Tag Archives: Canadian Broadcasting Corporation

Setting a tone for Canadian science, now what about science and a culture of innovation?

On the heels of reinstating the mandatory long form census, removing the muzzle from Canadian government scientists, and assigning multiple new ministers to old and new ‘science’ ministries, Justin Trudeau has delivered his new ministerial mandate letters where he thanks the ministers for agreeing to serve and lays out his priorities. David Bruggeman provides priority lists from two of the letters in a Nov. 13, 2015 posting on his Pasco Phronesis blog (Note: Links have been removed),

The new Science Minister, Kirsty Duncan, was given the following priorities in her letter:

Create a Chief Science Officer mandated to ensure that government science is fully available to the public, that scientists are able to speak freely about their work, and that scientific analyses are considered when the government makes decisions.
Support your colleagues in the review and reform of Canada’s environmental assessment processes to ensure that environmental assessment decisions are based on science, facts, and evidence.
Support the Minister of Employment, Workforce Development and Labour [emphasis mine] in efforts to help employers create more co-op placements for students in science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and business programs [emphasis mine].
Support your Ministerial colleagues as they re-insert scientific considerations into the heart of our decision-making and investment choices.

It’s worth noting – because it often gets lost – that this philosophy sees scientific knowledge and scientific considerations are but one input into policy and decision making.  [emphasis mine] Inform, not dictate.

It’s also worth noting that the Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development (MP Navdeep Bains) is mentioned just once in the Minister of Science letter.  Looking at the letter sent to Minister Bains, it would seem that PM Trudeau sees science in this portfolio in service to economic development and innovation.  The role as outlined in the letter:

“As Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development, your overarching goal will be to help Canadian businesses grow, innovate and export so that they can create good quality jobs and wealth for Canadians.  You will achieve this goal by working with provinces, territories, municipalities, the post-secondary education system, [emphasis mine] employers and labour to improve the quality and impact of our programs that support innovation, scientific research and entrepreneurship.  You will collaborate with provinces, territories and municipalities to align, where possible, your efforts.  I expect you to partner closely with businesses and sectors to support their efforts to increase productivity and innovation. …

I have a few comments about the ‘science’ letters. I’m happy to see the first priority for the Science minister is the appointment of a Chief Science Officer. David’s point about the letter’s emphasis that science is one input into the policy making process is interesting. Personally, I applaud the apparent even-handedness since scientific evidence is not always unequivocal but this does give the government some room to ignore scientific evidence in favour of other political considerations.

Finally, I see a gray area between the two ministries has been delineated with the Science minister being exhorted to:

“Support the Minister of Employment, Workforce Development and Labour in efforts to help employers create more co-op placements for students in science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and business programs”

and the Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development being exhorted to

” … achieve this goal [economic prosperity] by working with provinces, territories, municipalities, the post-secondary education system, employers and labour to improve the quality and impact of our programs that support innovation, scientific research and entrepreneurship.”

Note the crossover where the Science minister is being asked to help develop more coop placements while the Innovation, Science and Economic Development Minister is being asked to work with the post-secondary education system and employers to improve programs for entrepreneurship. Interestingly the exhortation for the Innovation minister is included in the general text of the letter and not in the list of priorities.

There is one other ministry I’d like to include here and it’s Canadian Heritage. While it might seem an odd choice to some, there is what seems to be an increasing interest in the relationship between art, science, and the humanities. While I’m thrilled with much of the content in the Heritage letter,  mentions of science and technology are notably absent. Given what’s happened in our cultural sector (serious funding cutbacks over several years from both the Conservative government and previous Liberal governments), it’s understandable and it’s good to see more funding (from the Canadian Heritage Ministerial Mandate letter),

As Minister of Canadian Heritage, your overarching goal will be to implement our government’s plan to strengthen our cultural and creative industries. Our cultural sector is an enormous source of strength to the Canadian economy. Canada’s stories, shaped by our immense diversity, deserve to be celebrated and shared with the world. Our plan will protect our important national institutions, safeguard our official languages, promote the industries that reflect our unique identity as Canadians, and provide jobs and economic opportunities in our cultural and creative sectors.

You will be the leader of a strong team of ministers, supported by the Minister of Sport and Persons with Disabilities and the Minister of Status of Women.

In particular, I will expect you to work with your colleagues and through established legislative, regulatory, and Cabinet processes to deliver on your top priorities:

  • Review current plans for Canada 150 [Canada will be celebrating its 150th anniversary in 2017] and champion government-wide efforts to promote this important celebration.
  • Restore and increase funding for CBC/Radio-Canada, following consultation with the broadcaster and the Canadian cultural community.
  • Review the process by which members are appointed to the CBC/Radio-Canada Board of Directors, to ensure merit-based and independent appointments.
  • Double investment in the Canada Council for the Arts.
  • Increase funding for Telefilm Canada and the National Film Board.
  • Restore the Promart and Trade Routes International cultural promotion programs, update their design, and increase related funding.
  • Increase funding for the Young Canada Works program to help prepare the next generation of Canadians working in the heritage sector.
  • Work with the Minister of Infrastructure and Communities to make significant new investments in cultural infrastructure as part of our investment in social infrastructure.
  • Work in collaboration with the Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs to provide new funding to promote, preserve and enhance Indigenous languages and cultures.

I hope at some point this government integrates a little science and technology into Canadian Heritage because we have often achieved breakthroughs, scientifically and technically, and we have, at times, achieved the impossible as anyone who’s taken a train ride through the Rocky Mountains knows. Plus, if the government wants to encourage entrepreneurship and risk-taking, Canadian artists of all types provide an excellent model.

For the interested, the Ministerial Mandate letters have been made publicly available.

Two final items, there’s a Nov. 16, 2015 posting by Josh Silberg on Science Borealis which provides a more comprehensive roundup of science commentary in the wake of the new Liberal government’s ascendance.  Yes, I’m on it and you may recognize some others as well but there should be one or two new writers to discover.

