I’m thrilled to see David Bruggeman (Pasco Phronesis blog) make a suggestion about a way to include a science debate during the current Canadian federal election campaign. In his Aug. 16, 2015 posting, David notes his suggestion follows on an opinion piece in the Toronto Star (Note: A link has been removed),
Thanks to Twitter, I read this opinion piece in The Toronto Star advocating for science to be part of the leaders’ debates leading to the October 19  Parliamentary election. Breaking from previous tradition, there will be not two debates (one in English, one in French), but at least six. …
I think the compressed campaign schedule (though it is the longest Canadian campaign in history) will make it difficult to get either a debate exclusively on science questions or science questions into the debates that will be held.
… I would recommend not copying those of us on your southern border concerning science debates. [emphasis mine] Rather I suggest you review our British cousins and adapt your strategy accordingly. Two science questions were part of a UK leaders debate in the 2010 campaign (though it was the one conducted over YouTube and Facebook), but that same campaign saw three cross-party debates at the science ministerial level. [emphases mine] …
I think it manageable to have the science minister and his shadow minister counterparts in the major Canadian parties debate each other.
Interesting idea and I like it! Unfortunately, I’ve never heard of an election debate amongst shadow ministers/critics in the Canadian context, which means there’s nothing to build on. However, the advantage for this particular election campaign is that this is a three horse race (meaning no one party is clearly in the lead) consequently, election organizers for the three parties might be more open to opportunities which might gain some election votes.
As for the opinion piece (Aug. 12, 2015) in the Toronto Star written by Katie Gibbs and Alana Westwood, both from Evidence for Democracy, they outline their reasons for a science debate in Canada’s 2015 federal election,
Canada’s commitment to science, and our scientific capacity, made us an international leader for years. It was Canadian medical researchers who decoded the breast cancer genome, invented medical insulin and have developed a promising Ebola vaccine. Social scientists and statisticians help us understand our changing demographics, guiding decisions on everything from where to build new schools and hospitals to helping businesses make smarter investment choices. Right now, environmental scientists are using their expertise to guide the fight against forest fires in British Columbia and Saskatchewan.
Evidence for Democracy analyzed debate questions in all the televised English-language federal leaders’ debates from 1968 to 2011 (with the exception of 1997, for which we could not find a record) to see which topics were discussed. Unsurprisingly, 32 per cent of all debate questions focused on the economy — taxes, unemployment, trade agreements, etc. Social policies including medicare, child care, and women’s issues covered 25 per cent of the questions. Government accountability and ethics accounted for 20 per cent, with national unity, foreign affairs, and public safety making up most of the rest. Only 2 per cent of debate questions focused on protection of the environment.
Gibbs and Westwood asked this question in the piece,
Given the clear importance of science in our lives, why has a question about science policy never — not once — been asked in a federal leaders’ debate?
It’s a very simple answer, the election organizers don’t believe science debates will attract a large audience allowing them one more chance to hammer their election messages home and, perhaps more importantly, they don’t think a debate will garner any votes.
I expect Gibbs and Westwood know this as they go on to make a compelling case for why a science debate in Canada is important (Note: A link has been removed),
Once a world-leader in scientific research, recent decisions have eroded our science capacity and our international scientific reputation. It’s estimated that up to 5,000 federal scientists have lost their jobs, and over 250 research and monitoring programs and institutions have been closed. Our recently launched website called True North Smart and Free, documents dozens of examples of funding cuts to science, government scientists being silenced and policy decisions that ignore the best available evidence. This is essential public-interest science needed to protect Canadian’s health and safety, from food inspection to monitoring toxic chemicals in water.
Many Canadians, including our scientific community are speaking out. Even beyond our borders, the current government has been widely criticized for its treatment of science. In recent years scientists have stepped out of their labs in large rallies on Parliament Hill and across the country. By the thousands, Canadians have joined with them not only in protest but in a shared commitment to strong public science and evidence-based decision-making. Every major Canadian newspaper, including the Toronto Star, has written high-profile editorials on science. Even international media such as New York Times and the prestigious science journal Nature have commented on the decline in Canadian science and the treatment of our government scientists.
