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The Canadian science scene and the 2017 Canadian federal budget

There’s not much happening in the 2017-18 budget in terms of new spending according to Paul Wells’ March 22, 2017 article for TheStar.com,

This is the 22nd or 23rd federal budget I’ve covered. And I’ve never seen the like of the one Bill Morneau introduced on Wednesday [March 22, 2017].

Not even in the last days of the Harper Conservatives did a budget provide for so little new spending — $1.3 billion in the current budget year, total, in all fields of government. That’s a little less than half of one per cent of all federal program spending for this year.

But times are tight. The future is a place where we can dream. So the dollars flow more freely in later years. In 2021-22, the budget’s fifth planning year, new spending peaks at $8.2 billion. Which will be about 2.4 per cent of all program spending.

He’s not alone in this 2017 federal budget analysis; CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) pundits, Chantal Hébert, Andrew Coyne, and Jennifer Ditchburn said much the same during their ‘At Issue’ segment of the March 22, 2017 broadcast of The National (news).

Before I focus on the science and technology budget, here are some general highlights from the CBC’s March 22, 2017 article on the 2017-18 budget announcement (Note: Links have been removed,

Here are highlights from the 2017 federal budget:

  • Deficit: $28.5 billion, up from $25.4 billion projected in the fall.
  • Trend: Deficits gradually decline over next five years — but still at $18.8 billion in 2021-22.
  • Housing: $11.2 billion over 11 years, already budgeted, will go to a national housing strategy.
  • Child care: $7 billion over 10 years, already budgeted, for new spaces, starting 2018-19.
  • Indigenous: $3.4 billion in new money over five years for infrastructure, health and education.
  • Defence: $8.4 billion in capital spending for equipment pushed forward to 2035.
  • Care givers: New care-giving benefit up to 15 weeks, starting next year.
  • Skills: New agency to research and measure skills development, starting 2018-19.
  • Innovation: $950 million over five years to support business-led “superclusters.”
  • Startups: $400 million over three years for a new venture capital catalyst initiative.
  • AI: $125 million to launch a pan-Canadian Artificial Intelligence Strategy.
  • Coding kids: $50 million over two years for initiatives to teach children to code.
  • Families: Option to extend parental leave up to 18 months.
  • Uber tax: GST to be collected on ride-sharing services.
  • Sin taxes: One cent more on a bottle of wine, five cents on 24 case of beer.
  • Bye-bye: No more Canada Savings Bonds.
  • Transit credit killed: 15 per cent non-refundable public transit tax credit phased out this year.

You can find the entire 2017-18 budget here.

Science and the 2017-18 budget

For anyone interested in the science news, you’ll find most of that in the 2017 budget’s Chapter 1 — Skills, Innovation and Middle Class jobs. As well, Wayne Kondro has written up a précis in his March 22, 2017 article for Science (magazine),

Finance officials, who speak on condition of anonymity during the budget lock-up, indicated the budgets of the granting councils, the main source of operational grants for university researchers, will be “static” until the government can assess recommendations that emerge from an expert panel formed in 2015 and headed by former University of Toronto President David Naylor to review basic science in Canada [highlighted in my June 15, 2016 posting ; $2M has been allocated for the advisor and associated secretariat]. Until then, the officials said, funding for the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) will remain at roughly $848 million, whereas that for the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) will remain at $773 million, and for the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council [SSHRC] at $547 million.

NSERC, though, will receive $8.1 million over 5 years to administer a PromoScience Program that introduces youth, particularly unrepresented groups like Aboriginal people and women, to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics through measures like “space camps and conservation projects.” CIHR, meanwhile, could receive modest amounts from separate plans to identify climate change health risks and to reduce drug and substance abuse, the officials added.

… Canada’s Innovation and Skills Plan, would funnel $600 million over 5 years allocated in 2016, and $112.5 million slated for public transit and green infrastructure, to create Silicon Valley–like “super clusters,” which the budget defined as “dense areas of business activity that contain large and small companies, post-secondary institutions and specialized talent and infrastructure.” …

… The Canadian Institute for Advanced Research will receive $93.7 million [emphasis mine] to “launch a Pan-Canadian Artificial Intelligence Strategy … (to) position Canada as a world-leading destination for companies seeking to invest in artificial intelligence and innovation.”

… Among more specific measures are vows to: Use $87.7 million in previous allocations to the Canada Research Chairs program to create 25 “Canada 150 Research Chairs” honoring the nation’s 150th year of existence, provide $1.5 million per year to support the operations of the office of the as-yet-unappointed national science adviser [see my Dec. 7, 2016 post for information about the job posting, which is now closed]; provide $165.7 million [emphasis mine] over 5 years for the nonprofit organization Mitacs to create roughly 6300 more co-op positions for university students and grads, and provide $60.7 million over five years for new Canadian Space Agency projects, particularly for Canadian participation in the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s next Mars Orbiter Mission.

Kondros was either reading an earlier version of the budget or made an error regarding Mitacs (from the budget in the “A New, Ambitious Approach to Work-Integrated Learning” subsection),

Mitacs has set an ambitious goal of providing 10,000 work-integrated learning placements for Canadian post-secondary students and graduates each year—up from the current level of around 3,750 placements. Budget 2017 proposes to provide $221 million [emphasis mine] over five years, starting in 2017–18, to achieve this goal and provide relevant work experience to Canadian students.

