Tag Archives: Canada

Canadian scientists in a national protest on May 19, 2015 and some thoughts on a more nuanced discussion about ‘science muzzles’

For anyone unfamiliar with Canada’s science muzzle, government scientists are not allowed to speak directly to the media and all requests must be handled by the communications department in the ministry. For one of the odder consequences of that policy, there’s my Sept. 16, 2010 posting about a scientist who wasn’t allowed to talk to media about his research on a 13,000 year old flood that took place in the Canadian North. Adding insult to injury, his international colleagues were giving out all kinds of interviews.

Here’s a more recent incident (h/t Speaking Up For Canadian Science, May 20, 2015) recounted in a May 19, 2015 news item by  Nicole Mortillaro for CTV (Canadian television) news online ,

“Unlike Canadian scientists, I don’t have to ask permission to talk to you.”

That was one of the first things National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) scientist Pieter Tans said when I called to reach him for comment about rising carbon dioxide levels reaching historic levels.

The topic itself was controversial: climate change is a hot-button topic for many. But getting in touch with NOAA was easy. In total, there were five email exchanges, all providing information about the topic and the arrangement of the interview.

Compare that to trying to get response from a Canadian federal department.

While I’ve had many frustrating dealings with various federal agencies, my most recent experience came as I was working on a story about ways Canadians could protect themselves as severe weather season approached. I wanted to mention the new federal national emergency warning system, Alert Ready. I reached out to Environment Canada for more information.

You’d think the federal government would want to let Canadians know about a new national emergency warning system and they do, in their fashion. For the whole story, there’s Mortillaro’s piece (which has an embedded video and more) but for the fast version, Mortillaro contacted the communications people a day before her Friday deadline asking for a spokesperson. The communications team missed the deadline although they did find a spokesperson who would be available on the Monday. Strangely or not, he proved to be hesitant to talk about the new system.

Getting back to the science muzzle protest of 2015 and the muzzle itself, there’s a May 17, 2015 article by Ivan Semeniuk for the Globe and Mail providing more detail about the muzzle and the then upcoming protest organized by the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada (PIPSC) currently in contract negotiations with the federal government. (Echoing what I said in my Dec. 4, 2014 posting about the contract negotiations, the union is bargaining for the right to present science information which is unprecedented in Canada (and, I suspect, internationally). Back to Semeniuk’s article,

With contract negotiations set to resume this week, there will also be a series of demonstrations for the Ottawa area on Tuesday to focus attention on the issue.

If successful, the effort could mark a precedent-setting turn in what the government’s critics portray as a struggle between intellectual independence and political prerogative.

“Our science members said to us: What’s more important than anything else is our ability to do our jobs as professionals,” said Peter Bleyer, an adviser with the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada, whose membership includes some 15,000 scientists and engineers.

Government scientists have always been vulnerable to those who hold the reins of power, but tensions have grown under the Conservatives. After the Tories enacted a wave of research program and facility cancellations in 2012, stories began to emerge of researchers who were blocked from responding to media requests about their work.

The onerous communications protocols apply even for stories about scientific advancements that are likely to reflect positively on the federal government. Last month [April 2015], after it was announced that Canada would become a partner in the Thirty Meter Telescope, The Globe and Mail had to appeal to the Prime Minister’s Office to facilitate an interview with the National Research Council astronomer leading the development of the telescope’s sophisticated adaptive-optics system.

Federal Information Commissioner Suzanne Legault is currently conducting an investigation into complaints that scientists have been muzzled by the Conservative government.

As Semeniuk notes at the end of his article in a quote from the US-based Union of Concerned Scientists’ representative, the problem is not new and not unique to Canada. For a ‘not unique’ example, the UK government seems to be interested in taking a similar approach to ‘muzzling’ scientists, according to an April 1, 2015 post by Glyn Moody for Techdirt (Note: Links have been removed),

Techdirt has been following for a while Canada’s moves to stop scientists from speaking out about areas where the facts of the situation don’t sit well with the Canadian government’s dogma-based policies. Sadly, it looks like the UK is taking the same route. It concerns a new code for the country’s civil servants, which will also apply to thousands of publicly-funded scientists. As the Guardian reports:

Under the new code, scientists and engineers employed at government expense must get ministerial approval before they can talk to the media about any of their research, whether it involves GM crops, flu vaccines, the impact of pesticides on bees, or the famously obscure Higgs boson.

The fear — quite naturally — is that ministers could take days before replying to requests, by which time news outlets will probably have lost interest. As a result of this change, science organizations have sent a letter to the UK government, expressing their “deep concern” about the code. …

As for ‘not new’, there’s always a tension between employer and employee about what constitutes free speech. Does an employee get fired for making gross, sexist comments in their free time at a soccer game? The answer in Ontario, Canada is yes according to a May 14, 2015 article by Samantha Leal for Marie Claire magazine. Presumably there will be a law suit and we will find out if the firing is legally acceptable. Or more cynically, this may prove to be a public relations ploy designed to spin the story in the employer’s favour while the employee takes some time off and returns unobtrusively at a later date.

I have a couple of final comments about free speech and employers’ and employees’ rights and responsibilities.First, up until the muzzles were applied, the Canadian government and its scientists seemed to have had a kind of unspoken agreement as to what constituted fair discussion of scientific research in the media. I vaguely recall a few kerfuffles over the years but nothing major. (If someone can recall an incident where a scientist working for the Canadian government seriously embarrassed it, please let me know in the comments.)  So, this relatively new enthusiasm for choking off  media coverage of Canadian science research seems misplaced at best. Unfortunately, it has exacerbated standard tensions about what employees can and can’t say to new heights. Attempting to entrench the right to share science research in a bureaucratic process (a union contract) seems weirdly similar to the Harper government’s approach, which like the union’s proposition added a bureaucratic layer.

As for my second thought, I’m wondering how many people who cheered that soccer fan’s firing for making comments (albeit sexist comments) in his free time are protesting for free speech for Canadian government scientists.

It comes down to* matters of principle. Which ones do we want to follow and when do we apply them? Do principles apply only for those people and ideas we find acceptable?

I just wish there was a little more nuance brought to the ‘science muzzle in Canada’ discussion so we might veer away from heightened adversarial relationships between the government and its scientists.

* The phrase was originally published as “to a matters of principle …” and was corrected on May 22, 2015.

McGill University researchers put the squeeze Tomonaga-Luttinger theory in quantum mechanics

McGill University (Montréal, Québec, Canada) researchers testing the Tomonaga-Luttinger theory had international help according to a May 15, 2015 news item on ScienceDaily,

We all know intuitively that normal liquids flow more quickly as the channel containing them tightens. Think of a river flowing through narrow rapids.

But what if a pipe were so amazingly tiny that only a few atoms of superfluid helium could squeeze through its opening at once? According to a longstanding quantum-mechanics model, the superfluid helium would behave differently from a normal liquid: far from speeding up, it would actually slow down.

For more than 70 years, scientists have been studying the flow of helium through ever smaller pipes. But only recently has nanotechnology made it possible to reach the scale required to test the theoretical model, known as the Tomonaga-Luttinger theory (after the scientists who developed it).

