Category Archives: interviews

Graphene hype; the emerging story in an interview with Carla Alvial Palavicino (University of Twente, Netherlands)

i’m delighted to be publishing this interview with Carla Alvial Palavicino, PhD student at the University of Twente (Netherlands), as she is working on the topicof  graphene ‘hype’. Here’s a bit more about the work from her University of Twente webpage (Note: A link has been removed),

From its origins the field of nanotechnology has been populated of expectations. Pictured as “the new industrial revolution” the economic promise holds strong, but also nanotechnologies as a cure for almost all the human ills, sustainers of future growth, prosperity and happiness. In contrast to these promises, the uncertainties associated to the introduction of such a new and revolutionary technology, and mainly risks of nanomaterials, have elicited concerns among governments and the public. Nevertheless, the case of the public can be characterized as concerns about concerns, based on the experience of previous innovations (GMO, etc.).

Expectations, both as promises and concerns, have played and continue playing a central role in the “real-time social and political constitution of nanotechnology” (Kearnes and Macnaghten 2006). A circulation of visions, promises and concerns in observed in the field, from the broadly defined umbrella promises to more specific expectations, and references to grand challenges as moral imperatives. These expectations have become such an important part of the social repertoire of nano applications that we observe the proliferation of systematic and intentional modes of expectation building such as roadmaps, technology assessment, etc.; as well as a considerable group of reports on risk, concerns, and ethical and social aspects. This different modes of expectation building (Konrad 2010) co-exist and contribute to the articulation of the nano field.

This project seeks to identify, characterize and contextualize the existing modes of expectations building, being those intentional (i.e. foresight, TA, etc.) or implicit in arenas of public discourse, associated to ongoing and emerging social processes in the context of socio-technical change.

This dynamics are being explored in relation to the new material graphene.

Before getting to the interview, here’s Alvial Palavicino’s biography,

Carla Alvial Palavicino has a bachelor degree in Molecular Biology Engineering, School of Science, University of Chile, Chile and a Master’s degree on Sustainability Sciences, Graduate School of Frontier Science, University of Tokyo, Japan. She has worked in technology transfer and more recently, in Smart Grids and local scale renewable energy provision.

Finally, here’s the interview (Note: At the author’s request, there have been some grammatical changes made to conform with Canadian English.),

  • What is it that interests you about the ‘hype’ that some technologies receive and how did you come to focus on graphene in particular?

My research belongs to a field called the Sociology of Expectations, which deals with the role of promises, visions, concerns and ideas of the future in the development of technologies, and how these ideas actually affect people’s strategies in technology development. Part of the dynamic found for these expectations are hype-disappointment cycles, much like the ones the Gartner Group uses. And hype has become an expectation itself; people expect that there will be too many promises and some, maybe many of them are not going to be fulfilled, followed by disappointment.

I came to know about graphene because, initially, I was broadly interested in nanoelectronics (my research project is part of NanoNextNL a large Dutch Nano research programme), due to the strong future orientation in the electronics industry. The industry has been organizing, and continues to organize around the promise of Moore’s law for more than 50 years! So I came across graphene as thriving to some extent on the expectations around the end of Moore’s law and because simply everybody was talking about it as the next big thing! Then I thought, this is a great opportunity to investigate hype in real-time

  • Is there something different about the hype for graphene or is this the standard ‘we’ve found a new material and it will change everything’?

I guess with every new technology and new material you find a portion of genuine enthusiasm which might lead to big promises. But that doesn’t necessarily turn into big hype. One thing is that all hype is not the same and you might have technologies that disappeared after the hype such as High Temperature Semiconductors, or technologies that go through a number of hype cycles and disappointment cycles throughout their development (for example, Fuel Cells). Now with graphene what you certainly have is very ‘loud’ hype – the amount of attention it has received in so little time is extraordinary. If that is a characteristic of graphene or a consequence of the current conditions in which the hype has been developed, such as faster ways of communication (social media for example) or different incentives for science and innovation well, this is part of what I am trying to find out.

Quite clearly, the hype in graphene seems to be more ‘reflexive’ than others, that is, people seem to be more conscious about hype now. We have had the experience with carbon nanotubes only recently and scientist, companies and investors are less naïve about what can be expected of the technology, and what needs to be done to move it forward ‘in the right direction’. And they do act in ways that try to soften the slope of the hype-disappointment curve. Having said that, actors [Ed. Note: as in actor-network theory] are also aware of how they can take some advantage of the hype (for funding, investment, or another interest), how to make use of it and hopefully leave safely, before disappointment. In the end, it is rather hard to ask accountability of big promises over the long-term.

  • In the description of your work you mention intentional and implicit modes of building expectations, could explain the difference between the two?

One striking feature of technology development today is that we found more and more activities directed at learning about, assess, and shaping the future, such as forecasts, foresights, Delphi, roadmaps and so on. There are even specialized future actors such as consultancy organisations or foresight experts,  Cientifica among them. And these formalized ways of anticipating  the future are expected to be performative by those who produce them and use them, that is, influence the way the future – and the present- turns out. But this is not a linear story, it’s not like 100% of a roadmap can be turned practice (not even for the ITRS roadmap [Ed. Note: International Technology Roadmap for Semi-conductors] that sustains Moore’s law, some expectations change quite radically between editions of the roadmap). Besides that, there are other forms of building expectations which are embedded in practices around new technologies. Think of the promises made in high profile journals or grant applications; and of expectations incorporated in patents and standards. All these embody particular forms and directions for the future, and exclude others. These are implicit forms of expectation-building, even if not primarily intended as such. These forms are shaped by particular expectations which themselves shape further development. So, in order to understand how these practices, both intentional and implicit, anticipate futures you need to look at the interplay between the various types.

  • Do you see a difference internationally with regard to graphene hype? Is it more prevalent in Europe than in the North America? Is it particularly prevalent in some jurisdiction, e.g. UK?

I think the graphene ‘hype’ has been quite global, but it is moving to different communities, or actors groups, as Tim Harper from Cientifica has mentioned in his recent report about graphene

What is interesting in relation to the different ‘geographical’ responses to graphene is that they exemplify nicely how a big promise (graphene, in this case) is connected to other circulating visions, expectations or concerns. In the case of the UK, the *Nobel prize on Graphene and the following investment was connected to the idea of a perceived crisis of innovation in the country. Thus, the decision to invest in graphene was presented and discussed in reference to global competitiveness, showing a political commitment for science and innovation that was in doubt at that time.

In the European case with its *Graphene flagship, something similar happened. While there is no doubt of the scientific excellence of the flagship project, the reasons why it finally became a winner in the flagship competition might have been related to the attention on graphene. The project itself started quite humbly, and it differed from the other flagship proposals that were much more oriented towards economic or societal challenges. But the attention graphene received after the Nobel Prize, plus the engagement of some large companies, helped to frame the project in terms of its economic profitability.  And. this might have helped to bring attention and make sense of the project in the terms the European Commission was interested in.

In contrast, if you think of the US, the hype has been there (the number of companies engaged in graphene research is only increasing) but it has not had a big echo in policy. One of the reasons might be because this idea of global competition and being left behind is not so present in the US. And in the case of Canada for example, graphene has been taken up by the graphite (mining) community, which is a very local feature.

So answering your questions, the hype has been quite global and fed in a global way (developments in one place resonate in the other) but different geographical areas have reacted in relation to their contingent expectations to what this hype dynamic provided.

  • What do you think of graphene?

I think it’s the new material with more YouTube videos (this one is particularly good in over promising for example)  and the coolest superhero (Mr G from the Flagship). But seriously,  I often get asked that question when I do interviews with actors in the field, since they are curious to learn about the outsider perspective. But to be honest I try to remain as neutral and distant as possible regarding my research object… and not getting caught in the hype!

Thanks so much for a fascinating interview Carla and I very much appreciate the inclusion of Canada in your response to the question about the international response to graphene hype. (Here are three of my postings on graphite and mining in Canada: Canada’s contribution to graphene research: big graphite flakes [Feb. 6, 2012]; A ‘graphite today, graphene tomorrow’ philosophy from Focus Graphite [April 17, 2013[; and Lomiko’s Quatre Milles graphite flakes—pure and ultra pure [April 17, 2013] There are others you can find by searching ‘graphite’ in the blog’s search box.)

* For anyone curious about the Nobel prize and graphene, there’s this Oct.7, 2010 posting. Plus, the Graphene Flagship was one of several projects competing for one of the two 1B Euro research prizes awarded in January 2013 (the win is mentioned in my Jan. 28, 2013 posting).

Merry Christmas, Happy New Year, and Happy Holidays to all!

[The Picture of] Dorian Gray opera premiered as part of World New Music Days festival held in Slovakia & Austria: *Kate Pullinger interview

I’m delighted to be publishing an interview with Kate Pullinger a well known Canadian-born writer, resident for many years in the UK, about her opera project. (For her sins, she supervised my De Montfort University’s [UK] master’s project. There were times when I wasn’t sure either of us was going to survive largely [but not solely] due to my computer’s meltdown at the worst possible moment.)

Here’s a bit more about Kate from the About page on her eponymous website,

Kate Pullinger writes for both print and digital platforms.  In 2009 her novel The Mistress of Nothing won the Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction, one of Canada’s most prestigious literary prizes.  Her prize-winning digital fiction projects Inanimate Alice and Flight Paths: A Networked Novel have reached audiences around the world.