As well, the budget item for the Pan-Canadian Artificial Intelligence Strategy is $125M.

Moving from Kondros’ précis, the budget (in the “Positioning National Research Council Canada Within the Innovation and Skills Plan” subsection) announces support for these specific areas of science,

Stem Cell Research

The Stem Cell Network, established in 2001, is a national not-for-profit organization that helps translate stem cell research into clinical applications, commercial products and public policy. Its research holds great promise, offering the potential for new therapies and medical treatments for respiratory and heart diseases, cancer, diabetes, spinal cord injury, multiple sclerosis, Crohn’s disease, auto-immune disorders and Parkinson’s disease. To support this important work, Budget 2017 proposes to provide the Stem Cell Network with renewed funding of $6 million in 2018–19.

Space Exploration

Canada has a long and proud history as a space-faring nation. As our international partners prepare to chart new missions, Budget 2017 proposes investments that will underscore Canada’s commitment to innovation and leadership in space. Budget 2017 proposes to provide $80.9 million on a cash basis over five years, starting in 2017–18, for new projects through the Canadian Space Agency that will demonstrate and utilize Canadian innovations in space, including in the field of quantum technology as well as for Mars surface observation. The latter project will enable Canada to join the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA’s) next Mars Orbiter Mission.

Quantum Information

The development of new quantum technologies has the potential to transform markets, create new industries and produce leading-edge jobs. The Institute for Quantum Computing is a world-leading Canadian research facility that furthers our understanding of these innovative technologies. Budget 2017 proposes to provide the Institute with renewed funding of $10 million over two years, starting in 2017–18.

Social Innovation

Through community-college partnerships, the Community and College Social Innovation Fund fosters positive social outcomes, such as the integration of vulnerable populations into Canadian communities. Following the success of this pilot program, Budget 2017 proposes to invest $10 million over two years, starting in 2017–18, to continue this work.

International Research Collaborations

The Canadian Institute for Advanced Research (CIFAR) connects Canadian researchers with collaborative research networks led by eminent Canadian and international researchers on topics that touch all humanity. Past collaborations facilitated by CIFAR are credited with fostering Canada’s leadership in artificial intelligence and deep learning. Budget 2017 proposes to provide renewed and enhanced funding of $35 million over five years, starting in 2017–18.

Earlier this week, I highlighted Canada’s strength in the field of regenerative medicine, specifically stem cells in a March 21, 2017 posting. The $6M in the current budget doesn’t look like increased funding but rather a one-year extension. I’m sure they’re happy to receive it  but I imagine it’s a little hard to plan major research projects when you’re not sure how long your funding will last.

As for Canadian leadership in artificial intelligence, that was news to me. Here’s more from the budget,

Canada a Pioneer in Deep Learning in Machines and Brains

CIFAR’s Learning in Machines & Brains program has shaken up the field of artificial intelligence by pioneering a technique called “deep learning,” a computer technique inspired by the human brain and neural networks, which is now routinely used by the likes of Google and Facebook. The program brings together computer scientists, biologists, neuroscientists, psychologists and others, and the result is rich collaborations that have propelled artificial intelligence research forward. The program is co-directed by one of Canada’s foremost experts in artificial intelligence, the Université de Montréal’s Yoshua Bengio, and for his many contributions to the program, the University of Toronto’s Geoffrey Hinton, another Canadian leader in this field, was awarded the title of Distinguished Fellow by CIFAR in 2014.

Meanwhile, from chapter 1 of the budget in the subsection titled “Preparing for the Digital Economy,” there is this provision for children,

Providing educational opportunities for digital skills development to Canadian girls and boys—from kindergarten to grade 12—will give them the head start they need to find and keep good, well-paying, in-demand jobs. To help provide coding and digital skills education to more young Canadians, the Government intends to launch a competitive process through which digital skills training organizations can apply for funding. Budget 2017 proposes to provide $50 million over two years, starting in 2017–18, to support these teaching initiatives.

I wonder if BC Premier Christy Clark is heaving a sigh of relief. At the 2016 #BCTECH Summit, she announced that students in BC would learn to code at school and in newly enhanced coding camp programmes (see my Jan. 19, 2016 posting). Interestingly, there was no mention of additional funding to support her initiative. I guess this money from the federal government comes at a good time as we will have a provincial election later this spring where she can announce the initiative again and, this time, mention there’s money for it.

Attracting brains from afar

Ivan Semeniuk in his March 23, 2017 article (for the Globe and Mail) reads between the lines to analyze the budget’s possible impact on Canadian science,

But a between-the-lines reading of the budget document suggests the government also has another audience in mind: uneasy scientists from the United States and Britain.

The federal government showed its hand at the 2017 #BCTECH Summit. From a March 16, 2017 article by Meera Bains for the CBC news online,

At the B.C. tech summit, Navdeep Bains, Canada’s minister of innovation, said the government will act quickly to fast track work permits to attract highly skilled talent from other countries.

“We’re taking the processing time, which takes months, and reducing it to two weeks for immigration processing for individuals [who] need to come here to help companies grow and scale up,” Bains said.

“So this is a big deal. It’s a game changer.”

That change will happen through the Global Talent Stream, a new program under the federal government’s temporary foreign worker program.  It’s scheduled to begin on June 12, 2017.

