Monthly Archives: May 2009

Thoughts on science funding and policy in Canada: Part 3

In all the talk about commercializing science, there’s very little discussion about impact of the civil service bureaucrats who administer the programmes. The focus tends to be on the politicians who are in the position of being elected for one or more terms and may or may not achieve a position in the cabinet. No matter how you look at it, a politician’s impact is mitigated by the long term civil service employees who are tasked with implementing the government programmes or directives.

A bureucrat’s life compared to a politician’s tends to be rather stable. No matter how the elections went, the bureaucrat remains. The very top level, deputy ministers do trudge in and out according to the prevailing political winds but bureaucrats below that level, the ones who actually implement and administer the programmes, don’t move around that much.

Typically, these bureaucrats don’t have a lot of business experience (many have none) and as far as I’m aware business people are not on the panels that adjudicate grants. This seems problematic to me. How can someone who’s never been in business assess research that could lead to a commercial product?

And even if they (bureaucrats or panel members) do have business experience, consider the huge difference between working in a corporation, e.g. IBM, and starting up your own company/working in a startup company. The mentalities are quite different and their notions as to what constitutes a viable commercial application are similarly different. Let’s not forget that each industrial sector has its own particular culture and outlook. (I know from experience how very different telecommunications companies are from graphic arts [printers] companies. For example, information that is shared freely in one sector is a closely guarded secret in another sector.)

My point is that commercializing science is a lot more complex than just saying “research something that can be commercialized.”

Next week I will be summarizing this series of comments about commercializing science.

New award for science blogging

I found this 3 Quarks Daily announcement for their new annual blog prizes on Andrew Maynard’s 2020 Science blog. There will be four prizes awarded annually at the Equinoxes and the Solstices in the categories of science (Summer Solstice); arts and literature(Fall Equinox); politics (Winter Solstice), and philosophy (Spring Equinox). Accordingly, the first category to be opened for nominations is Science. So be quick as the Summer Solstice is coming up in a few weeks and the deadlines are approaching. The contest information is here on 3 Quarks Daily.

It is necessary to nominate a specific posting and Andrew Maynard notes some of favourite posts of his own work here as suggestions. Other scinece blogs I like are Richard Jones’s Soft Machines and Rob Annan’s work on Don’t leave Canada behind (although Annan comments on policy and funding, which might fit better in the politics category…well, I leave that up to the adjudicators).

Entanglement issues and open source synthetic biology

According to current thought, entanglement makes quantum computing possible and the more of it you have, the more powerful the quantum computing. Scientists, David Goss at the Institute of Mathematical Physics in Braunschweig, Germany; S. T. Flammia at the Perimter Institute in Waterloo, Canada; and Jens Eisert at the University of Postdam, Germany) have recently published findings which suggest that there is such a thing as too much entanglement. There’s more in the article on physorg.com including this description of entanglement,

Entanglement, explains both Eisert and Gross, represents correlations in behavior. One system is related to another on a global scale, each affecting the other. In quantum computing, the way systems are entangled – correlated – can help scientists perform powerful computational tasks. However, entanglement is about more than just correlations. “Entanglement introduces a certain randomness into the system,” Gross says. “This randomness appears in the measurement outcomes. However, as the entanglement goes up, so does the randomness. When entanglement increases to a certain point, there is so much randomness that the system ends up being about as useful as coins tossed into the air. You don’t get any useful information.”

Now onto synthetic biology. The Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies (PEN) has a June 17, 2009 event (9:30 am to 10:30 am PST) titled, Synthetic Biology: Feasibility of the Open Source Movement.

According to the website description, this event is about IP issues and synthetic biology. From the website,

Will this open source movement succeed? Are life sciences companies ready for open source? What level of intellectual property (IP) protection is necessary to secure industry and venture capital involvement and promote innovation? And does open source raise broader social issues? On June 17, a panel of representatives from various sectors will discuss the major challenges to future IP developments related to synthetic biology, identify key steps to addressing these challenges, and examine a number of current tensions surrounding issues of use and ownership.

The focus will be on US law, which is significantly different than Canadian law but if you’re interested, there will likely be a webcast posted on their site afterward or if you’re in Washington, DC, you can RSVP here to attend.

Science and multimodal media approaches

There’s an interesting article on an experiment being conducted at Fortune magazine. For anyone who’s not aware, the publishing industry is in a serious quandary and many publishers are struggling for survival. This explains why Fortune magazine has a multimodal media version of its print cover story available on the web. From the article by Andrew Vanacore on the Physorg.com site here,

Dispensing advice on finding a job during a recession, the piece had a soundtrack, a troupe of improv actors from Chicago and about 4,000 fewer words than your average magazine feature. Instead of scrolling through a column of text, readers (if the term can be applied) flipped through nine pages that told the story with a mix of text, photo-illustrations, interactive graphics and video clips.

