Monthly Archives: March 2011

Innovation = more $$$ for business schools?

I’m trying to calm down but really!!!! Roger Martin, Dean of the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto gave the Globe & Mail an interview last week where he opined that Canadian business schools are not getting enough money which is, in turn, affecting innovation. I hope the interview is a form of performance art rather than a reflection of Martin’s thought processes.

(Please accept my apologies but I’m having trouble with my links today so I will have to give you the URLs.) From the March 16, 2011 article Canada will shrivel under business-school neglect, dean says (http://www.theglobeandmail.com/report-on-business/managing/business-education/canada-will-shrivel-under-business-school-neglect-dean-says/article1942997/page1/) by Gordon Pitts,

What makes a country prosperous is not investment in science and technology. [emphasis mine] It is businesses producing high paying jobs by having unique products and processes that a customer needs. Yet we have an economic development policy that focuses incredibly tightly on a very narrow part of the economy with no demonstration or proof that it is particularly helpful. Meanwhile, we complain about our companies not being innovative enough or globally competitive enough, and we send them off to battle with much less education than their competitors.

We hear people say, ‘Well, what we need are scientists and engineers running these companies because these are tech companies.’ But if we in Canada would like to have companies like Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Microsoft, Apple, Cisco and Intel, find out how many of their CEOs have science and tech degrees. The answer is there are a lot more MBAs than science and technology degrees.

All of the companies cited were founded by people with science and technology degrees as Nassif Ghoussoub in A business dean’s rant: Ignorance of the facts or pure “Chutzpah”? (http://ghoussoub.wordpress.com/2011/03/20/a-business-dean%E2%80%99s-rant-willful-ignorance-or-pure-%E2%80%9Cchutzpah%E2%80%9D/#more-3241), and James Colliander, Rotman Dean to Government: Give the Basic Research Funding to Business Schools not Scientists (http://blog.math.toronto.edu/colliand/2011/03/17/rotman-dean-wants-the-money-targeted-for-science-research-2/) note.

Martin never does explain how more business education money will actually translate into more innovation in Canada. In fact, he never explains how it has worked anywhere else. Strangely, he does not mention the latest economic meltdown due to business practices. If more education and research benefited business and the economy so much then why the meltdown that our US neighbours to the south have experienced so strongly? By Martin’s reckoning the US economy should be in much better condition than it is what with all that money going to support business students.

I was a little curious as to Martin’s own background and found this in an Aug. 1, 2006 article by Robert Berner for Bloomberg Business Week (from http://www.businessweek.com/magazine/content/05_31/b3945417.htm_),

A Canadian native and graduate of Harvard Business School, the 48-year-old Martin left a position as co-head of a consulting firm to take the Rotman post. He’s working with Patrick Whitney, director of the Institute of Design, and David Kelley, co-founder of design consultancy IDEO and head of the new Stanford Design School, to create a new design-based curriculum that can be used in business schools. Martin practices what he preaches: He advises Procter & Gamble Co. (PG ) chief A.G. Lafley, among other chief executives.

So let me get this. The dean of a business school whose own educational background appears to be largely business (according to the Wikipedia essay about him [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roger_Martin], he has a Bachelor of Arts in Economics from Harvard College in addition to his MBA from Harvard Business School) and who worked as a management consultant prior to becoming a dean thinks that Canadians need more business education. What’s that old saying? If you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

As for the statistics he offers about the amount of research money going to business (from the Pitts article),

For example, of federal research money from the three major funding councils, business gets 1.7 per cent of the funding but it gets 17 per cent of the students. Health Sciences have 36 per cent of funding and 11.2 per cent of students – and that’s understandable with all that expensive R&D. Natural sciences and engineering have 39 per cent of funding and 28 per cent of students.

In all the social sciences and humanities, except business, there are 44 per cent of students and 24 per cent of research funding. So the social sciences get hit, but their hit is less than 2 to 1. In business – which is all about making our country competitive – it’s a 10 to one cut.

It does seem a pretty pitiful amount of research money is going to business research (Note: I would like to know how Martin has derived his statistics). Mind you a fair amount of the material produced by Statistics Canada is used for business research purposes while a lot of the quantitative social science research has to be gathered by the social scientists themselves. And, Nassif points out that a big chunk of the 2009 budget research money going for  social sciences and humanities research was in fact intended for business studies.