U.S. companies are taking notice and a Canadian firm, True North, is offering to help them set up shop.

“What we suggest is that they think about moving their operations, or at least a chunk of their operations, to Vancouver, set up a Canadian subsidiary,” said the company’s founder, Michael Tippett.

“And that subsidiary would be able to house and accommodate those employees.”

Industry experts says while the future is unclear for the tech sector in the U.S., it’s clear high tech in B.C. is gearing up to take advantage.

US business attempts to take advantage of Canada’s relative stability and openness to immigration would seem to be the motive for at least one cross border initiative, the Cascadia Urban Analytics Cooperative. From my Feb. 28, 2017 posting,

There was some big news about the smallest version of the Cascadia region on Thursday, Feb. 23, 2017 when the University of British Columbia (UBC) , the University of Washington (state; UW), and Microsoft announced the launch of the Cascadia Urban Analytics Cooperative. From the joint Feb. 23, 2017 news release (read on the UBC website or read on the UW website),

In an expansion of regional cooperation, the University of British Columbia and the University of Washington today announced the establishment of the Cascadia Urban Analytics Cooperative to use data to help cities and communities address challenges from traffic to homelessness. The largest industry-funded research partnership between UBC and the UW, the collaborative will bring faculty, students and community stakeholders together to solve problems, and is made possible thanks to a $1-million gift from Microsoft.

Today’s announcement follows last September’s [2016] Emerging Cascadia Innovation Corridor Conference in Vancouver, B.C. The forum brought together regional leaders for the first time to identify concrete opportunities for partnerships in education, transportation, university research, human capital and other areas.

A Boston Consulting Group study unveiled at the conference showed the region between Seattle and Vancouver has “high potential to cultivate an innovation corridor” that competes on an international scale, but only if regional leaders work together. The study says that could be possible through sustained collaboration aided by an educated and skilled workforce, a vibrant network of research universities and a dynamic policy environment.

It gets better, it seems Microsoft has been positioning itself for a while if Matt Day’s analysis is correct (from my Feb. 28, 2017 posting),

Matt Day in a Feb. 23, 2017 article for the The Seattle Times provides additional perspective (Note: Links have been removed),

Microsoft’s effort to nudge Seattle and Vancouver, B.C., a bit closer together got an endorsement Thursday [Feb. 23, 2017] from the leading university in each city.

The partnership has its roots in a September [2016] conference in Vancouver organized by Microsoft’s public affairs and lobbying unit [emphasis mine.] That gathering was aimed at tying business, government and educational institutions in Microsoft’s home region in the Seattle area closer to its Canadian neighbor.

Microsoft last year [2016] opened an expanded office in downtown Vancouver with space for 750 employees, an outpost partly designed to draw to the Northwest more engineers than the company can get through the U.S. guest worker system [emphasis mine].

This was all prior to President Trump’s legislative moves in the US, which have at least one Canadian observer a little more gleeful than I’m comfortable with. From a March 21, 2017 article by Susan Lum  for CBC News online,

U.S. President Donald Trump’s efforts to limit travel into his country while simultaneously cutting money from science-based programs provides an opportunity for Canada’s science sector, says a leading Canadian researcher.

“This is Canada’s moment. I think it’s a time we should be bold,” said Alan Bernstein, president of CIFAR [which on March 22, 2017 was awarded $125M to launch the Pan Canada Artificial Intelligence Strategy in the Canadian federal budget announcement], a global research network that funds hundreds of scientists in 16 countries.

Bernstein believes there are many reasons why Canada has become increasingly attractive to scientists around the world, including the political climate in the United States and the Trump administration’s travel bans.

Thankfully, Bernstein calms down a bit,

“It used to be if you were a bright young person anywhere in the world, you would want to go to Harvard or Berkeley or Stanford, or what have you. Now I think you should give pause to that,” he said. “We have pretty good universities here [emphasis mine]. We speak English. We’re a welcoming society for immigrants.”​

Bernstein cautions that Canada should not be seen to be poaching scientists from the United States — but there is an opportunity.

“It’s as if we’ve been in a choir of an opera in the back of the stage and all of a sudden the stars all left the stage. And the audience is expecting us to sing an aria. So we should sing,” Bernstein said.

Bernstein said the federal government, with this week’s so-called innovation budget, can help Canada hit the right notes.

“Innovation is built on fundamental science, so I’m looking to see if the government is willing to support, in a big way, fundamental science in the country.”

Pretty good universities, eh? Thank you, Dr. Bernstein, for keeping some of the boosterism in check. Let’s leave the chest thumping to President Trump and his cronies.

Ivan Semeniuk’s March 23, 2017 article (for the Globe and Mail) provides more details about the situation in the US and in Britain,

Last week, Donald Trump’s first budget request made clear the U.S. President would significantly reduce or entirely eliminate research funding in areas such as climate science and renewable energy if permitted by Congress. Even the National Institutes of Health, which spearheads medical research in the United States and is historically supported across party lines, was unexpectedly targeted for a $6-billion (U.S.) cut that the White House said could be achieved through “efficiencies.”

In Britain, a recent survey found that 42 per cent of academics were considering leaving the country over worries about a less welcoming environment and the loss of research money that a split with the European Union is expected to bring.