I like that bit about “readers (if the term can be applied)” because I’ve been coming to the conclusion that with less and less text (think Twitter) that we may be returning to a more oral society as opposed to our still literate-dominant society. I’ve been thinking about this since some time in the early 1990′s when a communications professor (Paul Heyer) at Simon Fraser University first made the suggestion to us in class.

Following on this idea that we will be less and less text oriented, the work that Kay O’Halloran is doing at her Mulimodal Lab (situated at the National University of Singapore) casts an interesting light on where this all may be going with regard to science communication.  An associate professor in the Dept. of English Language and Literature, O’Halloran is speaking tomorrow (in Ottawa, Canada) at the 2009 Congress of Humanities and Social Science about reading, mathematics, and digital media. I hope there will be a webcast of her talk available afterwards (I suggested it to the folks from the Canadian Association for the Study of Discourse and Writing (CASDW) who are sponsoring her talk. If there is a webcast, I’ll post a link.

Meanwhile, for those of us not lucky enough to be there, from the programme,

To understand digital texts we need theories that study more than words alone. This talk will show how images, mathematical and scientific symbols, gestures, actions, music, and sound can all be studied along with words using examples from the classroom, digital media, and mathematics.

I believe that more and more of our communication, science and otherwise, is moving in a multimodal direction. It seems so obvious to me that it surprises me that it’s not commonly accepted wisdom.

Later this week, I will have more about science funding and I have notice of another sythetic biology event coming up at the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologie.

Thoughts on science funding and policy in Canada: Part 1

There’s a big discussion about the funding situation in Canada taking place on the ‘Researcher Forum, Don’t Leave Canada Behind‘ blog. I gather the site is a joint effort between the individuals who put together the letter with over 2000 signatures from Canadian researchers responding to the latest federal budget and science funding. Do check it out here.

I found the discussion a little challenging as I don’t keep up with the issues as closely as these folks do but thanks to their efforts, I think I’m starting to get a better handle on the issues.

I have been aware of the government’s claims that it is dedicating more funds than ever to research. The number is $5.1B. It sounds impressive but let’s consider a few things. A lot of that money is being dedicated to bricks and mortar, equipment, repairs, and operations (electricity, water, etc.). All of these are important and I’m glad that there will be places, equipment, and the power necessary to conduct research. Still, this is funding for infrastructure and does not mean that research of any type will be conducted.

And now for a comment I haven’t seen anywhere else yet. There’s a strong focus on the commercialization of these publicly funded science facilities (I’m not talking about commercialization of science which is also being hotly discussed). Let’s take the funding for Simon Fraser University’s  4 D Labs’ maskwriting facilities as an example. As I noted in my April 9, 2009 posting, this facility is intended, amongst other things,  to function as a revenue stream, i.e. local businesses will pay to use the facilities.  I’m curious as to how this will be implemented. If businesses are paying to use the facility, will their use take precedence over academic research?  Could academic researchers be placed in the position of having to outbid a local business who wants to use the facilities?

Plus, one of the criticisms in the government’s science policy document is that Canada does not have a lot of business research labs. What possible incentive would a business in Canada have to open such a facility if they can have access to the equipment at a local university?

The Canadian federal government invests $3.5M in Alberta nanotechnology sector

Rona Ambrose, the  (Canada) Minister of Labour, announced $3.5M for Alberta’s Centre for Advanced Microsystems and Nanotechnology Products (ACAMP) yesterday, May 20, 2009. She made the announcement on behalf of Lynne Yelich, Minister of State for Western Economic Diversification (WD). (Under the liberals, the WD portfolio was held by Stephen Owens.)

Under the project, ACAMP will acquire the first low temperature ceramic packaging equipment in Canada that is able to support sensing and monitoring systems in oil and gas, bio-medical, environmental, agricultural and forestry applications. Equipment such as this will allow ACAMP to promote technology commercialization in promising areas within micro and nano technology and assist companies in getting products to markets.

There’s more about the nanotechnology commercialization that’s to take place in Alberta here.

The issue of commercializing scientific discoveries is a hot topic and I will be writing more about this soon.

Meanwhile and following on yesterday’s post, I’ve found a couple of ananlogies to describe the same thing. Here’s the title of the article, ‘DNA sculpture and origami – a meeting of art and nanotechnology‘. It’s an interesting article which has a good description of the process and can be found here on,’Not Exactly Rocket Science; science for everyone‘. The process the author is decribing reminds me of a project at Simon Fraser University (Canada), where sculptor and publisher, Robert Chaplin, created the smallest book in the world (at the time) with a focused gallion ion beam. The book is called ‘Teeny Ted in Turnip Town‘ and was produced in a laboratory run by scientist Karen Kavanagh. They were working with silicon tablets and not DNA still, there are similarities as both projects require that material be cut away in order create (or reveal as sculptors like to think) another structure. There’s more here about Teeny Ted.

