjusted budgetary envelope for investigator-led research fell by 3 per cent while that for priority-driven research rose by 35 per cent,” he and his colleagues write. “As the number of researchers grew during this period, the real resources available per active researcher to do investigator-led research declined by about 35 per cent.”

And that’s not even taking into account the way two new programs—the $10-million-per-recipient Canada Excellence Research Chairs and the $1.5 billion Canada First Research Excellence Fund—are “further concentrating resources in the hands of smaller numbers of individuals and institutions.”

That’s the context for Duncan’s remarks. In the Globe, she says she agrees with Naylor on “the need for a research system that promotes equity and diversity, provides a better entry for early career researchers and is nimble in response to new scientific opportunities.” But she also “disagreed” with the call for a national advisory council that would give expert advice on the government’s entire science, research and innovation policy.

This is an asinine statement. When taking three months to read a report, it’s a good idea to read it. There is not a single line in Naylor’s overlong report that calls for the new body to make funding decisions. Its proposed name is NACRI, for National Advisory Council on Research and Innovation. A for Advisory. Its responsibilities, listed on Page 19 if you’re reading along at home, are restricted to “advice… evaluation… public reporting… advice… advice.”

Duncan also didn’t promise to meet Naylor’s requested funding levels: $386 million for research in the first year, growing to $1.3 billion in new money in the fourth year. That’s a big concern for researchers, who have been warning for a decade that two successive government’s—Harper’s and Trudeau’s—have been more interested in building new labs than in ensuring there’s money to do research in them.

The minister has talking points. She gave the same answer to both reporters about whether Naylor’s recommendations will be implemented in time for the next federal budget. “It takes time to turn the Queen Mary around,” she said. Twice. I’ll say it does: She’s reacting three days before Canada Day to a report that was written before Christmas. Which makes me worry when she says elected officials should be in charge of being nimble.

Here’s what’s going on.

The Naylor report represents Canadian research scientists’ side of a power struggle. The struggle has been continuing since Jean Chrétien left office. After early cuts, he presided for years over very large increases to the budgets of the main science granting councils. But since 2003, governments have preferred to put new funding dollars to targeted projects in applied sciences. …

Naylor wants that trend reversed, quickly. He is supported in that call by a frankly astonishingly broad coalition of university administrators and working researchers, who until his report were more often at odds. So you have the group representing Canada’s 15 largest research universities and the group representing all universities and a new group representing early-career researchers and, as far as I can tell, every Canadian scientist on Twitter. All backing Naylor. All fundamentally concerned that new money for research is of no particular interest if it does not back the best science as chosen by scientists, through peer review.

The competing model, the one preferred by governments of all stripes, might best be called superclusters. Very large investments into very large projects with loosely defined scientific objectives, whose real goal is to retain decorated veteran scientists and to improve the Canadian high-tech industry. Vast and sprawling labs and tech incubators, cabinet ministers nodding gravely as world leaders in sexy trendy fields sketch the golden path to Jobs of Tomorrow.

You see the imbalance. On one side, ribbons to cut. On the other, nerds experimenting on tapeworms. Kirsty Duncan, a shaky political performer, transparently a junior minister to the supercluster guy, with no deputy minister or department reporting to her, is in a structurally weak position: her title suggests she’s science’s emissary to the government, but she is not equipped to be anything more than government’s emissary to science.

A government that consistently buys into the market for intellectual capital at the very top of the price curve is a factory for producing white elephants. But don’t take my word for it. Ask Geoffrey Hinton [University of Toronto’s Geoffrey Hinton, a Canadian leader in machine learning].

“There is a lot of pressure to make things more applied; I think it’s a big mistake,” he said in 2015. “In the long run, curiosity-driven research just works better… Real breakthroughs come from people focusing on what they’re excited about.”

I keep saying this, like a broken record. If you want the science that changes the world, ask the scientists who’ve changed it how it gets made. This government claims to be interested in what scientists think. We’ll see.

Incisive and acerbic,  you may want to make time to read this article in its entirety.

Getting back to the ‘The Naylor report under the microscope’ event, I wonder if anyone will be as tough and direct as Wells. Going back even further, I wonder if this is why there’s no mention of Duncan as a speaker at the conference. It could go either way: surprise announcement of a Chief Science Advisor, as I first suggested, or avoidance of a potentially angry audience.

For anyone curious about Geoffrey Hinton, there’s more here in my March 31, 2017 post (scroll down about 20% of the way) and for more about the 2017 budget and allocations for targeted science projects there’s my March 24, 2017 post.

US science envoy quits

An Aug. 23, 2017article by Matthew Rosza for salon.com notes the resignation of one of the US science envoys,

President Donald Trump’s infamous response to the Charlottesville riots — namely, saying that both sides were to blame and that there were “very fine people” marching as white supremacists — has prompted yet another high profile resignation from his administration.

Daniel M. Kammen, who served as a science envoy for the State Department and focused on renewable energy development in the Middle East and Northern Africa, submitted a letter of resignation on Wednesday. Notably, he began the first letter of each paragraph with letters that spelled out I-M-P-E-A-C-H. That followed a letter earlier this month by writer Jhumpa Lahiri and actor Kal Penn to similarly spell R-E-S-I-S-T in their joint letter of resignation from the President’s Committee on Arts and Humanities.

Jeremy Berke’s Aug. 23, 2017 article for BusinessInsider.com provides a little more detail (Note: Links have been removed),

A State Department climate science envoy resigned Wednesday in a public letter posted on Twitter over what he says is President Donald Trump’s “attacks on the core values” of the United States with his response to violence in Charlottesville, Virginia.

“My decision to resign is in response to your attacks on the core values of the United States,” wrote Daniel Kammen, a professor of energy at the University of California, Berkeley, who was appointed as one five science envoys in 2016. “Your failure to condemn white supremacists and neo-Nazis has domestic and international ramifications.”

“Your actions to date have, sadly, harmed the quality of life in the United States, our standing abroad, and the sustainability of the planet,” Kammen writes.

Science envoys work with the State Department to establish and develop energy programs in countries around the world. Kammen specifically focused on renewable energy development in the Middle East and North Africa.

That’s it.

US Dept. of Agriculture announces its nanotechnology research grants

I don’t always stumble across the US Department of Agriculture’s nanotechnology research grant announcements but I’m always grateful when I do as it’s good to find out about  nanotechnology research taking place in the agricultural sector. From a July 21, 2017 news item on Nanowerk,,

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) today announced 13 grants totaling $4.6 million for research on the next generation of agricultural technologies and systems to meet the growing demand for food, fuel, and fiber. The grants are funded through NIFA’s Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI), authorized by the 2014 Farm Bill.

“Nanotechnology is being rapidly implemented in medicine, electronics, energy, and biotechnology, and it has huge potential to enhance the agricultural sector,” said NIFA Director Sonny Ramaswamy. “NIFA research investments can help spur nanotechnology-based improvements to ensure global nutritional security and prosperity in rural communities.”

A July 20, 2017 USDA news release, which originated the news item, lists this year’s grants and provides a brief description of a few of the newly and previously funded projects,

Fiscal year 2016 grants being announced include:

Nanotechnology for Agricultural and Food Systems

  • Kansas State University, Manhattan, Kansas, $450,200
  • Wichita State University, Wichita, Kansas, $340,000
  • University of Massachusetts, Amherst, Massachusetts, $444,550
  • University of Nevada, Las Vegas, Nevada,$150,000
  • North Dakota State University, Fargo, North Dakota, $149,000
  • Cornell University, Ithaca, New York, $455,000
  • Cornell University, Ithaca, New York, $450,200
  • Oregon State University, Corvallis, Oregon, $402,550
  • University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, $405,055
  • Gordon Research Conferences, West Kingston, Rhode Island, $45,000
  • The University of Tennessee,  Knoxville, Tennessee, $450,200
  • Utah State University, Logan, Utah, $450,200
  • The George Washington University, Washington, D.C., $450,200

Project details can be found at the NIFA website (link is external).

Among the grants, a University of Pennsylvania project will engineer cellulose nanomaterials [emphasis mine] with high toughness for potential use in building materials, automotive components, and consumer products. A University of Nevada-Las Vegas project will develop a rapid, sensitive test to detect Salmonella typhimurium to enhance food supply safety.