Political parties clearly want to discuss it as well. This last session of parliament saw an unprecedented focus on science policy issues with the NDP, Liberals, and Greens all introducing bills and motions aimed at improving the state of public-interest science in Canada.
I hope this is a successful effort for the 2015 campaign. It’s great to see these efforts building up. In 2011, Adrian J. Ebsary of Peer Review Radio worked tirelessly to bring science into that year’s federal election (my April 25, 2011 posting, April 26, 2011 posting, and April 29, 2011 posting). In Québec, Pascal Lapointe has been working for several years to bring science into election debates both provincially and federally. Assuming you’re comfortable reading in French, you can find Pascal’s Je vote pour la science here. It’s all part of his larger enterprise Agence Science-Presse where he makes sure Québeckers get their science news.
Should you choose to support the notion of a national science debate, I suggest contacting the political parties for Canada’s Minister of State for Science and Technology, Ed Holder (Conservative Party, former insurance broker), Stewart Kennedy (New Democratic Party, academic and political scientist), Ted Hsu (Liberal Party; a physicist by training, he’s not running in the 2015 election but remains the party’s science critic for now), and Lynne Quarmby, (Green Party, biochemist and molecular biologist).
There’s a look you see in people’s eyes when you say ‘science’ or ‘mathematics’ or ‘engineering’ or ‘technology’. It’s not happiness or excitement.
At some point in our schooling, the sciences, mathematics, technology, and engineering became the exclusive property of those who were deemed to be talented in those areas and the rest of us weren’t necessarily treated well by the teachers or ‘talented’ fellow students. Some people are so wounded by the experience they lose any interest or curiosity they might once have had and refuse to engage at all.
The odd thing is that most of us have more experience with science, engineering, and mathematics than we commonly believe.
There are very few people today compared to thirty years ago who don’t more or less understand how a computer operates. Car mechanics typically have to repair very sophisticated mechanical and electronic systems featuring computers and wireless technology. Hairdressers need to know a lot about chemicals and how hair and skin might react to them. And, on it goes.
A sense of superiority seems to be a feature of human nature as if somehow we need to be better than someone else. That sense of superiority is found in many areas, as well as, within the sciences and mathematics and engineering and technology communities. Chemists are superior to engineers who are superior to technologists and all of them are superior to social scientists who return the favour and look down on scientists who they view as having low moral character and having, undeservedly, lots of money (I was in a session at a 2007 conference where that was the gist of the presentation and comments).
In this somewhat balkanized atmosphere it’s good to see people trying to establish a discussion about science, technology, mathematics, and engineering that doesn’t require an advanced degree or discount the comments of an amateur.
There’s a delightful Aug. 5, 2015 posting by John Hinton for the Guardian science blogs that espouses the joy of a ‘scientist pretender’,
I adored science at school. But my coursework assignments bewildered my teachers. Details of experimentations were often accompanied by personal anecdotes and quotes from obscure song lyrics. Irrelevant clip-art was rife. So when I had to pick a path through the labyrinth of life, i.e. select my A-levels, science fell away in favour of subjects where personal anecdoture and obscure lyricalism are paramount.
Despite my enforced rebuttal of science as a professional pursuit, it always retained a very special place in both my brain and bookshelf. Deep down, I wanted to be a scientist. And if you pretend for long enough (it has been suggested by non-scientists), eventually you become the thing you’re pretending to be.