Kate Pullinger gives talks and readings frequently (look at the Events page for future events); she also offers private 1-1 mentoring for emerging writers in both print and new media.  She is Professor of Creative Writing and New Media at Bath Spa University.

As well as The Mistress of Nothing, Kate Pullinger’s books include A Little StrangerWeird Sister, The Last Time I Saw Jane, Where Does Kissing End?, and When the Monster Dies, as well as the short story collections, My Life as a Girl in a Men’s Prison and Tiny Lies.  She co-wrote the novel of the film The Piano with director Jane Campion. In 2011, A Curious Dream: Collected Works, a selection of Pullinger’s short stories, was published in Canada.

Kate Pullinger is currently working on a new novel and an associated digital fiction that build on themes developed in her collaborative digital fiction project, Flight Paths:  A Networked Novel.

Other current projects include a libretto based on Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Grey, commissioned by the Slovak National Theatre in collaboration with the composer Lubica Cekovska.  This work will be premiered in Bratislava in 2013.  Recent projects include working with digital artist James Coupe on Surveillance Suite, a project that generates stories using facial recognition software.

Kate Pullinger was born in Cranbrook, British Columbia, and went to high school on Vancouver Island. She dropped out of McGill University, Montreal, after a year and a half of not studying philosophy and literature, then spent a year working in a copper mine in the Yukon, northern Canada, where she crushed rocks and saved money. She spent that money travelling and ended up in London, England, where she has been ever since.  She is married and has two children.

You can read more about Kate and her academic work here on her faculty page on the Bath Spa University website.

As for Kate’s work as a librettist on the opera, Dorian Gray, based on the Oscar Wilde novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, she worked with composer, Ľubica Čekovská for the opera, which was debuted on Nov. 8, 2013 in Bratislava, Slovakia as part of the World New Music Days festival, founded in 1922 and *held in Slovakia and Austria in 2013..

Here’s Kate’s interview:

  •  I am assuming you went to the premiere? How was it? And, if you didn’t attend, what do you imagine (or what were you told) happened?

I saw the last two full rehearsals, and then the first two performances.  There are two casts in the Slovakian production – two of all the main roles – I’m not entirely sure why! It was so much fun, to hear the orchestra, and to see the production, and to hear the singers sing our work. Lubica had played me the opera many times using Sibelius, the software composers use, but that sounds like tinny computer music, so it was so pleasurable to hear her score played. And her score is really a wonderful work, very dense, clever, amusing, and tuneful.

  • Can you tell me a little bit about the story and which elements you chose to emphasize and which elements you chose to de-emphasize or eliminate altogether? How does your Dorian Gray differ from the other Dorian Gray opera by American composer Lowell Liebermann,?

I guess the main difference between my adaptation and most others is that I decided to make Dorian and his journey to hell central to the work and to not focus on his relationship with Lord Henry. Adaptations of the novel often make it a kind of two-hander between Dorian and Lord Henry, but we felt that there wasn’t room for that in what we were doing.

I don’t know the Liebermann adaptation at all.

  •  I looked up definitions for librettist and it seems the word means whatever the librettist and the composer decide. Could you describe your role as librettist for this opera?

I structured the story by creating three acts and the scenes therein, and then wrote the text for the singers. Lubica and I had a lot of discussion before I created the structure, and then on-going discussions as I worked on the libretto and she embarked on the score. I finished the libretto, but then continued to make changes as Lubica found issues with it, or we had new ideas. It was a lot of fun and we would like to work together again.

  • How did you two end up collaborating with each other? And what was the process like? e.g. It took about four years to bring this opera to life, yes? So, did the process change as the years moved on and as you got closer to the premiere? Did you learn any Slovak (language)?

The writing process, in total, took about 2.5 years really, the bulk of that Lubica’s time, as creating and scoring an entire opera for a full orchestra is an enormous task. After that, there is a lengthy publishing process, and then the production time. So for the last 1.5 years I did very little except wait for the occasional update.  Lubica was much more involved with the opera house in finding the director, conductor, and casting – and then once rehearsals started she was very involved in that process. Both the director, Nicola Raab, and the conductor, Christopher Ward, said how unusual it was to work with a living composer and librettist!

  • Did anything surprise you as you worked with the story or with the composer (Ľubica Čekovská)?

I learned a lot and there were many surprises.

At this point I’m interrupting the interview to excerpt part of a review in the New York Times, which I ask about in a question that follows the excerpt from A Music Festival Features Premiere of the Opera ‘Dorian Gray’ By GEORGE LOOMIS Published: November 13, 2013 in the New York Times,

The World New Music Days festival was first held in Salzburg in 1922 — around the time Arnold Schoenberg was perfecting his 12-note compositional system — and it remains a robust champion of new music. This year the 11-day program, sponsored by the International Society of Contemporary Music, was spread over three cities — Kosice and Bratislava in Slovakia, and Vienna — and included some 25 concerts, which were supplemented by many others thanks to partnerships with local organizations. A new opera was among the many works to receive their world premieres.

….

But the opera, as seen in Nicola Raab’s generally persuasive staging with sets by Anne Marie Legenstein and Alix Burgstaller that decadently depict Victorian drawing rooms, is marred by the decision to have the picture consist simply of an empty frame, an idea that perhaps seemed bold in concept but misfires in execution. [emphasis mine] Ms. Cekovska interestingly conveys the picture’s disfiguration musically through wordless boy-soprano melodies that recur increasingly distorted. [emphasis mine] But the melodies, to say nothing of the drama itself, need a visual analogue.

Now back to the interview,

  •  The one reviewer I’ve read, from the NY Times, expressed some disappointment with the choice to have an empty picture frame represent the ‘picture of Dorian Gray’ around which the entire story revolves. What was the thinking behind the decision and is there a chance that future productions (my understanding is that one isn’t permitted to make any substantive changes to a production once it has started its run) will feature a picture?

Well, that’s one critic’s opinion, and not one we agree with. Very early on in the process Lubica had the idea, which I think is genius, of representing the picture chorally – in early drafts there was a chorus on stage, and then this shifted to an electronic recorded chorus, where the music becomes gradually more and more distorted as the picture changes. With adaptations of Dorian Gray there is always a huge problem with how to represent the picture, which is so vivid and clear in our mind’s eye when we read Wilde’s original. Having an oil painting that gets older often just looks cheesy – it doesn’t look how you think it should look. So the empty picture frame, and the disintegrating chorus, in my opinion, is wonderful.

  • Given that I write mostly about science and technology, are there any opera technology tidbits about this production that you can offer?

Ha!  It was one of the most analogue experiences of my entire life!

  • How was your recent trip to China? Was it related to the opera project or an entirely new one and what might that be?

I went to China as part of a UK university exchange programme, looking at setting up collaborations with Chinese universities. It was a very interesting trip, though somewhat dominated by the appalling air quality in all three of the cities we visited.

  • Is there anything you’d like to add? (e.g. plans to bring the opera to Vancouver, Canada)

Opera productions don’t travel, so any future productions will have to be new productions, if you see what I mean – or co-productions. This is what the opera house hopes will happen. Ľubica Čekovská is a young composer with a steadily rising reputation, so I wouldn’t be at all surprised if there are future productions of it. I think it is a wonderful piece of work, but I’m biased.

Thank you, Kate for your time and for illuminating a topic of some interest to me. I’ve wondered about opera and librettists especially since many well known writers like you and Margaret Atwood are now working in this media. (Margaret Atwood is librettist for the opera ‘Pauline’ [about poet Pauline Johnson] which will have its world première on May 23, 2014 in Vancouver, Canada.)

For the curious, there’s another interview with Kate (she discusses the then upcoming opera and other work)  written up by Jeremy Hight in a Feb. 2011 article for the Leonardo Almanac and Ľubica Čekovská’s website is here. One final note, World New Music Days festival will be held in Vancouver, Canada in 2017, according to New York Times writer, George Loomis.

* I posted a little sooner that I should have. As of 10:30 am PST, I have added Kate Pullinger’s name to the heading, and added Austria and Slovakia as the sites for the 2013 World New Music Days festival.

ETA Dec. 18, 2013 at 3:30 pm PST: The opera, Dorian Gray, will be performed again in Bratislava at the National Slovak Theatre on 20 February, 5 April and 5 June 2014. More here.

Interview with Baba Brinkman on the occasion of his Rap Guide to Evolution performance in Vancouver, November 2013 edition

Baba Brinkman is in the words of his eponymous website’s homepage,

Baba Brinkman is a Canadian rap artist, writer, actor, and tree planter. He is best known for his award-winning hip-hop theatre shows, including The Rap Guide to Evolution and The Canterbury Tales Remixed, which interpret the works of Darwin and Chaucer for a modern audience.

Originally from British Columbia and now living in New York City, he has brought his Rap Guide to Evolution which has been an off-Broadway show, a festival performance, and a DVD project to Vancouver. The last time he performed this show, which morphs as new information is received and as it is adapted for different media and performance types, to Vancouver was in 2011 (my Feb. 17, 2011 posting features a pre-show interview he gave),. This time he’s at Vancouver’s East Cultural Centre, (The Cultch) from Oct. 29, – November 10, 2013 (tickets here).

Baba has very kindly (especially since the show just opened a few days ago) given me a second interview. Without more ado, here’s the interview,

  • Could you describe the full theatrical version of the Rap Guide to Evolution that played in New York? And is this what you’ve brought to Vancouver or has it been adapted either due to cost and/or venue and/or geographic location?