… we should not forget that, as recently as 2009, business schools got a preferential treatment from the federal government. Indeed, after having cut the Tri-council by 5%, the 2009 stimulus federal budget proceeded to earmark the $17.5-million assigned to SSHRC for graduate scholarships towards students in business and finance.

Business is making inroads in many areas not just in social sciences and humanities funding. A March 20, 2011 article by Tom Spears for the Ottawa Citizen indicates that business and economic interests will be driving research in this country in a way that should warm Martin’s heart (from http://www.ottawacitizen.com/business/boss+orders+scientists+focus+market+drivers/4472949/story.html),

There’s radical change at the National Research Council, Canada’s biggest science institute, as the new president orders all staff to direct research toward boosting economic development and technology, with less time for pure science.

Starting this spring, 20 per cent of research money, and all the capital funds that buy expensive lab equipment, will be removed from existing budgets and directed where the president and vice-presidents choose.

Eventually, 80 per cent of research funds will be redirected this way.

NRC president John McDougall has announced to all staff that he wants research that is “successfully deployed and used to benefit our customers and partners in industry and government.”

His memo, dated March 2, warns that “history is an anchor that ties us to the past rather than a sail that catches the wind to power us forward.” [emphasis mine]

The new system, with most funding awarded by top management, will put existing staff in a position of having to apply to their employer to keep doing their own work. So far, they aren’t faring well: McDougall notes that his scientists have suggested more than 70 research areas. But most of these have no clear “market driver” or “purposeful direction,” he writes.

If business education is in as much trouble as Martin suggests, I’d like to see data that supports his thesis rather than a lot of numbers being thrown about and what amounts to performance art for the Globe and Mail.

By the way, Tom Jenkins, the head of the expert panel that convened the public consultation on innovation (it’s correct title is: A Review of Federal Support to Research and Development), is the Executive Chairman and Chief Strategy Officer for Open Text. From the Open Text webpage about the Board of Directors (http://www.opentext.com/2/global/company/company-directors.htm),

Mr. Jenkins is Executive Chairman and Chief Strategy Officer for OpenText. From 1994 to 2005, Mr.Jenkins was President, then Chief Executive Officer and then from 2005 to present, Chief Strategy Officer of OpenText. Mr. Jenkins has served as a Director of OpenText since 1994 and as its Chairman since 1998. In addition to his OpenText responsibilities, Mr.Jenkins is the Chair of the federal centre of excellence Canadian Digital Media Network (CDMN). He is also an appointed member of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC), past appointed member of the Government of Canada’s Competition Policy Review Panel and past appointed member of the Province of Ontario’s Ontario Commercialization Network Review Committee (OCN). Mr.Jenkins is also a member of the board of BMC Software, Inc. a software corporation based in Houston, Texas. He is also a member of the University of Waterloo Engineering Dean’s Advisory Council, GRAND, the federal research centre of excellence for digital media, a director of the C.D. Howe Institute, a director of the Canadian International Council (CIC) and a director of the Canadian Council of Chief Executives (CCCE). Mr.Jenkins received an M.B.A. in entrepreneurship & technology management from Schulich School of Business at York University, an M.A.Sc. in electrical engineering from the University of Toronto and a B.Eng.& Mgt. in Engineering Physics and Commerce from McMaster University. [emphases mine]

I gather Mr. Jenkins decided on an education that spans both engineering and business.  Perhaps innovation is better served by multidisciplinary interests over the single-minded pursuit of more money for the Rotman School of Management.

ETA April 20, 2011: Nature has weighed in about John McDougall and his National Research Council directives (from the April 19, 2011 news article by Hannah Hoag),

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

Tom Brzustowski, who studies commercialization of innovation at the University of Ottawa, says that the adjustment to the NRC’s focus will support areas that have been weak. “By focusing on the flagship programmes there is still room to do the whole spectrum of research. It’s a good strategic move,” he says.

But the news has rekindled anxiety over how Canada’s government has been directing science funding — criticisms that have grown sharper as the federal election on 2 May [2011] approaches.