In contrast, Canada’s upbeat language about science in the budget makes a not-so-subtle pitch for diversity and talent from abroad, including $117.6-million to establish 25 research chairs with the aim of attracting “top-tier international scholars.”

For good measure, the budget also includes funding for science promotion and $2-million annually for Canada’s yet-to-be-hired Chief Science Advisor, whose duties will include ensuring that government researchers can speak freely about their work.

“What we’ve been hearing over the last few months is that Canada is seen as a beacon, for its openness and for its commitment to science,” said Ms. Duncan [Kirsty Duncan, Minister of Science], who did not refer directly to either the United States or Britain in her comments.

Providing a less optimistic note, Erica Alini in her March 22, 2017 online article for Global News mentions a perennial problem, the Canadian brain drain,

The budget includes a slew of proposed reforms and boosted funding for existing training programs, as well as new skills-development resources for unemployed and underemployed Canadians not covered under current EI-funded programs.

There are initiatives to help women and indigenous people get degrees or training in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (the so-called STEM subjects) and even to teach kids as young as kindergarten-age to code.

But there was no mention of how to make sure Canadians with the right skills remain in Canada, TD’s DePratto {Toronto Dominion Bank} Economics; TD is currently experiencing a scandal {March 13, 2017 Huffington Post news item}] told Global News.

Canada ranks in the middle of the pack compared to other advanced economies when it comes to its share of its graduates in STEM fields, but the U.S. doesn’t shine either, said DePratto [Brian DePratto, senior economist at TD .

The key difference between Canada and the U.S. is the ability to retain domestic talent and attract brains from all over the world, he noted.

To be blunt, there may be some opportunities for Canadian science but it does well to remember (a) US businesses have no particular loyalty to Canada and (b) all it takes is an election to change any perceived advantages to disadvantages.

Digital policy and intellectual property issues

Dubbed by some as the ‘innovation’ budget (official title:  Building a Strong Middle Class), there is an attempt to address a longstanding innovation issue (from a March 22, 2017 posting by Michael Geist on his eponymous blog (Note: Links have been removed),

The release of today’s [march 22, 2017] federal budget is expected to include a significant emphasis on innovation, with the government revealing how it plans to spend (or re-allocate) hundreds of millions of dollars that is intended to support innovation. Canada’s dismal innovation record needs attention, but spending our way to a more innovative economy is unlikely to yield the desired results. While Navdeep Bains, the Innovation, Science and Economic Development Minister, has talked for months about the importance of innovation, Toronto Star columnist Paul Wells today delivers a cutting but accurate assessment of those efforts:

“This government is the first with a minister for innovation! He’s Navdeep Bains. He frequently posts photos of his meetings on Twitter, with the hashtag “#innovation.” That’s how you know there is innovation going on. A year and a half after he became the minister for #innovation, it’s not clear what Bains’s plans are. It’s pretty clear that within the government he has less than complete control over #innovation. There’s an advisory council on economic growth, chaired by the McKinsey guru Dominic Barton, which periodically reports to the government urging more #innovation.

There’s a science advisory panel, chaired by former University of Toronto president David Naylor, that delivered a report to Science Minister Kirsty Duncan more than three months ago. That report has vanished. One presumes that’s because it offered some advice. Whatever Bains proposes, it will have company.”

Wells is right. Bains has been very visible with plenty of meetings and public photo shoots but no obvious innovation policy direction. This represents a missed opportunity since Bains has plenty of policy tools at his disposal that could advance Canada’s innovation framework without focusing on government spending.

For example, Canada’s communications system – wireless and broadband Internet access – falls directly within his portfolio and is crucial for both business and consumers. Yet Bains has been largely missing in action on the file. He gave approval for the Bell – MTS merger that virtually everyone concedes will increase prices in the province and make the communications market less competitive. There are potential policy measures that could bring new competitors into the market (MVNOs [mobile virtual network operators] and municipal broadband) and that could make it easier for consumers to switch providers (ban on unlocking devices). Some of this falls to the CRTC, but government direction and emphasis would make a difference.

Even more troubling has been his near total invisibility on issues relating to new fees or taxes on Internet access and digital services. Canadian Heritage Minister Mélanie Joly has taken control of the issue with the possibility that Canadians could face increased costs for their Internet access or digital services through mandatory fees to contribute to Canadian content.  Leaving aside the policy objections to such an approach (reducing affordable access and the fact that foreign sources now contribute more toward Canadian English language TV production than Canadian broadcasters and distributors), Internet access and e-commerce are supposed to be Bains’ issue and they have a direct connection to the innovation file. How is it possible for the Innovation, Science and Economic Development Minister to have remained silent for months on the issue?

Bains has been largely missing on trade related innovation issues as well. My Globe and Mail column today focuses on a digital-era NAFTA, pointing to likely U.S. demands on data localization, data transfers, e-commerce rules, and net neutrality.  These are all issues that fall under Bains’ portfolio and will impact investment in Canadian networks and digital services. There are innovation opportunities for Canada here, but Bains has been content to leave the policy issues to others, who will be willing to sacrifice potential gains in those areas.

Intellectual property policy is yet another area that falls directly under Bains’ mandate with an obvious link to innovation, but he has done little on the file. Canada won a huge NAFTA victory late last week involving the Canadian patent system, which was challenged by pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly. Why has Bains not promoted the decision as an affirmation of how Canada’s intellectual property rules?