So six or seven years ago, I started pretending to be a scientist. Specifically, I started pretending to be Charles Darwin in my first science-theatre show, THE ORIGIN OF SPECIES … And people were fooled – they came from far and wide to hear me speak, invited me to Australia and Norway and Croatia and Hemel Hempstead. …
Hinton has also pretended to Einstein but I find his latest pretence the most interesting,
Now it’s not easy, we’re told by lots and lots of people, to recruit women into the sciences – and it’s rendered even harder by off-hand remarks made by Nobel laureates. So I started wondering whether I could pull off the ruse of the century and pretend to be a woman scientist, to see if that’d help matters at all.
The scientist I chose was Marie Curie. Like the other two I’d pretended to be, she is the linchpin to a whole branch of science (evolution, relativity and radioactivity respectively). Like the other two, her discoveries have been used both for good (conservation, GPS, radiotherapy) and bad (eugenics, nuclear bombs, radium quackery). And like the other two, I don’t look very much like her.
I’ve already pretended to be Marie Curie in Brighton, where the reception was very positive, and I shall shortly be pretending to be Marie Curie in Edinburgh. And in a few decades’ time, we’ll see whether my efforts have led to a redress of the gender bias (the scientific basis I’ll use to judge my eventual success shall be strictly cum hoc ergo propter hoc, if you know what I mean).
Hinton will be at the 2015 Edinburgh Fringe Festival, so if you should happen to be in the vicinity,
The Element in the Room: a radioactive muscial comedy about the death and life of Marie Curie runs at Edinburgh Fringe’s Pleasance Courtyard, 5-31 August 2015 at 3.30pm, alongside the full trilogy playing in rep.
While this next bit concerns women and science, it still pertains to the main theme of this posting which is that anyone can participate in science/mathematics/technology/engineering, including comedians. David Bruggeman in an Aug. 4, 2015 posting on his Pasco Phronesis blog reveals information about a very interesting new video series (Note: Links have been removed),
Last fall  Megan Amram released Science…For Her!, a science textbook written as though by a women’s magazine writer who knows little about science.
If you couldn’t be bothered to read the whole thing, but still want to dive in, Amram has a solution. She has partnered with Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls on a web series, Experimenting with Megan Amram. (Poehler’s website has a great deal of science, technology, engineering and mathematics – STEM – content worth exploring, not just this series.)
I find it inspiring that comedy writers want to talk about science. You can find Experimenting with Meg Amram here. I understand from David’s posting that this is comedy with some science and the first episode features an interview with Dr. Beverly McKeon, associate director of the Graduate Aerospace Laboratories at the California Institute of Technology (CalTech).
Meg Amram and her book were featured here in a May 25, 2014 posting about the then upcoming book. For anyone unfamiliar with Meg Amram and Amy Poehler you can check out the Internet Movie DataBase (imdb.com) for their various television and movie credits.
SlingShot focuses on Segway inventor Dean Kamen, his fascinating life, and his work to solve the world’s water crisis.
Iconoclast, Kamen, is a modern hero. His inventions, mostly medical devices, help people in need and ease suffering. Several documentaries have been produced about the world’s dire water challenges. SlingShot is a film about an indomitable man who just might have enough passion, will, and innovative thinking to create a solution for a crisis that affects billions.
A quirky genius with a sharp wit and a provocative worldview, Kamen is our era’s Thomas Edison. He takes on the world’s grand challenges one invention at a time. Best known for his Segway Human Transporter, Kamen has reconceived kidney dialysis, engineered an electric wheelchair that can travel up stairs (the iBot), reworked the heart stent, built portable insulin pumps, founded FIRST robotics to inspire young students, and on and on. Holder of over 440 U.S. and foreign patents, Kamen devotes himself to dreaming up products that improve people’s lives. For the last 15 years, he has relentlessly pursued an effective way to clean up the world’s water supply.
Fifty percent of all human illness is the result of water borne pathogens. Dean Kamen has invented an energy efficient vapor compression distiller that can turn any unfit source of water (seawater, poisoned well water, river sludge, etc.) into potable, safe water without any need for chemical additives or filters. Kamen has nicknamed his device the SlingShot as in the David and Goliath story. In Kamen’s imagining, undeveloped countries are filled with little Davids, and just like the biblical slingshot and stone, the SlingShot device is the tiny piece of technology that is going to take down the gigantic Goliath of bad water.