The show running in Vancouver is the full off-Broadway production, which includes music and live turntablism by Jamie Simmonds, visual projections by Wendall Harrington and lighting design by Jason Boyd. All of these production elements were added in 2011 specifically for the New York run, and they create a full immersion experience with lights and sounds and visuals and words all weaving together to tell the story of Darwin’s intellectual impact on the modern world.

  • In Adrian Mack’s Oct. 23, 2013 piece in the Georgia Straight) newspaper, you talked about karma, Vancouverites’ belief in it, and the science of it. How did you come to a scientific understanding of karma and could you explain what you mean by ‘cheater detection’ and ‘evolved deterrents to free-riding behaviour’?

Karma is *often summarized as “what goes around comes around” and for most people it’s a belief that the universe is somehow keeping score, rewarding goodness and punishing badness. The dark side of the widespread belief in karma, in Vancouver and elsewhere, is that it could just as accurately be summarized as “whatever happens to you, good or bad, you deserve it” which doesn’t sit right with most people when they think it through. We constantly see people around us being unjustly rewarded for bad behaviour and punished for good behaviour, and we see a lot of randomness too. Not many of us would tell a pedestrian who was hit by a drunk driver: “that’s karma”, but if you give a homeless person a dollar and later find out that you’ve won a big prize in a raffle draw *you might think it’s karma. Hence, we usually only invoke the concept of karma when we encounter seemingly random events that appear to repay like with like.

The scientific view is that our minds misattribute causality to these kinds of random events, but we do it for a good reason. Humans are social primates, and social groups share the mutual benefits of cooperative efforts, but those benefits are constantly undermined by individuals who claim the rewards without paying the cooperative costs, ie cheaters and free-riders. Evolution will favour free-riding behaviour unless there are mechanisms to punish or suppress it, but punishment itself is costly, so there are a whole series of obstacles to evolving cooperation. One way to overcome these obstacles is with psychological mechanisms for “cheater detection” (seeking and identifying non-cooperators) and “altruistic punishment” (enforcing costs on them through reputation-damage, ostracism, loss of liberty, etc), both of which humans have been experimentally shown to have in spades. We care about who’s a fraud, a thief, and a cheater, and we want to see them pay for it. Denouncing and locking up Bernie Madoff feels good.

Hence, the concept of karma can be redeemed as a social as opposed to metaphysical phenomenon. The reason we feel like the universe adheres to the principle of “what goes around comes around” is because we are evolved to pursue that model through our social interactions, so we project it onto the physical world. The universe doesn’t enforce good behaviour, but your peers certainly do. If you doubt it, try ripping them off and see what happens.

  • I see you were an artist-in-residence at the US National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis (NIMBioS) which is located at the University of Tennessee. Could you describe the experience especially in light of the fact that Tennessee is the state where the Scopes trial took place? (The trial is famous for bringing two of the US’s best known lawyers of the 1920s [William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow] to argue whether or not evolution was scientific and should be taught in schools.)

I was expecting the Tennessee residency to be a lot more controversial, but in fact most of it was spent interacting with post-docs and grad students, learning about their research, going to lectures, and going to live music events at local bars. Major evolution vs creationism showdowns reminiscent of Scopes did not feature prominently in my time there, but in retrospect that isn’t surprising since I was a guest of a national scientific research centre and was situated on a university campus. The one exception to this general tranquility was my performance at Union County High School, which generated some controversy, summarized in my “Tennessee Monkey Trials” blog. I thought I was there to fight a culture war, but mostly I just drank local craft beer (and moonshine) and listened to live bluegrass music. *The end result was The Infomatic EP  produced by Jamie Simmonds, who was in Tennessee with me for most of the residency.”*

  • How have you and/or your work changed since you embarked on rapping science?

The biggest change is that I have come to identify as a skeptic, atheist, and philosophical naturalist, whereas before I would have called myself agnostic or spiritual. I was never religious before, but I was sympathetic to the idea of a nebulous spiritual “force” at work in the world. However, the more I read about evolution and psychology and the scientific method, the less seriously I was able to take supernatural or miraculous explanations for anything at all. Now I write rationalist anthems like “Naturalizm” and “Off That“, which are very different in tone than the music I was making six years ago.

  • Where are you off to after this?

My next tour is the Norway Hip-hop Festival in February, and then a big tour of Australia in May/June, including the Sydney Opera House. In the meantime, my wife is pregnant with our first baby, due in late November, so I’m going to spend the winter learning to be a father, which is pretty exciting. Darwin would be proud.

  • Is there anything you’d like to add?

I hope your readers will come to the show, if they are able. It runs until November 10th in Vancouver. Or, if they can’t make it, download the album and bump it in your headphones. Scientific literacy never sounded so good!

Baba, I very much appreciate the interview and the gift of your precious time writing this up just after you’ve opened your show here in Vancouver. As well, congratulations to you and your wife!

Also, thank you for that explanation of karma and science and, especially, for this bit, “The dark side of the widespread belief in karma, in Vancouver and elsewhere, is that it could just as accurately be summarized as “whatever happens to you, good or bad, you deserve it” which doesn’t sit right with most people when they think it through. We constantly see people around us being unjustly rewarded for bad behaviour and punished for good behaviour, and we see a lot of randomness too. …” Many times I’ve lovely well-meaning individuals do damage with advice that includes blame via ‘karma’. Thank you for being much more articulate about it than I’ve been.

As for anyone who likes to see reviews, the only one I could find is from Colin Thomas who in an Oct. 30, 2013 review for the Georgia Straight which was further elucidated in a Nov. 1, 2013 posting on his eponymous blog, had issues not with the performance (“Smart writer. Handsome production. But no. Just no. ” [from the Oct. 30, 2012 review]) but the content and the politics regarding rap and gender, in particular. I gather Thomas found the show thought-provoking.

* Two corrections made: ‘ofter’ to ‘often’ and ‘raffle and you might’ to ‘raffle you might’ in the response to the Karma question and one sentence added to the end of the Tennessee question on Nov.4, 2013.

The UK’s Futurefest and an interview with Sue Thomas

Futurefest with “some of the planet’s most radical thinkers, makers and performers” is taking place in London next weekend on Sept. 28 – 29, 2013 and  I am very pleased to be featuring an interview with one of  Futurefest’s speakers, Sue Thomas who amongst many other accomplishments was also the founder of the  Creative Writing and New Media programme at De Montfort University, UK, where I got my master’s degree.

Here’s Sue,

suethomas

Sue Thomas was formerly Professor of New Media at De Montfort University. Now she writes and consults on digital well-being. Her new book ‘Technobiophilia: nature and cyberspace’ explains how contact with the natural world can help soothe our connected lives.http://www.suethomas.net @suethomas

  • I understand you are participating in Futurefest’s SciFi Writers’ Parliament; could you explain what that is and what the nature of your participation will be?

The premise of the session is to invite Science Fiction writers to play with the idea that they have been given the power to realise the kinds of new societies and cultures they imagine in their books. Each of us will present a brief proposal for the audience to vote on. The panel will be chaired by Robin Ince, a well-known comedian, broadcaster, and science enthusiast. The presenters are Cory Doctorow, Pat Cadigan, Ken MacLeod, Charles Stross, Roz Kaveney and myself.

  • Do you have expectations for who will be attending ‘Parliament’ and will they be participating as well as watching?

I’m expecting the audience for FutureFest http://www.futurefest.org/ to be people interested in future forecasting across the four themes of the event: Well-becoming, In the imaginarium,  We are all gardeners now, and The value of everything. There are plenty of opportunities for them to participate, not just in discussing and voting in panels like ours, but also in The Daily Future, a Twitter game, and Playify, which will run around and across the weekend. 

  • How are you preparing for ‘Parliament’?

 I will propose A Global Environmental Protection Act for Cyberspace The full text of the proposal is  on my blog here http://suethomasnet.wordpress.com/2013/09/05/futurefest/ It’s based on the thinking and research around my new book Technobiophilia: nature and cyberspace http://suethomasnet.wordpress.com/technobiophilia/ which coincidentally comes out in the UK two days before FutureFest. In the runup to the event I’ll also be gathering peoples’ views and refining my thoughts.

sue thomas_technobiophilia

  • Is there any other event you’re looking forward to in particular and why would that be?

The whole of FutureFest looks great and I’m excited about being there all weekend to enjoy it. The following week I’m doing a much smaller but equally interesting event at my local Cafe Scientifique, which is celebrating its first birthday with a talk from me about Technobiophilia. I’ve only recently moved to Bournemouth so this will be a great chance to meet the kinds of interesting local people who come to Cafe Scientifique in all parts of the world. http://suethomasnet.wordpress.com/2013/09/12/cafe-scientifique/

 

I’ll also be launching the book in North America with an online lecture in the Metaliteracy MOOC at SUNY Empire State University. The details are yet to be released but it’s booked for 18 November. http://metaliteracy.cdlprojects.com/index.html

  • Is there anything you’d like to add?

I’m also doing another event at FutureFest which might be of interest, especially to people interested in the future of death. It’s called xHumed and this is what it’s about: If we can archive and store our personal data, media, DNA and brain patterns, the question of whether we can bring back the dead is almost redundant. The right question is should we? It is the year 2050AD and great thought leaders from history have been “xHumed”. What could possibly go wrong? Through an interactive performance Five10Twelve will provoke and encourage the audience to consider the implications via soundbites and insights from eminent experts – both living and dead. I’m expecting some lively debate!