Second, Phil Plait who has written about Canadian science and the Conservative government’s policies many times provides a brief history of the situation along with a few ebullient comments about the changes that have been taking place. You can find it all in Plait’s Nov. 17, 2015 posting on Slate.com.

Happy Thanksgiving! Oct. 12, 2015, my last mention of science debates in the Canadian 2015 federal election, and my 4001st posting

Two things for me to celebrate today: Thanksgiving (in Canada, we celebrate on the 2nd Monday of October) and my 4001st posting (this one).

Science for the people

Plus, there’s much to celebrate about science discussion during the 2015 Canadian federal election. I stumbled across Science for the People, which is a weekly radio show based in Canada (from the About page),

Science for the People is a syndicated radio show and podcast that broadcasts weekly across North America. We are a long-format interview show that explores the connections between science, popular culture, history, and public policy, to help listeners understand the evidence and arguments behind what’s in the news and on the shelves.

Every week, our hosts sit down with science researchers, writers, authors, journalists, and experts to discuss science from the past, the science that affects our lives today, and how science might change our future.


If you have comments, show ideas, or questions about Science for the People, email feedback@scienceforthepeople.ca.

Theme Song

Our theme song music comes from the song “Binary Consequence” by the band Fractal Pattern. You can find the full version of it on their album No Hope But Mt. Hope.

License & Copyright

All Science for the People episodes are under the Creative Commons license. You are free to distribute unedited versions of the episodes for non-commercial purposes. If you would like to edit the episode please contact us.

Episode #338 (2015 Canadian federal election and science) was originally broadcast on Oct. 9,  2015 and features,

This week, we’re talking about politics, and the prospects for pro-science politicians, parties and voters in Canada. We’ll spend the hour with panelists Katie Gibbs, Executive Director of Evidence for Democracy, science librarian John Dupuis, journalist Mike De Souza, and former Canadian government scientist Steven Campana, for an in-depth discussion about the treatment of science by the current Canadian government, and what’s at stake for science in the upcoming federal election.

The podcast is approximately one hour long and Désirée Schell (sp?) hosts/moderates an interesting discussion where one of the participants notes that issues about science and science muzzles predate Harper. The speaker dates the issues back to the Chrétien/Martin years. Note: Jean Chrétien was Prime Minister from 1993 to 2003 and Paul Martin, his successor, was Prime Minister from 2003 to 2006 when he was succeeded by current Prime Minister, Stephen Harper. (I attended a Philosophers’ Cafe event on Oct. 1, 2015 where the moderator dated the issues back to the Mulroney years. Note: Brian Mulroney was Prime Minister from 1984 – 1993.) So, it’s been 10, 20, or 30 years depending on your viewpoint and when you started noticing (assuming you’re of an age to have noticed something happening 30 years ago).

The participants also spent some time discussing why Canadians would care about science. Interestingly, one of the speakers claimed the current Syrian refugee crisis has its roots in climate change, a science issue, and he noted the US Dept. of Defense views climate change as a threat multiplier. For anyone who doesn’t know, the US Dept. of Defense funds a lot of science research.

It’s a far ranging discussion, which doesn’t really touch on science as an election issue until some 40 mins. into the podcast.

One day later on Oct. 10, 2015 (where you’ll find the podcast), the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s Quirks & Quarks radio programme broadcast and made available its podcast of a 2015 Canadian election science debate/panel,

There is just over a week to go before Canadians head to the polls to elect a new government. But one topic that hasn’t received much attention on the campaign trail is science.

So we thought we’d gather together candidates from each of the major federal parties to talk about science and environmental issues in this election.

We asked each of them where they and their parties stood on federal funding of science; basic vs. applied research; the controversy around federal scientists being permitted to speak about their research, and how to cut greenhouse gas emissions while protecting jobs and the economy.

Our panel of candidates were:

– Lynne Quarmby, The Green Party candidate [and Green Party Science critic] in Burnaby North-Seymour, and  professor and Chair of the Department of Molecular Biology and Biochemistry at Simon Fraser University

– Gary Goodyear, Conservative Party candidate in Cambridge, Ontario, and former Minister of State for Science and Technology

– Marc Garneau, Liberal Party candidate in NDG-Westmount, and a former Canadian astronaut

– Megan Leslie, NDP candidate in Halifax and her party’s environment critic

It was a crackling debate. Gary Goodyear was the biggest surprise in that he was quite vigorous and informed in his defence of the government’s track record. Unfortunately, he was also quite patronizing.

The others didn’t seem to have as much information and data at their fingertips. Goodyear quote OECD reports of Canada doing well in the sciences and they didn’t have any statistics of their own to provide a counter argument. Quarmby, Garneau, and Leslie did at one time or another come back strongly on one point or another but none of them seriously damaged Goodyear’s defense. I can’t help wondering if Kennedy Stewart, NDP science critic, or Laurin Liu, NDP deputy science critic, and Ted Hsu, Liberal science critic might have been better choices for this debate.

The Quirks & Quarks debate was approximately 40 or 45 mins. with the remainder of the broadcast devoted to Canadian 2015 Nobel Prize winner in Physics, Arthur B. McDonald (Takaaki Kajita of the University of Tokyo shared the prize) for the discovery of neutrino oscillations, i.e., neutrinos have mass.

Kate Allen writing an Oct. 9, 2015 article for thestar.com got a preview of the pretaped debate and excerpted a few of the exchanges,

On science funding

Gary Goodyear: Currently, we spend more than twice what the Liberals spent in their last year. We have not cut science, and in fact our science budget this year is over $10 billion. But the strategy is rather simple. We are very strong in Canada on basic research. Where we fall down sometimes as compared to other countries is moving the knowledge that we discover in our laboratories out of the laboratory onto our factory floors where we can create jobs, and then off to the hospitals and living rooms of the world — which is how we make that home run. No longer is publishing an article the home run, as it once was.

Lynne Quarmby: I would take issue with the statement that science funding is robust in this country … The fact is that basic scientific research is at starvation levels. Truly fundamental research, without an obvious immediate application, is starving. And that is the research that is feeding the creativity — it’s the source of new ideas, and new understanding about the world, that ultimately feeds innovation.