Heat and light signifying much from a new nanoparticle at the University of Toronto

Paraphrasing from Shakespeare’s play MacBeth for this piece is a stretch but I can’t resist. The title comes from the speech MacBeth gives on hearing of his wife’s death (from The Tragedy of MacBeth webpage on the MIT website),

… Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing. [emphasis mine]

Enough of the digression. Scientists at the Princess Margaret Hospital and the University of Toronto, have engineered a nanoparticle that uses light and heat to destroy tumours and light and sound to find and image tumours. From the March 20, 2011 news release on the University of Toronto website,

“In the lab, we combined two naturally occurring molecules (chlorophyll and lipid) to create a unique nanoparticle that shows promise for numerous diverse light-based (biophotonic) applications,” Professor [Gang] Zheng said. “The structure of the nanoparticle, which is like a miniature and colourful water balloon, means it can also be filled with drugs to treat the tumor it is targeting.”

It works this way, explains first author Jonathan Lovell, a doctoral student at IBBME [Institute of Biomaterials & Biomedical Engineering] and OCI [Ontario Cancer Institute]: “Photothermal therapy uses light and heat to destroy tumors. With the nanoparticle’s ability to absorb so much light and accumulate in tumors, a laser can rapidly heat the tumor to a temperature of 60 degrees and destroy it. The nanoparticle can also be used for photoacoustic imaging, which combines light and sound to produce a very high-resolution image that can be used to find and target tumors.”

Here’s what makes this such a breakthrough,

This nanomaterial is also non-toxic, explained Professor Warren Chan of IBBME, another author of the paper. “Jon Lovell and Gang Zheng created a material that doesn’t have metals, [which] means no toxins, but with similar tunable properties to its metal nanostructure brother,” he said. This is the first reported organic nanostructure with such a unique feature, he noted, and so provides a significant opportunity to explore unique designs of organic nanostructures for biomedical applications without concerns regarding toxicity.

I recently mentioned Professor Zheng’s work in the context of a recent funding announcement from the Canadian Space Agency and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research in my March 17, 2011 posting.

If I recall rightly and this is a pretty simple explanation, organic chemistry includes the element of carbon while inorganic excludes it.

Canada’s Open Data Pilot Project

I’m a little confused (some claim that I’m perpetually so). Yesterday (March 17, 2011), I read an announcement (David Eaves blog) about the Canadian federal government’s launch of its Open Data Pilot Project and on checking out the website discovered a backgrounder with this,

Government of Canada Open Data Portal

The Government of Canada produces and acquires data in areas such as health, environment, agriculture, and natural resources. The goal of the GC Open Data Portal is to create socio-economic opportunities and promote informed participation by the public by expanding access to federal government data. [emphasis mine]

The GC Open Data Portal is a collaborative effort amongst Government of Canada departments and agencies to provide access to data managed by the government that can be leveraged by citizens, businesses, and communities for their own purposes. The government will work towards making public data that is not sensitive in nature (i.e. data which is NOT personal, secret, or confidential) broadly available in reusable formats.

Government of Canada’s Open Data Pilot Project

The GC Open Data pilot project will enhance access to Government datasets by providing a “single-window” to data already published by individual departments and agencies on their public Websites.

If I understand it rightly, the pilot project represents a one-stop shop for a limited number of datasets whereas the portal links you to a larger number of government datasets where each must be approached separately.

I noted the reference to creating “socio-economic opportunities,”  a topic which forms the subtext for a lot of the discourse about ‘innovation’ (I’ve written about innovation any numbers of times most recently in the context of a submission to a public consultation, March 15, 2011 posting.)

I like the idea of open data since I believe that the public should have access to the research paid for through taxes. One quibble, I’m not so sure about the claims being made about “socio-economic opportunties.” For example, David Eaves, a public policy entrepreneur, open government activist and negotiation expert, mentions this in his June 22, 2009 posting,

Look no further than the City of Washington DC. It created a publicly available database of city collected and created data and asked local individuals and companies to use it. The result? A $50,000 dollar investment in changing processes and offering prize money has so far yielded $2.3M in value. That’s a 46 times return on investment in one year. [emphasis mine]

I start looking for the research/data supporting the claim of a 46-fold return on investment in one year. I followed the link Eaves provided and ended up at the Apps for Democracy About webpage,

In the fall of 2008, DC’s Office of the Chief Technology Officer asked iStrategyLabs how it could make DC.gov’s revolutionary Data Catalog useful for the citizens, visitors, businesses and government agencies of Washington, DC. The Data Catalog contains all manner of open public data featuring real-time crime feeds, school test scores, and poverty indicators, and is the most comprehensive of its kind in the world.