Thank you,  Sue for bringing Futurefest to life and congratulations on your new book!

You can find out more about Futurefest and its speakers here at the Futurefest website. I found Futurefest’s ticket webpage (which is associated with the National Theatre) a little more  informative about the event as a whole,

Some of the planet’s most radical thinkers, makers and performers are gathering in East London this September to create an immersive experience of what the world will feel like over the next few decades.

From the bright and uplifting to the dark and dystopian, FutureFest will present a weekend of compelling talks, cutting-edge shows, and interactive performances that will inspire and challenge you to change the future.

Enter the wormhole in Shoreditch Town Hall on the weekend of 28 and 29 September 2013 and experience the next phase of being human.

FutureFest is split into four sessions, Saturday Morning, Saturday Afternoon, Sunday Morning and Sunday Afternoon. You can choose to come to one, two, three or all sessions. They all have a different flavour, but each one will immerse you deep in the future.

Please note that FutureFest is a living, breathing festival so sessions are subject to change. We’ll keep you up to date on our FutureFest website.

Saturday Morning will feature The Blind Giant author Nick Harkaway, bionic man Bertolt Meyer and techno-cellist Peter Gregson. There will also be secret agents, villages of the future and a crowd-sourced experiment in futurology with some dead futurists.

Saturday Afternoon has forecaster Tamar Kasriel helping to futurescape your life, and gamemaker Alex Fleetwood showing us what life will be like in the Gameful century. We’ve got top political scientists David Runciman and Diane Coyle exploring the future of democracy. There will also be a mass-deception experiment, more secret agents and a look forward to what the weather will be like in 2100.

Sunday Morning sees Sermons of the Future. Taking the pulpit will be Wikipedia’s Jimmy Wales, social entrepreneur and model Lily Cole, and Astronomer Royal Martin Rees. Meanwhile the comedian Robin Ince will be chairing a Science Fiction Parliament with top SF authors, Roberto Unger will be analysing the future of religion and one of the world’s top chefs, Andoni Aduriz, will be exploring how food will make us feel in the future.

Sunday Afternoon will feature a futuristic take on the Sunday lunch, with food futurologist Morgaine Gaye inviting you for lunch in the Gastrodome with insects and 3D meat print-outs on the menu. Smari McCarthy, founder of Iceland’s Pirate Party and Wikileaks worker, will be exploring life in a digitised world, and Charlie Leadbeater, Diane Coyle and Mark Stevenson will be imagining cities and states of the future.

I noticed that a few Futurefest speakers have been featured here:

Eric Drexler, ‘Mr. Nano’, was last mentioned in a May 6, 2013 posting about a talk he was giving in Seattle, Washington to promote his new book, Radical Abundance.

Martin Rees, Emeritus Professor of Cosmology and Astrophysics, was mentioned in a Nov. 26, 3012 posting about the Cambridge Project for Existential Risk (humans relative to robots).

Bertolt Meyer, a young researcher from Zurich University and a lifelong user of prosthetic technology, in a Jan. 30, 2013 posting about building a bionic man.

Cory Doctorow, a science fiction writer, who ran afoul of James Moore, then Minister of Canadian Heritage and now Minister of Industry Canada, who accused him of being a ‘radical extremists’  prior to new copyright legislation  for Canadians, was mentioned in a June 25, 2010 posting.

Wish I could be at London’s Futurefest in lieu of that I will wish the organizers and participants all the best.

* On a purely cosmetic note, on Dec. 5, 2013, I changed the paragraph format in the responses.

Industry Canada, Vanessa Clive, nanotechnology, and assessing economic impacts

I have long (one year) wanted to feature an interview with Vanessa Clive, Nanotechnology Policy Advisor; Industry Sector, at Industry Canada but have been distracted from sending interview questions until about several weeks ago.  (Sometimes, I lose track *of time.)

Here then are the interview questions  I asked and the answers Vanessa very kindly provided,

1.      Could you describe your role? 

Industry Canada’s mandate is to help make Canadian industry more productive and competitive in the global economy, thus improving the economic and social well-being of Canadians.  As an emerging/nascent technology, nanotechnology can help contribute towards this objective.  Our role vis a vis nanotechology is to:

  • better understand Canadian capabilities, strengths and expertise
  • contribute to effective policy development
  • contribute to the development of a supportive business environment for innovation and commercialization

2.       Recently, you helped organize an event in Washington, DC (International Symposium on Assessing the Economic Impact of Nanotechnology, March 27-28, 2012). Could you give a brief overview of why this was needed, who attended, & what happened? 

The Symposium was organized jointly by the OECD Working Party on Nanotechnology (WPN) and the National Nanotechnology Coordinating Office for the U.S. National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI), and hosted by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). I was a member of the OECD WPN Steering Committee which worked with the NNI to organize the event.

Some 200 people participated from OECD and non-OECD countries, representing a broad spectrum of sectors, industries, and areas of expertise. In addition to plenary sessions, industry break-out discussions were organized on advanced materials, food packaging, transportation, nanomedicine, energy, and electronics.

The decision to hold the event recognized the important potential contribution of nanotechnology to innovation, as reflected in rising R&D investments over the past decade. OECD member countries wish to explore ways to assess returns to these investments and the broader economic impacts of nanotechnology more generally, as well as the challenges for effective innovation policy development in this area.

The agenda and presentations can be viewed at http://nano.gov/node/729. Four background papers on related topics were also commissioned for the Symposium and can be found at the same site.

3.      What can be said about nanotechnology’s economic impacts and what information (e.g. bibliometric measures, no. of patents, etc.) is being used to arrive at that conclusion? 

Given the still relatively early stage of developments, the range of potential applications, and other factors, there are major challenges to estimating potential impacts. Holding this Symposium was intended to provide a start to develop useful indicators and other assessment tools.

4.      So, how is Canada doing relative to the international scene?

As discussed above, given the lack of measures, it is difficult to assess our relative position. However, Canadian federal and provincial governments have invested increasing amounts in nanotechnology R&D over the past decade or so. These investments have supported an array of government funding programs and contributed to the establishment of a world-class R&D infrastructure and research community and a growing number of companies involved in nanotechnology across industry sectors in Canada.

5.      Is there anything that stands out from the symposium?

It was clear from the level of attendance, presentations, and discussions which took place, that there is widespread interest in the symposium topics. To learn more about the event, I would encourage interested people to visit the website where presentations and background papers are posted – http://nano.gov/node/729.

6.      Are there any Industry Canada plans in the works for developing new assessment tools given that, unlike many countries, Canada does not have a national nanotechnology funding hub? 

We are working with the OECD to develop useful tools that would enable us to estimate or measure the economic impacts of nanotechnology.

7.      Are there any plans for a nanotechnology ‘road map’ similar to the digital media road map? Or perhaps there’s something else in the works?

Industry Canada is focused on assisting Canadian industry to grow, compete in the global economy, and create jobs. In order to do so we are building the department’s knowledge base about Canadian activities and capabilities, contributing to sound policy development in domestic and international for a, and contributing to building a supportive business environment for responsible innovation and commercialization in this field.

Thank you for the insight into the Canadian nanotechnology situation and the issues around economic impacts as per Industry Canada and tor taking the time to do this . Also, I am very happy to see the link to the presentations and background papers for the March 2012 nanotechnology and economic impacts event in Washington, DC (first mentioned in my Jan. 27, 2012 posting).

I did briefly visit the website which is a US National Nanotechnology Initiative website. The event page for which Vanessa provided a link hosts the background papers and links to other pages hosting the presentations and the agenda providing a rich resource for anyone interested in the issue of nanotechnology and its possible economic impacts.

* Changed preposition from ‘to’ to ‘of’ on Sept. 19, 2013.

Science tattoos and a brief chat with Carl Zimmer about his book, Science Ink

I’m back with another New York Academy of Sciences public event (my Jan. 3, 2012 posting listed a number of events), this time it’s  Science Ink: Tattoos of the Science Obsessed with Carl Zimmer. Here’s a description of the event (which will take place on Tuesday, Jan. 24, 2012 from 7 – 8:30 pm),

How much do you love science? Enough to get it permanently inked on your skin?

Join award-winning science journalist and New York Academy of Sciences regular Carl Zimmer for a talk on his latest book, Science Ink, which showcases over 300 tattoos dedicated to the pursuit of science.

Tattoos have been a part of human culture as far back as Neolithic times. Scientists have uncovered tattoos on mummified ancients from Western China to Egypt to Scandanavia. And the subjects of those tattoos vary as much as the cultures—from elaborate animal and organic designs to simple graphic designs thought to have therapeutic qualities. In more modern times in the Western world, tattoos came into vogue in the late 1800s when British elites began to tattoo themselves—both Winston Churchill and his mother, Lady Randolph Churchill, had tattoos. And today, it’s clear that in American culture, tattoos have had a resurgence in popularity.

Choosing what to mark your body with permanently is a source of much conversation and consternation. And as Carl Zimmer discovered after a blog post asking about science tattoos, there is a passionate group of people who made the choice to ink themselves with science.

In this special event, Zimmer will speak about the science and history of tattooing, and offer highlights from his book Science Ink, which features a gallery of scientific tattoos, spanning fields from evolutionary biology and neuroscience to mathematics and astrophysics. In addition, Zimmer is inviting a handful of those featured in the book to come and share the compelling personal stories behind their ink.