If you’re looking for a good representation of the discussion and you don’t have time to listen to the podcast, Allen’s article is a good choice.

Finally, Research2Reality, a science outreach and communication project I profiled earlier in 2015 has produced an Oct. 9, 2015 election blog posting by Karyn Ho, which in addition to the usual ‘science is dying in Canada’ talk includes links to more information and to the official party platforms, as well as, an exhortation to get out there and vote.

Something seems to be in the air as voter turnout for the advance polls is somewhere from 24% to 34% higher than usual.

Happy Thanksgiving!

ETA Oct. 14, 2015:  There’s been some commentary about the Quirks & Quarks debate elsewhere. First, there’s David Bruggeman’s Oct. 13, 2015 post on his Pasco Phronesis blog (Note: Links have been removed),

Chalk it up to being a Yank who doesn’t give Canadian science policy his full attention, but one thing (among several) I learned from the recent Canadian cross-party science debate concerns open access policy.

As I haven’t posted anything on Canadian open access policies since 2010, clearly I need to catch up.  I am assuming Goodyear is referring to the Tri-Agency Open Access Policy, introduced in February by his successor as Minister of State for Science and Technology.  It applies to all grants issued from May 1, 2015 and forward (unless the work was already applicable to preexisting government open access policy), and applies most of the open access policy of the Canadian Institutes for Health Research (CIHR) to the other major granting agencies (the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada).

The policy establishes that grantees must make research articles coming from their grants available free to the public within 12 months of publication. …

Then, there’s Michael Rennie, an Assistant Professor at Lakehead University and a former Canadian government scientist whose Oct. 14, 2015 posting on his unmuzzled science blog notes this,

This [Gary Goodyear’s debate presentation] pissed me off so much it made me come out of retirement on this blog.

Listening to Gary Goodyear (Conservative representative, and MP in Cambridge and former Minister of State for Science and Technology), I became furious with the level of misinformation given. …

Rennie went ahead and Storified the twitter responses to the Goodyear’s comments (Note: Links have been removed),

Here’s my Storify of tweets that help clarify a good deal of the misinformation Gary Goodyear presented during the debate, as well as some rebuttals from folks who are in the know: I was a Canadian Government Scientist with DFO [Department of Fisheries and Oceans] from 2010-2014, and was a Research Scientist at the Experimental Lakes Area [ELA], who heard about the announcement regarding the intention of the government to close the facility first-hand on the telephone at ELA.

Goodyear: “I was involved in that decision. With respect to the Experimental Lakes, we never said we would shut it down. We said that we wanted to transfer it to a facility that was better suited to operate it. And that’s exactly what we’ve done. Right now, DFO is up there undertaking some significant remediation effects to clean up those lakes that are contaminated by the science that’s been going on up there. We all hope these lakes will recover soon so that science and experimentation can continue but not under the federal envelope. So it’s secure and it’s misleading to suggest that we were trying to stop science there.”
There’s so many inaccuracies in here, it’s hard to know where to start. First, Goodyear’s assertion that there are “contaminated lakes” at ELA is nonsense. Experiments conducted there are done using environmentally-relevant exposures; in other words, what you’d see going on somewhere else on earth, and in every case, each lake has recovered to it’s natural state, simply by stopping the experiment.

Second, there ARE experiments going on at ELA currently, many of which I am involved in; the many tours, classes and researchers on site this year can attest to this.

Third, this “cleanup” that is ongoing is to clean up all the crap that was left behind by DFO staff during 40 years of experiments- wood debris, old gear, concrete, basically junk that was left on the shorelines of lakes. No “lake remediation” to speak of.

Fourth, the conservative government DID stop science at ELA- no new experiments were permitted to begin, even ones that were already funded and on the books like the nanosilver experiment which was halted until 2014, jeopardizing the futures the futures of many students involved. Only basic monitoring occurred between 2012-2014.

Last, the current government deserves very little credit for the transfer of ELA to another operator; the successful move was conceived and implemented largely by other people and organizations, and the attempts made by the government to try and move the facility to a university were met with incredulity by the deans and vice presidents invited to the discussion.

There’s a lot more and I strongly recommend reading Rennie’s Storify piece.

It was unfortunate that the representatives from the other parties were not able to seriously question Goodyear’s points.

Perhaps next time (fingers crossed), the representatives from the various parties will be better prepared. I’d also like to suggest that there be some commentary from experts afterwards in the same way the leaders’ debates are followed by commentary. And while I’m dreaming, maybe there could be an opportunity for phone-in or Twitter questions.

Science panel on CBC (radio) Quirks & Quarks plus more

Science panel or is it a debate?

Kudos to the Quirks & Quarks team for pulling together a science panel/debate on their CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) Radio One broadcast for the 2015 Canadian federal election. First, the tweet,

Many thanks for today’s election science panel: you were all great. Airs on Oct 10

Then, there’s the description from the Quirks & Quarks This week programme page,

This Week: Our All-Party Election Science Panel

Science and environmental issues have not been mentioned much in this long election campaign. So we thought we’d correct that by holding our own debate with candidates from all the major federal parties. [emphasis mine] We’ve gathered together:

– Lynne Quarmby, Green Party candidate in Burnaby-North, and  professor and Chair of the Department of Molecular Biology and Biochemistry at Simon Fraser University
– Gary Goodyear, Conservative Party candidate in Cambridge, Ontario, and former Minister of State for Science and Technology
– Marc Garneau, Liberal Party candidate in NDG-Westmount, and a former Canadian astronaut
– Megan Leslie, NDP candidate in Halifax and her party’s environment critic

The panel or debate will be broadcast on Saturday, Oct. 10, 2015 at 12 noon (rebroadcast on Monday, Oct. 12, 2015 at 11 pm and, in some markets, on Wednesday, Oct. 14, 2015 at 3 pm and made available at some point as a podcast). The panel/debate will be moderated by Bob McDonald, host for Quirks & Quarks, CBC Radio One.