Now, a team of McGill University researchers, with collaborators at the University of Vermont and at Leipzig University in Germany, has succeeded in conducting experiments with the smallest channel yet – less than 30 atoms wide. In results published online today in Science Advances, the researchers report that the flow of superfluid helium through this miniature faucet does, indeed, appear to slow down.

A May 15, 2015 University of McGill news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, expands on the theme and notes this is one step on the road to proving the theory,

“Our results suggest that a quantum faucet does show a fundamentally different behaviour,” says McGill physics professor Guillaume Gervais, who led the project. “We don’t have the smoking gun yet. But we think this a great step toward proving experimentally the Tomonaga-Luttinger theory in a real liquid.”

The zone where physics changes

Insights from the research could someday contribute to novel technologies, such as nano-sensors with applications in GPS systems. But for now, Gervais says, the results are significant simply because “we’re pushing the limit of understanding things on the nanoscale. We’re approaching the grey zone where all physics changes.”

Prof. Adrian Del Maestro from the University of Vermont has been employing high-performance computer simulations to understand just how small the faucet has to be before this new physics emerges. “The ability to study a quantum liquid at such diminutive length scales in the laboratory is extremely exciting as it allows us to extend our fundamental understanding of how atoms cooperate to form the superfluid state of matter,” he says. “The superfluid slowdown we observe signals that this cooperation is starting to break down as the width of the pipe narrows to the nanoscale” and edges closer to the exotic one-dimensional limit envisioned in the Tomonaga-Luttinger theory.

Building what is probably the world’s smallest faucet has been no simple task. Gervais hatched the idea during a five-minute conversation over coffee with a world-leading theoretical physicist. That was eight years ago. But getting the nano-plumbing to work took “at least 100 trials – maybe 200,” says Gervais, who is a fellow of the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research.

A beam of electrons as drill bit

Using a beam of electrons as a kind of drill bit, the team made holes as small as seven nanometers wide in a piece of silicon nitride, a tough material used in applications such as automotive diesel engines and high-performance ball bearings. By cooling the apparatus to very low temperatures, placing superfluid helium on one side of the pore and applying a vacuum to the other, the researchers were able to observe the flow of the superfluid through the channel. Varying the size of the channel, they found that the maximum speed of the flow slowed as the radius of the pore decreased.

The experiments take advantage of a unique characteristic of superfluids. Unlike ordinary liquids – water or maple syrup, for example – superfluids can flow without any viscosity. As a result, they can course through extremely narrow channels; and once in motion, they don’t need any pressure to keep going. Helium is the only element in nature known to become a superfluid; it does so when cooled to an extremely low temperature.

An inadvertent breakthrough

For years, however, the researchers were frustrated by a technical glitch: the tiny pore in the silicon nitride material kept getting clogged by contaminants. Then one day, while Gervais was away at a conference abroad, a new student in his lab inadvertently deviated from the team’s operating procedure and left a valve open in the apparatus. “It turned out that this open valve kept the hole open,” Gervais says. “It was the key to getting the experiment to work. Scientific breakthroughs don’t always happen by design!”

Prof. Bernd Rosenow, a quantum physicist at Leipzig University’s Institute for Theoretical Physics, also contributed to the study.

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

Critical flow and dissipation in a quasi–one-dimensional superfluid by Pierre-François Duc, Michel Savard, Matei Petrescu, Bernd Rosenow, Adrian Del Maestro, Guillaume Gervais. Science Advances 15 May 2015: Vol. 1 no. 4 e1400222 DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.1400222

This is an open access paper.

Feel good about Canadian youth and science—a couple of stories

I’ve got two items (h/t to Speaking for Canadian Science) which highlight exciting, recent news about Canadian youth and science. The first item concerns Intel’s International Science and Engineering Fair and the impact Canadian young scientists had on the 2015 edition of the fair. From a May 15, 2015 news item on CNN,

A Vancouver [Canada] high school student was awarded first place for engineering a new air inlet system for airplane cabins to improve air quality and curb disease transmission at this year’s Intel International Science and Engineering Fair, a program of Society for Science & the Public.

Raymond Wang, 17, invented a system that improves the availability of fresh air in the cabin by more than 190 percent while reducing pathogen inhalation concentrations by up to 55 times compared to conventional designs, and can be easily and economically incorporated in existing airplanes. Wang received the Gordon E. Moore Award of US$75,000, named in honor of the Intel co-founder and fellow scientist.

“Using high-fidelity computational fluid dynamics modeling and representative physical simulations, Raymond’s work has significantly enhanced our understanding of how disease-causing pathogens travel via circulating airflow in aircraft cabins, and has also helped him to develop multiple approaches for reducing disease transmission in these types of settings,” said Scott Clary, Ph.D., Intel International Science Engineering Fair 2015 engineering mechanics category co-chair and electromechanical engineering manager at Lockheed Martin Missiles and Fire Control.

Team Canada had a superior showing at this year’s fair with 11 students winning awards.

Nicole Ticea, 16, also of Vancouver, received one of two Intel Foundation Young Scientist Awards of US$50,000 for developing an inexpensive, easy-to-use testing device to combat the high rate of undiagnosed HIV infection in low-income communities. Her disposable, electricity-free device provides results in an hour and should cost less than US$5 to produce. Ticea has already founded her own company, which recently received a US$100,000 grant to continue developing her technology.

“With a focus on science, technology, education and math, key pillars of a competitive and robust Canadian economy, these students showcase how competitive Canadians can be on a global scale,” said Nancy Demerling, marketing manager, Intel Canada.

Additional awards were presented to the following Canadian students:

  • Candace Brooks-Da Silva (Windsor, ON): Second Award of $500, Society of Experimental Test Pilots; Top Award of $5,000, National Aeronautics and Space Administration; Alternate for CERN trip, European Organization for Nuclear Research-CERN; Second Award of $1,500, Engineering Mechanics
  • Emily Cross (Thunder Bay, ON): First Award of $1,000, American Geosciences Institute; Fourth Award of $500, Earth and Environmental Sciences
  • Benjamin Friesen (Grimsby, ON): Award of $5,000 for outstanding project in the systems software category, Oracle Academy
  • Ann Makosinski (Victoria): First Award of $500, Patent and Trademark Office Society; Fourth Award of $500, Energy: Physical
  • Daniel McInnis (Ottawa): Third Award of $1,000, Computational Biology and Informatics
  • Aditya Mohan (Ottawa): First Award of $2,000, American Association of Pharmaceutical Scientists; First Award of $3,000, Biomedical and Health Sciences
  • Janice Pang (Coquitlam, BC): Fourth Award of $500, Biomedical and Health Sciences
  • Amit Scheer (Ottawa): Second Award of $1,500, Biomedical and Health Sciences
  • Duncan Stothers (Vancouver): Sustainable Design In Transportation, First Award $2,500, Alcoa Foundation; Second Award of $1,500, Society for Experimental Mechanics, Inc.; Second Award of $1,500, Engineering Mechanics
  • Nicole Ticea (Vancouver): USAID Global Development Innovation award of $10,000, U.S. Agency for International Development; Award of $1,200, China Association for Science and Technology (CAST); Intel International Science and Engineering Fair Best of Category Award of $5,000, Biomedical and Health Sciences; First Award of $3,000, Biomedical and Health Sciences; Cultural and Scientific Visit to China Award, Intel Foundation Cultural and Scientific Visit to China Award $8,000
  • Raymond Wang (Vancouver): First Award of $1,000, Society of Experimental Test Pilots; Third Award of $1,000, National Aeronautics and Space Administration; Intel International Science and Engineering Fair Best of Category Award of $5,000, Engineering Mechanics; First Award of $3,000, Engineering Mechanics; Cultural and Scientific Visit to China Award, Intel Foundation Cultural and Scientific Visit to China Award $8,000

This year’s Intel International Science and Engineering Fair featured approximately 1,700 young scientists selected from 422 affiliate fairs in more than 75 countries, regions and territories.