David lists upcoming US screenings of the documentary and speculates as to a possible market for the system in the US. From David’s Aug. 2, 2015 posting,
It’s worth noting that while Kamen’s target markets for the Slingshot device are in the developing world, the drought in the Western United States may generate additional demand for the Slingshot. The water conservation tips on the film’s website are worth following, and perhaps some enterprising (or desperate) local government may try to address its water troubles through judicious use of technology like the Slingshot.
You can check the Slingshot documentary Upcoming webpage for US and international screenings, as well as, a list of screenings stretching back to March 2014. Should you wish to host a screening, there’s the Host a Screening webpage.
Unfortunately, I was not able to find any technical details, additional to those on the About page, regarding Kamen’s vapor compression distiller (Slingshot).
David Bruggeman (Pasco Phronesis blog) has written up, as he so often does, a fascinating art/science piece in his May 28, 2015 post (Note: A link has been removed),
Opening next month [June 2015] at the Dilston Grove Gallery at GDP London is Music of the Spheres, an exhibition that uses bioinformatics to record music. Dr. Nick Goldman of the European Bioinformatics Institute has been working on new technologies for encoding large amounts of information into DNA. Collaborating with Charlotte Jarvis, the two have worked on installations of bubbles that would contain DNA encoded with music (the DNA is suspended in soap solution).
Music of the Spheres utilises new bioinformatics technology developed by Dr. Nick Goldman to encode a new musical recording by the Kreutzer Quartet into DNA.
The DNA has been suspended in soap solution and will be used by visual artist Charlotte Jarvis to create performances and installations filled with bubbles. The recording will fill the air, pop on visitors skin and literally bathe the audience in music.
Dr. Nick Goldman and Charlotte Jarvis have been working together for the past year to create a series of moving visual and musical experiences that explore the scope and future ubiquity of DNA technologies.
The Kreutzer Quartet’s new composition for string quartet loosely follows the traditional form of a concerto, in comprising of three musical movements. The second movement only exists in the form of a recording encoded into DNA.
For the exhibition the DNA will be suspended in soap solution and used to create silent installations filled with bubbles. The bubbles will be accompanied by a video projection showing the musicians playing in the server room of the European Bioinformatics Institute, Cambridge.
In response to the growing challenge of storing vast quantities of biological data generated by biomedical research Dr. Nick Goldman and the European Bioinformatics Institute have developed a method to encode huge amounts of information in DNA itself. Every day the huge quantities and speed of data pouring into servers gets larger. When research groups sequence DNA the file sizes are too large to be kept on local computers. It is this problem that was the motivation for Nick Goldman to develop his new technology. Their goal is a system that will safely store the equivalent of one million CDs in a gram of DNA for 10,000 years. Nick’s work was has been featured in The New York Times, The Guardian and on BBC News amongst other media outlets.
The Kreutzer Quartet will play the full-length composition live during the preview on 12 June  timed with the setting of the sun through the large westerly windows. [emphasis mine] During the passage of the second movement the stage will fall silent, the music will be released into the auditorium in the form of bubbles. The performance will be accompanied by film projection and a discussion about the project.
The exhibit runs from June 12 – July 5, 2015. Hours and location can be found on the CGP website.
The Music of the Spheres DNA/music project was first mentioned here in a May 5, 2014 post about the launch of the book ‘Synthetic Aesthetics: Investigating Synthetic Biology’s Designs on Nature’. The launch featured a number of performances and events, scroll down abut 80% of the way for the then description of Music of the Spheres.
This post is going to feature a human genetic engineering roundup of sorts.