Our solution was to create Apps for Democracy – a contest that cost Washington, DC $50,000 and returned 47 iPhone, Facebook and web applications with an estimated value in excess of $2,600,000 to the city. [emphasis mine]

It sounds exciting but no links were provided to data that would support the claim or give me information on how the numbers were derived. Shockingly, I did not stop here. Next was an Oct. 8, 2010 article by Eaves in BC Business online where he discusses the importance of open data and cites some examples from the City of Vancouver’s initiative,

Businesses have been analyzing government data for decades, to help refine property valuations or decide where to open a new office or store. Open data reduces the transaction costs of getting this and other types of information. No more letters, phone calls or special requests; just visit the website and download what you need. Bing Thom Architects, for example, recently used public data about Vancouver’s shorelines to examine the impact of a rising sea level on development in the city. No permission or requests were ever sought; they just took what they needed.

Open data also means new business opportunities by adding value to government data. In Vancouver, for example, two local web developers, Luke Closs and Kevin Jones, launched Vantrash, a website that digitizes the garbage schedule and sends users an email the day before their garbage day. It’s a useful service in a city where garbage day shifts every month.

In Eaves’ first example, Bing Thom’s company saves money by eliminating a bureaucratic process and presumably, the government employee is freed to do other work. Precisely, how does ‘moi’, the taxpayer benefit? Did the money saved by Thom’s company get used to generate a new job? Did the government employee start doing something that improves the situation in the city? In short, where is the data?

Where Vantrash (Eaves’ second example)  is concerned, they accept donations for their website. The website does not offer any data about this ‘socio-economic opportunity’ to  suggest that it generates enough revenue to offer its developers a wage. Note: If garbage collection is an issue for you and you live in Vancouver, check them out.

As I stated earlier, I like the open data principle. Taxpayers should have access to the data they have funded.

The ‘open data’ discussion bears a lot of similarity to the ‘innovation’ discussion. Both these of these concepts are intended to drive Canadians to explore and generate ‘socio-economic opportunities’. Both concepts generate a lot of excitement. And, I’d like to understand both concepts a little better.

Canadian Space Agency funds nanomedicine?

I suppose it’s ignorance but I can’t quite fathom why the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) [ETA March 17, 2011: Corrected the mane of the Agency from Canada Space Agency to Canadian Space Agency] is partnering with the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) to fund nanomedicine. I don’t understand how that fits into the CSA’s mandate. The March 16, 2011 news item on Nanowerk doesn’t answer my questions,

Research on nanomedicine and regenerative medicine is designed to prevent disease and improve human health. Nanomedicine delivers medical technologies that detect or function at the molecular level to diagnose and treat disease, while regenerative medicine stimulates the renewal of bodily tissues and organs or restores function through natural and bioengineered means. Various innovations in these areas have helped combat vascular diseases, cancer, diabetes, multiple sclerosis and other chronic diseases. By promoting research in these areas, CIHR and CSA will be moving Canada to the forefront of modern medical research. [emphasis mine]

When was the Space Agency mandated to bring Canada to the “forefront of modern medical research?” I did look at the projects to see if any of them might have a ‘space travel’ component,

This funding will enable researchers to potentially:

# Identify microlesions in multiple sclerosis, using a new tool for quantifying the cause of the disease and how well a treatment is working, Dr. Daniel Côté, Université Laval;

# Create personalized nanomedicines that silence cancer-causing genes, Dr. P[ieter] Cullis, University of British Columbia;

# Develop microchip-based devices to analyze prostate cancer markers in blood, Dr. Shana Kelley, University of Toronto;

# Generate transplantable, insulin-producing cells from stem cells for diabetes, Dr. Timothy Kieffer, University of British Columbia;

# Develop innovative sensorimotor rehabilitation approaches for patients with spinal cord injuries or stroke, Dr. Serge Rossignol, Université de Montréal;

# Study how novel therapeutic interventions can regenerate blood vessels, Dr. Michael Sefton, University of Toronto; and,

# Develop nanotechnology-enabled image-guided methods of diagnosing and treating lung cancer and vascular diseases, Dr. Gang Zheng, University Health Network.