The Intel International Science and Engineering Fair 2015 is funded jointly by Intel and the Intel Foundation with additional awards and support from dozens of other corporate, academic, governmental and science-focused organizations. This year, approximately US$4 million was awarded.

Two provinces seem to have dominated the Canadian field, Ontario and British Columbia. The lack of representation at the award-winning level from the other provinces may signify a lack of awareness in the Prairies, Québec, the North, and the Maritimes, about the festival and, consequently, fewer entries from those provinces and territories. On a whim, I searched for an Intel Canada presence and there is one, in British Columbia. Interesting but not conclusive. In any event, congratulations to all the students who won and those who participated!

There was another science fair, this one, the Canada Wide Science Fair (CWSF), took place in Fredericton, New Brunswick (Maritimes). From a May 12, 2015 news item on the CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) news website,

Almost 500 provincial science fair winners are competing for more than $1 million in prizes, scholarships and awards this week in the Canada Wide Science Fair in Fredericton.

The Currie Center at the University of New Brunswick is packed with booths in neat rows with topics ranging from preventing ice drownings to better ways to carry a kayak.

Paransa Subedi, a Winnipeg student, is studying how much sugar gets into your blood stream from breakfast cereal.

“We know that Rice Krispies have very little added sugar, but the thing is its all starches, so over time it has a high glycemic response,” she says, as she cuts up a cereal box to add to her display.

Judging is happening all day on Tuesday. Four judges will look at each project and they will reach a consensus to determine the winner.

Judith Soon, a national judge, says 50 per cent of the mark is for the “creative spark.”

“The most important part is being creative and original and it has to be their idea,” she said.

A May 15, 2015 CWSF news item by Dominic Tremblay for the Youth Science Canada (the CWSF’s parent organization) website lists the 2015 winners of the top prizes,

The Best Project Award went to:

Austin Wang from Vancouver, BC, for his project: A Novel Method to Identify Genes in Electron Transfer of Exoelectrogens. Austin’s project identified genes in bacteria that are responsible for generating power in a microbial fuel cell. His work is making an incredible impact on understanding the biology of how these systems work.

Platinum Awards of $1,000 were awarded to: 

Rebecca Baron from Vancouver, BC, for her project: Root Microbiomics: The Next Big Thing? Her project looked at using a common household plant to remove toxins from the air. She found that the microbes in the root of a particular plant are highly successful in removing airborne formaldehyde. Her work has the potential to make an impact on bioremediation of indoor air quality.

Marcus Deans from Windsor, Ontario for his project: NOGOS: A Novel Nano-Oligosaccharide Doped Graphene Sand Composite Water. For his project he created a filter out of sugar and sand that can successfully clean water to commercial standards, all with materials under $20 total. He hopes that his work can go a long way to providing cheap and effective water filters for the developing world.

Congratulations to the top prize winners, winners, and all the participants!

You can find the full list of 2015 award recipients here. where you will find several other provinces also well represented.

CRISPR genome editing tools and human genetic engineering issues

This post is going to feature a human genetic engineering roundup of sorts.

First, the field of human genetic engineering encompasses more than the human genome as this paper (open access until June 5, 2015) notes in the context of a discussion about a specific CRISPR gene editing tool,

CRISPR-Cas9 Based Genome Engineering: Opportunities in Agri-Food-Nutrition and Healthcare by Rajendran Subin Raj Cheri Kunnumal, Yau Yuan-Yeu, Pandey Dinesh, and Kumar Anil. OMICS: A Journal of Integrative Biology. May 2015, 19(5): 261-275. doi:10.1089/omi.2015.0023 Published Online Ahead of Print: April 14, 2015

Here’s more about the paper from a May 7, 2015 Mary Ann Liebert publisher news release on EurekAlert,

Researchers have customized and refined a technique derived from the immune system of bacteria to develop the CRISPR-Cas9 genome engineering system, which enables targeted modifications to the genes of virtually any organism. The discovery and development of CRISPR-Cas9 technology, its wide range of potential applications in the agriculture/food industry and in modern medicine, and emerging regulatory issues are explored in a Review article published in OMICS: A Journal of Integrative Biology, …

“CRISPR-Cas9 Based Genome Engineering: Opportunities in Agri-Food-Nutrition and Healthcare” provides a detailed description of the CRISPR system and its applications in post-genomics biology. Subin Raj, Cheri Kunnumal Rajendran, Dinish Pandey, and Anil Kumar, G.B. Pant University of Agriculture and Technology (Uttarakhand, India) and Yuan-Yeu Yau, Northeastern State University (Broken Arrow, OK) describe the advantages of the RNA-guided Cas9 endonuclease-based technology, including the activity, specificity, and target range of the enzyme. The authors discuss the rapidly expanding uses of the CRISPR system in both basic biological research and product development, such as for crop improvement and the discovery of novel therapeutic agents. The regulatory implications of applying CRISPR-based genome editing to agricultural products is an evolving issue awaiting guidance by international regulatory agencies.

“CRISPR-Cas9 technology has triggered a revolution in genome engineering within living systems,” says OMICS Editor-in-Chief Vural Özdemir, MD, PhD, DABCP. “This article explains the varied applications and potentials of this technology from agriculture to nutrition to medicine.

Intellectual property (patents)

The CRISPR technology has spawned a number of intellectual property (patent) issues as a Dec. 21,2014 post by Glyn Moody on Techdirt stated,

Although not many outside the world of the biological sciences have heard of it yet, the CRISPR gene editing technique may turn out to be one of the most important discoveries of recent years — if patent battles don’t ruin it. Technology Review describes it as:

… an invention that may be the most important new genetic engineering technique since the beginning of the biotechnology age in the 1970s. The CRISPR system, dubbed a “search and replace function” for DNA, lets scientists easily disable genes or change their function by replacing DNA letters. During the last few months, scientists have shown that it’s possible to use CRISPR to rid mice of muscular dystrophy, cure them of a rare liver disease, make human cells immune to HIV, and genetically modify monkeys.

Unfortunately, rivalry between scientists claiming the credit for key parts of CRISPR threatens to spill over into patent litigation:

[A researcher at the MIT-Harvard Broad Institute, Feng] Zhang cofounded Editas Medicine, and this week the startup announced that it had licensed his patent from the Broad Institute. But Editas doesn’t have CRISPR sewn up. That’s because [Jennifer] Doudna, a structural biologist at the University of California, Berkeley, was a cofounder of Editas, too. And since Zhang’s patent came out, she’s broken off with the company, and her intellectual property — in the form of her own pending patent — has been licensed to Intellia, a competing startup unveiled only last month. Making matters still more complicated, [another CRISPR researcher, Emmanuelle] Charpentier sold her own rights in the same patent application to CRISPR Therapeutics.