First, the field of human genetic engineering encompasses more than the human genome as this paper (open access until June 5, 2015) notes in the context of a discussion about a specific CRISPR gene editing tool,
Researchers have customized and refined a technique derived from the immune system of bacteria to develop the CRISPR-Cas9 genome engineering system, which enables targeted modifications to the genes of virtually any organism. The discovery and development of CRISPR-Cas9 technology, its wide range of potential applications in the agriculture/food industry and in modern medicine, and emerging regulatory issues are explored in a Review article published in OMICS: A Journal of Integrative Biology, …
“CRISPR-Cas9 Based Genome Engineering: Opportunities in Agri-Food-Nutrition and Healthcare” provides a detailed description of the CRISPR system and its applications in post-genomics biology. Subin Raj, Cheri Kunnumal Rajendran, Dinish Pandey, and Anil Kumar, G.B. Pant University of Agriculture and Technology (Uttarakhand, India) and Yuan-Yeu Yau, Northeastern State University (Broken Arrow, OK) describe the advantages of the RNA-guided Cas9 endonuclease-based technology, including the activity, specificity, and target range of the enzyme. The authors discuss the rapidly expanding uses of the CRISPR system in both basic biological research and product development, such as for crop improvement and the discovery of novel therapeutic agents. The regulatory implications of applying CRISPR-based genome editing to agricultural products is an evolving issue awaiting guidance by international regulatory agencies.
“CRISPR-Cas9 technology has triggered a revolution in genome engineering within living systems,” says OMICS Editor-in-Chief Vural Özdemir, MD, PhD, DABCP. “This article explains the varied applications and potentials of this technology from agriculture to nutrition to medicine.
Intellectual property (patents)
The CRISPR technology has spawned a number of intellectual property (patent) issues as a Dec. 21,2014 post by Glyn Moody on Techdirt stated,
Although not many outside the world of the biological sciences have heard of it yet, the CRISPR gene editing technique may turn out to be one of the most important discoveries of recent years — if patent battles don’t ruin it. Technology Review describes it as:
… an invention that may be the most important new genetic engineering technique since the beginning of the biotechnology age in the 1970s. The CRISPR system, dubbed a “search and replace function” for DNA, lets scientists easily disable genes or change their function by replacing DNA letters. During the last few months, scientists have shown that it’s possible to use CRISPR to rid mice of muscular dystrophy, cure them of a rare liver disease, make human cells immune to HIV, and genetically modify monkeys.
Unfortunately, rivalry between scientists claiming the credit for key parts of CRISPR threatens to spill over into patent litigation:
[A researcher at the MIT-Harvard Broad Institute, Feng] Zhang cofounded Editas Medicine, and this week the startup announced that it had licensed his patent from the Broad Institute. But Editas doesn’t have CRISPR sewn up. That’s because [Jennifer] Doudna, a structural biologist at the University of California, Berkeley, was a cofounder of Editas, too. And since Zhang’s patent came out, she’s broken off with the company, and her intellectual property — in the form of her own pending patent — has been licensed to Intellia, a competing startup unveiled only last month. Making matters still more complicated, [another CRISPR researcher, Emmanuelle] Charpentier sold her own rights in the same patent application to CRISPR Therapeutics.
Things are moving quickly on the patent front, not least because the Broad Institute paid extra to speed up its application, conscious of the high stakes at play here:
Along with the patent came more than 1,000 pages of documents. According to Zhang, Doudna’s predictions in her own earlier patent application that her discovery would work in humans was “mere conjecture” and that, instead, he was the first to show it, in a separate and “surprising” act of invention.
The patent documents have caused consternation. The scientific literature shows that several scientists managed to get CRISPR to work in human cells. In fact, its easy reproducibility in different organisms is the technology’s most exciting hallmark. That would suggest that, in patent terms, it was “obvious” that CRISPR would work in human cells, and that Zhang’s invention might not be worthy of its own patent.