I suppose the project to regenerate blood vessels might have some applications appropriate for space travel/exploration but the rest leave me puzzled. If anyone has an answer or even a guess, please do leave a comment.

ETA March 17, 2011: I found the CSA’s mandate here,

The mandate of the Canadian Space Agency is:

To promote the peaceful use and development of space, to advance the knowledge of space through science and to ensure that space science and technology provide social and economic benefits for Canadians.

Synthetic biology ethics

Friday, March 25, 2011, the Synthetic Biology Project which is part of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars is hosting a discussion about “The Ethics of Synthetic Biology” as per the [US]” President’s Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues.” It runs from 9 am to 11 am EST. If you are in Washington, DC and can attend the event, please RSVP here (a light breakfast will be served at 8:30 am). For the rest of us, there’s a webcast and no RSVP is needed for that. Here are more details about the proposed discussion (from the event page),

In December of 2010 the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues released a new report on synthetic biology, which found “…no reason to endorse additional federal regulations or a moratorium on work in this field at this time.” Instead the Commission urged “monitoring and dialogue between the private and public sectors to achieve open communication and cooperation.” The Commission’s report is the result of six months of discussion and deliberation and advocates a principle of “prudent vigilance,” where benefits and risks are assessed both before and after projects are undertaken. The report contains 18 recommendations focused on ensuring public benefits, responsible stewardship, intellectual freedom, democratic deliberation, and justice and fairness.

The United States is not alone in its effort to craft policies for the emerging field of synthetic biology. Under the auspices of the European Group on Ethics (EGE), the European Union published Opinion No. 25 – Ethics of Synthetic Biology, recommending that the governance of synthetic biology requires a multi-pronged approach that goes beyond ensuring safety to addressing ethical, legal, and political issues in the EU and worldwide.

Join us at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars on March 25th for a transatlantic discussion of the implications and governance of synthetic biology.

The guest panel includes,

- Dr. Christine Grady, Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues

- Dr. Anita Allen, Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues;

- Dr. Hille Haker (Germany). Richard McCormick S.J. Chair of Catholic Moral Theology, Loyola University Chicago (since 2010); Professor of Moral Theology and Social Ethics, University of Frankfurt (since 2005), Member European Group on Ethics in Science and New Technologies;

- Dr. Lino Paula, Policy Analyst, Ethics and Gender Unit, Directorate for Innovation and European Research Area, European Commission

- David Rejeski, Director, Science and Technology Innovation Program, will moderate the session

If you have the stamina and the interest, you can read the Bioethics Commission’s report and the EGE report ahead of time. On a personal note, the webcast is little early for me (6 am on the West Coast).

Remote-controlled microcarriers and nanorobotics in Québec

They are called therapeutic magnetic microcarriers (TMMC) and they are drug delivery agents which have recently been successfully sent through a living rabbit’s bloodstream to a targeted area for successful administration of a drug. We’re in Fantastic Voyage (for those who don’t know the 1966 movie, it was more notable for then bombshell Raquel Welch’s presence than the science used to shrink a submarine filled with scientists to a microscopic size then injected into a dying diplomat’s bloodstream in an attempt to save his life) territory.

This latest breatkthrough comes from Sylvain Martel’s Nanorobotics Laboratory at Polytechnique Montréal (Québec, Canada). From the March 16, 2011 news item on Nanowerk,

Known for being the world’s first researcher to have guided a magnetic sphere through a living artery, Professor Martel is announcing a spectacular new breakthrough in the field of nanomedicine. Using a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) system, his team successfully guided microcarriers loaded with a dose of anti-cancer drug through the bloodstream of a living rabbit, right up to a targeted area in the liver, where the drug was successfully administered. This is a medical first that will help improve chemoembolization, a current treatment for liver cancer.

The therapeutic magnetic microcarriers (TMMCs) were developed by Pierre Pouponneau, a PhD candidate under the joint direction of Professors Jean-Christophe Leroux and Martel. These tiny drug-delivery agents, made from biodegradable polymer and measuring 50 micrometers in diameter — just under the breadth of a hair — encapsulate a dose of a therapeutic agent (in this case, doxorubicin) as well as magnetic nanoparticles. Essentially tiny magnets, the nanoparticles are what allow the upgraded MRI system to guide the microcarriers through the blood vessels to the targeted organ. During the experiments, the TMMCs injected into the bloodstream were guided through the hepatic artery to the targeted part of the liver where the drug was progressively released.