A new nanotechnology analogy

One of the things that fascinates me is the use of metaphors and analogies to explain various nanotechnology discoveries and breakthroughs. I found a new one (analogy) this morning, raspberries. ‘Nano-raspberries to fight foggy windows and eyeglasses‘ is the title for an article on Nanowerk News that focuses on a nanoparticle’s shape.

Junhui He and colleagues note that researchers have been working on anti-fog technology for years. Fogged-up windows are a safety hazard and a nuisance that affect millions of people. Existing technology, including sprays that must be reapplied to stay effective, has many drawbacks. Researchers knew that raspberry-shaped nanoparticles could be the ideal solution by disrupting the process in which water droplets fog glass. Until now, however, there has been no commercially feasible way to make these particles

As usual, it will take five years before their new process can be commercialized. Why is it always five years? Back to my original topic, this is my first fruit analogy (nanotechnologically-speaking that is).

Nanotech BC scoop: part 3 interview with Victor Jones

Belated Happy Victoria Day! We (Canadians) just celebrated a long weekend and so I’m a day later than I planned for posting the third and final part of the Victor Jones (former chair of Nanotech BC) interview.

(5) I mistakenly guessed that Darren Frew (former executive director) was the Nanotech BC representative going to the big nanotechnology conference in Japan during February 2009 when in fact it was you. How did it go? NANOTECH 2009 – TOKYO – WAS  VERY GOOD.  THERE WERE  OVER 70  CANADIANS THERE AND BY ALL ACCOUNTS MOST FOUND IT VERY USEFUL FOR COLLABORATIVE RESEARCH OR BUSINESS DEVELOPMENT.  ONLY MYSELF FROM BC.    THE EMBASSY STAFF IN TOKYO WERE VERY HELPFUL AND THE CANADIAN BOOTH WAS BUSY.    ATTENDANCE REACHES ALMOST 50,000     FOLLOW ON WORK WAS PENDING

I COULD SAY A LOT MORE…..IT IS A FULL WEEK IN MEETINGS   SEMINARS AND TRADE SHOW….

(6) Where are things going? Will Nanotech BC rise again? Or will something new rise from the ashes? I LEAVE THIS TO MICHAEL (ALLDRITT – DIRECTOR – AT NRC-IRAP) AND THE BOARD  -  THERE ARE SEVERAL POSSIBILITIES……  THE LEGAL NOT FOR PROFIT ORG EXISTS AND ITS FUTURE IS OPEN.  THERE IS NO DOUBT THAT THIS ARENA CONTINUES TO GROW AS  STATED STRATEGIC IMPORTANCE FOR MANY COUNTRIES, REGIONS AND CITIES.  NANOTECH BC  WAS A LEADER IN ITS ASSET MAP WORK – NOW BEING REPLICATED IN ALBERTA; AND BC HAS SOME WORLD CLASS WORK GOING ON;       THERE ARE SIMILARITIES TO THE VERY EARLY DAYS OF BIOTECH. / GENOMICS; BUT CHALLENGES TOO …..

I wonder why the province of BC was dragging its feet about funding the organization. Given the amount of money being invested by governments and business around the world, you’d think that there would be more interest. I did look for a science policy on the provincial government website and was not able to find one.

Two researchers (Jennifer Pelley and Marc Saner) from the Regulatory Governance Initiative at Carleton University (Ottawa, Canada) have produced a report outlining the regulatory approaches toward nanotechnology from five different jurisdictions. From Nanowerk News,

Authored by Jennifer Pelley and Marc Saner, this report investigates the question: “How have Canada and other jurisdictions reacted to the recent emergence of nanotechnology-based products in the marketplace (and what is the current state of affairs)?” Our survey focuses on five key jurisdictions: the United States (US), the United Kingdom (UK), the European Union (EU), Australia, and Canada.

There’s more about the report here and the report is here.

One final thing, Discover Magazine has a blog called ‘Science not Fiction‘ which features the ‘Codex Futurius’, a Q & A for science/fiction questions directed to experts. They have an answer to a question about grey goo.

Nanotech BC scoop: part 2 interview with Victor Jones

The next part of the interview focuses on just how many companies in Canada could be defined as selling nanotechnology-based products and Jones’ role with Nanotech BC. He also provides more information about the organization’s projects.

(3) How big is the nanotechnology industry in BC? and in Canada? i.e. how many companies?