Ethical and moral issues
The CRISPR technology has reignited a discussion about ethical and moral issues of human genetic engineering some of which is reviewed in an April 7, 2015 posting about a moratorium by Sheila Jasanoff, J. Benjamin Hurlbut and Krishanu Saha for the Guardian science blogs (Note: A link has been removed),
On April 3, 2015, a group of prominent biologists and ethicists writing in Science called for a moratorium on germline gene engineering; modifications to the human genome that will be passed on to future generations. The moratorium would apply to a technology called CRISPR/Cas9, which enables the removal of undesirable genes, insertion of desirable ones, and the broad recoding of nearly any DNA sequence.
Such modifications could affect every cell in an adult human being, including germ cells, and therefore be passed down through the generations. Many organisms across the range of biological complexity have already been edited in this way to generate designer bacteria, plants and primates. There is little reason to believe the same could not be done with human eggs, sperm and embryos. Now that the technology to engineer human germlines is here, the advocates for a moratorium declared, it is time to chart a prudent path forward. They recommend four actions: a hold on clinical applications; creation of expert forums; transparent research; and a globally representative group to recommend policy approaches.
The authors go on to review precedents and reasons for the moratorium while suggesting we need better ways for citizens to engage with and debate these issues,
An effective moratorium must be grounded in the principle that the power to modify the human genome demands serious engagement not only from scientists and ethicists but from all citizens. We need a more complex architecture for public deliberation, built on the recognition that we, as citizens, have a duty to participate in shaping our biotechnological futures, just as governments have a duty to empower us to participate in that process. Decisions such as whether or not to edit human genes should not be left to elite and invisible experts, whether in universities, ad hoc commissions, or parliamentary advisory committees. Nor should public deliberation be temporally limited by the span of a moratorium or narrowed to topics that experts deem reasonable to debate.
I recommend reading the post in its entirety as there are nuances that are best appreciated in the entirety of the piece.
Shortly after this essay was published, Chinese scientists announced they had genetically modified (nonviable) human embryos. From an April 22, 2015 article by David Cyranoski and Sara Reardon in Nature where the research and some of the ethical issues discussed,
In a world first, Chinese scientists have reported editing the genomes of human embryos. The results are published1 in the online journal Protein & Cell and confirm widespread rumours that such experiments had been conducted — rumours that sparked a high-profile debate last month2, 3 about the ethical implications of such work.
In the paper, researchers led by Junjiu Huang, a gene-function researcher at Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou, tried to head off such concerns by using ‘non-viable’ embryos, which cannot result in a live birth, that were obtained from local fertility clinics. The team attempted to modify the gene responsible for β-thalassaemia, a potentially fatal blood disorder, using a gene-editing technique known as CRISPR/Cas9. The researchers say that their results reveal serious obstacles to using the method in medical applications.
“I believe this is the first report of CRISPR/Cas9 applied to human pre-implantation embryos and as such the study is a landmark, as well as a cautionary tale,” says George Daley, a stem-cell biologist at Harvard Medical School in Boston, Massachusetts. “Their study should be a stern warning to any practitioner who thinks the technology is ready for testing to eradicate disease genes.”
Huang says that the paper was rejected by Nature and Science, in part because of ethical objections; both journals declined to comment on the claim. (Nature’s news team is editorially independent of its research editorial team.)
He adds that critics of the paper have noted that the low efficiencies and high number of off-target mutations could be specific to the abnormal embryos used in the study. Huang acknowledges the critique, but because there are no examples of gene editing in normal embryos he says that there is no way to know if the technique operates differently in them.
Still, he maintains that the embryos allow for a more meaningful model — and one closer to a normal human embryo — than an animal model or one using adult human cells. “We wanted to show our data to the world so people know what really happened with this model, rather than just talking about what would happen without data,” he says.
This, too, is a good and thoughtful read.
There was an official response in the US to the publication of this research, from an April 29, 2015 post by David Bruggeman on his Pasco Phronesis blog (Note: Links have been removed),
In light of Chinese researchers reporting their efforts to edit the genes of ‘non-viable’ human embryos, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Director Francis Collins issued a statement (H/T Carl Zimmer).