Previously funded grants include an Iowa State University project in which a low-cost and disposable biosensor made out of nanoparticle graphene that can detect pesticides in soil was developed. The biosensor also has the potential for use in the biomedical, environmental, and food safety fields. University of Minnesota (link is external) researchers created a sponge that uses nanotechnology to quickly absorb mercury, as well as bacterial and fungal microbes from polluted water. The sponge can be used on tap water, industrial wastewater, and in lakes. It converts contaminants into nontoxic waste that can be disposed in a landfill.

NIFA invests in and advances agricultural research, education, and extension and promotes transformative discoveries that solve societal challenges. NIFA support for the best and brightest scientists and extension personnel has resulted in user-inspired, groundbreaking discoveries that combat childhood obesity, improve and sustain rural economic growth, address water availability issues, increase food production, find new sources of energy, mitigate climate variability and ensure food safety. To learn more about NIFA’s impact on agricultural science, visit www.nifa.usda.gov/impacts, sign up for email updates (link is external) or follow us on Twitter @USDA_NIFA (link is external), #NIFAImpacts (link is external).

Given my interest in nanocellulose materials (Canada was/is a leader in the production of cellulose nanocrystals [CNC] but there has been little news about Canadian research into CNC applications), I used the NIFA link to access the table listing the grants and clicked on ‘brief’ in the View column in the University of Pennsylania row to find this description of the project,

ENGINEERING CELLULOSE NANOMATERIALS WITH HIGH TOUGHNESS

NON-TECHNICAL SUMMARY: Cellulose nanofibrils (CNFs) are natural materials with exceptional mechanical properties that can be obtained from renewable plant-based resources. CNFs are stiff, strong, and lightweight, thus they are ideal for use in structural materials. In particular, there is a significant opportunity to use CNFs to realize polymer composites with improved toughness and resistance to fracture. The overall goal of this project is to establish an understanding of fracture toughness enhancement in polymer composites reinforced with CNFs. A key outcome of this work will be process – structure – fracture property relationships for CNF-reinforced composites. The knowledge developed in this project will enable a new class of tough CNF-reinforced composite materials with applications in areas such as building materials, automotive components, and consumer products.The composite materials that will be investigated are at the convergence of nanotechnology and bio-sourced material trends. Emerging nanocellulose technologies have the potential to move biomass materials into high value-added applications and entirely new markets.

It’s not the only nanocellulose material project being funded in this round, there’s this at North Dakota State University, from the NIFA ‘brief’ project description page,

NOVEL NANOCELLULOSE BASED FIRE RETARDANT FOR POLYMER COMPOSITES

NON-TECHNICAL SUMMARY: Synthetic polymers are quite vulnerable to fire.There are 2.4 million reported fires, resulting in 7.8 billion dollars of direct property loss, an estimated 30 billion dollars of indirect loss, 29,000 civilian injuries, 101,000 firefighter injuries and 6000 civilian fatalities annually in the U.S. There is an urgent need for a safe, potent, and reliable fire retardant (FR) system that can be used in commodity polymers to reduce their flammability and protect lives and properties. The goal of this project is to develop a novel, safe and biobased FR system using agricultural and woody biomass. The project is divided into three major tasks. The first is to manufacture zinc oxide (ZnO) coated cellulose nanoparticles and evaluate their morphological, chemical, structural and thermal characteristics. The second task will be to design and manufacture polymer composites containing nano sized zinc oxide and cellulose crystals. Finally the third task will be to test the fire retardancy and mechanical properties of the composites. Wbelieve that presence of zinc oxide and cellulose nanocrystals in polymers will limit the oxygen supply by charring, shielding the surface and cellulose nanocrystals will make composites strong. The outcome of this project will help in developing a safe, reliable and biobased fire retardant for consumer goods, automotive, building products and will help in saving human lives and property damage due to fire.

One day, I hope to hear about Canadian research into applications for nanocellulose materials. (fingers crossed for good luck)

In scientific race US sees China coming up from rear

Sometime it seems as if scientific research is like a race with everyone competing for first place. As in most sports, there are multiple competitions for various sub-groups but only one important race. The US has held the lead position for decades although always with some anxiety. These days the anxiety is focused on China. A June 15, 2017 news item on ScienceDaily suggests that US dominance is threatened in at least one area of research—the biomedical sector,

American scientific teams still publish significantly more biomedical research discoveries than teams from any other country, a new study shows, and the U.S. still leads the world in research and development expenditures.

But American dominance is slowly shrinking, the analysis finds, as China’s skyrocketing investing on science over the last two decades begins to pay off. Chinese biomedical research teams now rank fourth in the world for total number of new discoveries published in six top-tier journals, and the country spent three-quarters what the U.S. spent on research and development during 2015.

Meanwhile, the analysis shows, scientists from the U.S. and other countries increasingly make discoveries and advancements as part of teams that involve researchers from around the world.

A June 15, 2017 Michigan Medicine University of Michigan news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, details the research team’s insights,

The last 15 years have ushered in an era of “team science” as research funding in the U.S., Great Britain and other European countries, as well as Canada and Australia, stagnated. The number of authors has also grown over time. For example, in 2000 only two percent of the research papers the new study looked include 21 or more authors — a number that increased to 12.5 percent in 2015.

The new findings, published in JCI Insight by a team of University of Michigan researchers, come at a critical time for the debate over the future of U.S. federal research funding. The study is based on a careful analysis of original research papers published in six top-tier and four mid-tier journals from 2000 to 2015, in addition to data on R&D investment from those same years.

The study builds on other work that has also warned of America’s slipping status in the world of science and medical research, and the resulting impact on the next generation of aspiring scientists.

“It’s time for U.S. policy-makers to reflect and decide whether the year-to-year uncertainty in National Institutes of Health budget and the proposed cuts are in our societal and national best interest,” says Bishr Omary, M.D., Ph.D., senior author of the new data-supported opinion piece and chief scientific officer of Michigan Medicine, U-M’s academic medical center. “If we continue on the path we’re on, it will be harder to maintain our lead and, even more importantly, we could be disenchanting the next generation of bright and passionate biomedical scientists who see a limited future in pursuing a scientist or physician-investigator career.”

The analysis charts South Korea’s entry into the top 10 countries for publications, as well as China’s leap from outside the top 10 in 2000 to fourth place in 2015. They also track the major increases in support for research in South Korea and Singapore since the start of the 21st Century.

Meticulous tracking

First author of the study, U-M informationist Marisa Conte, and Omary co-led a team that looked carefully at the currency of modern science: peer-reviewed basic science and clinical research papers describing new findings, published in journals with long histories of accepting among the world’s most significant discoveries.

They reviewed every issue of six top-tier international journals (JAMA, Lancet, the New England Journal of Medicine, Cell, Nature and Science), and four mid-ranking journals (British Medical Journal, JAMA Internal Medicine, Journal of Cell Science, FASEB Journal), chosen to represent the clinical and basic science aspects of research.

The analysis included only papers that reported new results from basic research experiments, translational studies, clinical trials, metanalyses, and studies of disease outcomes. Author affiliations for corresponding authors and all other authors were recorded by country.

The rise in global cooperation is striking. In 2000, 25 percent of papers in the six top-tier journals were by teams that included researchers from at least two countries. In 2015, that figure was closer to 50 percent. The increasing need for multidisciplinary approaches to make major advances, coupled with the advances of Internet-based collaboration tools, likely have something to do with this, Omary says.

The authors, who also include Santiago Schnell, Ph.D. and Jing Liu, Ph.D., note that part of their group’s interest in doing the study sprang from their hypothesis that a flat NIH budget is likely to have negative consequences but they wanted to gather data to test their hypothesis.

They also observed what appears to be an increasing number of Chinese-born scientists who had trained in the U.S. going back to China after their training, where once most of them would have sought to stay in the U.S. In addition, Singapore has been able to recruit several top notch U.S. and other international scientists due to their marked increase in R&D investments.

The same trends appear to be happening in Great Britain, Australia, Canada, France, Germany and other countries the authors studied – where research investing has stayed consistent when measured as a percentage of the U.S. total over the last 15 years.