Things are moving quickly on the patent front, not least because the Broad Institute paid extra to speed up its application, conscious of the high stakes at play here:

Along with the patent came more than 1,000 pages of documents. According to Zhang, Doudna’s predictions in her own earlier patent application that her discovery would work in humans was “mere conjecture” and that, instead, he was the first to show it, in a separate and “surprising” act of invention.

The patent documents have caused consternation. The scientific literature shows that several scientists managed to get CRISPR to work in human cells. In fact, its easy reproducibility in different organisms is the technology’s most exciting hallmark. That would suggest that, in patent terms, it was “obvious” that CRISPR would work in human cells, and that Zhang’s invention might not be worthy of its own patent.

….

Ethical and moral issues

The CRISPR technology has reignited a discussion about ethical and moral issues of human genetic engineering some of which is reviewed in an April 7, 2015 posting about a moratorium by Sheila Jasanoff, J. Benjamin Hurlbut and Krishanu Saha for the Guardian science blogs (Note: A link has been removed),

On April 3, 2015, a group of prominent biologists and ethicists writing in Science called for a moratorium on germline gene engineering; modifications to the human genome that will be passed on to future generations. The moratorium would apply to a technology called CRISPR/Cas9, which enables the removal of undesirable genes, insertion of desirable ones, and the broad recoding of nearly any DNA sequence.

Such modifications could affect every cell in an adult human being, including germ cells, and therefore be passed down through the generations. Many organisms across the range of biological complexity have already been edited in this way to generate designer bacteria, plants and primates. There is little reason to believe the same could not be done with human eggs, sperm and embryos. Now that the technology to engineer human germlines is here, the advocates for a moratorium declared, it is time to chart a prudent path forward. They recommend four actions: a hold on clinical applications; creation of expert forums; transparent research; and a globally representative group to recommend policy approaches.

The authors go on to review precedents and reasons for the moratorium while suggesting we need better ways for citizens to engage with and debate these issues,

An effective moratorium must be grounded in the principle that the power to modify the human genome demands serious engagement not only from scientists and ethicists but from all citizens. We need a more complex architecture for public deliberation, built on the recognition that we, as citizens, have a duty to participate in shaping our biotechnological futures, just as governments have a duty to empower us to participate in that process. Decisions such as whether or not to edit human genes should not be left to elite and invisible experts, whether in universities, ad hoc commissions, or parliamentary advisory committees. Nor should public deliberation be temporally limited by the span of a moratorium or narrowed to topics that experts deem reasonable to debate.

I recommend reading the post in its entirety as there are nuances that are best appreciated in the entirety of the piece.

Shortly after this essay was published, Chinese scientists announced they had genetically modified (nonviable) human embryos. From an April 22, 2015 article by David Cyranoski and Sara Reardon in Nature where the research and some of the ethical issues discussed,

In a world first, Chinese scientists have reported editing the genomes of human embryos. The results are published1 in the online journal Protein & Cell and confirm widespread rumours that such experiments had been conducted — rumours that sparked a high-profile debate last month2, 3 about the ethical implications of such work.

In the paper, researchers led by Junjiu Huang, a gene-function researcher at Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou, tried to head off such concerns by using ‘non-viable’ embryos, which cannot result in a live birth, that were obtained from local fertility clinics. The team attempted to modify the gene responsible for β-thalassaemia, a potentially fatal blood disorder, using a gene-editing technique known as CRISPR/Cas9. The researchers say that their results reveal serious obstacles to using the method in medical applications.

“I believe this is the first report of CRISPR/Cas9 applied to human pre-implantation embryos and as such the study is a landmark, as well as a cautionary tale,” says George Daley, a stem-cell biologist at Harvard Medical School in Boston, Massachusetts. “Their study should be a stern warning to any practitioner who thinks the technology is ready for testing to eradicate disease genes.”

….

Huang says that the paper was rejected by Nature and Science, in part because of ethical objections; both journals declined to comment on the claim. (Nature’s news team is editorially independent of its research editorial team.)

He adds that critics of the paper have noted that the low efficiencies and high number of off-target mutations could be specific to the abnormal embryos used in the study. Huang acknowledges the critique, but because there are no examples of gene editing in normal embryos he says that there is no way to know if the technique operates differently in them.

Still, he maintains that the embryos allow for a more meaningful model — and one closer to a normal human embryo — than an animal model or one using adult human cells. “We wanted to show our data to the world so people know what really happened with this model, rather than just talking about what would happen without data,” he says.

This, too, is a good and thoughtful read.

There was an official response in the US to the publication of this research, from an April 29, 2015 post by David Bruggeman on his Pasco Phronesis blog (Note: Links have been removed),

In light of Chinese researchers reporting their efforts to edit the genes of ‘non-viable’ human embryos, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Director Francis Collins issued a statement (H/T Carl Zimmer).

“NIH will not fund any use of gene-editing technologies in human embryos. The concept of altering the human germline in embryos for clinical purposes has been debated over many years from many different perspectives, and has been viewed almost universally as a line that should not be crossed. Advances in technology have given us an elegant new way of carrying out genome editing, but the strong arguments against engaging in this activity remain. These include the serious and unquantifiable safety issues, ethical issues presented by altering the germline in a way that affects the next generation without their consent, and a current lack of compelling medical applications justifying the use of CRISPR/Cas9 in embryos.” …

More than CRISPR

As well, following on the April 22, 2015 Nature article about the controversial research, the Guardian published an April 26, 2015 post by Filippa Lentzos, Koos van der Bruggen and Kathryn Nixdorff which makes the case that CRISPR techniques do not comprise the only worrisome genetic engineering technology,

The genome-editing technique CRISPR-Cas9 is the latest in a series of technologies to hit the headlines. This week Chinese scientists used the technology to genetically modify human embryos – the news coming less than a month after a prominent group of scientists had called for a moratorium on the technology. The use of ‘gene drives’ to alter the genetic composition of whole populations of insects and other life forms has also raised significant concern.

But the technology posing the greatest, most immediate threat to humanity comes from ‘gain-of-function’ (GOF) experiments. This technology adds new properties to biological agents such as viruses, allowing them to jump to new species or making them more transmissible. While these are not new concepts, there is grave concern about a subset of experiments on influenza and SARS viruses which could metamorphose them into pandemic pathogens with catastrophic potential.

In October 2014 the US government stepped in, imposing a federal funding pause on the most dangerous GOF experiments and announcing a year-long deliberative process. Yet, this process has not been without its teething-problems. Foremost is the de facto lack of transparency and open discussion. Genuine engagement is essential in the GOF debate where the stakes for public health and safety are unusually high, and the benefits seem marginal at best, or non-existent at worst. …

Particularly worrisome about the GOF process is that it is exceedingly US-centric and lacks engagement with the international community. Microbes know no borders. The rest of the world has a huge stake in the regulation and oversight of GOF experiments.

Canadian perspective?

I became somewhat curious about the Canadian perspective on all this genome engineering discussion and found a focus on agricultural issues in the single Canadian blog piece I found. It’s an April 30, 2015 posting by Lisa Willemse on Genome Alberta’s Livestock blog has a twist in the final paragraph,

The spectre of undesirable inherited traits as a result of DNA disruption via genome editing in human germline has placed the technique – and the ethical debate – on the front page of newspapers around the globe. Calls for a moratorium on further research until both the ethical implications can be worked out and the procedure better refined and understood, will undoubtedly temper research activities in many labs for months and years to come.