On the copyright front, the government is scheduled to conduct a review of the Copyright Act later this year, but it is not clear whether Bains will take the lead or again cede responsibility to Joly. The Copyright Act is statutorily under the Industry Minister and reform offers the chance to kickstart innovation. …

For anyone who’s not familiar with this area, innovation is often code for commercialization of science and technology research efforts. These days, digital service and access policies and intellectual property policies are all key to research and innovation efforts.

The country that’s most often (except in mainstream Canadian news media) held up as an example of leadership in innovation is Estonia. The Economist profiled the country in a July 31, 2013 article and a July 7, 2016 article on apolitical.co provides and update.

Conclusions

Science monies for the tri-council science funding agencies (NSERC, SSHRC, and CIHR) are more or less flat but there were a number of line items in the federal budget which qualify as science funding. The $221M over five years for Mitacs, the $125M for the Pan-Canadian Artificial Intelligence Strategy, additional funding for the Canada research chairs, and some of the digital funding could also be included as part of the overall haul. This is in line with the former government’s (Stephen Harper’s Conservatives) penchant for keeping the tri-council’s budgets under control while spreading largesse elsewhere (notably the Perimeter Institute, TRIUMF [Canada’s National Laboratory for Particle and Nuclear Physics], and, in the 2015 budget, $243.5-million towards the Thirty Metre Telescope (TMT) — a massive astronomical observatory to be constructed on the summit of Mauna Kea, Hawaii, a $1.5-billion project). This has lead to some hard feelings in the past with regard to ‘big science’ projects getting what some have felt is an undeserved boost in finances while the ‘small fish’ are left scrabbling for the ever-diminishing (due to budget cuts in years past and inflation) pittances available from the tri-council agencies.

Mitacs, which started life as a federally funded Network Centre for Excellence focused on mathematics, has since shifted focus to become an innovation ‘champion’. You can find Mitacs here and you can find the organization’s March 2016 budget submission to the House of Commons Standing Committee on Finance here. At the time, they did not request a specific amount of money; they just asked for more.

The amount Mitacs expects to receive this year is over $40M which represents more than double what they received from the federal government and almost of 1/2 of their total income in the 2015-16 fiscal year according to their 2015-16 annual report (see p. 327 for the Mitacs Statement of Operations to March 31, 2016). In fact, the federal government forked over $39,900,189. in the 2015-16 fiscal year to be their largest supporter while Mitacs’ total income (receipts) was $81,993,390.

It’s a strange thing but too much money, etc. can be as bad as too little. I wish the folks Mitacs nothing but good luck with their windfall.

I don’t see anything in the budget that encourages innovation and investment from the industrial sector in Canada.

Finallyl, innovation is a cultural issue as much as it is a financial issue and having worked with a number of developers and start-up companies, the most popular business model is to develop a successful business that will be acquired by a large enterprise thereby allowing the entrepreneurs to retire before the age of 30 (or 40 at the latest). I don’t see anything from the government acknowledging the problem let alone any attempts to tackle it.

All in all, it was a decent budget with nothing in it to seriously offend anyone.

Oil company sponsorships: Science Museum (London, UK) and Canada’s Museum of Science and Technology

Wonderlab: The Statoil Gallery opened in London’s (UK) Science Museum on Oct. 12, 2016 and it seems there are a couple of controversies. An Oct. 17, 2016 article by Chris Garrard outlines the issues (Note: Links have been removed),

What do you wonder?” That is the question the Science Museum has been asking for many months now, in posters, celebrity videos and in online images. It’s been part of the museum’s strategy to ramp up excitement around its new “Wonderlab” gallery, a space full of interactive science exhibits designed to inspire children. But what many have been wondering is how Statoil, a major oil and gas company with plans to drill up to seven new wells in the Arctic [emphasis mine], was allowed to become the gallery’s title sponsor? Welcome to Wonderlab – the Science Museum’s latest ethical contradiction.

In Australia, Statoil is still considering plans to drill a series of ultra deepwater wells in the Great Australian Bight – an internationally recognised whale sanctuary – despite the decision this week of its strategic partner, BP, to pull out. …

The company’s sponsorship of Wonderlab may look like a generous gesture from outside but in reality, Statoil is buying a social legitimacy it does not deserve – and it is particularly sinister to purchase that legitimacy at the expense of young people who will inherit a world with an unstable climate. This is an attempt to associate the future of science and technology with fossil fuels at a time when society and policy makers have finally accepted that that it is not compatible with a sustainable future and a stable climate. As the impacts of climate change intensify and the world shifts away from fossil fuels, the Science Museum will look ever more out of touch with the words “the Statoil gallery” emblazoned upon its walls.

The Science Museum has previously had sponsorship deals with a range of unethical sponsors, from arms companies such as Airbus, to other fossil fuel companies such as BP and Shell. When Shell’s influence over the Science Museum’s climate science gallery was unearthed last year following Freedom of Information requests, the museum’s director, Ian Blatchford, sought to defend the museum’s engagement with fossil fuel funders. He wrote “When it comes to the major challenges facing our society, from climate change to inspiring the next generation of engineers, we need to be engaging with all the key players including governments, industry and the public, not hiding away in a comfortable ivory tower.”