I have a few comments about the panel. I’m surprised they didn’t mention that Lynne Quarmby is the Greens’ science shadow minister (also known as, the science policy critic); Marc Garneau once wrote his own Liberal science policy (mentioned in my Jan. 22, 2010 posting; scroll down about 50% of the way) when the Liberals were less interested in science although they did evince more interest by appointing Ted Hsu, a physicist and MP as their most recent science shadow minister [unfortunately he’s not running in this election]); I’m not familiar with Megan Leslie as Kennedy Stewart is the NDP’s science shadow minister; and Gary Goodyear in addition to being the former Minister of State for Science and Technology is a chiropractor known for his response to a question about evolution. It ran something along the lines of, “I don’t answer questions about my religion.” As the howling died down, he tried again with something like this, “Evolution is like having a pair of shoes that don’t fit. Over time your feet and/or the shoes adapt.” It’s not entirely wrong but it does leave out significant and important aspects of evolution as we currently understand it. In any event, muffled weeping could be heard across the nation. Those were his only serious missteps. Of course, most of his subsequent comments were scripted.

I trust it will be an interesting and dynamic discussion.

Science & Policy Exchange (SPE)/Dialogue sciences et politiques interviews

New post SPE Interviews Science and Technology Critic [Liberal] and Deputy Critic [NDP], Ted Hsu and Laurin Liu

Ted Hsu (Liberal shadow science minister)

Laurin Liu (NDP deputy shadow science minister)

For those interested in the Science & Policy Exchange, there’s more on their Who we are webpage,

We are a team of volunteer graduate students and post-doctoral fellows convinced that science and policy must communicate to better serve society. We aim to make this conference the premier forum for stakeholders to discuss the future of the knowledge economy in Quebec. Science & Policy Exchange is one of the few bilingual student led initiatives directly engaging Québec’s political scene and effectively bridging the gap between academia, industry and government leaders. If you are a student in the sciences and are interested in joining the conference organization committee or to volunteer for our organization please contact us.

The Science & Policy Exchange is a registered charity organization (Canada Revenue Agency) and listed in the Registraire des Entreprises du Québec.

also available in French

Based on the copyright notice at the bottom of the Who we are webpage, I believe this organization has been in place since 2010.

Final comments

It is exciting to see science becoming part of the election conversation. So, despite quibbles about who is or isn’t on the Quirks & Quarks science panel and the inability to phone in and ask questions along with the fear that ‘science muzzles’ will dominate discussion to the exclusion of much else, this panel and the SPE interviews are a huge step forward and kudos are owed to all involved.

Updates on a Canadian election science debate and the 2015 Canadian Science Policy Conference (blog session) plus a protest song

I have some good news on a couple of fronts. First, it seems increasingly likely that we will see a 2015 election science debate.

Canadian election 2015 science debate

The debate will be, according to Jim Handman, senior producer, held in early October 2015 on CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) radio’s Quirks and Quarks program. Here’s what Mr. Handman had to say after I tweeted and contacted them about holding an election science debate,

… Quirks has approached all the parties at the national
level to provide candidates for a radio panel on science to be
broadcast in early October. They have all expressed interest and we are waiting to hear about specific candidates. It is up to the parties to choose the participants.

Not realizing something was in the works at Quirks and Quarks and following on a suggestion from David Bruggeman at Pasco Phronesis (noted in my Aug. 17, 2015 posting), I contacted Lynne Quarmby (Green shadow science minister), Ted Hsu (Liberal shadow science minister), Kennedy Stewart (NDP [New Democratic Party] shadow science minister), and Ed Holder (Conservative science minister) about their willingness to participate in a debate. As of this writing, both Lynne Quarmby and Ted Hsu have shown interest.

While I was busy tweeting, this was brought to my attention,


You can see, if you look carefully at the bottom of the poster, the Evidence for Democracy logo. Those folks kicked off a proposal for science debate for this election in an Aug. 12, 2015 opinion piece for the Toronto Star.

Plus, CBC is reporting a new call for a science debate in a Sept. 3, 2015 news item by Julie Ireton,

Members of Canada’s long-silent scientific research community are increasingly speaking out during this year’s federal campaign as they desperately try to make science an election issue.

Jules  Blais, a biology professor at the University of Ottawa, calls cuts to science-related jobs “targeted strikes.”

Like many Canadian scientists, Blais considers himself non-partisan and said he’s not campaigning for any particular party, but that he and others are speaking out for the need to protect independent scientific research.

“Science has always been apolitical by its nature, but in recent years because of the dramatic changes that we’re seeing in the way science is being done, and science is being conducted, it’s increasingly a political issue,” said Blais.

To sum it up, it all looks quite promising for 2015 although I hope any national debate will be more broad-ranging and nuanced than a simple Conservative science policy bashing.

For anyone interested in ancient history, there’s my Aug. 17, 2015 posting which provides a view of previous efforts to get a science debate during an election in English-speaking Canada and notes like efforts have taken place in French-speaking Canada. Happily for anyone wanting a more complete history, Pascal Lapointe and Josh Silberg have written an Aug. 31, 2015 posting on Science Borealis detailing efforts in Québec.

Canadian Science Policy Conference blogging session

In an Aug. 18, 2015 posting, I highlighted and critiqued the blogging session offered at the upcoming 2015 Canadian Science Policy Conference. One of the blog panel members, Chris Buddle kindly contacted me via Twitter to answer a few of the questions I’d posed and to tell me that he’d contacted the organizers and suggested some changes be made to the descriptions based on my comments. You can find the changed descriptions here.

They’ve added one person to the panel, Lisa Willemse, who’s billed as Senior Communications Advisor, Ontario Institute for Regenerative Medicine.

One final comment about the science blogging panel descriptions, I wish they’d added links to the blogs. Perhaps that wasn’t technical feasible?