On the surface, it’s hard to see how any of this will advance similar research in livestock or crops – at least initially.

Groups already wary of so-called “frankenfoods” may step up efforts to prevent genome-edited food products from hitting supermarket shelves. In the EU, where a stringent ban on genetically-modified (GM) foods is already in place, there are concerns that genome-edited foods will be captured under this rubric, holding back many perceived benefits. This includes pork and beef from animals with disease resistance, lower methane emissions and improved feed-to-food ratios, milk from higher-yield or hornless cattle, as well as food and feed crops with better, higher quality yields or weed resistance.

Still, at the heart of the human germline editing is the notion of a permanent genetic change that can be passed on to offspring, leading to concerns of designer babies and other advantages afforded only to those who can pay. This is far less of a concern in genome-editing involving crops and livestock, where the overriding aim is to increase food supply for the world’s population at lower cost. Given this, and that research for human medical benefits has always relied on safety testing and data accumulation through experimentation in non-human animals, it’s more likely that any moratorium in human studies will place increased pressure to demonstrate long-term safety of such techniques on those who are conducting the work in other species.

Willemse’s last paragraph offers a strong contrast to the Guardian and Nature pieces.

Finally, there’s a May 8, 2015 posting (which seems to be an automat4d summary of an article in the New Scientist) on a blog maintained by the Canadian Raelian Movement. These are people who believe that alien scientists landed on earth and created all the forms of life on this planet. You can find  more on their About page. In case it needs to be said, I do not subscribe to this belief system but I do find it interesting in and of itself and because one of the few Canadian sites that I could find offering an opinion on the matter even if it is in the form of a borrowed piece from the New Scientist.

Customizing DNA nanotubes quickly and cheaply

Building on some work published earlier this year, scientists from McGill University (Montréal, Québec) created a new technique for building DNA nanotubes block by block (my March 2, 2015 posting) and, now, the newest research from the McGill team features a way of making long DNA strands with that technique, as mentioned in a May 7, 2015 news item on Azonano,

Imagine taking strands of DNA – the material in our cells that determines how we look and function – and using it to build tiny structures that can deliver drugs to targets within the body or take electronic miniaturization to a whole new level.

While it may still sound like science fiction to most of us, researchers have been piecing together and experimenting with DNA structures for decades. And, in recent years, work by scientists such as McGill University chemistry professor Hanadi Sleiman has moved the use of man-made DNA structures closer to a variety of real-world applications.

But as these applications continue to develop, they require increasingly large and complex strands of DNA. That has posed a problem, because the automated systems used for making synthetic DNA can’t produce strands containing more than about 100 bases (the chemicals that link up to form the strands). It can take hundreds of these short strands to assemble nanotubes for applications such as smart drug-delivery systems.

Here’s a video featuring one of the researchers taking about this latest work from McGill University,

A May 6, 2015 McGill University news release, which originated the news item, describes the long DNA nanotubes in more detail,

In new research published May 5 in Nature Communications, however, Sleiman’’s team at McGill reports that it has devised a technique to create much longer strands of DNA, including custom-designed sequence patterns. What’s more, this approach also produces large amounts of these longer strands in just a few hours, making the process potentially more economical and commercially viable than existing techniques.

The new method involves piecing together small strands one after the other, so that they attach into a longer DNA strand with the help of an enzyme known as ligase.  A second enzyme, polymerase, is then used to generate many copies of the long DNA strand, yielding larger volumes of the material. The polymerase process has the added advantage of correcting any errors that may have been introduced into the sequence, amplifying only the correctly sequenced, full-length product.

Designer DNA materials

The team used these strands as a scaffold to make DNA nanotubes, demonstrating that the technique allows the length and functions of the tubes to be precisely programmed. “In the end, what we get is a long, synthetic DNA strand with exactly the sequence of bases that we want, and with exactly as many repeat units as we want,” explains Sleiman, who co-authored the study with Graham Hamblin, who recently completed his doctorate, and PhD student Janane Rahbani.

“This work opens the door toward a new design strategy in DNA nanotechnology,” Sleiman says. “This could provide access to designer DNA materials that are economical and can compete with cheaper, but less versatile technologies. In the future, uses could range from customized gene and protein synthesis, to applications in nanoelectronics, nano-optics, and medicine, including diagnosis and therapy.”

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

Sequential growth of long DNA strands with user-defined patterns for nanostructures and scaffolds by Graham D. Hamblin, Janane F. Rahbani, & Hanadi F. Sleiman. Nature Communications 6, Article number: 7065 doi:10.1038/ncomms8065 Published 05 May 2015

This article is behind a paywall.

South Korea announces plans to commercialize nanotechnology

A May 4, 2015 article by Jung Suk-yee for Business Korea describes the South Korean government’s nanotechnology investment plans for 2015,

The Korean government will invest 177.2 billion won (US$164.2 million) in the industrialization of nanotechnology this year. The budget goes to seven techniques for industrial applications, including of that for manufacturing 3D nano-electronic devices used in intelligent robots and wearable smart devices, and industry infrastructure for production performance evaluation and the like. Strategic items are also selected so that small firms, which account for 90 percent of the industry, can better compete in the global market.

The Ministry of Science, ICT & Future Planning and the Ministry of Trade, Industry & Energy unveiled the plan on April 30 [2015] at the main office of CrucialTec located in Pangyo, Gyeonggi Province. “The global nanotech product market is estimated to reach US$3 trillion in size in 2020,” they explained, adding, “We will take up 20 percent of the market by means of large-scale investments.”

An April 30, 2015 news item on the Youhap News Agency website also makes the announcement while providing some context for and new details about the nanotechnology effort in South Korea,

South Korea is already one of the leading countries to have developed the advanced technology. The combined output of the country’s nano-convergence sector came to over 92 trillion won ($86 billion) in 2011, accounting for 6.1 percent of its total production.

The government will spend an additional [to the 177.2 billion won  announced earlier] 55 billion won this year to help develop nano-convergence companies and infrastructure that will include a new evaluation system to check the performance of any nanotechnology product, according to the ministry.

This announcement provides an interesting contrast to relatively recent Canadian announcements. As far as I’m aware the only Canadian research area as opposed to an individual institution such as the TRIUMF, Canada’s National Laboratory for  which benefits from serious infusions of cash is the ‘digital highway’ which merits being mentioned in the 2015 federal budget. The other science initiative specifically mentioned in the budget is TRIUMF (Canada’s National Laboratory for Particle and Nuclear Physics). For all the talk about commercializing science and technology there doesn’t seem to have been any specific mention in the budget although I have no doubt that various agencies received their allocations and are fully aware that they are expected to deliver on the government’s hopes in those respects. (My April 28, 2015 post offers more details about the science funding in the Canadian government’s 2015 federal budget.)