The authors note that their study is based on data up to 2015, and that in the current 2017 federal fiscal year, funding for NIH has increased thanks to bipartisan Congressional appropriations. The NIH contributes to most of the federal support for medical and basic biomedical research in the U.S. But discussion of cuts to research funding that hinders many federal agencies is in the air during the current debates for the 2018 budget. Meanwhile, the Chinese R&D spending is projected to surpass the U.S. total by 2022.

“Our analysis, albeit limited to a small number of representative journals, supports the importance of financial investment in research,” Omary says. “I would still strongly encourage any child interested in science to pursue their dream and passion, but I hope that our current and future investment in NIH and other federal research support agencies will rise above any branch of government to help our next generation reach their potential and dreams.”

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

Globalization and changing trends of biomedical research output by Marisa L. Conte, Jing Liu, Santiago Schnell, and M. Bishr Omary. JCI Insight. 2017;2(12):e95206 doi:10.1172/jci.insight.95206 Volume 2, Issue 12 (June 15, 2017)

Copyright © 2017, American Society for Clinical Investigation

This paper is open access.

The notion of a race and looking back to see who, if anyone, is gaining on you reminded me of a local piece of sports lore, the Roger Banister-John Landy ‘Miracle Mile’. In the run up to the 1954 Commonwealth Games held in Vancouver, Canada, two runners were known to have broken the 4-minute mile limit (previously thought to have been impossible) and this meeting was considered an historic meeting. Here’s more from the miraclemile1954.com website,

On August 7, 1954 during the British Empire and Commonwealth Games in Vancouver, B.C., England’s Roger Bannister and Australian John Landy met for the first time in the one mile run at the newly constructed Empire Stadium.

Both men had broken the four minute barrier previously that year. Bannister was the first to break the mark with a time of 3:59.4 on May 6th in Oxford, England. Subsequently, on June 21st in Turku, Finland, John Landy became the new record holder with an official time of 3:58.

The world watched eagerly as both men approached the starting blocks. As 35,000 enthusiastic fans looked on, no one knew what would take place on that historic day.

Promoted as “The Mile of the Century”, it would later be known as the “Miracle Mile”.

With only 90 yards to go in one of the world’s most memorable races, John Landy glanced over his left shoulder to check his opponent’s position. At that instant Bannister streaked by him to victory in a Commonwealth record time of 3:58.8. Landy’s second place finish in 3:59.6 marked the first time the four minute mile had been broken by two men in the same race.

The website hosts an image of the moment memorialized in bronze when Landy looks to his left as Banister passes him on his right,

By Statue: Jack HarmanPhoto: Paul Joseph from vancouver, bc, canada – roger bannister running the four minute mileUploaded by Skeezix1000, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9801121

Getting back to science, I wonder if some day we’ll stop thinking of it as a race where, inevitably, there’s one winner and everyone else loses and find a new metaphor.

The Canadian science scene and the 2017 Canadian federal budget

There’s not much happening in the 2017-18 budget in terms of new spending according to Paul Wells’ March 22, 2017 article for TheStar.com,

This is the 22nd or 23rd federal budget I’ve covered. And I’ve never seen the like of the one Bill Morneau introduced on Wednesday [March 22, 2017].

Not even in the last days of the Harper Conservatives did a budget provide for so little new spending — $1.3 billion in the current budget year, total, in all fields of government. That’s a little less than half of one per cent of all federal program spending for this year.

But times are tight. The future is a place where we can dream. So the dollars flow more freely in later years. In 2021-22, the budget’s fifth planning year, new spending peaks at $8.2 billion. Which will be about 2.4 per cent of all program spending.

He’s not alone in this 2017 federal budget analysis; CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) pundits, Chantal Hébert, Andrew Coyne, and Jennifer Ditchburn said much the same during their ‘At Issue’ segment of the March 22, 2017 broadcast of The National (news).

Before I focus on the science and technology budget, here are some general highlights from the CBC’s March 22, 2017 article on the 2017-18 budget announcement (Note: Links have been removed,

Here are highlights from the 2017 federal budget:

  • Deficit: $28.5 billion, up from $25.4 billion projected in the fall.
  • Trend: Deficits gradually decline over next five years — but still at $18.8 billion in 2021-22.
  • Housing: $11.2 billion over 11 years, already budgeted, will go to a national housing strategy.
  • Child care: $7 billion over 10 years, already budgeted, for new spaces, starting 2018-19.
  • Indigenous: $3.4 billion in new money over five years for infrastructure, health and education.
  • Defence: $8.4 billion in capital spending for equipment pushed forward to 2035.
  • Care givers: New care-giving benefit up to 15 weeks, starting next year.
  • Skills: New agency to research and measure skills development, starting 2018-19.
  • Innovation: $950 million over five years to support business-led “superclusters.”
  • Startups: $400 million over three years for a new venture capital catalyst initiative.
  • AI: $125 million to launch a pan-Canadian Artificial Intelligence Strategy.
  • Coding kids: $50 million over two years for initiatives to teach children to code.
  • Families: Option to extend parental leave up to 18 months.
  • Uber tax: GST to be collected on ride-sharing services.
  • Sin taxes: One cent more on a bottle of wine, five cents on 24 case of beer.
  • Bye-bye: No more Canada Savings Bonds.
  • Transit credit killed: 15 per cent non-refundable public transit tax credit phased out this year.

You can find the entire 2017-18 budget here.

Science and the 2017-18 budget

For anyone interested in the science news, you’ll find most of that in the 2017 budget’s Chapter 1 — Skills, Innovation and Middle Class jobs. As well, Wayne Kondro has written up a précis in his March 22, 2017 article for Science (magazine),

Finance officials, who speak on condition of anonymity during the budget lock-up, indicated the budgets of the granting councils, the main source of operational grants for university researchers, will be “static” until the government can assess recommendations that emerge from an expert panel formed in 2015 and headed by former University of Toronto President David Naylor to review basic science in Canada [highlighted in my June 15, 2016 posting ; $2M has been allocated for the advisor and associated secretariat]. Until then, the officials said, funding for the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) will remain at roughly $848 million, whereas that for the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) will remain at $773 million, and for the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council [SSHRC] at $547 million.

NSERC, though, will receive $8.1 million over 5 years to administer a PromoScience Program that introduces youth, particularly unrepresented groups like Aboriginal people and women, to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics through measures like “space camps and conservation projects.” CIHR, meanwhile, could receive modest amounts from separate plans to identify climate change health risks and to reduce drug and substance abuse, the officials added.

… Canada’s Innovation and Skills Plan, would funnel $600 million over 5 years allocated in 2016, and $112.5 million slated for public transit and green infrastructure, to create Silicon Valley–like “super clusters,” which the budget defined as “dense areas of business activity that contain large and small companies, post-secondary institutions and specialized talent and infrastructure.” …

… The Canadian Institute for Advanced Research will receive $93.7 million [emphasis mine] to “launch a Pan-Canadian Artificial Intelligence Strategy … (to) position Canada as a world-leading destination for companies seeking to invest in artificial intelligence and innovation.”

… Among more specific measures are vows to: Use $87.7 million in previous allocations to the Canada Research Chairs program to create 25 “Canada 150 Research Chairs” honoring the nation’s 150th year of existence, provide $1.5 million per year to support the operations of the office of the as-yet-unappointed national science adviser [see my Dec. 7, 2016 post for information about the job posting, which is now closed]; provide $165.7 million [emphasis mine] over 5 years for the nonprofit organization Mitacs to create roughly 6300 more co-op positions for university students and grads, and provide $60.7 million over five years for new Canadian Space Agency projects, particularly for Canadian participation in the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s next Mars Orbiter Mission.

Kondros was either reading an earlier version of the budget or made an error regarding Mitacs (from the budget in the “A New, Ambitious Approach to Work-Integrated Learning” subsection),

Mitacs has set an ambitious goal of providing 10,000 work-integrated learning placements for Canadian post-secondary students and graduates each year—up from the current level of around 3,750 placements. Budget 2017 proposes to provide $221 million [emphasis mine] over five years, starting in 2017–18, to achieve this goal and provide relevant work experience to Canadian students.

As well, the budget item for the Pan-Canadian Artificial Intelligence Strategy is $125M.