In reality, Blatchford is the one in the ivory tower – and not just because of the museum’s ties to Statoil. Wonderlab replaces the museum’s Launchpad gallery, a hub of interactive science exhibits designed to engage and inspire children. But unlike its predecessor, Wonderlab comes with an entry charge. Earlier this year, the science communication academic Dr Emily Dawson noted that “charging for the museum’s most popular children’s gallery sends a clear message that science is for some families, but not for all”. Thus Wonderlab represents a science communication mess as well as an ethical one.

While the museum’s decision to offer free school visits will allow some children from disadvantaged backgrounds the opportunity to experience Wonderlab, Dawson argues that “it is not enough to use school visits as a panacea for exclusive practice”. Research recently undertaken by the Wellcome Trust showed that likelihood of visiting a science museum or centre is related to social class. Entry charges are not the only obstacle in the way of public access to science, but perhaps the most symbolic for a major cultural institution – particularly where the primary audience is children.

Garrard does note that museums have challenges, especially when they are dealing with funding cuts as they are at the Science Museum.

The sponsorship issue may sound familiar to Canadians as we had our own controversy in 2012 with Imperial Oil and its sponsorship of the Canada Science and Technology Museum’s show currently named, ‘Let’s Talk Energy‘ still sponsored by Imperial Oil. Here’s more from my June 13, 2012 posting,

They’ve been going hot and heavy at Canada’s national museums in Ottawa this last few months. First, there was a brouhaha over corporate patronage and energy in January 2012 and, again, in April 2012 and now, it’s all about sex. While I’m dying to get started on the sex, this piece is going to follow the chronology.

The CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) website has a Jan. 23, 2012 posting which notes the active role Imperial Oil played in a November 2011  energy exhibit (part of a multi-year, interactive national initiative, Let’s Talk Energy)  at the Canada Science and Technology Museum (from the CBC Jan. 23, 2012 posting),

Imperial Oil, a sponsor of the Museum of Science and Technology’s exhibition “Energy: Power to Choose,” was actively involved in the message presented to the public, according to emails obtained by CBC News.

The Ottawa museum unveiled the exhibition last year despite criticism from environmental groups like the Sierra Club, which questioned why it was partly funded by the Imperial Oil Foundation, which contributed $600,000 over six years.

Apparently, CBC reporters got their hands on some emails where the Imperial Oil Foundation president, Susan Swan, made a number of suggestions,

In an Oct. 3 [2011] interview on CBC Ottawa’s All in a Day, host Alan Neal asked exhibit curator Anna Adamek whose idea it was to include in the exhibit a reference that says oilsands account for one-tenth of one percent of global emissions.

“This fact comes from research reports that are available at the museum, that were commissioned by the museum,” Adamek told Neal.

But earlier emails from Imperial Oil Foundation president Susan Swan obtained by Radio-Canada through an Access to Information request show she had recommended that information be included back in May [2011?].

Swan, who also served as chair of the advisory committee to the project, also asked that information be included that the oilsands are expected to add $1.7 trillion to the Canadian economy over the next 25 years.

Not all of Swan’s requests made it into the final exhibit: in one point, she asked that an illustration for Polar Oil and Gas Reserves be changed from red to blue, arguing red “has a negative connotation” bringing to mind “blood oil.” The change was not made.

Personally, I love Swan’s semiotic analysis of the colour ‘red’. I wonder how many graphic designers have been driven mad by someone who sat through a lecture or part of a television programme on colour and/or semiotics and is now an expert.

If you’re curious, you can see the emails from the Imperial Oil Foundation in the CBC Jan. 23, 2012 posting.

A few months later, Barrick Gold (a mining corporation) donated $1M to have a room at the Canadian Museum of Nature renamed, from the April 24, 2012 posting on the CBC website,

Environmental groups are upset over a decision to rename a room at the Canadian Museum of Nature after corporate mining giant Barrick Gold.

Barrick Gold Corp., based out of Toronto, purchased the room’s naming rights for about $1 million. The new “Barrick Salon” is the museum’s premier rental space featuring a circular room with glass windows from floor to ceiling.

The decision had activists protest at the museum Tuesday, a few hours before the official naming reception that includes Barrick Gold executives.

“It’s definitely not a partnership, it’s a sponsorship,” said Elizabeth McCrea, the museum’s director of communications. “We’re always looking at increasing self-generated revenue and this is one way that we’re doing it.” [emphasis mine]

Monarchs and wealthy people have been funding and attempting to influence cultural institutions for millenia. These days, we get to include corporations on that list but it’s nothing new. People or institutions with power and money always want history or facts * presented in ways that further or flatter their interests (“history is written by the victors”). They aren’t always successful but they will keep trying.

It’s hard to be high-minded when you need money but it doesn’t mean you should give up on the effort.

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.

Contact

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.

2015 Canadian federal election and science: Science panel on CBC Radio, NDP platform, Maclean’s policy poll, and a Science Integrity Project

Election 2015 science panel

It took them long enough. After weeks of waiting,(my last plea was in a Sept.18, 2015 posting; scroll down about 50% of the way) the folks at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s Quirks and Quarks radio programme have finally announced that there will be an election 2015 science panel show featuring representatives from Canada’s political parties. Here’s the tweet,

Game on! We’re recording our all-party election science panel next week, with all the major parties participating. Details to folo

This is pretty fresh news (fours ago means it was announced about 6:15 am PST (9:15 am EST where Quirks & Quarks is recorded). As for the details, they still have yet to follow.