Martel’s work was last highlighted here in my April 6, 2010 posting. At that time he was working with bacteria which he and his team had guided into assembling into pyramid shapes. The team had also guided these bacteria through the bloodstream of a rat.  There’s more about this earlier work with bacteria in a July 28, 2010 article by Monique Roy-Sole on the Innovation Canada website. As you may have guessed from the ‘pyramids’,  Martel’s inspiration for that work came from Egypt,

Martel was inspired by the story of the pyramid of Djoser, built by an estimated 5,000 slaves around 2600 BC, and considered to be the earliest large-scale stone structure known to humankind. He decided to employ 5,000 bacteria in a drop of water as mini workers to construct a similar step pyramid in less than 15 minutes.

As for Martel’s first breakthrough (from Sole’s article),

In 2007, he and researchers from École Polytechnique and the Centre Hospitalier de l’Université de Montréal successfully injected a tiny magnetic device, measuring 1.5 millimetres in diameter, into the carotid artery of a pig, controlling and tracking its travels in the bloodstream with a clinical magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanner. Since then, Martel and his team have been working at reducing the size of the device so it can circulate in smaller blood vessels. This would allow doctors to diagnose and treat areas of the body that current instruments, such as catheters, cannot reach.

I hope this proves to be successful. As anyone who’s had a family member or friend undergo cancer treatments knows, the procedures and medicines are crude in that they destroy healthy as well as diseased tissue. Hopefully, this kind of work will make the cures less drastic.

Synthetic biology bumps up against James Joyce and copyright

Who knew? Well, apparently the James Joyce estate found out that J. Craig Venter coded a quote from Joyce’s ‘A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man’ into some synthetic DNA in May 2010 and the JJ estate didn’t like it.

Venter and his team made headlines internationally in May 2010 because they replaced the DNA in a bacterium with DNA they had created, i.e., synthetic DNA. Here’s how the problem with the James Joyce estate arose (from the March 14, 2011 David Ewalt article on Forbes),

In order to distinguish their synthetic DNA from that naturally present in the bacterium, Venter’s team coded several famous quotes into their DNA, including one from James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist of a Young Man: “To live, to err, to fall, to triumph, to recreate life out of life.”

After announcing their work, Venter explained, his team received a cease and desist letter from Joyce’s estate, saying that he’d used the Irish writer’s work without permission. ”We thought it fell under fair use,” said Venter.

Carl Zimmer over on The Loom (a Discover magazine blog) offers some additional commentary in his March 15, 2011 posting,

Last year I wrote about how Craig Venter and his colleagues had inscribed a passage from James Joyce into the genome of a synthetic microbe. The line, “To live, to err, to fall, to triumph, to recreate life out of life,” was certainly apropos, but it was also ironic, since it is now being defaced as Venter’s microbes multiply and mutate.

Man, do I wish this would go to court! Imagine the legal arguments. I wonder what would happen if the court found in the Joyce estate’s favor. Would Venter have to pay for every time his microbes multiplied? Millions of little acts of copyright infringement?

I was under the impression that the JJ estate folks are very protective and litigious and sure enough I found an item confirming that impression this morning. Mike Mangan in his March 16, 2011 post on Techdirt offers some perspective on this state of affiairs and on Venter’s own IP (intellectual property) adventures,

Craig Venter, who is no stranger to advocating stronger and stronger IP laws — especially in the area of “synthetic life” — apparently learned recently how those laws can reach ridiculous levels. In a recent presentation, he noted that his team had encoded a James Joyce quote in the DNA of the “synthetic life” he’s been trying to create. However, the James Joyce estate was not amused and sent him a cease-and-desist. Venter notes that he felt that it was fair use to include a quote.

This isn’t the first time that the Joyce estate has done stuff like this, including an attempt to stifle a biography by use of a copyright claim. In that case, the estate finally learned that they had no claim when they actually had to pay up to settle the case.

I think Mangan is in the right when he calls it ridiculous. By the way, Venter inscribed another quote in the synthetic DNA, this one from Richard Feynman. Here’s what Venter wrote,

“What I cannot built, I cannot understand.”