Moving from Kondros’ précis, the budget (in the “Positioning National Research Council Canada Within the Innovation and Skills Plan” subsection) announces support for these specific areas of science,

Stem Cell Research

The Stem Cell Network, established in 2001, is a national not-for-profit organization that helps translate stem cell research into clinical applications, commercial products and public policy. Its research holds great promise, offering the potential for new therapies and medical treatments for respiratory and heart diseases, cancer, diabetes, spinal cord injury, multiple sclerosis, Crohn’s disease, auto-immune disorders and Parkinson’s disease. To support this important work, Budget 2017 proposes to provide the Stem Cell Network with renewed funding of $6 million in 2018–19.

Space Exploration

Canada has a long and proud history as a space-faring nation. As our international partners prepare to chart new missions, Budget 2017 proposes investments that will underscore Canada’s commitment to innovation and leadership in space. Budget 2017 proposes to provide $80.9 million on a cash basis over five years, starting in 2017–18, for new projects through the Canadian Space Agency that will demonstrate and utilize Canadian innovations in space, including in the field of quantum technology as well as for Mars surface observation. The latter project will enable Canada to join the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA’s) next Mars Orbiter Mission.

Quantum Information

The development of new quantum technologies has the potential to transform markets, create new industries and produce leading-edge jobs. The Institute for Quantum Computing is a world-leading Canadian research facility that furthers our understanding of these innovative technologies. Budget 2017 proposes to provide the Institute with renewed funding of $10 million over two years, starting in 2017–18.

Social Innovation

Through community-college partnerships, the Community and College Social Innovation Fund fosters positive social outcomes, such as the integration of vulnerable populations into Canadian communities. Following the success of this pilot program, Budget 2017 proposes to invest $10 million over two years, starting in 2017–18, to continue this work.

International Research Collaborations

The Canadian Institute for Advanced Research (CIFAR) connects Canadian researchers with collaborative research networks led by eminent Canadian and international researchers on topics that touch all humanity. Past collaborations facilitated by CIFAR are credited with fostering Canada’s leadership in artificial intelligence and deep learning. Budget 2017 proposes to provide renewed and enhanced funding of $35 million over five years, starting in 2017–18.

Earlier this week, I highlighted Canada’s strength in the field of regenerative medicine, specifically stem cells in a March 21, 2017 posting. The $6M in the current budget doesn’t look like increased funding but rather a one-year extension. I’m sure they’re happy to receive it  but I imagine it’s a little hard to plan major research projects when you’re not sure how long your funding will last.

As for Canadian leadership in artificial intelligence, that was news to me. Here’s more from the budget,

Canada a Pioneer in Deep Learning in Machines and Brains

CIFAR’s Learning in Machines & Brains program has shaken up the field of artificial intelligence by pioneering a technique called “deep learning,” a computer technique inspired by the human brain and neural networks, which is now routinely used by the likes of Google and Facebook. The program brings together computer scientists, biologists, neuroscientists, psychologists and others, and the result is rich collaborations that have propelled artificial intelligence research forward. The program is co-directed by one of Canada’s foremost experts in artificial intelligence, the Université de Montréal’s Yoshua Bengio, and for his many contributions to the program, the University of Toronto’s Geoffrey Hinton, another Canadian leader in this field, was awarded the title of Distinguished Fellow by CIFAR in 2014.

Meanwhile, from chapter 1 of the budget in the subsection titled “Preparing for the Digital Economy,” there is this provision for children,

Providing educational opportunities for digital skills development to Canadian girls and boys—from kindergarten to grade 12—will give them the head start they need to find and keep good, well-paying, in-demand jobs. To help provide coding and digital skills education to more young Canadians, the Government intends to launch a competitive process through which digital skills training organizations can apply for funding. Budget 2017 proposes to provide $50 million over two years, starting in 2017–18, to support these teaching initiatives.

I wonder if BC Premier Christy Clark is heaving a sigh of relief. At the 2016 #BCTECH Summit, she announced that students in BC would learn to code at school and in newly enhanced coding camp programmes (see my Jan. 19, 2016 posting). Interestingly, there was no mention of additional funding to support her initiative. I guess this money from the federal government comes at a good time as we will have a provincial election later this spring where she can announce the initiative again and, this time, mention there’s money for it.

Attracting brains from afar

Ivan Semeniuk in his March 23, 2017 article (for the Globe and Mail) reads between the lines to analyze the budget’s possible impact on Canadian science,

But a between-the-lines reading of the budget document suggests the government also has another audience in mind: uneasy scientists from the United States and Britain.

The federal government showed its hand at the 2017 #BCTECH Summit. From a March 16, 2017 article by Meera Bains for the CBC news online,

At the B.C. tech summit, Navdeep Bains, Canada’s minister of innovation, said the government will act quickly to fast track work permits to attract highly skilled talent from other countries.

“We’re taking the processing time, which takes months, and reducing it to two weeks for immigration processing for individuals [who] need to come here to help companies grow and scale up,” Bains said.

“So this is a big deal. It’s a game changer.”

That change will happen through the Global Talent Stream, a new program under the federal government’s temporary foreign worker program.  It’s scheduled to begin on June 12, 2017.

U.S. companies are taking notice and a Canadian firm, True North, is offering to help them set up shop.

“What we suggest is that they think about moving their operations, or at least a chunk of their operations, to Vancouver, set up a Canadian subsidiary,” said the company’s founder, Michael Tippett.

“And that subsidiary would be able to house and accommodate those employees.”

Industry experts says while the future is unclear for the tech sector in the U.S., it’s clear high tech in B.C. is gearing up to take advantage.

US business attempts to take advantage of Canada’s relative stability and openness to immigration would seem to be the motive for at least one cross border initiative, the Cascadia Urban Analytics Cooperative. From my Feb. 28, 2017 posting,

There was some big news about the smallest version of the Cascadia region on Thursday, Feb. 23, 2017 when the University of British Columbia (UBC) , the University of Washington (state; UW), and Microsoft announced the launch of the Cascadia Urban Analytics Cooperative. From the joint Feb. 23, 2017 news release (read on the UBC website or read on the UW website),

In an expansion of regional cooperation, the University of British Columbia and the University of Washington today announced the establishment of the Cascadia Urban Analytics Cooperative to use data to help cities and communities address challenges from traffic to homelessness. The largest industry-funded research partnership between UBC and the UW, the collaborative will bring faculty, students and community stakeholders together to solve problems, and is made possible thanks to a $1-million gift from Microsoft.

Today’s announcement follows last September’s [2016] Emerging Cascadia Innovation Corridor Conference in Vancouver, B.C. The forum brought together regional leaders for the first time to identify concrete opportunities for partnerships in education, transportation, university research, human capital and other areas.

A Boston Consulting Group study unveiled at the conference showed the region between Seattle and Vancouver has “high potential to cultivate an innovation corridor” that competes on an international scale, but only if regional leaders work together. The study says that could be possible through sustained collaboration aided by an educated and skilled workforce, a vibrant network of research universities and a dynamic policy environment.

It gets better, it seems Microsoft has been positioning itself for a while if Matt Day’s analysis is correct (from my Feb. 28, 2017 posting),

Matt Day in a Feb. 23, 2017 article for the The Seattle Times provides additional perspective (Note: Links have been removed),

Microsoft’s effort to nudge Seattle and Vancouver, B.C., a bit closer together got an endorsement Thursday [Feb. 23, 2017] from the leading university in each city.

The partnership has its roots in a September [2016] conference in Vancouver organized by Microsoft’s public affairs and lobbying unit [emphasis mine.] That gathering was aimed at tying business, government and educational institutions in Microsoft’s home region in the Seattle area closer to its Canadian neighbor.

Microsoft last year [2016] opened an expanded office in downtown Vancouver with space for 750 employees, an outpost partly designed to draw to the Northwest more engineers than the company can get through the U.S. guest worker system [emphasis mine].

This was all prior to President Trump’s legislative moves in the US, which have at least one Canadian observer a little more gleeful than I’m comfortable with. From a March 21, 2017 article by Susan Lum  for CBC News online,

U.S. President Donald Trump’s efforts to limit travel into his country while simultaneously cutting money from science-based programs provides an opportunity for Canada’s science sector, says a leading Canadian researcher.

“This is Canada’s moment. I think it’s a time we should be bold,” said Alan Bernstein, president of CIFAR [which on March 22, 2017 was awarded $125M to launch the Pan Canada Artificial Intelligence Strategy in the Canadian federal budget announcement], a global research network that funds hundreds of scientists in 16 countries.