NDP (New Democrat Party) science platform for 2015 federal election

Yesterday (Sept. 30, 2015), I received news from Kennedy Stewart’s, science shadow minister, team (that the New Democrat Party has announced a science platform for the 2015 election along with a plea for money. This news about the platform is a stunning turnaround for the NDP who largely ignored science in their 2011 campaign and whose previous shadow science minister, Jim Malloway. had an insurance agency and, apparently, no interest in science. However, Kennedy Stewart who has since taken on that portfolio and been very active seemed cautiously optimistic when I saw him at the Trottier Observatory opening at Simon Fraser University as noted in my April 17, 2015 posting. It looks like he was successful beyond his wildest dreams (amazing what a dip in the polls can do when your party has been almost leading for weeks in a tight three-way race).

Here’s more about the platform from Kennedy Stewart’s website, NDP Science Platform page,

NDP Science Platform Details

Restore the voice of scientists in Canada

We will create a Scientific Advisory Council to the Prime Minister headed by a Chief Science Advisor to ensure that our government always has access to the best possible scientific advice from experts in all fields.
We will establish the Office of the Parliamentary Science Officer as per Bill C-558 to ensure that parliamentarians have the best possible access to science-based analysis.
We will immediately move to restore the mandatory long-form census and provide the necessary funding to ensure it can be included in the 2016 census.
We will put an end to the Conservatives’ policy of muzzling scientists and ensure that Canada’s leading experts are freely available to speak to the media and to publish their findings. We will implement the NDP’s comprehensive plan to promote the voice of scientist’s in Ottawa as laid out in M-453 to promote scientific integrity.
We will work to re-establish scientific capacity in government departments, including Environment Canada and the Department of Fisheries and Oceans.

Support Canada’s world-class researchers

We will restore the independence of Canada’s granting agencies and respect their status as arm’s length government agencies to ensure the best research gets funded.
We will maintain the Canada First Research Excellence Fund to help Canadian universities compete globally.
We will support researchers in post-secondary education institutions – including universities, colleges and polytechnics – with a total investment of $105 million in new funds over five years. We will make sure that government policy supports both our leading research institutions and values the role that smaller colleges and universities play in communities across Canada.
Ensure a balanced approach to science and technology policy. We will undertake a transparent and inclusive review of Canada’s science and technology strategy to ensure that all voices are heard.
We will make government data open and available by default, in a useable format to assist researchers and businesses across Canada.

Maclean’s: a surprising result from their 2015 election policy poll

Amanda Shendruk in a Sept. 23, 2015 posting for Maclean’s magazine notes some unexpected (to the unobservant) results in their informal online poll about policy (Note: Links have been removed),

Maclean’s readers are overwhelmingly in favour of a policy that would put an end to Ottawa’s well-trod path of data destruction and scientist silencing. A month ago, we published the Policy Face-Off Machine, an online tool that pits two policies against each other at random, asking you to choose which you prefer. The catch? The parties pitching the policies aren’t identified when you’re making the pick. Well, we’ve been keeping track of these policy votes and, with more than 100,000 visitors already, we’ve got a great pile of data on what proposals Canadians prefer. With some surprise, we’ve discovered that Canadians really want government-funded science made available to the public. In fact, that Green- and Liberal-backed policy was chosen over other policies three out of four times, and is the tool’s most-picked policy to date.

There’s more including a graph of the results in Shendruk’s posting.

Science integrity

John Dupuis of the Confessions of a Science Librarian blog loosely links science integrity and the 2015 federal election in his Sept. 30, 2015 posting about a new project (Note: Links have been removed),

Though not explicitly tied to our current federal election campaign, the début this week of the Science Integrity Project and the publishing of their Statement of Principles for Sound Decision Making in Canada just as the campaign heats up is surely not coincidental.

There are excerpts from the site in Dupuis’ posting which I have eschewed (why repeat work that has been done, i.e., summarizing the information) in favour of material from the Science Integrity Project website’s Background page (Note: Links have been removed),

Background

Canada has a history of initiatives aimed at ensuring the effective use of science and technological advice in government decision-making. “Backgrounder: The Evolving Context of Science Integrity in Canada” provides an overview of past efforts, highlighting good practices for science advice. *
In this background document, we focus primarily on the historical relationship between science (as defined here) and policy making in Canada. In the accompanying “Science Integrity Project: Synthesis of Pre-Forum Interviews”, we address the history and use of both science and indigenous knowledge in policy making.

To establish the scope and nature of issues involved with the effective and consistent use of the best available evidence, the Science Integrity Project began with a series of interviews with scientists, indigenous knowledge holders, and policy makers across Canada. The resulting insights from 30 interviews are summarized in the “Science Integrity Project: Synthesis of Pre-Forum Interviews”.

From February 2-4, 2015, a Forum was held in Toronto with over 60 scientists and public policy analysts, current and past representatives of public and Indigenous governments, philanthropists and representatives of non-government organizations to discuss the status of evidence-based decision-making at every level of government. To inform this discussion, the summary report of interviews was shared with Forum participants. The “Statement of Principles for Sound Decision-making in Canada” and the accompanying illustrative examples are products of the Forum’s work.