2015 Science & You, a science communication conference in France

Science communicators can choose to celebrate June 2015 in Nancy, France and acquaint themselves with the latest and greatest in communication at the Science & You conference being held from June 1 – 6, 2015. Here’s the conference teaser being offered by the organizers,

The 2015 conference home page (ETA May 5, 2015 1045 hours PDT: the home page features change) offers this sampling of the workshops on offer,

No less than 180 communicators will be lined up to hold workshop sessions, from the 2nd to the 5th June in Nancy’s Centre Prouvé. In the meantime, here is an exclusive peek at some of the main themes which will be covered:

– Science communication and journalism. Abdellatif Bensfia will focus on the state of science communication in a country where major social changes are playing out, Morocco, while Olivier Monod will be speaking about “Chercheurs d’actu” (News Researchers), a system linking science with the news. Finally, Matthieu Ravaud and Fabrice Impériali from the CNRS (Centre National de Recherche Scientifique) will be presenting “CNRS Le journal”, the new on-line media for the general public.

– Using animals in biomedical research. This round-table, chaired by Victor Demaria-Pesce, from the Groupement Interprofessionnel de Réflexion et de Communication sur la Recherche (Gircor) will provide an opportunity to spotlight one of society’s great debates: the use of animals in research. Different actors working in biomedical research will present their point of view on the subject, and the results of an analysis of public perception of animal experimentation will be presented. What are the norms in this field? What are the living conditions of the animals in laboratories? How is this research to be made legitimate? This session will centre on all these questions.

– Science communication and the arts. This session will cover questions such as the relational interfaces between art and science, with in particular the presentation of “Pulse Project” with Michelle Lewis-King, and the Semaine du Cerveau (Brain Week) in Grenoble (Isabelle Le Brun).
Music will also be there with the talk by Milla Karvonen from the University of Oulu, who will be speaking about the interaction between science and music, while Philippe Berthelot will talk about the art of telling the story of science as a communication tool.

– Science on television. This workshop will also be in the form of a round table, with representatives from TVV (Vigyan Prasar, Inde), and Irene Lapuente (La Mandarina de Newton), Mico Tatalovic and Elizabeth Vidal (University of Cordoba), discussing how the world of science is represented on a mass media like television. Many questions will be debated, as for example the changing image of science on television, its historical context, or again, the impact these programmes have on audiences’ perceptions of science.

To learn more, you will find the detailed list of all the workshops and plenaries in the provisional programme on-line.

Science & You seems to be an ‘umbrella brand’ for the “Journées Hubert Curien” conference with plenaries and workshops and the “Science and Culture” forum, which may explain the variety of dates (June 1 – 6, June 2 – 5, and June 2 – 6) on the Science & You home page.

Here’s information about the Science & You organizers and more conference dates (from the Patrons page),

At the invitation of the President of the Université de Lorraine, the professors Etienne Klein, Cédric Villani and Brigitte Kieffer accepted to endorse Science & You. It is an honour to be able to associate them with this major event in science communication, in which they are particularly involved.

Cédric Villani, Fields Medal 2010

Cédric Villani is a French mathematician, the Director of the Institut Henri Poincaré and a professor at the Université Claude Bernard Lyon 1.
His main research interests are in kinetic theory (Boltzmann and Vlasov equations and their variants), and optimal transport and its applications (Monge equation).
He has received several national and international awards for his research, in particular the Fields Medal, which he received from the hands of the President of India at the 2010 International Congress of Mathematicians in Hyderabad (India). Since then he has played the role of spokesperson for the French mathematical community in media and political circles.
Cédric Villani regularly invests in science communication aiming at various audiences: conferences in schools, public conferences in France and abroad, regular participation in broadcasts and current affairs programmes and in science festivals.


Etienne Klein, physicist and philosopher

Etienne Klein is a French physicist, Director of Research at the CEA (Commissariat à l’énergie atomique et aux énergies alternatives – Alternative Energies and Atomic Energy Commission) and has a Ph.D. in philosophy of science. He teaches at the Ecole Centrale in Paris and is head of the Laboratoire de Recherche sur les Sciences de la Matière (LARSIM) at the CEA.

He has taken part in several major projects, such as developing a method of isotope separation involving the use of lasers, and the study of a particle accelerator with superconducting cavities. He was involved in the design of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN.
He taught quantum physics and particle physics at Ecole Centrale in Paris for several years and currently teaches philosophy of science. He is a specialist on time in physics and is the author of a number of essays.
He is also a member of the OPECST (Conseil de l’Office parlementaire d’évaluation des choix scientifiques et technologiques – Parliamentary Office for the Evaluation of Scientific and Technological Choices), of the French Academy of Technologies, and of the Conseil d’Orientation (Advisory Board) of the Institut Diderot.
Until June 2014, he presented a weekly radio chronicle, Le Monde selon Etienne Klein, on the French national radio France Culture.

Photo by Philippe Matsas © Flammarion


Brigitte Kieffer, Campaigner for women in science

B. L. Kieffer is Professor at McGill University and at the Université de Strasbourg France. She is also Visiting Professor at UCLA (Los Angeles, USA). She develops her research activity at IGBMC, one of the leading European centres of biomedical research. She is recipient of the Jules Martin (French Academy of Science, 2001) and the Lounsbery (French and US Academies of Science, 2004) Awards, and has become an EMBO Member in 2009.
In 2012 she received the Lamonica Award of Neurology (French Academy of Science) and was nominated Chevalier de la Légion d’honneur. In December 2013 she was elected as a member of the French Academy of Sciences.
In March 2014, she received the International L’OREAL-UNESCO Award for Women in Science (European Laureate). She started as the Scientific Director of the Douglas Hospital Research Centre, affiliated to McGill University in January 2014, and remains Professor at the University of Strasbourg, France.

Photo by Julian Dufort

Here’s more about the conference at the heart of Science & You (from The Journées Hubert Curien International Conference webpage),

Following on the 2012 conference, this project will bring together all those interested in science communication: researchers, PhD students, science communicators, journalists, professionals from associations and museums, business leaders, politicians… A high-level scientific committee has been set up for this international conference, chaired by Professor Joëlle Le Marec, University of Paris 7, and counting among its members leading figures in science communication such as Bernard Schiele (Canada) or Hester du Plessis (South Africa).

The JHC Conference will take place from June 2nd to 6th at the Centre Prouvé, Nancy. These four days will be dedicated to a various programme of plenary conferences and workshops on the theme of science communication today and tomorrow.

You can find the Registration webpage here where you can get more information about the process and access the registration form.

Water-soluble 3D filament from Graphene 3D Lab

This is almost a Canadian nanotech story since one of the company’s chief investors is Canadian and the announcement is being made at an event held at Mohawk College in Hamilton, Ontario. From an April 30, 2015 news item on Azonano,

… Graphene 3D Lab Inc. will announce details of a newly-developed water-soluble 3D filament at the Canadian Manufacturers & Exporters’ (CME) Canada Makes: Additive Manufacturing Forum at Mohawk College in Hamilton, Ontario on April 30, 2015. The water-soluble filament is the latest in a line of specialty-functional filaments that Graphene 3D is introducing to the 3D printing industry.

An April 30, 2015 Graphene 3D Lab news release provides more detail,

Elena Polyakova, Chief Operating Officer of Graphene 3D, will present details on the new water-soluble filament and discuss the effect of graphene-enhanced materials for the 3D printing industry.

Water-soluble filaments are primarily used to occupy negative space during a 3D print. These filaments are essentially used to fill gaps designed in objects and allow the print to be suspended over air. Following the completion of the printing process, the object can be placed in water, and the water-soluble material will completely dissolve, leaving empty space.