Protest song

Part of what has mobilized scientists and a discussion of science in Canada has been the Conservative government’s policy of ‘muzzling scientists’. Glyn Moody in a Sept. 1, 2015 posting on Techdirt profiles an incident where Environment Canada scientist, Tony Turner, has been put on leave while charges that he violated conflict-of-interest rules are being investigated. His sin: he wrote a protest song, got a group of friends and supporters to sing it with him, and then posted it to Youtube. From Moody’s posting (Note: A link has been removed),

Turner’s song, with its opening lines “Who controls our parliament? Harperman, Harperman. Who squashes all dissent? Harperman, Harperman,” and a refrain of “It’s time for you to go,” is pretty mild stuff. …

Of course, the great thing about the Canadian government’s absurd overreaction to this gentlest of private protests is that many more people will now learn that Turner is an environmental scientist who is being muzzled by a bunch of desperate control freaks who are frightened that the Canadian people might be told the truth about important scientific issues. Thank goodness for the Streisand Effect…. [As I understand it, Barbra Streisand once responded to criticism or commentary about herself that she found offensive. Her response, given her star power, drew a great of attention to the commentary. Techdirt folks have dubbed this the ‘Streisand’ effect, i.e. drawing attention to something no one would have noticed otherwise.]

An Aug. 28, 2015 article by Madeline Smith for the Globe and Mail provides details about the protest song and government response,

An Environment Canada scientist is under investigation for allegedly breaching the public service code of ethics by writing and performing a political song that criticizes the Harper government.

Andrew Hall, who filmed the Harperman video – a singalong with a backup choir that had almost 60,000 views as of Friday [Aug. 28, 2015] evening – said the song is a “joyful” expression of protest. [emphasis mine] He said Mr. Turner wasn’t acting as a public servant, so there should be a reasonable expectation “to be able to engage in democracy.”

As of Thurs., Sept. 3, 2015 at 10 am PDT the number of views is 525,823. So, from June 2015 when it was first posted to Aug. 28, 2015, there were almost 60,000 views. The Streisand effect in operation!

According to Smith’s article, Turner, after working for the government for 20 years, is months from retirement.

Finally, the song,

Rousing, isn’t it? That said, there is a fine line to be tread here. Civil servants are required to be neutral and, assuming you’re not dealing with noxious forces, you need to be respectful of the agreements you’ve made. As a civil servant for a number of years, that freedom of speech vs. neutrality ethics divide always bothered me. I believe that people are entitled to speak their opinions in private but I do see the point of insisting on neutrality professionally and privately. Most times, neutrality is the way to go for civil servants. However, there are times when one must speak out. The question is: what is the tipping point?

ETA Sept. 4, 2015: In the US they’re having their own civil servant neutrality issues. As evidenced by this story of the Kentucky clerk who refuses to issue marriage licences to same sex couples, civil service neutrality is not an open and shut discussion. Note: Slate has adopted a policy of urging readers to subscribe with popup ads.

Simon Fraser University’s (Vancouver, Canada) Feb. 19, 2013 Café Scientifique

There are two very different descriptions of this upcoming event, first from Simon Fraser University’s Café Scientifique webpage description,

Tuesday, February 19
Café Scientifique

Time: 7-8:30pm

Place: CBC, 700 Hamilton St.

Cost: Free, email cafesci@sfu.ca to reserve your spot

The Chemistry behind how Bird’s Nest soup led to Influenza drugs Influenza type A viral infection continues to be a serious health problem facing the human population as it continually changes how it is seen by the immune system by making modifications to the proteins that cover its surface. Dr. Andrew Bennet of SFU’s Chemistry Dept. will discuss how inhibition of one of the viral surface proteins that is called neuraminidase (the N in H5N1) is proving to be a suitable approach in the design of anti-viral drugs. Moderated by Stephen Quinn, CBC Radio. [Canadian Broadcasting Corporation] Everyone welcome, refreshments served. Please email cafesci@sfu.ca to reserve your free seat. 7:00 – 8:30 pm, CBC, 700 Hamilton St. Vancouver

Then there’s this from SFU’s Café Scientifique 2012 – 2013 List of Speakers webpage,

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

The Chemistry Behind How Bird’s Nest Soup Led to Influenza Drugs

Speaker:  Dr. Andy Bennett, Department of Chemistry, SFU

Influenza type A viral infection continues to be a serious health problem facing the human population worldwide as it continually changes how it is seen by the immune system by making modifications to the proteins that cover its surface.  Inhibition of one of the viral surface proteins that is called neuraminidase (the N in H5N1) has proved to be a suitable approach in the design of anti-viral drugs.

Note the location is the CBC Studio at 700 Hamilton Street, Vancouver

Please RSVP to cafe_sci@sfu.ca

Frankly, this seems like less fun that a talk at the Railway Club, which is where one of the other Cafe Scientifique groups usually meets. The Railway Club has a casual informal atmosphere; you can get a beer and some very interesting science conversation and, yes, someone does speak but the whole dynamic changes when you’ve got that beer in hand.  This SFU/CBC setup reminds me too much of sitting in lecture halls.

A brainwave computer controller named Muse

Toronto-based (Canada) company, InteraXon has just presented a portable brainwave controller at the ParisLeWeb 2012 meeting according to a Dec. 5, 2012 article by Nancy Owano for phys.org,

A Canadian company is talking about having a window, aka computer screen, into your mind. Another of the many ways to put it—they believe your computer can be so into you. And vice-versa. InteraXon, a Canadian company, is focused on making a business out of mind-control technology via a headband device, and they are planning to launch this as a $199 brainwave computer controller called Muse. The company is running an Indiegogo campaign to obtain needed funds. Muse is a Bluetooth-connected headset with four electroencephalography sensors, communicating with the person’s computer via the Bluetooth connection.

Here’s more about the technology from InteraXon’s How It Works webpage,

Your brain generates electrical patterns that resonate outside your head, which accumulate into brainwaves detectable by an Electroencephalograph (EEG). The EEG can’t read your thoughts, just your brain’s overall pattern of activity, like how relaxed or alert you are. With practice you can learn to manipulate your brainwave pattern, like flexing a muscle you’ve never used before.