Venter got it wrong. As per Ewalt’s article, Feynman’s quote should have been (apparently the folks from the California Institute of Technology, where Feynman worked, sent Venter an image of the blackboard where Feynman composed the quote),

“What I cannot create, I cannot understand.”

What fascinates me in all this is that quote no longer exist. From Zimmer’s May 21, 2010 posting about Venter, James Joyce and synthetic life,

The fate of Joyce’s DNA points up something important about this project. There have been lots of headlines over the past day about how the scientists who made this cell were playing God. Yet our power, even over synthetic cells, is limited. Once this new cell came into existence, it started changing through evolution, slipping away from its original form. In fact, evolution is the great enemy of all scientists who want to use synthetic biology to supply us with medicine, fuel, and other valuable things. Once they engineer a microbe, they start to lose control of their handiwork. Life takes its own course from there. It is life, ultimately, that recreates life from life.

I previously posted about Venter’s synthetic biology project on May 21, 2010 and posted about Venter’s upcoming visit to Vancouver on March 7, 2011.

Canada’s innovation consultation

The official title for the Canadian government public consultation which ended Feb. 18, 2011 is Review of Federal Support to Research and Development. I had some issues with this consultation as I noted at length in my Feb. 18, 2011 posting and contrary to what I stated at the time (I reasoned that no one would pay much attention to what I had to say as it didn’t fit the terms of reference) but on reflection I decided to make the submission anyway, which is now posted on the government’s website here. My largest bone of contention with this process is the way the discussion is framed, i.e., the terms of reference for the consultation and that’s basically what I tried to say in the submission.

Meanwhile, some 250 others also made submissions and according to Rob Annan at the Researcher Forum; Don’t leave Canada behind blog (excerpted from his March 9, 2011 posting),

Just… wow.

Earlier this year, the R&D Review Panel issued a call for submissions from interested parties regarding government support for business- and industry-related R&D. Today the submission papers have been made public.

What a treasure trove of special pleading. [emphasis mine]

There are more than 250 submissions from industry, academia and government. I sympathize with Tom Jenkins and his fellow panelists who will have to sift through these not-even-thinly-veiled self-interested calls for support.

Major industry players have made submissions, including JD Irving, Pratt & Whitney, and Bombardier. These international industry leaders will no doubt be able to provide a global sense of how to nurture innovation and strengthen our economy. What are their suggestions? Well, Irving would like rules to be changed so it can get IRAP funding and access collaborative R&D grants without university collaboration. [emphasis mine]

I left a few juicy bits behind but I think you get the idea. At least some of this was suggested/predicted by Nassif Ghoussoub on his Piece of Mind blog in a Jan. 14, 2011 posting,

Do you really think that anyone of the heads/directors/presidents (the shopkeepers!) of these programs (the shops!) are going to testify that their programs are deficient and need less funding? What about those individuals that are getting serious funding from these programs (the clients!)?

No, a lot of these people asked for more. (I’m hoping at least a few people tried to address the spirit of the consultation which is why I said “a lot of these people” instead of the all encompassing “these people.)

As far as I’m concerned changing the rules of the game so the players stop gaming the system will last about as long as it takes for the players to figure how to game the new system. We need to look at the game and ask ourselves if we need to change it.

Bravo to the team who posted these submissions online and opened access to the rest of us.

Cell phone microscopy

You can make a microscope or a spectrometer out of your cell phone for about $20, say researchers at the University of California at Los Angeles and the University of California at Davis. Here’s an image contrasting standard microscopy with cell phone microscopy,

Images of several commercially prepared microscope slides featuring stained samples. Top row, commercial microscope. Bottom row, cell phone microscope. Left column, pollen grains. Right two columns, plant stems. (copied from PLoS article: DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0017150

There’s a serious note to this activity (from the March 11, 2011 news item on Nanowerk),

With health care costs increasing throughout the world, there is a pressing need for reducing the cost and complexity of biomedical devices. Additionally, with growing demand for high-quality health care in regions of the world where medical infrastructure is below levels found in developed countries, portable devices that can transmit relevant data to remote experts are likely to have a large impact on quantity and quality of care. To this end, several groups have focused on the development of low-cost and rapidly deployable technologies that address common diseases afflicting the third world and common tests performed in both hospital and field environments.