Here are more details about the event, pricing is as follows,

Member:                                                                   $15

Student / Postdoc / Fellow Member:           $10

Nonmember:                                                           $25

Student / Postdoc / Fellow Nonmember:   $20

In a Jan. 9, 2012 posting on his blog, The Loom, Carl Zimmer offers more information about his book and upcoming talk plus a discount,

Get $10 dollars off admission by using the promo code ZIMMER. Register [here or http://www.nyas.org/scienceink]

The address and contact details:

The New York Academy of Sciences

7 World Trade Center
250 Greenwich Street, 40th floor
New York, NY 10007-2157
212.298.8600
[email protected]

As for Carl Zimmer and science tattoos, I decided to investigate a bit further. Here’s an excerpt from Carl Zimmer’s website bio webpage,

The New York Times Book Review calls Carl Zimmer “as fine a science essayist as we have.” In his books, essays, articles, and blog posts, Zimmer reports from the frontiers of biology, where scientists are expanding our understanding of life. He is a popular speaker at universities, medical schools, museums, and festivals, and he is also a frequent guest on radio programs such as Radio Lab and This American Life.

In addition to writing books, Zimmer has written hundreds of articles for the New York Times and magazines including National Geographic, Time, Scientific American, Science, and Popular Science. From 1994 to 1998 Zimmer was a senior editor at Discover, where he remains a contributing editor and writes a monthly column about the brain.

Since 2003, Zimmer has written the award-winning blog, The Loom. Along with essays about science, The Loom is also home to a popular gallery of science tattoos. In November 2011, Zimmer will publish a book of his favorite selections, called Science Ink: Tales of the Science Obsessed.

Zimmer is a lecturer at Yale University, where he teaches writing about science and the environment. He was also the first Visiting Scholar at the Science, Health, and Environment Reporting Program at New York University’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute.

He is, to his knowledge, the only writer after whom a species of tapeworm has been named. [emphasis mine]

I do love a sense of humour. As for Zimmer’s latest book, Science Ink, his website offers some excerpts from it (here are a few samples),

Astrarium, p.71
“Although I’m not a scientist by trade,” writes Lauren Caldwell, “my work on seventeenth- and eighteenth-century British literature has provided ample opportunity for me to become acquainted with the work of some brilliant scientific innovators. Though we have discarded some of their ideas, their work retains all of its vital visual force. ¶ “Years ago I discovered and fell in love with the comprehensive diagrams in Giovanni de’Dondi’s 1364 Il Tractatus Astarii, which contained the plans for the first famous astrarium. Each piece has its own delicate mechanical beauty, but I chose for my backpiece the Mercury wheelwork. Of course, you couldn’t track Mercury with it—de’Dondi followed Ptolemy—but his astrarium remains a lovely and impressive testament to human ingenuity and curiosity. ¶ “The more spare geometrical diagrams that surround the de’Dondi piece are taken from Sir Isaac Newton’s Principia Mathematica—of which little enough, I imagine, need be said. Though in many respects these two men couldn’t have been more different, they shared a vision of a universe as elegant and aesthetically compelling today as it was when they lived and worked.”

Astrarium tattoo (from Science Ink by Carl Zimmer)

DNA monster, bottom p.102
Jay Phelan, a biologist at UCLA, got his DNA tattoo in 1990 while he was in graduate school. “As I got deeper into the study of evolution, genetics, and human behavior,” he writes, “I realized that there was a tension between what my genes ‘wanted’ me to do and what I wanted to do, from the fattiness of the foods I ate, to the selfishness/selflessness I showed to others, to issues with managing my money, my risk-taking, and my relationships, and more. It dawned on me that I was fighting a never-ending battle. Anyway, I tried to come up with a design that captured that tension and, once I did, decided to get it tattooed on my back.”

DNA monster tattoo (from Science Ink by Carl Zimmer)

I was sufficiently fascinated to send off a few questions to Carl Zimmer about science tattoos and his upcoming talk at the NYAS and he very kindly replied,

  • Given the title of your latest book (Science Ink: Tattoos of the Science Obsessed), I’m wondering if you have any tattoos.
    If so, what is it?

I don’t have any tattoos actually. I’ve never been particularly interested in getting one, and am no big fan of needles. But I find the lack of a tattoo is no impediment to appreciating the tattoos of scientists.  If I sell of whole bunch of copies of the book, maybe I’ll have to celebrate by getting one. I was thinking about getting  my wife’s name, Grace, spelled out as amino acids.

  • What most surprised you about this book?

At first the surprise was simply that any scientist at all had tattoos.  The initial flood of pictures that filled up my e-mail inbox was amazing. After I got accustomed to the idea that there is lots and lots of scientists with tattoos out there, the next big surprise was how many interesting stories there were, illustrated by these tattoos. Stories from the history of science, stories from the personal lives of the scientists. And since telling stories is my job, I decided to turn Science Ink into a book of miniature essays.

  • Is there any branch of science that attracts more people who are willing to ink their bodies?

I don’t see any field being way in the lead compared other ones. In fact, what really impressed me was that just about every branch of science I can imagine ended up being represented in the book. I have groups of linguistics tattoos in the book, astronomy tattoo,s medical tattoos ,tattoos about quantum physics, and so on. Basically, by looking at these tattoos you end up taking a tour of all science.

  • Could you briefly preview a little bit of your Ja.24.12 talk?

I’m going to be talking at the New York Academy of Sciences about what got me into this peculiar project, and some of the things I learned about scientists and science in the process. But I’m also going to be talking about tattooing itself. It’s actually a pretty fascinating scientific subject in its own right. Anthropologists have found evidence of tattooing in many cultures around the world, and it goes back thousands of years. So I think that tattoos speak to something really important about what it means to be human–and, in this particular case, what it means to be a scientist.

Dear Carl, Thank you for taking time out of a very busy schedule (he has a talk scheduled Jan. 20, 2012 too; scroll down to the next paragraph for information about that event plus all of his usual work) to respond. I hope the book is a huge success.

There is one other related Science Ink event that might be of interest. The ScienceOnline2012 conference, January 19 – 21, 2012 (no spaces left for attendees), held annually in Durham, North Carolina and (mentioned in my Nov. 2, 2011 posting) is hosting a Science of Ink tour for 30 people to the Dogstar Tattoo Company on Friday, Jan. 20, 2012. The webpage for the tour notes that it is completely booked but if you follow the Twitter hash tag (#SciInk) you may be able to get on the tour (as people do drop out of these things for one reason or another). From the tour webpage,

Join us on Friday afternoon, January 20th, at the Dogstar Tattoo Company in Durham, NC’s Golden Belt district for a lecture by Carl Zimmer on the science of tattoos, a reception & tour of the studio, and the opportunity to get inked (or just watch the process!). Carl will have his book, Science Ink: The Tattoos of the Science Obsessed available–and we can probably convince him to sign a few ☺

This isn’t your typical tattoo shop. When Carl Zimmer first saw the photos, he declared, “It’s like a cathedral of tattoo parlors.”

When you register, please indicate if you definitely plan to get a tattoo, might want to get a tattoo, or definitely don’t plan to get inked (but want to observe). [emphasis mine]

Good luck with getting on the tour or getting to the talk in New York. As for anyone from Vancouver who might be hoping that Carl Zimmer will be here for the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) 2012 annual meeting, sadly, the answer is no.

Science culture panel and Denise Amyot at the 2011 Canadian Science Policy Conference

The 2011 Canadian Science Policy Conference (CSPC) starts tomorrow, Nov. 16, 2011 and runs until Nov. 18, 2011. Denise Amyot, speaker on the 2011 CSPC Science Culture, Organized and Prioritized: Three National and International Initiatives panel and President and Chief Executive Officer of the Canada Science and Technology Museums Corporation, has very kindly given me an interview.

Here’s a little bit about Denise Amyot first (from the bio on the 2011 CSPC conference website),

Denise Amyot is currently, President and CEO of the Canada Science and Technology Museums Corporation whose mandate is to foster scientific and technological literacy throughout the country. The Corporation and its three museums – the Canada Agriculture Museum, the Canada Aviation and Space Museum, and the Canada Science and Technology Museum – tell the stories of Canadian ingenuity and achievement in science and technology.

She has worked both in National Headquarters and in regions in several federal departments including central agencies, Human Resources and Skills Development Canada, National Defense, Natural Resources Canada, and Canadian Heritage. In her former three roles as Assistant Deputy Minister, she was respectively responsible for leading and managing leadership development programs and developing policies for employees and executives throughout the public Service of Canada, the corporate management services, as well as public affairs and ministerial services. She has worked extensively in policy and line operations in the context of programs and service delivery, in social, economic, and cultural areas. She also worked for few years with the Government of the Northwest Territories.

Ms Amyot is the former President of the Institute of Public Administration of Canada, Vice-President of the Head of Federal Agencies Steering Committee, and member of the Board of Governors at the Ottawa University and at the Algonquin College. She is the former President of the Association of Professional Executives of the Public Service of Canada and former President of the Communications Community Office.

Ms Amyot has obtained a Master’s degree in Education and three Bachelor degrees in Biology, in Arts and in Education.

Now, here are the questions and answers:

The panel (Science Culture, Organized and Prioritized: Three National and International Initiatives) features you from the Canada Science and Technology Museums Corporation (CSTMC); Lesley Lewis, CEO of the Ontario Science Centre; Ian Chubb, Chief Scientist for Australia and is being moderated by Tracey Ross, ED for the Canadian Association of Science Centres. Could you describe the difference between a museum of science and technology and a science centre?