Daniel Stolyarov, President and Chief Executive Officer, stated, “We are very pleased with performance characteristics that our R&D team designed into this new industry leading filament. This filament is completely environmentally-friendly, non-toxic, dissolves completely in water in approximately 1 hour, and leaves no residual material.” The water-soluble filament will work in most commercially available 3D printers and Graphene 3D expects to have them to market within 3 months. Daniel continues, “This filament reflects the core objectives of Graphene 3D. We are creating products that allow innovative designers to do more with 3D printing and are expanding the possibilities within the 3D printing environment.”

About Graphene 3D
Graphene 3D is in the business of developing, manufacturing and marketing specialty 3D printer materials, including proprietary nanocomposite materials for various types of 3D printing. The Company is also involved in the design, manufacture and marketing of 3D printers and related products for domestic and international customers.

The Graphene 3D research and production facility is located in Calverton, NY and is equipped with material processing and analytical equipment. The company has four US patent applications pending for its technology. For more information on Graphene 3D Lab Inc., visit www.graphene3dlab.com.

As for Canadian content (beyond the announcement location), the news item on Azonano notes,

Lomiko Metals 100%-owned subsidiary Lomiko Technologies Inc. has and will continue to hold its 4,396,100 share investment in Graphene 3D Lab for the long term.

Lomiko Metals is located in the Vancouver metro region of Canadian province British Columbia.

2015 Canadian federal budget and science

Think of this post as a digest of responses to and analyses of the ‘science component’ of the Canadian federal government’s 2015 budget announcement made on April 21, 2015 by Minister of Finance, Joe Oliver. First off the mark, the Canadian Science Policy Centre (CSPC) has featured some opinions about the budget and its impact on Canadian science in an April 27, 2015 posting,

Jim Woodgett
Director, Lunenfeld-Tanenbaum Research Institute of Sinai Health System

Where’s the Science Beef in Canadian Budget 2015?

Andrew Casey
President and CEO, BIOTECanada

Budget 2015: With the fiscal balance restored where to next?

Russ Roberts
Senior Vice President – Tax & Finance, CATA Alliance

Opinion on 2015 Federal Budget

Ron Freeman
CEO of Innovation Atlas Inc. and Research Infosource Inc. formerly co-publisher of RE$EARCH MONEY and co-founder of The Impact Group

Workman-Like Budget Preserves Key National Programs

Paul Davidson
President, Universities Canada

A Reality Check on Budget 2015

Dr. Kamiel Gabriel
Associate Provost of Research and Graduate Programs at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology (UOIT), Science Adviser and Assistant Deputy Minister (ADM) of Research at the Ontario Ministry of Research & Innovation

The 2015 Federal Budget Targets Key Segments of Voters

I suggest starting with Woodgett’s piece as he points out something none of the others who chose to comment on the amount of money dedicated to the tricouncil funding agencies (Canadian Institutes of Health Research [CIHR], Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council [NSERC], and Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council [SSHRC]) seemed to have noticed or deemed important,

The primary source of science operating funds are provided by the tricouncils, CIHR/NSERC and SSHRC, which, when indirect costs and other flow through dollars (e.g. CRCs) are included, accounts for about $2.5 billion in annual funding. There are no new dollars added to the tricouncil budgets this year (2015/16) but there is a modest $46 million to be added in 2016/17 – $15 million to CIHR and NSERC, $7.5 million to SSHRC and the rest in indirects. [emphases mine] This new money, though, is largely ear-marked for new initiatives, such as the CIHR Strategy on Patient Oriented Research ($13 million) and an anti-microbial resistant infection program ($2 million). Likewise for NSERC and SSHRC although NSERC enjoys around $16 million relief in not needing to support industrial postgraduate scholarships as this responsibility moves to MITACS with no funding loss at NSERC. Alex Usher of Higher Education Strategy Associates, estimates that, taking inflation into account, tricouncil funding will be down 9% since 2008. [emphasis mine] It is hardly surprising that funding applications to these agencies are under enormous competitive pressure. At CIHR, the last open operating grant competition yielded unprecedented low success rates of ~14% along with across-the-board budget cuts of grants that were funded of 26%. This agency is in year 1 of major program reforms and has very little wiggle-room with its frozen budget.

To be fair, there are sources other than the tricouncil for science funding although their mandate is for ‘basic’ science, more or less. Over the last few years, there’s been a greater emphasis on tricouncil funding that produces economic results and this is in line international trends.

Getting back to the CSPC’s opinions, Davidson’s piece, notes some of that additional funding,

With $1.33 billion earmarked for the Canada Foundation for Innovation [CFI], Budget 2015 marks the largest single announcement of Canadian research infrastructure funding. This is something the community prioritized, given the need for state-of-the-art equipment, labs, digital tools and high-speed technology to conduct, partner and share research results. This renewed commitment to CFI builds on the globally competitive research infrastructure that Canadians have built over the last 15 years and enables our researchers to collaborate with the very best in the world. Its benefits will be seen in universities across the country and across disciplines. Key research infrastructure investments – from digital to major science infrastructure – support the broad spectrum of university research, from theoretical and discovery to pre-competitive and applied.

The $45 million announced for TRIUMF will support the laboratory’s role in accelerating science in Canada, an important investment in discovery research.

While the news about the CFI seems to have delighted a number of observers, it should be noted (as per Woodgett’s piece) that the $1.3B is to be paid out over six years ($220M per year, more or less) and the money won’t be disbursed until the 2017/18 fiscal year. As for the $45M designated for TRIUMF (Canada’s National Laboratory for Particle and Nuclear Physics), this is exciting news for the lab which seems to have bypassed the usual channels, as it has before, to receive its funding directly from the federal government.

Another agency which seems to have received its funding directly from the federal government is the Council of Canadian Academies (CCA), From an April 22, 2015 news release,

The Council of Canadian Academies welcomes the federal government’s announcement of new funding for in-depth, authoritative, evidence-based assessments. Economic Action Plan 2015 allocated $15 million over five years [$3M per year] for the Council of Canadian Academies.

“This is welcome news for the Council and we would like to thank the Government for this commitment. Over the past 10 years the Council has worked diligently to produce high quality reports that support policy and decision-making in numerous areas,” said Janet Bax, Interim President. “We appreciate the support from Minister Holder and his predecessors, Minsters Goodyear and Rickford, for ensuring meaningful questions have been referred to the Council for assessment.” [For anyone unfamiliar with the Canadian science minister scene, Ed Holder, current Minister of State for Science and Technology, and previous Conservative government ministers, Greg Rickford and Gary Goodyear]

As of March 31st, 2015 the Council has published 31 reports on topics as diverse as business innovation, the future of Canadian policing models, and improving medicines for children. The Council has worked with over 800 expert volunteers from across Canada and abroad. These individuals have given generously of their time and as a result more than $16 million has been leveraged in volunteer support. The Council’s work has been used in many ways and had an impact on national policy agendas and strategies, research programs, and supported stakeholders and industry groups with forward looking action plans.

“On behalf of the Board of Governors I would like to extend our thanks to the Government,” said Margaret Bloodworth, Chair of the Board of Governors.  “The Board is now well positioned to consider future strategic directions for the organization and how best to further expand on the Council’s client base.”