“NIH will not fund any use of gene-editing technologies in human embryos. The concept of altering the human germline in embryos for clinical purposes has been debated over many years from many different perspectives, and has been viewed almost universally as a line that should not be crossed. Advances in technology have given us an elegant new way of carrying out genome editing, but the strong arguments against engaging in this activity remain. These include the serious and unquantifiable safety issues, ethical issues presented by altering the germline in a way that affects the next generation without their consent, and a current lack of compelling medical applications justifying the use of CRISPR/Cas9 in embryos.” …
More than CRISPR
As well, following on the April 22, 2015 Nature article about the controversial research, the Guardian published an April 26, 2015 post by Filippa Lentzos, Koos van der Bruggen and Kathryn Nixdorff which makes the case that CRISPR techniques do not comprise the only worrisome genetic engineering technology,
The genome-editing technique CRISPR-Cas9 is the latest in a series of technologies to hit the headlines. This week Chinese scientists used the technology to genetically modify human embryos – the news coming less than a month after a prominent group of scientists had called for a moratorium on the technology. The use of ‘gene drives’ to alter the genetic composition of whole populations of insects and other life forms has also raised significant concern.
But the technology posing the greatest, most immediate threat to humanity comes from ‘gain-of-function’ (GOF) experiments. This technology adds new properties to biological agents such as viruses, allowing them to jump to new species or making them more transmissible. While these are not new concepts, there is grave concern about a subset of experiments on influenza and SARS viruses which could metamorphose them into pandemic pathogens with catastrophic potential.
In October 2014 the US government stepped in, imposing a federal funding pause on the most dangerous GOF experiments and announcing a year-long deliberative process. Yet, this process has not been without its teething-problems. Foremost is the de facto lack of transparency and open discussion. Genuine engagement is essential in the GOF debate where the stakes for public health and safety are unusually high, and the benefits seem marginal at best, or non-existent at worst. …
Particularly worrisome about the GOF process is that it is exceedingly US-centric and lacks engagement with the international community. Microbes know no borders. The rest of the world has a huge stake in the regulation and oversight of GOF experiments.
I became somewhat curious about the Canadian perspective on all this genome engineering discussion and found a focus on agricultural issues in the single Canadian blog piece I found. It’s an April 30, 2015 posting by Lisa Willemse on Genome Alberta’s Livestock blog has a twist in the final paragraph,
The spectre of undesirable inherited traits as a result of DNA disruption via genome editing in human germline has placed the technique – and the ethical debate – on the front page of newspapers around the globe. Calls for a moratorium on further research until both the ethical implications can be worked out and the procedure better refined and understood, will undoubtedly temper research activities in many labs for months and years to come.
On the surface, it’s hard to see how any of this will advance similar research in livestock or crops – at least initially.
Groups already wary of so-called “frankenfoods” may step up efforts to prevent genome-edited food products from hitting supermarket shelves. In the EU, where a stringent ban on genetically-modified (GM) foods is already in place, there are concerns that genome-edited foods will be captured under this rubric, holding back many perceived benefits. This includes pork and beef from animals with disease resistance, lower methane emissions and improved feed-to-food ratios, milk from higher-yield or hornless cattle, as well as food and feed crops with better, higher quality yields or weed resistance.
Still, at the heart of the human germline editing is the notion of a permanent genetic change that can be passed on to offspring, leading to concerns of designer babies and other advantages afforded only to those who can pay. This is far less of a concern in genome-editing involving crops and livestock, where the overriding aim is to increase food supply for the world’s population at lower cost. Given this, and that research for human medical benefits has always relied on safety testing and data accumulation through experimentation in non-human animals, it’s more likely that any moratorium in human studies will place increased pressure to demonstrate long-term safety of such techniques on those who are conducting the work in other species.
Willemse’s last paragraph offers a strong contrast to the Guardian and Nature pieces.