InteraXon’s interface works by turning brainwaves into binary (ones and zeros). We’re like interpreters fluent in the language of the mind: our system analyses the frequency of your brainwaves and then translates them into a control signal for the computer to understand.

Just like a button or switch can activate whatever it’s connected to, your translated brainwaves can now control anything electric. InteraXon designers and engineers make the experience so seamless, the connected technology seems like an extension of your own body.

It would be nice to have found a little more technical detail.

InteraXon is currently featuring its work at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver (Canada) as an example of past work,

When visitors arrive at Bright Ideas, InteraXon’s thought-controlled computing experience custom designed and built for the 2010 Olympics, they are lead to their own pod. In front of each pod is a large projection screen as well as a small training screen. Once seated, a trained host hands them a headset that will measure their brain’s electrical signals.

With help from the host, the participants learn to deliberately alter their brainwaves. By focusing or relaxing their mind, they learn to change the display on their training screen; music and seat vibrations provide immediate feedback to speed the learning process to five minutes or less. Now they are ready for the main event.

Thoughts are turned into light patterns instantaneously as their brain’s digital signal is beamed over the Rocky Mountains, across vast prairies all the way to three major Ontario icons – a distance of 3000 km.

This project – a first at this grand scale – allows each participant to experience a very personal connection with these massive Ontario landmarks, and with every Canadian watching the lightshow, whether online, or in-person.

As for Muse, InteraXon’s latest project, the company has a campaign on Indiegogo to raise money. Here’s the video on the campaign website,

They seem very excited about it all, don’t they? The question that arises is whether or not you actually need a device to let you know when you’re concentrating or when your thoughts are wandering.  Apparently, the answer is yes. The campaign has raised over $240,000 (they asked for $150,000) and it’s open until Dec. 7, 2012.  If you go today, you will find that in addition to the other pledge inducements there’s a special ParisLeWeb $149 pledge for one day only (Dec. 5, 2012). Here’s where you go.

The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s Spark radio programme featured an interview (either in Nov. or Dec. 2012) with Ariel Garten, Chief Executive Office of InteraXon discussing her company’s work. You can find podcast no. 197 here (it is approximately 55 mins. and there are other interviews bundled with Garten’s). Thanks to Richard Boyer for the tip about the Spark interview.

I have mentioned brain-computer interfaces previously. There’s the Brain-controlled robotic arm means drinking coffee by yourself for the first time in 15 years May 17, 2012 posting and the Advertising for the 21st Century: B-Reel, ‘storytelling’, and mind control Oct. 6, 2011 posting amongst others.

Plans to spend more on Canadian R&D in 2011

The Dec. 9, 2011 news item on CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) News provides a hint of relief in what has become a rather dismal performance in industrial R&D spending. Canadian companies planned to spend more on R&D in 2011 than they had for years. From the news item,

Research and development spending by industry is expected to increase in 2011 — the first time in four years that has happened in Canada.

“The 2011 industrial R&D spending intentions suggest that recovery is underway after three consecutive years of declining R&D spending that occurred across almost all industrial sectors,” said a Statistics Canada report Friday.

If you look at the CBC’s news item today (Dec. 12, 2011), you’ll see this correction,

Canada’s R & D spending-to-GDP ratio in 2009 fell to the level it was in 1994, not 2004 as originally reported.

If I understand things correctly, there was a precipitous fall in 2009 and now in 2011, we’re enjoying a modest increase in plans for R&D spending.

From the Statistics Canada Daily, Dec. 9, 2011 issue,

2011 (intentions)

Businesses in Canada anticipated spending just over $15.6 billion on industrial research and development (R&D) in 2011, up 5.0% from 2010.

Almost half (49%) of this industrial R&D spending is anticipated to be spent in the manufacturing sector ($7.7 billion), an 8.0% increase from 2010. In 2011, about 43% of industrial R&D is anticipated to be spent in the services sector ($6.8 billion), up 3.1% from the previous year. The remaining 8% of R&D spending is anticipated to be spent in primary industries, utilities and construction.

The 2011 industrial R&D spending intentions suggest that recovery is underway after three consecutive years of declining R&D spending that occurred across almost all industrial sectors. However, total R&D spending intentions are still below the $16.8 billion spent in 2007. [emphasis mine]

You can read the bulletin and article,

The article, “Industrial research and development, 2007 to 2011,” is now available in the service bulletin Science Statistics, Vol. 35, no. 4 (88-001-X, free), from the Key resource module of our website under Publications.

Having seen some very questionable definitions of R&D, I checked one of the descriptions that Statistics Canada used, from the Data quality, concepts and methodology: Data quality, concepts and methodology page,

Generally speaking, industrial R&D is intended to result in an invention which may subsequently become a technological innovation. An essential requirement is that the outcome of the work is uncertain, i.e., that the possibility of obtaining a given technical objective cannot be known in advance on the basis of current knowledge or experience. Hence much of the work done by scientists and engineers is not R&D, since they are primarily engaged in “routine” production, engineering, quality control or testing. Although they apply scientific or engineering principles their work is not directed towards the discovery of new knowledge or the development of new products and processes. However, work elements which are not considered R&D by themselves but which directly support R&D projects, should be included with R&D in these cases. Examples of such work elements are design and engineering, shop work, computer programming, and secretarial work.

If the primary objective is to make further technical improvements to the product or process, then the work comes within the definition of R&D. If however, the product, process or approach is substantially set and the primary objective is to develop markets, to do pre-production planning or to get a production or control system working smoothly, then the activity can no longer be considered as part of R&D even though it could be regarded as an important part of the total innovation process. Thus, the design, construction and testing of prototypes, models and pilot plants are part of R&D. But, when necessary modifications have been made and testing has been satisfactorily completed, the boundary of R&D has been reached. Hence, the costs of tooling (design and try-out), construction drawings and manufacturing blueprints, and production start-up are not included in development costs.

Pilot plants may be included in development only if the main purpose is to acquire experience and compile data. As soon as they begin operating as normal production units, their costs can no longer be attributed to R&D. Similarly, once the original prototype has been found satisfactory, the cost of other “prototypes” built to meet a special need or fill a very small order are not to be considered as part of R&D.