Bernstein believes there are many reasons why Canada has become increasingly attractive to scientists around the world, including the political climate in the United States and the Trump administration’s travel bans.

Thankfully, Bernstein calms down a bit,

“It used to be if you were a bright young person anywhere in the world, you would want to go to Harvard or Berkeley or Stanford, or what have you. Now I think you should give pause to that,” he said. “We have pretty good universities here [emphasis mine]. We speak English. We’re a welcoming society for immigrants.”​

Bernstein cautions that Canada should not be seen to be poaching scientists from the United States — but there is an opportunity.

“It’s as if we’ve been in a choir of an opera in the back of the stage and all of a sudden the stars all left the stage. And the audience is expecting us to sing an aria. So we should sing,” Bernstein said.

Bernstein said the federal government, with this week’s so-called innovation budget, can help Canada hit the right notes.

“Innovation is built on fundamental science, so I’m looking to see if the government is willing to support, in a big way, fundamental science in the country.”

Pretty good universities, eh? Thank you, Dr. Bernstein, for keeping some of the boosterism in check. Let’s leave the chest thumping to President Trump and his cronies.

Ivan Semeniuk’s March 23, 2017 article (for the Globe and Mail) provides more details about the situation in the US and in Britain,

Last week, Donald Trump’s first budget request made clear the U.S. President would significantly reduce or entirely eliminate research funding in areas such as climate science and renewable energy if permitted by Congress. Even the National Institutes of Health, which spearheads medical research in the United States and is historically supported across party lines, was unexpectedly targeted for a $6-billion (U.S.) cut that the White House said could be achieved through “efficiencies.”

In Britain, a recent survey found that 42 per cent of academics were considering leaving the country over worries about a less welcoming environment and the loss of research money that a split with the European Union is expected to bring.

In contrast, Canada’s upbeat language about science in the budget makes a not-so-subtle pitch for diversity and talent from abroad, including $117.6-million to establish 25 research chairs with the aim of attracting “top-tier international scholars.”

For good measure, the budget also includes funding for science promotion and $2-million annually for Canada’s yet-to-be-hired Chief Science Advisor, whose duties will include ensuring that government researchers can speak freely about their work.

“What we’ve been hearing over the last few months is that Canada is seen as a beacon, for its openness and for its commitment to science,” said Ms. Duncan [Kirsty Duncan, Minister of Science], who did not refer directly to either the United States or Britain in her comments.

Providing a less optimistic note, Erica Alini in her March 22, 2017 online article for Global News mentions a perennial problem, the Canadian brain drain,

The budget includes a slew of proposed reforms and boosted funding for existing training programs, as well as new skills-development resources for unemployed and underemployed Canadians not covered under current EI-funded programs.

There are initiatives to help women and indigenous people get degrees or training in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (the so-called STEM subjects) and even to teach kids as young as kindergarten-age to code.

But there was no mention of how to make sure Canadians with the right skills remain in Canada, TD’s DePratto {Toronto Dominion Bank} Economics; TD is currently experiencing a scandal {March 13, 2017 Huffington Post news item}] told Global News.

Canada ranks in the middle of the pack compared to other advanced economies when it comes to its share of its graduates in STEM fields, but the U.S. doesn’t shine either, said DePratto [Brian DePratto, senior economist at TD .

The key difference between Canada and the U.S. is the ability to retain domestic talent and attract brains from all over the world, he noted.

To be blunt, there may be some opportunities for Canadian science but it does well to remember (a) US businesses have no particular loyalty to Canada and (b) all it takes is an election to change any perceived advantages to disadvantages.

Digital policy and intellectual property issues

Dubbed by some as the ‘innovation’ budget (official title:  Building a Strong Middle Class), there is an attempt to address a longstanding innovation issue (from a March 22, 2017 posting by Michael Geist on his eponymous blog (Note: Links have been removed),

The release of today’s [march 22, 2017] federal budget is expected to include a significant emphasis on innovation, with the government revealing how it plans to spend (or re-allocate) hundreds of millions of dollars that is intended to support innovation. Canada’s dismal innovation record needs attention, but spending our way to a more innovative economy is unlikely to yield the desired results. While Navdeep Bains, the Innovation, Science and Economic Development Minister, has talked for months about the importance of innovation, Toronto Star columnist Paul Wells today delivers a cutting but accurate assessment of those efforts:

“This government is the first with a minister for innovation! He’s Navdeep Bains. He frequently posts photos of his meetings on Twitter, with the hashtag “#innovation.” That’s how you know there is innovation going on. A year and a half after he became the minister for #innovation, it’s not clear what Bains’s plans are. It’s pretty clear that within the government he has less than complete control over #innovation. There’s an advisory council on economic growth, chaired by the McKinsey guru Dominic Barton, which periodically reports to the government urging more #innovation.

There’s a science advisory panel, chaired by former University of Toronto president David Naylor, that delivered a report to Science Minister Kirsty Duncan more than three months ago. That report has vanished. One presumes that’s because it offered some advice. Whatever Bains proposes, it will have company.”

Wells is right. Bains has been very visible with plenty of meetings and public photo shoots but no obvious innovation policy direction. This represents a missed opportunity since Bains has plenty of policy tools at his disposal that could advance Canada’s innovation framework without focusing on government spending.

For example, Canada’s communications system – wireless and broadband Internet access – falls directly within his portfolio and is crucial for both business and consumers. Yet Bains has been largely missing in action on the file. He gave approval for the Bell – MTS merger that virtually everyone concedes will increase prices in the province and make the communications market less competitive. There are potential policy measures that could bring new competitors into the market (MVNOs [mobile virtual network operators] and municipal broadband) and that could make it easier for consumers to switch providers (ban on unlocking devices). Some of this falls to the CRTC, but government direction and emphasis would make a difference.

Even more troubling has been his near total invisibility on issues relating to new fees or taxes on Internet access and digital services. Canadian Heritage Minister Mélanie Joly has taken control of the issue with the possibility that Canadians could face increased costs for their Internet access or digital services through mandatory fees to contribute to Canadian content.  Leaving aside the policy objections to such an approach (reducing affordable access and the fact that foreign sources now contribute more toward Canadian English language TV production than Canadian broadcasters and distributors), Internet access and e-commerce are supposed to be Bains’ issue and they have a direct connection to the innovation file. How is it possible for the Innovation, Science and Economic Development Minister to have remained silent for months on the issue?

Bains has been largely missing on trade related innovation issues as well. My Globe and Mail column today focuses on a digital-era NAFTA, pointing to likely U.S. demands on data localization, data transfers, e-commerce rules, and net neutrality.  These are all issues that fall under Bains’ portfolio and will impact investment in Canadian networks and digital services. There are innovation opportunities for Canada here, but Bains has been content to leave the policy issues to others, who will be willing to sacrifice potential gains in those areas.

Intellectual property policy is yet another area that falls directly under Bains’ mandate with an obvious link to innovation, but he has done little on the file. Canada won a huge NAFTA victory late last week involving the Canadian patent system, which was challenged by pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly. Why has Bains not promoted the decision as an affirmation of how Canada’s intellectual property rules?

On the copyright front, the government is scheduled to conduct a review of the Copyright Act later this year, but it is not clear whether Bains will take the lead or again cede responsibility to Joly. The Copyright Act is statutorily under the Industry Minister and reform offers the chance to kickstart innovation. …

For anyone who’s not familiar with this area, innovation is often code for commercialization of science and technology research efforts. These days, digital service and access policies and intellectual property policies are all key to research and innovation efforts.

The country that’s most often (except in mainstream Canadian news media) held up as an example of leadership in innovation is Estonia. The Economist profiled the country in a July 31, 2013 article and a July 7, 2016 article on apolitical.co provides and update.