Comments

I’d like to see at least four parties at the CBC science panel, the Conservatives, the Liberals, the NDP, and the Greens. I’d really like to see something that goes beyond the “Conservatives are bad because they muzzled scientists and are making data and research unavailable” discussion. Here are some of my questions,

  • What priorities does your party want to set for research in Canada?
  • What role does your party see for Canada’s Science and Technology Museums Corporation?
  • How is your party going to address the impacts from synthetic biology, robotics, nanotechnology and other emerging technologies as they become part of our daily lives?
    • For example, what impact on the economy does your party foresee as artificially intelligent and/or robotic devices come online?
  • Does your party foresee a role for citizen science and what might that role be?
  • Does your party plan on additional science outreach? And, will it stretch itself beyond the current twin and near maniacal obsessions evinced by media and popular culture:  (1) youth already understand science easily and are the only ones who need outreach (BTW, it’s poorly planned and there are big gaps for kids who have grown past the ‘wow’ presentations and don’t plan on being scientists but are still really interested) and (2) old people aren’t important and they’re all sick and draining our resources so why bother teaching them anything?
  • Does your party have a plan to better recognize that social sciences are ‘sciences’ too? And, is there a plan to foster closer cooperation not only with the social sciences but the arts and the humanities?

There are other questions out there. Science Borealis (Canadian blog and blog aggregator) has a Sept. 18, 2015 posting (it’s in the subsection titled: Resources) which aggregates a number of resources including places where you can get ideas for election 2015 science questions.

One final comment, it’s exciting but I hope we keep our heads. There’s a certain pedantic, top-down quality to the discussion and projects such as the Science Integrity Project. For example, in posts such as a Sept. 15, 2015 posting on Science Borealis where the writers discuss Science Borealis’ participation in a discussion with the Canada Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC)  on its new strategic plan which includes a mandate to foster a science culture in Canada. The comments are all top-down as in, “We scientists will tell you (everybody else) what is good science and what science we should have. We are the only arbiters.” It’s an unconscious bias and, by now, everyone should know how that works out.

That said, I’m very enthused about the possibilities and excited about the upcoming radio science debate.

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,

UVic2015electonScienceDebate

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.

Silence of the Labs (exposé) a Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) television event scheduled for January 10, 2014

I’ve perhaps overstated the case by calling the upcoming telecast ‘Silence of the Labs’ an event,. For many people in the Canadian science community, it will be an event but for most of the television audience it’s simply the first new episode of the Fifth Estate’s 2014 schedule. (For anyone unfamiliar with the Fifth Estate, it’s the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s [CBC] longest running, 39th season, and most prestigious investigative journalism television programme.)

Assuming there are some people who haven’t been following this story about the ‘silencing’ of Canada’s scientists or censorship as it has been called, here’s a précis (and if you’ve been following it more closely than I have and note any errors or have any additions, please do use the commenting option (Note: Due to spam issues, I moderate comments so it may take a few hours or more [I don’t usually check the blog on the weekends]  before your comments appear.)

I think my earliest mention of the topic was in 2009 (Sept. 21, 2009; scroll down to the last paragraph). At this point, the Conservative government  had put a ‘muzzle’ on government scientists working for Environment Canada not allowing them to speak directly to media representatives about their work. All questions were to be directed to ministry communications officers. In fact, the muzzle was first discussed in a National Post Jan. 31, 200-8 article by Margaret Munro (which predates this blog’s existence by a few months). In a Sept. 16, 2013 posting, I featured the then recent muzzling of Natural Resources Canada, a story which was first covered by Margaret Munro. My understanding is that Health Canada had also been ‘muzzled’ but that was done earlier by the Liberal government when it was in power.

My colleague, David Bruggemen (Pasco Phronesis blog) disagrees with the contention by many in the Canadian science community that these ‘muzzles’ constitute a form of censorship. In addition to the postings he has made on his blog he also commented on my March 7, 2012 posting (I linked to one of David’s postings on the topic and included an excerpt from it) where I discussed my failure to get answers to questions from an institution located on the University of British Columbia lands and linked it to the ‘muzzle’. In that context,, I mused about censorship.

Since 2012 the focus seems to have shifted from media representatives being able to get direct and uninhibited access to scientists to the public’s right to know and attempts to ‘shut down’ scientific inquiry. In July 2012, there was a rally in Ottawa called Death of Evidence (discussed in both my July 10, 2012 posting and my July 13, 2012 posting followed by a 2013 cross Canada event, Stand up for Science described in my Oct. 4, 2013 posting. As I noted in that posting, most of the science being ‘censored’ or ‘attacked’ is environmental. Institutions such as the Perimeter Institute (theoretical physics)  in Ontario and TRIUMF, Canada’s National Laboratory for Particle and Nuclear Physics in British Columbia have done very well under the Conservative government.

with all that, here’s a preview (51 seconds) of the Silence of the Labs,

You can find out more about the episode here and, if you should miss the telecast, you’ll probably be able to watch later on the Fifth Estate’s CBC  Player webpage. As for the ‘Silence of the Labs” (hat off for the pun), I believe it will be broadcast at 9 pm regardless of timezone on the local CBC channel across most of the country; I assume that as usual Newfoundland will enjoy the telecast at 9:30 pm.

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.