Here’s what they specifically will not include,

Research and development should be considered to be “Scientific Research and Experimental Development” as defined in Section 37, Regulation 2900 of the Income Tax Act; this section specifically excludes the following:

  1. market research, sales promotion,
  2. quality control or routine analysis and testing of materials, devices or products,
  3. research in the social sciences or the humanities,
  4. prospecting, exploring or drilling for or producing minerals, petroleum or natural gas,
  5. the commercial production of a new or improved material, device or product or the commercial use of a new or improved process,
  6. style changes, or routine data collection

My fingers are crossed that these good intentions became reality.

Grey water and a short story from a GG winner

I mentioned Kate Pullinger when she won Canada’s 2009 Governor General’s (GG) award for fiction (Nov. 20, 2009 posting) and it seems a GG winner never gets to rest on her laurels. Last summer she was asked to write a short story celebrating the 75th anniversary of the GG awards. From the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s (CBC) Canada Writes web space (from the Nov. 24, 2011 posting about Kate Pullinger’s story, Grey Water Lady),

Last summer, to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the Governor General’s Awards and the CBC, we asked ten GG-winning authors write a story about winter.

Kate Pullinger tells the story of a jet-lagged and heartbroken waste-water specialist who seeks to inject some colour back in her life.

Here’s a brief excerpt from Kate’s story,

Domestic grey water – the recycling of waste water from the bath, sink, shower, washing machine, etc – had become her area of expertise almost by default. In the industry she was known as Grey Water Lady. Fondly.  But still. She’d been flown over by the government to have a look at Melbourne’s controversial desalination plant project, but as soon as she got off the plane she realised the clothes she’d packed were completely inappropriate and that she’d have to wear everything in her suitcase all at the same time in order to stay warm.

In addition to writing a story, Kate was asked to do something else,

We asked Kate to recommend a writer who she thinks is not as well known as they deserve to be. Come back on Tuesday [Nov. 29, 2011] to find out who she has chosen as her writer to watch.

As for Canada Writes, here’s more from the About Us page,

Canada Writes is Canada’s home for original writing of all kinds, including the CBC Literary Prizes. It’s a meeting place for writers- a place where you come to showcase your work through an ongoing series of writing challenges and competitions, and a resource to help you connect with other writers across the country. We also feature original stories from writers across the country, editorials, writing news and recommendations and writing workshops.

It is also home to the CBC Short Story Prize, the CBC Poetry Prize and the CBC Creative Nonfiction Prize.

Kate now lives in the UK but was born in British Columbia and grew up on Vancouver Island.

Nature of Things’ series: The Nano Revolution (Episode 3); Will Nano Save the Planet?

I’m never thrilled with titles of this ilk, Will Nano Save the Planet? Refreshingly, this episode featured some work being done by Canadian scientists (two of them) although the average Canadian could be forgiven for thinking that it’s the only nanotechnology research taking place in Canada.

It’s a little puzzling that they chose this final episode for a description of the term nanoscale. David Suzuki, the host, mentioned the ridges of skin on your fingers and noted that a nanoparticle is 80,000 times smaller than the distance between the ridges. (If you want a really good description of scale, I recommend listening to Professor Ravi Silva’s audio interview with Alok Jha on the (UK) Guardian’s Oct. 14, 2011 Science Weekly podcast.)

In general, I found the descriptions of the science in this episode were not of the same standard as the previous two, which were very good.

The vignettes, as always, were problematic largely since they were internal monologues of some character who’s grappling with ethical issues and other social impacts of these technologies. Interestingly, men starred in the vignettes where the ‘big’ issues are covered: ethics of health care; longer life; access to energy sources; pollution from nanotechnology-enabled products; etc. The woman who starred in the vignettes from episode one (as I noted in my review) was concerned with cleanliness, tidiness, shopping, and privacy. I guess things don’t change that much in our future, especially in 2050 where nanotechnology protestors are putting up banners, spraypainting, and leafletting (almost as if it were 1968) to express their opposition (in episode three).

There was some interesting work being covered. They profiled Professor Ted Sargent, based at the University of Toronto, who’s doing some exciting work with solar cells (he wants to make them flexible and, even, paintable). His latest breakthrough is mentioned in my Sept. 20, 2011 posting.

Professor Vicki Colvin, Rice University in Texas, is working to purify water. The project is in Mexico and highlights the difficulties when water supplies are contaminated, in this case, with arsenic. (Here in the Pacific Northwest we tend to forget that access to fresh clean water is not easy in many parts of the world.) Colvin and her colleagues are working on a simple solution that can be implemented with some sand, gravel, a tube, and active nanoparticles. (Her work with the Environmental Nanoscience Initiative; a UK/US collaboration was mentioned in my Jan. 28, 2011 posting.)

The third project was focussed on soil remediation and a team from the University of Western Ontario headed by Professor Dennis O’Carroll. I have not come across O’Carroll’s work previously so this was a find for me. As you may or may not know, there are many sites with contaminated soil throughout North America and elsewhere. If successful, O’Carroll’s technique promises to remediate (rehabiltate) the soil without having to move massive amounts of soil and use big  equipment.

This episode featured more discussion about the risks and uncertainties associated with nanotechnology and its use. Unfortunately, I did not recognize the names and (one of my major pet peeves with this series) they either didn’t write out the names on screen or they flashed them briefly which meant that unless I recognized the names it was difficult to find out more about the experts.

I did recognize the mesocosm project at Duke University, which was featured here in my August 15, 2011 posting. The researchers are trying to understand what impact silver nanoparticles have on life. They spray silver nanoparticles in various mesocosms (they look like raised plant beds) and then track what happens to the plant, the soil, and the water supply as the silver nanoparticles cycle through.

There’s work in the UK examining air and the nanoparticles released through the use of internal combustion engines (cars/trucks) as well as our newly engineered nanoparticles. I’m glad to see this material in the episode, perhaps it will finally motivate some public discussion in Canada.