Science museums are distinctive from science centres as they are the steward of a collection that provides an historical perspective on a specific cross-section of society. Science museums use artifacts from their collection to interpret science and technology within society and help visitor acquire a deeper understanding on its developmental and evolutionary nature. Like science centres, science museums also engage visitors on various aspect of current science and offer experiential, hands on activities.

Could you give a little history of the CSTMC and explain why there are three museums?

The CSTMC was created 21 years ago to govern the Canada Science and Technology Museum and the Canada Aviation and Space Museum. The Canada Agriculture Museum joined the corporation in 1997. Previous to 1990 all national museums were managed through a single corporation which posed challenges considering the diversity of audience, needs and mandates of these institutions.

The three museums share a common vision of engaging all Canadians in appreciating their scientific and technological heritage, and awaken them to our country’s potential of creativity and innovation to solve today’s challenges and propel us in the 21st century.

How do you view science culture in Canada and how would you describe it in relation to the international scene?

There has never been a time in history when science and technology have had greater impact on the lives of our citizens or have been more important to our economic competitiveness, prosperity and societal well being. I understand science culture as the degree in which Canadians understand the basic of science, are able to make daily decisions informed by a basic understanding of science and use of scientific method (inquiry). Science culture is an important vector of economic prosperity. Science culture also informs the degree in which science is considered as a desirable field of study for youth (STEM) leading to fulfilling careers.

Sustaining a strong and vibrant science culture is essential to Canada’s long term economic, environmental and social success in a global world. The world is looking at Canada to develop an economic and societal model that will smartly develop new and innovative ways of sustaining the exploitation of its natural resources while creating an inclusive society that will harness the talent, creativity and potential of every citizen. In the last ten years, jobs in science and technology have seen the largest growth.

Last year an initiative from the CSTMC for an online science network/hub was announced. Can you talk a little about the initiative and what happened to it?

For financial reasons, we have taken a step back in this project and have decided to postpone activities for the time being. Inspiring Australia has put a similar idea forward earlier this year and with significantly more resources than those we had put forward. We are watching this closely, to see how they will go about this and what sort of engagement they will garner.

I see the need for a more active national dialogue on science beyond sharing information about research, or explaining how it will benefit us. We need an open and respectful two-way dialogue between the experts and the citizens, the converted and the agnostics, a dialogue that spans the nation and involves universities, schools, science centres and museums, governments, businesses, community groups, and individuals. To change our collective thinking about science, more efforts will need to be directed to this dialogue. But most importantly, it will require stronger collaborations and coordination between institutions nation-wide. Using emerging digital technologies and social media applications seem to be the way of the future and we remain committed to playing a role in this area.

I assume you’ll be talking about the initiative to benchmark science culture in order to measure future progress. Could you share a little bit about your talk (how do you go about benchmarking science culture; has anyone done it before; how long will it take; does it require government funding; and, if so, how much?) that could serve both as a preview and as some information for those of us who won’t be able to attend?

There is strong agreement that having a strong and vibrant science culture is fundamental to the future of our country. For years we have been in discussion, inconclusively, on how best to go about this. We have seen numerous initiatives. Many pilot projects. I believe that best policies are evidence-based and informed by compelling performance indicators. There is still a bit of work needed in the science community to identify broadly supported indicators that could best reflect the vitality of our science culture in Canada.

Canada’s science culture is shaped by the interplay of various public, private and non-profit players delivering a range of activities and tools designed to enhance understanding and interest, among Canadians of all ages, in science. There are hundreds of different formal and informal science education and awareness and awareness building programs in this country and we hardly can map out their contribution to the vitality of science culture in our country. We need to collect output and outcome indicators to start benchmarking our progress and devise an effective national strategy. For example we need to measure beyond literacy levels or number of graduates in STEM [science, technology, engineering, mathematics] to include such things as science coverage and audience in the media, public opinion on science and scientists and many other indicators used in other countries.

I’ve noticed that most of the discussion about innovation is centered on the notion of business; do you think that culture has a place at that table?

YES! Actually the concept of science culture reflects the fact that part of our general culture there has to be a strong dose of science. And creativity, innovation, risk taking, entrepreneurship. The business sector fully understands the crucial nature of a strong science culture as a driver to our country’s competitiveness.

Is there anything you’d like to add?

As members of the science community, it is our responsibility to ensure that Canadians recognize not only the great achievements of our scientists, but that they see how science-based evidence inform our everyday lives.

I believe that the same curiosity and joy of discovery experienced by young Canadians visiting our science museums and science centres can be shared by all Canadians. I believe that this can then be turned into an active commitment to make Canada a country where scientific discovery and innovation shape our identity as Canadians, and contribute to the health of our economy and to the vibrancy of our nation. Creative thinking and a spirit of entrepreneurship are at the heart of innovation. Creative thinking does not require a lot of raw material but is underpinned by a strong science culture. We need to foster and support that value.

Thank you Mme. Amyot for sharing your insights and enthusiasm about science culture and offering this preview of the 2011 CSPC ‘Science Culture’ panel in the midst of your busy schedule.

I am very grateful to you and Mike Harcourt, Tim Meyer, and David Kent for taking the time to answer my questions about your work and about your talks for the 2011 CSPC panels where you will be appearing over the next few days.

Building Stronger Communities through Innovation panel at the 2011 Canadian Science Policy Conference

The 2011 Canadian Science Policy Conference (CSPC) scheduled for Nov. 16 – 18 in Ottawa, Ontario is featuring a couple of talks on innovation. Mike Harcourt, former Premier of BC, former Mayor and Councillor for the City of Vancouver, and a speaker on the Building Stronger Communities through Innovation panel, has very kindly answered a few questions about his work and the panel discussion.

First, here’s more about Mike Harcourt from his biography,

As former premier of British Columbia, Mayor of Vancouver and City Councilor,

Mike Harcourt helped British Columbia earn its reputation as one of the most livable, accessible and inclusive places in the world.  His focus on conservation and sustainable development – and his resolve to contribute to the transformation of cities and communities around the world – has played a significant role in promoting quality of life for those in Canada and abroad.

After stepping down from politics, he was appointed by the Prime Minister to serve as a member of the National Round Table on the Environment and Economy, where he served on the Executive Committee and Chaired the Urban Sustainability Program.  He was a federally appointed B.C. Treaty Commissioner and was Chair of the Prime Minister’s Advisory Committee for Cities and Communities and co-chaired the National Advisory Committee on the UN-HABITAT World Urban Forum in Vancouver in 2006.

Mike Harcourt is Chair of University of British Columbia’s Regional Sustainability Council for sustainability initiatives, and is at the new (CIRS) Centre for Interactive Research on Sustainability as well as Associate Director of the Centre for Sustainability Continuing Studies at U.B.C.  In addition to acting as Chairman of Quality Urban Energy Systems for Tomorrow (QUEST) www.questcanada.org, he chairs the Canadian Electricity Association’s Sustainable Electricity Program Advisory Panel. He is a member of City of Vancouver’s Greenest City Action Team. He also was part of an advisory group that helped Whistler put together its Natural Step based on sustainable cities strategy.  He is the lead faculty in United Way’s Public Policy Institute.

Harcourt’s exemplary career as Lawyer, Community Activist, and Politician has been honoured, with the Woodrow Wilson Award for Public Service and the Canadian Urban Institute’s Jane Jacobs Lifetime Achievement Award.  He was awarded the U.B.C. Alumni Achievement Award of Distinction for contributions to British Columbia,  Canada  and the global community  in November 2008.

U.B.C. Law Deans Advisory Council – 2010. Honorary Fellowship – The College of Fellows-Royal Architectural Institute of Canada.  In 2011 – Peter Lougheed Award in Public Policy.

In 1993 Al Gore applauded Premier Harcourt, for permanently preserving the jointly shared ecosystem of the Tatshenshini River and Alaska’s Glacier Bay National Park in Northwest British Columbia.

He is the author of: A Measure of Defiance and co-author of Plan B: one Man’s Journey from Tragedy to Triumph and co-author of City Making in Paradise.

Mike Harcourt is a Speaker and  Advisor  internationally on sustainable cities.

Here are the the answers that Mike Harcourt kindly took the time out of a very busy schedule to give,

  • I am a little curious as to how you ended up at a science policy conference. Have you had a particular interest in science or was this dictated by other forces and what would those forces be?

I’m at the conference (CSPC) as Chair of QUEST(Quality Urban Energy Systems of Tomorrow – QUESTcanada.org).  Plus I Chair the Canadian Electricity Association’s Sustainable Electricity Advisory Panel.  Innovation and technology are key to both organizations’ initiatives.

  • Can you offer a preview of what you, in particular, will be discussing at the Building Stronger Communities Through Innovation talk?

Most Canadians (95%) live in or around our 120 big and medium-sized communities, in the inner city, suburbs or rural areas just outside these cities so if we’re serious about having sustainable, competitive, Greenhouse-gas-reducing cities,we’ll need much greater emphasis on innovation, energy and technology applied to solving unsustainable patterns of urban planning and development.

  • Do you have any comments about the recent report on the Review of Federal Support to R&D, which was released with the title, Innovation in Canada: A Call to Action?

No comment on the recent Review of Federal Support to R&D Report.

  • As the former Premier of BC, what role to do you see for developing innovation and innovative communities at the provincial level?

 As Premier I saw an important role for provincial governments – good quality K-12,and post secondary education, R&D and commercialization initiatives,trade development.