Researchers at UCLA have constructed a modified lensless cell phone that enables holography-based digital microscopy, while researchers at UC Berkeley have constructed a complex objective attachment that also transforms a cell phone into a microscope. Additionally, a patent was recently awarded for the use of a cell phone as a spectrometer. However, there is still a need for more research directed towards utilizing cell-phone cameras to record images or spectra of biological samples.

Dave Mosher’s March 11, 2011 article for Wired magazine offers instructions on how to create the cell phone microscope,

Using tape, rubber and a tiny glass ball, researchers transformed an iPhone into a cheap, yet powerful microscope able to image tiny blood cells. They’ve also added a clinical-grade cellphone spectroscope that might be able to measure some vital signs.

And with a few dollars and some patience, you can do the same to your own phone. (See instructions below.)

“It still amazes me how you can build near-research-grade instruments with cheap consumer electronics,” said physicist Sebastian Wachsmann-Hogiu of the University of California at Davis, leader of a study March 2 in PLoS ONE. “And with cellphones, you can record and transmit data anywhere. In rural or remote areas, you could get a diagnosis from a professional pathologist halfway around the world.”

Cellphone Microscope – Step 1

Grab any cellphone with a camera, but note models that use touchscreen focusing and/or have manual focus options are best.

Find some thin, dark, rubbery material and poke a small hole in it (less than 1 millimeter in diameter). This can be done using a pin or needle.

Cellphone Microscope – Step 2

Order a 1-millimeter-diameter ball or half-ball lens. One from Edmund Optics costs between $15 and $25.

Note that lenses with larger diameters can be used, but they will provide a smaller magnification.

Cellphone Microscope – Step 3

Carefully mount it to the iris, covering as little of the lens as possible.

Cellphone Microscope – Step 4

Center the iris with the ball lens tucked in the middle over the camera of the cellphone (above).

From black electrical tape, cut out a hole larger than the diameter of the ball lens, but smaller than the diameter of the iris (below [image omitted, see Wired article]).

Cellphone Microscope – Step 5

Attach the iris to the camera body using the electrical tape mask. You may need to adjust the position of the iris to ensure the microscope images are centered in the camera’s field of view.

As with a standard microscope, use plenty of light to illuminate your sample. Liquid samples should be placed between a glass slide and coverslip.

Mosher’s article also provides instructions on how create a cell phone spectrometer. Or you can read the research article on the Public Library of Science website (open access):

Cell-Phone-Based Platform for Biomedical Device Development and Education Applications

Zachary J. Smith, Kaiqin Chu, Alyssa R. Espenson, Mehdi Rahimzadeh, Amy Gryshuk, Marco Molinaro, Denis M. Dwyre, Stephen Lane, Dennis Matthews,  and Sebastian Wachsmann-Hogiu

PLoS ONE, Vol. 6, Issue 3. March 2, 2011. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0017150

Sometimes I find it all kind of amazing. I mean, whodathunk you could create a microscope with a phone?

Nano Days 2011 coming up

2011′s Nano Days are March 26 – April 3. There’s a very upbeat (i.e., lots of hype) 30 sec. promotional video, which can be found here and you can find out more about Nano Days 2011 events here. For anyone who’s wondering what Nano Days are in the first place (from the Nano Days webpage),

What is NanoDays? NanoDays is a nationwide festival of educational programs about nanoscale science and engineering and its potential impact on the future. NanoDays events are organized by participants in the Nanoscale Informal Science Education Network (NISE Net – If you’re not already a part of NISE Net, it’s easy to join!) and take place at over 200 science museums, research centers, and universities across the country from Puerto Rico to Hawaii. NanoDays engages people of all ages in learning about this emerging field of science, which holds the promise of developing revolutionary materials and technologies.

While several communities conducted NanoDays events in prior years, the first nationwide week of events took place in 2008 with more than 100 institutions participating. This has grown to more than 200 events over the past years.

There’s a thematically appropriate nano haiku in the March issue of NISE Net’s newsletter,

Ali Stein of the Sciencenter submitted this haiku about the brand new NanoDays Promotional Video:

A commercial, whew!
Spring arrives, and NanoDays.
Nano fun for all.

That’s all folks.