Nature of Things’ The Nano Revolution part 2: More than Human

More than Human (the episode can be seen here), part of 2 of a special Nature of Things series, The Nano Revolution, was aired by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation on Oct. 20, 2011; one might be forgiven for thinking this episode concerned robots but that wasn’t the case.  The focus was on nanomedicine, specifically cancer and aging, along with a few scenarios hinting at social impacts of the ‘new’ medicine.

This episode, like the last one (Welcome to Nano City), presents the science in an understandable fashion without overexplaining basic concepts. A skill I much appreciate since watching a video of an engineer explain at length that the eye has a cornea and a retina to an audience of adults who were attending a talk about retinal implants.

More coherent than the first one, (Welcome to Nano City reviewed in my Oct. 17, 2011 posting), which featured three topics (one was totally unrelated to any city) both episodes,  convey excitement about the possibilities being suggested by nanotechnology.

As for this episode, More than human, it certainly told a compelling story of a future where there will be no cancer (or it will be easily treated if it does occur) and we won’t age as we can make perfect tissues to replace whatever has been broken. There were also hints of a few social issues as illustrated by future oriented vignettes interspersed through the programme.

I want to c0mmend the script writer for pulling together a story using disparate materials and videos (which I’m guessing are being repurposed, i.e., created for broadcast elsewhere and reused here). Given the broad range of nanomedicine research worldwide, this was a very difficult job.

Featured at some length was Dr. Chad Mirkin at Northwestern University. Here’s a description from Mirkin’s profile page on the Mirkin Group webspace,

Professor Mirkin is a chemist and a world renowned nanoscience expert, who is known for his development of nanoparticle-based biodetection schemes, the invention of Dip-Pen Nanolithography, and contributions to supramolecular chemistry, nanoelectronics, and nanooptics. [emphasis mine] He is the author of over 430 manuscripts and over 370 patents and applications, and the founder of three companies, Nanosphere, NanoInk, and Aurasense which are commercializing nanotechnology applications in the life science and semiconductor industries. Currently, he is listed as the most cited (based on total citations) chemist in the world with the second highest impact factor and the top most cited nanomedicine researcher in the world. At present, he is a member of President Obama’s Council of Advisors for Science and Technology.

Mirkin talked extensively about his work on biomarker sensing and its applications for diagnostic procedures that cut laboratory testing down from weeks to hours. This new equipment arising from Mirkin’s work is installed in some US hospital laboratories.

Dr. Silvano Dragonieri of Leiden University in The Netherlands discussed his e-nose technology which offers another approach to diagnostics. Here’s a description of Dragonieri’s (and another team’s) work in this area from an April 27, 2009 news item on physorg.com,

In 2006 researchers established that dogs could detect cancer by sniffing the exhaled breath of cancer patients. Now, using nanoscale arrays of detectors, two groups of investigators have shown that a compact mechanical device also can sniff out lung cancer in humans.

Hossam Haick, Ph.D., and his colleagues at the Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa, used a network of 10 sets of chemically modified carbon nanotubes to create a multicomponent sensor capable of discriminating between a healthy breath and one characteristic of lung cancer patients. This work appears in the journal Nano News. Meanwhile, Silvano Dragonieri, M.D., University of Bari, Italy, and his colleagues used a commercial nanoarray-based electronic “nose” to discriminate between the breath of patients with non-small cell lung cancer and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). These results appear in the journal Lung Cancer. [emphasis mine]

Nanomedicine is fascinating, which is why it’s easy to lose perspective. Thankfully there was Dr. Philip Kantoff  (also very enthused and a major figure in this area) to provide the voice of reason. Here’s more are about Kantoff from the profile page on the WEBMD website,

Dr. Kantoff has published more than 100 research articles on a variety of topics, including the molecular basis of genitourinary cancers and improved treatments for patients afflicted with prostate cancer, kidney cancer, bladder cancer, and testicular cancer. His laboratory research involves understanding the genetics of prostate cancer. His clinical research involves clinical trials of novel therapeutic treatments for the genitourinary cancers. He teaches at Harvard Medical School, and lectures internationally to both medical and lay audiences. Dr. Kantoff has written nearly 100 reviews and monographs on cancer and has edited numerous books, including Prostate Cancer, A Multi-Disciplinary Guide published by Blackwell, and Prostate Cancer: Principles and Practice, a definitive text on prostate cancer, published in December 2001 by Lippincott Williams & Wilkins. He has also written a popular book, Prostate Cancer, a Family Consultation, published by Houghton Mifflin.

As Kantoff counsels against over-hyping he notes that much of the work in the area of nanomedicine is in the laboratory; there are still animal trials and human clinical trials to be convened for further testing.

Building on Kantoff’s observations: let’s consider the difference between research and clinical practice. Even after the human clinical trials have taken place, there’s still uncertainty about how this new procedure or medication, no matter how personalized, will affect an individual. Would aspirin be available over-the-counter today if we’d known all of the side effects which many people suffer from? No, not a chance. How long did it take to find out that aspirin was a problem? Several years.

The idea that this new ‘personalized’ medicine that Mirkin refers to will provide a perfect solution to any disease is based on the belief that we understand disease processes. We do not. Yes, we’ve catalogued any number of genomes, etc. but at least one question remains. Why do some people who have one or more biomarker for a disease never experience it while others with fewer biomarkers do?

While that question wasn’t raised in the episode I was impressed with the fact that they did mention patent issues (innovation and, in this care, care can be stifled by patents and this seems to be increasingly the case); some larger philosophical issues, just how long do you want to live?, and who gets to enjoy these new benefits (if  such they be)?

I do have a few quibbles, there was no Canadian content other than David Suzuki reading a script as narration for the episode (this was true of the first episode too). The title, More than human, suggests not just robots but human enhancement too and that topic was barely discussed.

In future, I’d like to suggest a little more humility in programmes about nanotechnology. I found the constant references to ‘controlling’ atoms, matter, disease, etc. to be disconcerting. As far as I’m concerned, we don’t control an atom, we try to understand it and based on that understanding find better ways to exist in this universe.