The CCA news is one of the few item about social science funding, most observers such as Ivan Semeniuk in an April 27, 2015 article for the Globe and Mail, are largely focused on the other sciences,

Last year [2014], that funding [for the tricouncil agencies] amounted to about$2.7-billion, and this year’s budget maintains that. Because of inflation and increasing competition, that is actually a tightening of resources for rank-and-file scientists at Canada’s universities and hospitals. At the same time, those institutions are vying for a share of a $1.5-billion pot of money called the Canada First Research Excellence Fund, which the government unveiled last year and is aimed at helping push selected projects to a globally competitive level.

“This is all about creating an environment where our research community can grow,” Ed Holder, Minister of State for Science and Technology, told The Globe and Mail.

One extra bonus for science in this year’s budget is a $243.5-million commitment to secure Canada’s partnership in the Thirty Meter Telescope, a huge international observatory that is slated for construction on a Hawaiian mountain top. Given its high price-tag, many thought it unlikely that the Harper government would go for the project. In the end, the telescope likely benefited from the fact that had the Canada committed less money, most of the economic returns associated with building it would flow elsewhere.

The budget also reflects the Harper government’s preference for tying funding to partnerships with industry. A promised increase of $46-million for the granting councils next year will be largely for spurring collaborations between academic researchers and industrial partners rather than for basic research.

Whether or not science becomes an issue in the upcoming election campaign, some research advocates say the budget shows that the government’s approach to science is still too narrow. While it renews necessary commitments to research infrastructure, they fear not enough money will be left for people doing the kind of work that expands knowledge but does not always produce an immediate economic return.

An independent analysis of the 2015 budget prepared by Higher Education Strategy Associates, a Toronto based consulting firm, shows that when inflation is factored in, the money available for researchers through the granting councils has been in decline since 2009.

Canadian scientists are the not only ones feeling a pinch. Neal V. Patel’s April 27, 2015 article (originally published on Wired) on the Slate website discusses US government funding in an attempt to contextualize science research crowdfunding (Note: A link has been removed),

In the U.S., most scientific funding comes from the government, distributed in grants awarded by an assortment of federal science, health, and defense agencies. So it’s a bit disconcerting that some scientists find it necessary to fund their research the same way dudebros raise money for a potato salad. Does that migration suggest the current grant system is broken? If it is, how can we ensure that funding goes to legitimate science working toward meaningful discoveries?

On its own, the fact that scientists are seeking new sources of funding isn’t so weird. In the view of David Kaiser, a science historian at MIT, crowdfunding is simply the latest “pendulum swing” in how scientists and research institutions fund their work. Once upon a time, research at MIT and other universities was funded primarily by student tuition and private philanthropists. In 1919, however, with philanthropic investment drying up, MIT launched an ambitious plan that allowed local companies to sponsor specific labs and projects.

Critics complained the university had allowed corporate interests to dig their claws into scientific endeavors and befoul intellectual autonomy. (Sound familiar?) But once WWII began, the U.S. government became a force for funding, giving huge wartime grants to research groups nationwide. Federal patronage continued expanding in the decades after the war.

Seventy years later, that trend has reversed: As the federal budget shrinks, government investment in scientific research has reached new lows. The conventional models for federal grants, explains University of Iowa immunologist Gail Bishop, “were designed to work such that 25 to 30 percent of studies were funded. Now it’s around 10 percent.”

I’m not sure how to interpret the Canadian situation in light of other jurisdictions. It seems clear that within the Canadian context for government science funding that research funding is on a downward trend and has been going down for a few years (my June 2, 2014 posting). That said, we have another problem and that’s industrial research and development funding (my Oct. 30, 2013 posting about the 2013 OECD scorecard for science and technology; Note: the scorecard is biannual and should be issued again in 2015). Businesses don’t pay for research in Canada and it appears the Conservative and previous governments have not been successful in reversing that situation even marginally.

Queen’s University (Canada) opens Kingston Nano-Fabrication Lab (KNFL)

First, there’s the opening (from an April 24, 2015 Queen’s University news release; Note: A link has been removed),

Queen’s University has secured its place at the forefront of transforming innovative research with the opening of the Kingston Nano-Fabrication Laboratory (KNFL).

The laboratory, located at Innovation Park, represents a milestone in the 30-year collaboration between Queen’s and CMC Microsystems for advancing Canadian strength in micro-nano innovation.

Some interesting details about the deal and the proposed uses for KNFL can be found in an April 24, 2015 story by Colleen Seto for Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI),

… a brand-new, 3,000-square-foot, $5 million research facility [KNFL] located at the Queen’s University Innovation Park. The lab includes $2.5 million in new CFI-funded custom equipment for fabricating and prototyping new nano-scale inventions to get them to market quicker.

“We’re making devices, films, coatings, and materials, and examining their properties at the nanoscale,” says Ian McWalter, President and CEO of CMC Microsystems, which manages the operations of KNFL. “This fundamental materials research spills over into experiments of great use to industry, which then looks at how to commercialize he research results.”

The Queen’s University news release describes the longstanding relationship between the company managing the KNFL and the university,

“This facility is the latest manifestation of a long and productive relationship between Queen’s and CMC Microsystems,” says Ian McWalter, president and CEO of CMC. “For more than three decades, this partnership has enabled research and advanced training activities nationwide that would not have otherwise occurred. The KNFL is a significant enhancement, and we look forward to exploring the expanded opportunities that it offers us for building Canadian strength in micro-nano research and innovation.”

The CFI story provides more specifics about the potential workings of the facility,

Take, for example, the possibilities presented by KNFL’s laser micromachining system. “This new tool could be used to engrave channels into a piece of glass or polymer to produce a microfluidic device,” says Andrew Fung, Client Technology Advisor for Microsystems and Nanotechnology at CMC. Microfluidic devices take advantage of the behaviour of fluids at a very small scale to create things like “lab-on-a-chip” technologies that can be used to cheaply and quickly diagnose diseases in developing countries, among many other things. “Microfluidics grew out of silicon-based fabrication, which costs a lot of money,” explains Fung. “These other materials are lower cost, and can be single use, consumable, and disposable for a medical device.”

Much of KNFL’s new equipment was selected to enable rapid prototyping of new nanotechnologies. “Prototypes can be ready within hours or a day, instead of days or weeks. It shortens the whole innovation process so researchers can design, make, test, and get the information they need much faster,” says Fung.

The CFI story also contextualizes this project by noting that it’s part of a larger initiative,

The KNFL is also part of Embedded Systems Canada (emSYSCAN), a $50-million, five-year project aimed at shortening the microsystems development cycle. It involves more than 350 university researchers at 37 institutions across Canada’s National Design Network (NDN), which enables multidisciplinary research and collaboration through shared technologies and expertise.

The KNFL’s open-access model is aimed specifically at supporting the NDN. “The idea is to make [expertise and tools] more available to non-experts and to overcome barriers such as lab training to access this equipment,” says McWalter. “Through the service aspect of our lab, you wouldn’t necessarily twiddle the knobs yourself, but you would contract the lab to do things for you.” This provides vital learning opportunities for students while giving researchers a more efficient means to an end — accessing the equipment they need without having to invest the time and effort to learn how to use it.

Congratulations to the folks at Queen’s University!