Conclusions

Science monies for the tri-council science funding agencies (NSERC, SSHRC, and CIHR) are more or less flat but there were a number of line items in the federal budget which qualify as science funding. The $221M over five years for Mitacs, the $125M for the Pan-Canadian Artificial Intelligence Strategy, additional funding for the Canada research chairs, and some of the digital funding could also be included as part of the overall haul. This is in line with the former government’s (Stephen Harper’s Conservatives) penchant for keeping the tri-council’s budgets under control while spreading largesse elsewhere (notably the Perimeter Institute, TRIUMF [Canada’s National Laboratory for Particle and Nuclear Physics], and, in the 2015 budget, $243.5-million towards the Thirty Metre Telescope (TMT) — a massive astronomical observatory to be constructed on the summit of Mauna Kea, Hawaii, a $1.5-billion project). This has lead to some hard feelings in the past with regard to ‘big science’ projects getting what some have felt is an undeserved boost in finances while the ‘small fish’ are left scrabbling for the ever-diminishing (due to budget cuts in years past and inflation) pittances available from the tri-council agencies.

Mitacs, which started life as a federally funded Network Centre for Excellence focused on mathematics, has since shifted focus to become an innovation ‘champion’. You can find Mitacs here and you can find the organization’s March 2016 budget submission to the House of Commons Standing Committee on Finance here. At the time, they did not request a specific amount of money; they just asked for more.

The amount Mitacs expects to receive this year is over $40M which represents more than double what they received from the federal government and almost of 1/2 of their total income in the 2015-16 fiscal year according to their 2015-16 annual report (see p. 327 for the Mitacs Statement of Operations to March 31, 2016). In fact, the federal government forked over $39,900,189. in the 2015-16 fiscal year to be their largest supporter while Mitacs’ total income (receipts) was $81,993,390.

It’s a strange thing but too much money, etc. can be as bad as too little. I wish the folks Mitacs nothing but good luck with their windfall.

I don’t see anything in the budget that encourages innovation and investment from the industrial sector in Canada.

Finallyl, innovation is a cultural issue as much as it is a financial issue and having worked with a number of developers and start-up companies, the most popular business model is to develop a successful business that will be acquired by a large enterprise thereby allowing the entrepreneurs to retire before the age of 30 (or 40 at the latest). I don’t see anything from the government acknowledging the problem let alone any attempts to tackle it.

All in all, it was a decent budget with nothing in it to seriously offend anyone.

Trans-Atlantic Platform (T-AP) is a unique collaboration of humanities and social science researchers from Europe and the Americas

Launched in 2013, the Trans-Atlantic Platform is co-chaired by Dr.Ted Hewitt, president of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) , and Dr. Renée van Kessel-Hagesteijn, Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research—Social Sciences (NWO—Social Sciences).

An EU (European Union) publication, International Innovation features an interview about T-AP with Ted Hewitt in a June 30, 2016 posting,

The Trans-Atlantic Platform is a unique collaboration of humanities and social science funders from Europe and the Americas. International Innovation’s Rebecca Torr speaks with Ted Hewitt, President of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council and Co-Chair of T-AP to understand more about the Platform and its pilot funding programme, Digging into Data.

Many commentators have called for better integration between natural and social scientists, to ensure that the societal benefits of STEM research are fully realised. Does the integration of diverse scientific disciplines form part of T-AP’s remit, and if so, how are you working to achieve this?

T-AP was designed primarily to promote and facilitate research across SSH. However, given the Platform’s thematic priorities and the funding opportunities being contemplated, we anticipate that a good number of non-SSH [emphasis mine] researchers will be involved.

As an example, on March 1, T-AP launched its first pilot funding opportunity: the T-AP Digging into Data Challenge. One of the sponsors is the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC), Canada’s federal funding agency for research in the natural sciences and engineering. Their involvement ensures that the perspective of the natural sciences is included in the challenge. The Digging into Data Challenge is open to any project that addresses research questions in the SSH by using large-scale digital data analysis techniques, and is then able to show how these techniques can lead to new insights. And the challenge specifically aims to advance multidisciplinary collaborative projects.

When you tackle a research question or undertake research to address a social challenge, you need collaboration between various SSH disciplines or between SSH and STEM disciplines. So, while proposals must address SSH research questions, the individual teams often involve STEM researchers, such as computer scientists.

In previous rounds of the Digging into Data Challenge, this has led to invaluable research. One project looked at how the media shaped public opinion around the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic. Another used CT scans to examine hundreds of mummies, ultimately discovering that atherosclerosis, a form of heart disease, was prevalent 4,000 years ago. In both cases, these multidisciplinary historical research projects have helped inform our thinking of the present.

Of course, Digging into Data isn’t the only research area in which T-AP will be involved. Since its inception, T-AP partners have identified three priority areas beyond digital scholarship: diversity, inequality and difference; resilient and innovative societies; and transformative research on the environment. Each of these areas touches on a variety of SSH fields, while the transformative research on the environment area has strong connections with STEM fields. In September 2015, T-AP organised a workshop around this third priority area; environmental science researchers were among the workshop participants.

I wish Hewitt hadn’t described researchers from disciplines other than the humanities and social sciences as “non-SSH.” The designation divides the world in two: us and non-take your pick: non-Catholic/Muslim/American/STEM/SSH/etc.

Getting back to the interview, it is surprisingly Canuck-centric in places,

How does T-AP fit in with Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC)’s priorities?

One of the objectives in SSHRC’s new strategic plan is to develop partnerships that enable us to expand the reach of our funding. As T-AP provides SSHRC with links to 16 agencies across Europe and the Americas, it is an efficient mechanism for us to broaden the scope of our support and promotion of post-secondary-based research and training in SSH.

It also provides an opportunity to explore cutting edge areas of research, such as big data (as we did with the first call we put out, Digging into Data). The research enterprise is becoming increasingly international, by which I mean that researchers are working on issues with international dimensions or collaborating in international teams. In this globalised environment, SSHRC must partner with international funders to support research excellence. By developing international funding opportunities, T-AP helps researchers create teams better positioned to tackle the most exciting and promising research topics.

Finally, it is a highly effective way of broadly promoting the value of SSH research throughout Canada and around the globe. There are significant costs and complexities involved in international research, and uncoordinated funding from multiple national funders can actually create barriers to collaboration. A platform like T-AP helps funders coordinate and streamline processes.

The interview gets a little more international scope when it turns to the data project,

What is the significance of your pilot funding programme in digital scholarship and what types of projects will it support?

The T-AP Digging into Data Challenge is significant for several reasons. First, the geographic reach of Digging is truly significant. With 16 participants from 11 countries, this round of Digging has significantly broader participation from previous rounds. This is also the first time Digging into Data includes funders from South America.

The T-AP Digging into Data Challenge is open to any research project that addresses questions in SSH. In terms of what those projects will end up being is anybody’s guess – projects from past competitions have involved fields ranging from musicology to anthropology to political science.

The Challenge’s main focus is, of course, the use of big data in research.

You may want to read the interview in its entirety here.

I have checked out the Trans-Atlantic Platform website but cannot determine how someone or some institution might consult that site for information on how to get involved in their projects or get funding. However, there is a T-AP Digging into Data website where there is evidence of the first international call for funding submissions. Sadly, the deadline for the 2016 call has passed if the website is to be believed (sometimes people are late when changing deadline dates).

Dual purpose: loofah and battery?

Sadly, the proposed batteries are not dual purpose although they are based on loofah material. From a June 15, 2016 news item on phys.org,

Today’s mobile lifestyle depends on rechargeable lithium batteries. But to take these storage devices to the next level—to shore up the electric grid or for widespread use in vehicles, for example—they need a big boost in capacity. To get lithium batteries up to snuff for more ambitious applications, researchers report in the journal ACS Applied Materials & Interfaces a new solution that involves low-cost, renewable loofah sponges.

A June 15, 2016 American Chemical Society press release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, expands on the theme,

The lithium-ion batteries that power most of our devices still have some room for improvement. But some experts predict that even when these batteries are fully optimized, they still will not be able to meet the power needs for larger-scale applications, such as taking a car 500 miles on one charge. Scientists looking to go beyond lithium-ion have turned to lithium-sulfur and other options. But a major challenge to commercializing these technologies remains: The cathodes crumble over time, leading to progressively lower capacity. Shanqing Zhang, Yanglong Hou, Li-Min Liu and colleagues wanted to find a way to stabilize these alternatives.

The researchers developed a “blocking” layer of highly conductive, porous carbon derived from a loofah sponge. The loofah-derived membrane helped prevent the cathode from dissolving in lithium-sulfur, lithium-selenium and lithium-iodine batteries — and all three types performed well consistently over 500 to 5,000 cycles. The loofah sponge carbon could be the advance needed to move these batteries forward in a low-cost, sustainable way, the researchers say.