  • As a former Mayor of Vancouver, what role to do you see for developing innovation and innovative communities at the municipal level?

 As Mayor I facilitated an economic development policy with a focus on innovation, trade development, proper zoning and taxation policies to encourage technology and related research, consulting and support enterprises.

Mike Harcourt, thank you very much for providing this preview of your talk on the panel and insight into how provinces and cities can encourage innovation.

Aptamers and Maria DeRosa

Today’s (Oct. 25, 2011) next interview is with Maria DeRosa of the DeRosa Lab at Carleton University (Ottawa, Canada) where she and her colleagues work on bionanotechnology projects. (The Highlighting the 2011 Dance Your Ph.D. contest posting featured a Ph.D student from her lab who is one of this year’s contest finalists.)

Before proceeding to the interview, here’s a little bit about the DeRosa Lab (from the website homepage),

The first step in the rational design of novel bionanotechnology is to find the right molecular components for the task. Our group seeks to investigate the use of chemically-modified nucleic acid aptamers, single stranded DNA or RNA sequences that specifically bind to a diverse variety of targets, in biosensing and catalysis.

Here’s some information about Dr. DeRosa,

Dr. Maria DeRosa’s research examines a type of nucleic acid called ‘aptamers’ that can fold into 3D nanoscale shapes capable of binding tightly to a specific molecular target.  Her group is focused on developing a better understanding of how these systems and using this information to design useful nanotechnology, like biosensors or “smart” delivery devices.  Dr. DeRosa received her Ph.D in Chemistry from Carleton University in 2003 and was presented with a University Senate Medal. She was awarded an NSERC Postdoctoral Fellowship to do research at the California Institute of Technology from 2004-2005 with Prof. Jackie Barton, a world-leader in DNA sensor research. In 2005, she returned to Carleton as a faculty member in the Chemistry Department. Her research group has received funding from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC), the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA), the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI) and Alberta Innovates Biosolutions.  DeRosa was a recipient of the John Charles Polanyi Research Award for new researchers in 2006 and an Ontario Early Researcher Award in 2010.

Here’s the interview,

*   Are you one of those people who always wanted to be a scientist or was this something you discovered later?

I was never one of those people who knew what they wanted to do from an early age.  I thought about being a doctor, pharmacist, plumber, engineer, bank teller…  In high school, I had many great math and science teachers that inspired me to go into science when I started at Carleton University.  Then, in my third year I got a summer job working in Dr. Bob Crutchley’s research lab.  He was a great mentor and it was then that I started seriously thinking about a career as a scientist.  I loved the idea of research, that I was working on a problem and no one knew what the answer would be.  I wanted the answers!

*   How did you get interested in aptamers (and could you briefly describe what they are)?

Aptamers are synthetic pieces of DNA that can recognize and stick to a molecular target.  The targets can vary from things that are very small, like a drug molecule to something much larger, like bacteria or viruses.  Because they can recognize and stick to other molecules, people are interested in using them as receptors for sensors.  I had never even heard of them until about 2005.

After my Ph.D., I went to Caltech to do something called a postdoctoral fellowship.  It was a research position in the lab of Dr. Jackie Barton, one of the world’s top DNA researchers (she just won a National Medal of Science a couple days ago).  She wasn’t working with aptamers but she opened me up to the idea of using DNA in an “unnatural” way.  Most of us, when we are thinking of DNA, we think of our genes and that it is the blueprint for life.  But from a chemistry point of view, DNA is just another material that has certain chemical properties that can be useful for other applications.  In Jackie’s lab, I learned how to make synthetic DNA and I started reading about aptamers.  I found the whole field fascinating and I knew that I wanted to be a part of it.

*   What applications are there for your work? (I noticed that you discussed fertilizers in your TEDxCarleton talk. Is agriculture an area of particular interest?)

Applications for aptamers mostly stem from their ability to bind tightly and selectively to other molecules.  So, they are typically used in technology such as biosensors where they can serve to detect low levels of something, like a toxin or a virus for example, in another matrix.  We’re developing aptamers for the detection of mycotoxins (toxins that come from moulds) in crops and food.  We’re also working on aptamers for norovirus (the virus that causes Norwalk, that awful stomach bug) so that we can catch it if it is in meat and other foods before they get sent off to stores.

We are also trying to use aptamers for triggered delivery of drugs and/or nutrients.  In many cases with drugs, we want them to act on certain cells or tissues and not on others.  So, we need to be able to control where the drug is released in the body.  There is a similar problem in agriculture.  We want to give crops certain nutrients from fertilizers but if we deliver them at the wrong time, they will be washed away and not taken up by the crop.  This leads to major economic losses for the farmer and problems for the environment.  With our work, the idea is that we use the aptamer to control the release of whatever we are delivering.  We incorporate the aptamer into a coating that covers the drug or nutrient.  The aptamer is there to recognize a stimulus that we want to use to release the contents.  For drug delivery, that stimulus might be a cancer cell or a disease biomarker.  For fertilizers, that stimulus might a be a plant signal that corresponds to the plant’s need for nutrients.  (We are working with Dr.Carlos Monreal from Agriculture and Agrifood Canada on the fertilizer project, and he is an expert in these plant signals and ‘smart fertilizers’.)  In the absence of that signal, the coating does not allow the release of the drug or nutrient.  But, once the aptamer recognizes that key signal, the aptamer distorts or destroys the coating and it allows the nutrient to be released.

*   According to the information on your lab website, you are the recipient of Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI) Leaders Opportunity Fund (LOF) monies. Are these funds being applied to a particular project in your lab or are they used to support your general area of research?

CFI funds helped us to build our facility called the LADDER (Laboratory for Aptamer Discovery and Development of Emerging Research applications).  That funding allowed us to get the state-of-the-art equipment we need to support all of our research projects.  Without CFI funding, our work would not be possible!

*   Given your TEDxCarleton talk and your involvement in the 2011 Canadian Science Writers conference (researchers’ speed dating [I couldn't confirm it but I'm pretty sure I saw your name listed for this event]), I gather you’re quite interested in public outreach. Why do you think it’s important?

Yes, I was at that ‘speed dating’ event and I am very committed to science outreach.  The public helps to support my research through funding like NSERC and CFI, so I think it is critical that I can explain to them what it is that I do, why it is important, and why their money is well-spent.  The general public may not know what an aptamer is, but they all realize the importance of keeping our food free of toxins or the need to make drugs that are better able to target disease.

*   I noticed that one of your students is a finalist in the Dance your Ph.D 2011 contest. And it’s not the first time. Do you find a lot of scientists with ‘dance’ tendencies are attracted to your lab? Are you one of those scientists?

My students won the competition last year and then they were finalists again this year!  I’m not sure if dancers are attracted to my lab or if my students are just as committed to outreach as I am!  My students are very excited to talk about their research with anyone who will listen.  This contest is a fun way to explain their work to everyday people.  Friends and family, after watching these dances online, have told me that they finally understand what is going on in my lab.  Maybe I should dance more!  (I’m not a dancer and you will not find me in either video…I support them from the sidelines!)

*   Is there anything you would like to add?

Thanks for profiling me and it has been fun!

Maria, thank you for this intriguing peek into your research, the field of DNA nanotechnology, and your (and shared by your students) commitment to public science outreach. I’m very happy you managed to cram the time to answer these questions into your schedule.

Reaching out with big science panel at the 2011 Canadian Science Policy Conference

Today’s 2011 Canadian Science Policy Conference (CSPC) interview is with Dr. Tim Meyer, Head of Strategic Planning & Communication for TRIUMF who will be one of the presenters on the Reaching out with big science panel. Here’s a little more about Tim (from Tim Meyer’s profile page on the TRIUMF website),

Dr. Timothy Meyer came to TRIUMF from the U.S. National Academies in Washington, D.C.. At the National Academies, Meyer was a senior program officer at the Board on Physics and Astronomy. He received a Notable Achievement Award from the [US] NRC’s Division on Engineering and Physical Sciences in 2003 and a Distinguished Service Award from the National Academies in 2004. Meyer joined the NRC staff in 2002 after earning his Ph.D. in experimental particle physics from Stanford University. His doctoral thesis concerned the time evolution of the B meson in the BaBar experiment at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center. His work also focused on radiation monitoring and protection of silicon-based particle detectors. He is a member of the Canadian Association of Physicists, Canadian Science Writers Association, American Physical Society, American Association for the Advancement of Science, Materials Research Society, and Phi Beta Kappa.

Here’s a little more on the Reaching out with big science panel. From the CSPC agenda page,

The public often learns of developments in science in the media distilled from press offices at peer-reviewed journals or universities. In a few cases, research institutions such as the Mayo Clinic and CERN have also developed a reputation for being seen as authoritative sources of science news and information for the public. In recent years, the Canadian research landscape has grown to feature a number of ‘big science’ facilities. These institutions, such as TRIUMF, Ocean Networks Canada, the Canadian Light Source, SNOLab and the Perimeter Institute, conduct research at the forefront of science – often at the convergence of science disciplines and with a scope and scale that is larger than traditional research institutions in government or the academy. In addition to research, all of these laboratories also engage in a number of forms of public engagement and outreach, ranging from media relations to classroom education. In a media landscape where science reporting is becoming increasingly fractured, what role do Canada’s big science facilities have in being sources of science news, information and education?