BC HAS ABOUT 15 CO; ALBERTA CLAIMS ABOUT 40 CO AND THEN ONTARIO AND QUEBEC HAVE A SIMILAR NUMBER EACH.   BUT BC ALSO HAS A LARGE  ~~ 120 OR SO – RESEARCHERS – RESEARCH EFFORT  COVERING A DIVERSE AREAS OF ADVANCED MATERIALS, COATINGS; LAB ON A CHIP, QUANTUM PHYSICS, DRUG DELIVERY AND NANO BIO WORK  ON-GOING.   MOST OF THIS IS STILL IN LABS AT UBC  – AMPEL;   ALSO SFU – 4D LABS AND  UVIC HAS SOME EXCELLENT WORK TOO.  E.G. ONE BC  COMPANY IS   A LEADER IN THE DEVELOPMENT OF A QUANTUM COMPUTER. ONE SPECIALIZES IN COATINGS….ETC.

NANO IS NOT AN INDUSTRY  – IT IS A BROAD ENABLING TECHNOLOGY – A GENERAL PURPOSE TECHNOLOGY ( GPT) AND THEREFORE GETS  EMBEDDED INTO A RANGE OF PRODUCTS AND PROCESSES WHERE MANIPULATION OF MATTER AT THE ATOMIC SCALE ENABLES MATERIAL CHARACTERISTICS AND PROCESSES NOT  OTHERWISE ACHIEVABLE.    SO FAR  MOST OF THE MATERIALS  ARE FINDING APPLICATION  IN COATINGS, TEXTILES;  COMPOSITE MATERIALS AND PERSONAL CARE PRODUCTS  E.G. SUNCREEN/ HAIR CARE.; ADVANCED ELECTRONICS….   SEE  THE WOODROW WILSON PROJECT ON EMERGING NANOTECHNOLOGIES. (here)  ADOPTION TIMES FOR NEW MATERIALS ARE OFTEN YEARS IN THE MAKING,  BUT SOME 800 PRODUCTS USING NMATERIALS ARE IN THE MARKET NOW.

(3) Can you tell me about your role with Nanotech BC given its current situation? I’ve seen your website and am wondering if you might be able to tell me a little more about what you do professionally.

I AM NO LONGER A BOARD MEMBER  SO I HAVE NO OFFICIAL CAPACITY WITH NANOTECH BC NOR DO I SPEAK FOR THE ORGANIZATION.  OF COURSE I AM SUPPORTIVE OF THE ORGANIZATION BUT NOW REFER ENQUIRIES TO MICHAEL ALLDRITT – DIRECTOR – AT NRC-IRAP WHO HAS BEEN A GREAT SUPPORTER OF THE PROJECT GOING BACK TO 2001.

I CONTINUE TO DO CONSULTING IN THE ARENA OF CANADIAN STANDARDS  WORK ON NANOMATERIALS AND ALSO THE DEVELOPMENT OF WWW.GOODNANOGUIDE.ORG.   THIS  WEBSITE WAS A CONCEPT OF ICON ( RICE U) WHICH WAS ASSISTED THROUGH NANOTECH BC AND OTHER CANADIAN ORGANIZATIONS AS I ARRANGED THE FUNDING FOR THE BETA  STAGE.  IT IS NOW OPEN TO WORLD INVOLVEMENT IN SHARING PROTOCOLS FOR THE SAFE HANDLING OF NANOMATERIALS.   MY ROLE WITH THE ICON COMMITTEE WAS TO ROUND UP THE CANADIAN FUNDING TO REACH THIS STAGE AND AS A MEMBER OF THE IMPLEMENTATION COMMITTEE WORK THROUGH THE DETAILS OF THE FUNCTIONALITIES. THIS PROJECT CONTINUES AND IS INTERNATIONAL IN SCOPE WITH AN EXCELLENT COMMITTEE. – REPS FROM NIOSH  EPA  ETC…   AS OHS PROCESSES WILL BE KEY TO BOTH RESEARCHER/ INDUSTRIAL SAFETY AND PUBLIC ACCEPTANCE OF NANOMATERIAL ENABLED PRODUCTS   I EXPECT INTEREST IN THE SITE AS A SOURCE FOR OHS INFORMATION FOR PUBLIC AND SPECIALISTS TO GROW. (OHS = Occupational Health and Safety)

If I read Jones’ response correctly, we have almost 100 companies in Canada that are producing nano-enabled products. I’m not sure I worded that sentence  so well but point well taken about the nonexistence of a nanotechnology industry (as I referred to it in my question) per se. One of the difficulties writing about nanotechnology is its rather amorphous quality. I made some comments along with other people on Andrew Maynard’s blog (2020 Science) about these difficulties.

I did not realize that BC hosts a company which is a leader in quantum computers.  That’s pretty exciting stuff as is the work on occupational health and safety. Part 3 of the interview will be posted on Monday, May 18, 2009.