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

Multifunctional Nitrogen-Doped Loofah Sponge Carbon Blocking Layer for High-Performance Rechargeable Lithium Batteries by Xingxing Gui, Chuan-Jia Tong, Sarish Rehman, Li-Min Liu, Yanglong Hou, and Shanqing Zhang. ACS Appl. Mater. Interfaces, Article ASAP DOI: 10.1021/acsami.6b02378 Publication Date (Web): June 02, 2016

Copyright © 2016 American Chemical Society

This paper is behind a paywall.

The researchers have made an image illustrating the work available,

Courtesy American Chemical Society

Courtesy American Chemical Society

Here’s one final bit from the press release,

The authors acknowledge funding from the Australian Research Council, the National Natural Science Foundation of China and the Ministry of Education of China.

Funding sources can be very interesting and this adds confirmation of China’s focus on the environment and sustainability.

Canada and its review of fundamental science

Big thanks to David Bruggeman’s June 14, 2016 post (on his Pasco Phronesis blog) for news of Canada’s Fundamental Science Review, which was launched on June 13, 2016 (Note: Links have been removed),

The panel’s mandate focuses on support for fundamental research, research facilities, and platform technologies.  This will include the three granting councils as well as other research organisations such as the Canada Foundation for Innovation. But it does not preclude the panel from considering and providing advice and recommendations on research matters outside of the mandate.  The plan is to make the panel’s work and recommendations readily accessible to the public, either online or through any report or reports the panel produces.  The panel’s recommendations to Minister Duncan are non-binding. …

As Ivan Semeniuk notes at The Globe and Mail [Canadian ‘national’ newspaper], the recent Nurse Review in the U.K., which led to the notable changes underway in the organization of that country’s research councils, seems comparable to this effort.  But I think it worth noting the differences in the research systems of the two countries, and the different political pressures in play.  It is not at all obvious to this writer that the Canadian review would necessarily lead to similar recommendations for a streamlining and reorganization of the Canadian research councils.

Longtime observers of the Canadian science funding scene may recall an earlier review held under the auspices of the Steven Harper Conservative government known as the ‘Review of Federal Support to R&D’. In fact it was focused on streamlining government funding for innovation and commercialization of science. The result was the 2011 report, ‘Innovation Canada: A Call to Action’, known popularly as the ‘Jenkins report’ after the panel chair, Tom Jenkins. (More about the report and responses to it can be found in my Oct. 21, 2011 post).

It’s nice to see that fundamental science is being given its turn for attention.

A June 13, 2016 Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada news release provides more detail about the review and the panel guiding the review,

The Government of Canada understands the role of science in maintaining a thriving, clean economy and in providing the evidence for sound policy decisions. To deliver on this role however, federal programs that support Canada’s research efforts must be aligned in such a way as to ensure they are strategic, effective and focused on meeting the needs of scientists first.

That is why the Honourable Kirsty Duncan, Minister of Science, today launched an independent review of federal funding for fundamental science. The review will assess the program machinery that is currently in place to support science and scientists in Canada. The scope of the review includes the three granting councils [Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council {SSHRC}, Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council {NSERC}, Canadian Institutes of Health Research {CIHR}] along with certain federally funded organizations such as the Canada Foundation for Innovation [CFI].

The review will be led by an independent panel of distinguished research leaders and innovators including Dr. David Naylor, former president of the University of Toronto and chair of the panel. Other panelists include:

  • Dr. Robert Birgeneau, former chancellor, University of California, Berkeley
  • Dr. Martha Crago, Vice-President, Research, Dalhousie University
  • Mike Lazaridis, co-founder, Quantum Valley Investments
  • Dr. Claudia Malacrida, Associate Vice-President, Research, University of Lethbridge
  • Dr. Art McDonald, former director of the Sudbury Neutrino Laboratory, Nobel Laureate
  • Dr. Martha Piper, interim president, University of British Columbia
  • Dr. Rémi Quirion, Chief Scientist, Quebec
  • Dr. Anne Wilson, Canadian Institute for Advanced Research Successful Societies Fellow and professor of psychology, Wilfrid Laurier University

The panel will spend the next six months seeking input from the research community and Canadians on how to optimize support for fundamental science in Canada. The panel will also survey international best practices for funding science and examine whether emerging researchers face barriers that prevent them from achieving career goals. It will look at what must be done to address these barriers and what more can be done to encourage Canada’s scientists to take on bold new research challenges. In addition to collecting input from the research community, the panel will also invite Canadians to participate in the review [emphasis mine] through an online consultation.

Ivan Semeniuk in his June 13, 2016 article for The Globe and Mail provides some interesting commentary about the possible outcomes of this review,

Depending on how its recommendations are taken on board, the panel could trigger anything from minor tweaks to a major rebuild of Ottawa’s science-funding apparatus, which this year is expected to funnel more than $3-billion to Canadian researchers and their labs.

Asked what she most wanted the panel to address, Ms. Duncan cited, as an example, the plight of younger researchers who, in many cases, must wait until they are in their 40s to get federal support.

Another is the risk of losing the benefits of previous investments when funding rules become restrictive, such as a 14-year limit on how long the government can support one of its existing networks of centres of excellence, or the dependence of research projects that are in the national interest on funding streams that require support from provincial governments or private sources.

The current system for proposing and reviewing research grants has been criticized as cumbersome and fraught with biases that mean the best science is not always supported.

In a paper published on Friday in the research journal PLOS One, Trent University biologist Dennis Murray and colleagues combed through 13,526 grant proposals to the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council between 2011 and 2014 and found significant evidence that researchers at smaller universities have consistently lower success rates.

Dr. Murray advocates for a more quantitative and impartial system of review to keep such biases at bay.

“There are too many opportunities for human impressions — conscious or unconscious — to make their way into the current evaluation process,” Dr. Murray said.

More broadly, researchers say the time is right for a look at a system that has grown convoluted and less suited to a world in which science is increasingly cross-disciplinary, and international research collaborations are more important.

If you have time, I encourage you to take a look at Semeniuk’s entire article as for the paper he mentions, here’s a link to and a citation for it,

Bias in Research Grant Evaluation Has Dire Consequences for Small Universities by Dennis L. Murray, Douglas Morris, Claude Lavoie, Peter R. Leavitt, Hugh MacIsaac,  Michael E. J. Masson, & Marc-Andre Villard. PLOS http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0155876  Published: June 3, 2016

This paper is open access.

Getting back to the review and more specifically, the panel, it’s good to see that four of the nine participants are women but other than that there doesn’t seem to be much diversity, i.e.,the majority (five) spring from the Ontario/Québec nexus of power and all the Canadians are from the southern part of country. Back to diversity, there is one business man, Mike Laziridis known primarily as the founder of Research in Motion (RIM or more popularly as the Blackberry company) making the panel not a wholly ivory tower affair. Still, I hope one day these panels will have members from the Canadian North and international members who come from somewhere other than the US, Great Britain, and/or if they’re having a particularly wild day, Germany. Here are some candidate countries for other places to look for panel members: Japan, Israel, China, South Korea, and India. Other possibilities include one of the South American countries, African countries, and/or the Middle Eastern countries.

Take the continent of Africa for example, where many countries seem to have successfully tackled one of the issues as we face. Specifically, the problem of encouraging young researchers. James Wilsdon notes some success in his April 9, 2016 post about Africa and science advice for the Guardian science blogs (Note: Links have been removed),

… some of the brightest talents and most exciting advances in African science were on display at the Next Einstein Forum. This landmark meeting, initiated by the African Institute of Mathematical Sciences, and held in Senegal, brought together almost 1000 researchers, entrepreneurs, businesses and policymakers from across Africa to celebrate and support the continent’s most promising early-career researchers.

A new cadre of fifteen Next Einstein Fellows and fifty-four ambassadors was announced, and the forum ended with an upbeat declaration of commitment to Africa’s role in world-leading, locally-relevant science. …

… UNESCO’s latest global audit of science, published at the end of 2015, concludes that African science is firmly on the rise. The number of journal articles published on the continent rose by sixty per cent from 2008 to 2014. Research investment rose from $12.9 billion in 2007 to $19.9 billion (US dollars) in 2013. Over the same period, R&D expenditure as a percentage of GDP nudged upwards from 0.36 per cent to 0.45 per cent, and the population of active researchers expanded from 150,000 to 190,000.