Here is the interview that Tim kindly gave during a period when he has been traveling extensively on behalf of TRIUMF,

  • For those who are not familiar with TRIUMF could you please give a brief description of it and an explanation of how it fits into the Canadian science landscape?

TRIUMF IS CANADA’S NATIONAL LABORATORY FOR PARTICLE AND NUCLEAR PHYSICS.  IT IS OWNED AND OPERATED BY A CONSORTIUM OF 17 CANADIAN UNIVERSITIES FROM COAST TO COAST.  TRIUMF WAS FORMED MORE THAN 40 YEARS AGO TO POOL RESOURCES AND TALENTS FOR RESEARCH INFRASTRUCTURE THAT WAS TOO COMPLEX AND EXPENSIVE TO MAINTAIN BY A SINGLE UNIVERSITY.

THE TRIUMF TEAM INCLUDES ABOUT 350 STAFF ON 12 ACRES IN VANCOUVER ON THE SOUTH SIDE OF THE UBC CAMPUS. TRIUMF OPERATES 5 DIFFERENT ACCELERATORS INCLUDING THE WORLD’S LARGEST CYCLOTRON.

TRIUMF IS UNIQUE IN CANADA AND ONE OF THE TOP THREE LABORATORIES IN THE WORLD FOR CAPABILITIES TO RESEARCH AND DEVELOP ISOTOPES FOR SCIENCE AND MEDICINE.

TRIUMF IS ONE MEMBER OF A FAMILY OF NATIONAL LABORATORIES IN CANADA INCLUDING THE CANADIAN LIGHT SOURCE [represented on the panel], SNOLAB, PERIMETER INSTITUTE [represented on the panel], AND THE CANADIAN NEUTRON BEAM CENTRE.

  • I’ve read the description for this panel and wonder how this fits into a science policy conference. Is there going to be some link made between public engagement and public policy?

ABSOLUTELY. THIS PANEL SESSION SHOWS UP FOR TWO REASONS.  FIRST, PUBLIC ENGAGEMENT IS PART OF THE OBLIGATION OF PUBLICY-FUNDED RESEARCH ACTIVITIES.  EITHER TO SHARE THE BENEFITS OF THE RESEARCH OR SHARE THE INSPIRATION THAT COMES FROM DISCOVERY… OR ANY OTHER NUMBER OF REASONS.  SO IN THE CONTEXT OF SCIENCE POLICY, THIS PANEL WILL DISCUSS HOW THE PUBLIC ENGAGEMENT AND “SHARING” FROM LARGE SCIENCE FACILITIES MIGHT DIFFER FROM THAT OF INIDIVUAL RESEARCHERS—OR EVEN WHETHER LARGE SCIENCE FACILITIES HAVE A LARGER OBLIGATION.

SECOND, LARGE SCIENCE FACILITIES PRESENT A CHALLENGE FOR TRADITIONAL SCIENCE POLICY BECAUSE THEY REPRESENT LARGE UP-FRONT CAPITAL COMMITMENTS WITH SIGNIFICANT ONGOING OPERATING COSTS.  WHAT IS THE RESPONSIBLE APPROACH FOR MANAGING A PORTFOLIO OF THESE LABORATORIES?  IN THIS PANEL DISCUSSION, WE WILL BE LOOKING AT THE SOME OF UNIQUE FEATURES OF NATIONAL SCIENCE FACILITIES THAT MAKE THEM INVALUABLE AS WELL AS OUTLINE SOME ROUTES FOR IMPROVING THEIR STEWARDSHIP.  SO THIS PANEL DISCUSSION WILL ENGAGE THE ENGAGERS IN AN ENGAGING CONVERSATION!

  • Could you briefly discuss some of the public outreach and engagement initiatives taken by TRIUMF?

TRIUMF’S STRATEGIC PLANNING AND COMMUNICATIONS OFFICE (SPCO) OVERSEES PUBLIC RELATIONS, CONFERENCE SERVICES, PUBLICATIONS, AND EDUCATION AND OUTREACH ACTIVITIES AT THE LAB.  FOR INSTANCE, TRIUMF CO-SPONSORS A MONTHLY LECTURE SERIES FOR HIGH-SCHOOL STUDENTS ON BREAKING-NEWS TOPICS IN PHYSICS FOR PEOPLE IN THE VANCOUVER METRO AREA.  TRIUMF ALSO SELECTS 2-3 OF THE TOP BC AREA HIGH SCHOOL STUDENTS AND WARDS THEM A SUMMER RESEARCH FELLOWSHIP AT THE LAB ALONGSIDE THE WORLD’S BEST SCIENTISTS.  TRIUMF ACTIVELY PARTICIPATES IN CONVERSATIONS TO ENGAGE THE PUBLIC ABOUT THE NATURE AND IMPORTANCE OF SCIENCE.  DURING THE FIRST MONTH AFTER THE FUKUSHIMA CRISIS, TRIUMF PROVIDED INVALUABLE COUNSEL TO GOVERNMENT AGENCIES AND THE MEDIA ABOUT WHAT WAS ACTUALLY GOING ON.  ELSEWHERE, TRIUMF HAS PROVIDED EXPERTS TO SCREENINGS OF SCIENCE-RELATED FILMS PART OF THE VANCOUVER INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL.  WE ALSO USE TWITTER TO CALL ATTENTION TO IMPORTANT SCIENCE DEVELOPMENTS AND WE ARE DEVELOPING A LIBRARY OF ENTERTAINING “BEHIND THE SCENES” VIDEOS ON OUR YOUTUBE CHANNEL ABOUT RESEARCH AT TRIUMF.  TRIUMF HAS BEEN AN OPINION AND TECHNOLOGY LEADER IN CANADA’S DISCUSSION ABOUT THE MEDICAL-ISOTOPE CRISIS, ANOTHER EXAMPLE OF PUBLIC ENGAGEMENT ON POLICY TOPICS SHAPED BY SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY.

  • I’m surprised by the failure to include social media as part of the new science communications landscape. Do you have any thoughts on that exclusion?

WHAT MAKES YOU THINK IT’S NOT INCLUDED? YOU HAVEN’T SEEN THE TALKS YET!  JUST TEASING.  WE WILL ALL CERTAINLY BE TALKING ABOUT SOCIAL MEDIA AND WE’LL EVEN BE TWEETING AND BLOGGING LIVE FROM THE CONFERENCE.

  • Can you offer a preview of what you, in particular, will be discussing during the panel session?

WELL, I DON’T SPOIL EVERYTHING, BUT HERE’S WHAT I CAN SAY IN ADVANCE.  I WILL BE TALKING ABOUT THE SET OF MOTIVATIONS FOR PUBLIC ENGAGEMENT FOR RESEARCH LABORATORIES.  NATIONAL SCIENCE FACILITIES ARE NOT THE BE-ALL, END-ALL FOR RESEARCH AND SCIENCE COMMUNICATION, BUT THEY PLAY A CLEAR, UNMISTAKABLE ROLE THAT IS INCREASINGLY IMPORTANT. I WILL DISTINGUISH THE RESPONSIBILITIES OF A NATIONAL SCIENCE FACILITY FROM THOSE OF INDIVIDUAL RESEARCH EFFORTS.  I WILL ALSO DISCUSS HOW THE PUBLIC ROLE OF A LABORATORY IS EVOLVING IN THE INTERNATIONAL CONTEXT AS WELL AS THE VERY-MUCH-IN-DEMAND CONTEXT OF INNOVATION AND COMMERCIALIZATION.

  • Is there anything you would like to add?

(1) MANY FEEL THAT PUBLIC OUTREACH AND EDUCATION IS JUST A SELF-SERVING TRICK OF SCIENTISTS—IF MORE PEOPLE KNOW ABOUT SCIENCE, THEY’LL LIKE IT, AND THEN WANT TO SPEND MORE TAX DOLLARS ON IT.  THIS SIMPLISTIC LOGIC HAS ACTUALLY BEEN SHOWN TO BE FALSE.  THERE IS NO PROSELYTIZING GOING ON.  WE’RE NOT HERE TO MAKE YOU LIKE SCIENCE SO YOU LIKE US!  WHAT THIS IS ABOUT IS GIVING BACK TO KEY ELEMENTS OF THE PUBLIC AND ABOUT ADVANCING SOCIETY.

(2) THE CANADIAN SCIENCE POLICY CONFERNECE IS AN IMPORTANT STEP FORWARD FOR CANADA.  IT AIMS TO PROVIDE A FORUM FOR KEY ISSUES TO BE DISCUSSED AND EXAMINED.  THE KEY CHALLENGE IS TO DRIVE THE FIELD FORWARD BY RESOLVING SOME OF THESE ISSUES.  BETTER AND BETTER INFORMED HAND-WRINGING ABOUT THE STATE OF SCIENCE OR INNOVATION (I.E., JUST COMPLAINING) IN CANADA IS GOING TO GET OLD.  THE OPPORTUNITY OF THIS CONFERENCE, AND THE INTENTION OF THE ORGANIZERS, IS TO START TO GENERATE A NEW CONVERSATION.  WHAT ARE THE BASELINES EXPECTATIONS FOR SCIENCE?  WHAT RESULTS HAVE WE ACHIEVED WITH OUR RECENT INNOVATIVE PROGRAMS?   WHEN WE LOOK AT THESE QUESTIONS, WE START MOVING THE ENTIRE COUNTRY FORWARD.

Thank you, Tim. I’m very grateful you managed to squeeze this interview into your schedule. I imagine this will be a lively presentation given your comments.