If you have the time, do read Wilsdon’s piece which covers some of the more difficult aspects facing the science communities in Africa and more.

In any event, it’s a bit late to bemoan the panel’s makeup but hopefully the government will take note for the future as I’m planning to include some of my critique in my comments to the panel in answer to their request for public comments.

You can find out more about Canada’s Fundamental Science Review here and you can easily participate here and/or go here to subscribe for updates.

Prime Minister Trudeau, the quantum physicist

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s apparently extemporaneous response to a joking (non)question about quantum computing by a journalist during an April 15, 2016 press conference at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, Ontario, Canada has created a buzz online, made international news, and caused Canadians to sit taller.

For anyone who missed the moment, here’s a video clip from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC),

Aaron Hutchins in an April 15, 2016 article for Maclean’s magazine digs deeper to find out more about Trudeau and quantum physics (Note: A link has been removed),

Raymond Laflamme knows the drill when politicians visit the Perimeter Institute. A photo op here, a few handshakes there and a tour with “really basic, basic, basic facts” about the field of quantum mechanics.

But when the self-described “geek” Justin Trudeau showed up for a funding announcement on Friday [April 15, 2016], the co-founder and director of the Institute for Quantum Computing at the University of Waterloo wasn’t met with simple nods of the Prime Minister pretending to understand. Trudeau immediately started talking about things being waves and particles at the same time, like cats being dead and alive at the same time. It wasn’t just nonsense—Trudeau was referencing the famous thought experiment of the late legendary physicist Erwin Schrödinger.

“I don’t know where he learned all that stuff, but we were all surprised,” Laflamme says. Soon afterwards, as Trudeau met with one student talking about superconductivity, the Prime Minister asked her, “Why don’t we have high-temperature superconducting systems?” something Laflamme describes as the institute’s “Holy Grail” quest.

“I was flabbergasted,” Laflamme says. “I don’t know how he does in other subjects, but in quantum physics, he knows the basic pieces and the important questions.”

Strangely, Laflamme was not nearly as excited (tongue in cheek) when I demonstrated my understanding of quantum physics during our interview (see my May 11, 2015 posting; scroll down about 40% of the way to the Ramond Laflamme subhead).

As Jon Butterworth comments in his April 16, 2016 posting on the Guardian science blog, the response says something about our expectations regarding politicians,

This seems to have enhanced Trudeau’s reputation no end, and quite right too. But it is worth thinking a bit about why.

The explanation he gives is clear, brief, and understandable to a non-specialist. It is the kind of thing any sufficiently engaged politician could pick up from a decent briefing, given expert help. …

Butterworth also goes on to mention journalists’ expectations,

The reporter asked the question in a joking fashion, not unkindly as far as I can tell, but not expecting an answer either. If this had been an announcement about almost any other government investment, wouldn’t the reporter have expected a brief explanation of the basic ideas behind it? …

As for the announcement being made by Trudeau, there is this April 15, 2016 Perimeter Institute press release (Note: Links have been removed),

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says the work being done at Perimeter and in Canada’s “Quantum Valley” [emphasis mine] is vital to the future of the country and the world.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau became both teacher and student when he visited Perimeter Institute today to officially announce the federal government’s commitment to support fundamental scientific research at Perimeter.

Joined by Minister of Science Kirsty Duncan and Small Business and Tourism Minister Bardish Chagger, the self-described “geek prime minister” listened intensely as he received brief overviews of Perimeter research in areas spanning from quantum science to condensed matter physics and cosmology.

“You don’t have to be a geek like me to appreciate how important this work is,” he then told a packed audience of scientists, students, and community leaders in Perimeter’s atrium.

The Prime Minister was also welcomed by 200 teenagers attending the Institute’s annual Inspiring Future Women in Science conference, and via video greetings from cosmologist Stephen Hawking [he was Laflamme’s PhD supervisor], who is a Perimeter Distinguished Visiting Research Chair. The Prime Minister said he was “incredibly overwhelmed” by Hawking’s message.

“Canada is a wonderful, huge country, full of people with big hearts and forward-looking minds,” Hawking said in his message. “It’s an ideal place for an institute dedicated to the frontiers of physics. In supporting Perimeter, Canada sets an example for the world.”

The visit reiterated the Government of Canada’s pledge of $50 million over five years announced in last month’s [March 2016] budget [emphasis mine] to support Perimeter research, training, and outreach.

It was the Prime Minister’s second trip to the Region of Waterloo this year. In January [2016], he toured the region’s tech sector and universities, and praised the area’s innovation ecosystem.

This time, the focus was on the first link of the innovation chain: fundamental science that could unlock important discoveries, advance human understanding, and underpin the groundbreaking technologies of tomorrow.

As for the “quantum valley’ in Ontario, I think there might be some competition here in British Columbia with D-Wave Systems (first commercially available quantum computing, of a sort; my Dec. 16, 2015 post is the most recent one featuring the company) and the University of British Columbia’s Stewart Blusson Quantum Matter Institute.

Getting back to Trudeau, it’s exciting to have someone who seems so interested in at least some aspects of science that he can talk about it with a degree of understanding. I knew he had an interest in literature but there is also this (from his Wikipedia entry; Note: Links have been removed),

Trudeau has a bachelor of arts degree in literature from McGill University and a bachelor of education degree from the University of British Columbia…. After graduation, he stayed in Vancouver and he found substitute work at several local schools and permanent work as a French and math teacher at the private West Point Grey Academy … . From 2002 to 2004, he studied engineering at the École Polytechnique de Montréal, a part of the Université de Montréal.[67] He also started a master’s degree in environmental geography at McGill University, before suspending his program to seek public office.[68] [emphases mine]

Trudeau is not the only political leader to have a strong interest in science. In our neighbour to the south, there’s President Barack Obama who has done much to promote science since he was elected in 2008. David Bruggeman in an April 15, 2016  post (Obama hosts DNews segments for Science Channel week of April 11-15, 2016) and an April 17, 2016 post (Obama hosts White House Science Fair) describes two of Obama’s most recent efforts.

ETA April 19, 2016: I’ve found confirmation that this Q&A was somewhat staged as I hinted in the opening with “Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s apparently extemporaneous response … .” Will Oremus’s April 19, 2016 article for Slate.com breaks the whole news cycle down and points out (Note: A link has been removed),

Over the weekend, even as latecomers continued to dine on the story’s rapidly decaying scraps, a somewhat different picture began to emerge. A Canadian blogger pointed out that Trudeau himself had suggested to reporters at the event that they lob him a question about quantum computing so that he could knock it out of the park with the newfound knowledge he had gleaned on his tour.

The Canadian blogger who tracked this down is J. J. McCullough (Jim McCullough) and you can read his Oct. 16, 2016 posting on the affair here. McCullough has a rather harsh view of the media response to Trudeau’s lecture. Oremus is a bit more measured,

… Monday brought the countertake parade—smaller and less pompous, if no less righteous—led by Gawker with the headline, “Justin Trudeau’s Quantum Computing Explanation Was Likely Staged for Publicity.”

But few of us in the media today are immune to the forces that incentivize timeliness and catchiness over subtlety, and even Gawker’s valuable corrective ended up meriting a corrective of its own. Author J.K. Trotter soon updated his post with comments from Trudeau’s press secretary, who maintained (rather convincingly, I think) that nothing in the episode was “staged”—at least, not in the sinister way that the word implies. Rather, Trudeau had joked that he was looking forward to someone asking him about quantum computing; a reporter at the press conference jokingly complied, without really expecting a response (he quickly moved on to his real question before Trudeau could answer); Trudeau responded anyway, because he really did want to show off his knowledge.

Trotter deserves credit, regardless, for following up and getting a fuller picture of what transpired. He did what those who initially jumped on the story did not, which was to contact the principals for context and comment.

But my point here is not to criticize any particular writer or publication. The too-tidy Trudeau narrative was not the deliberate work of any bad actor or fabricator. Rather, it was the inevitable product of today’s inexorable social-media machine, in which shareable content fuels the traffic-referral engines that pay online media’s bills.

I suggest reading both McCullough’s and Oremus’s posts in their entirety should you find debates about the role of media compelling.