Finally, there’s a May 8, 2015 posting (which seems to be an automat4d summary of an article in the New Scientist) on a blog maintained by the Canadian Raelian Movement. These are people who believe that alien scientists landed on earth and created all the forms of life on this planet. You can find more on their About page. In case it needs to be said, I do not subscribe to this belief system but I do find it interesting in and of itself and because one of the few Canadian sites that I could find offering an opinion on the matter even if it is in the form of a borrowed piece from the New Scientist.
As of May 11, 2015, Canadians will be getting an addition to their science media environment (from the May 4, 2015 news release),
Research2Reality to celebrate Canadian research stars
Social media initiative to popularize scientific innovation
May 4, 2015, TORONTO – On Monday, May 11, Research2Reality.com goes live and launches a social media initiative that will make the scientist a star. Following in the footsteps of popular sites like IFLScience and How Stuff Works, Research2Reality uses a video series and website to engage the community in the forefront of scientific discoveries made here in Canada.
The interviews feature some of Canada’s leading researchers such as Dick Peltier – director of the Centre for Global Change Science at the University of Toronto, Sally Aitken – director of the Centre for Forest Conservation Genetics at the University of British Columbia and Raymond Laflamme – executive director of the Institute for Quantum Computing at the University of Waterloo.
“Right now many Canadians don’t understand the scope of cutting-edge work being done in our backyards,” says Research2Reality co-founder and award-winning professor Molly Shoichet. “This initiative will bridge that gap between researchers and the public.”
Also launching Monday, May 11, courtesy of Research2Reality’s official media partner, Discovery Science, is a complementary website www.sciencechannel.ca/Shows/Research2Reality. The new website will feature the exclusive premieres of a collection of interview sessions. In addition, Discovery Science and Discovery will broadcast an imaginative series of public service announcements through the end of the year, while social media accounts will promote Research2Reality, including Discovery’s flagship science and technology program DAILY PLANET.
Research2Reality is a social media initiative designed to popularize the latest Canadian research. It was founded by Molly Shoichet, Professor of Chemical Engineering & Applied Chemistry and Canada Research Chair in Tissue Engineering at the University of Toronto, and Mike MacMillan, founder and producer of Lithium Studios Productions. Research2Reality’s founding partners are leading research-intensive universities – the University of Alberta, the University of British Columbia, McMaster University, the University of Toronto, the University of Waterloo, and Western University – along with the Ontario Government and Discovery Networks. Discovery Science is the official media partner. Research2Reality is also supported by The Globe and Mail.
A Valentine of sorts to Canadian science researchers from Molly Shoichet (pronounced shoy [and] quette as in David Arquette) and her producing partner Mike MacMillan of Lithium Studios, Research2Reality gives Canadians an opportunity to discover online some of the extraordinary work done by scientists of all stripes, including (unusually) social scientists, in this country. The top tier in this effort is the interview video series ‘The Orange Chair Sessions‘ which can be found and shared across
Shoichet and MacMillan are convinced there’s an appetite for more comprehensive science information. Supporting The Orange Chair Sessions is a complementary website operated by Discovery Channel where there are
links to other resources
Discovery Channel is also going to be airing special one minute public service announcements (PSA) on topics like water, quantum computing, and cancer. Here’s one of the first of those PSAs,
“I’m very excited about this and really hope that other people will be too,” says Shoichet. The audience for the Research2Reality endeavour is for people who like to know more and have questions when they see news items about science discoveries that can’t be answered by investigating mainstream media programmes or trying to read complex research papers.
This is a big undertaking. ” Mike and I thought about this for about two years.” Building on the support they received from the University of Toronto, “We reached out to the vice-presidents of research at the top fifteen universities in the country.” In the end, six universities accepted the invitation to invest in this project,
the University of British Columbia,
the University of Alberta,
Western University (formerly the University of Western Ontario),
Waterloo University, and, of course,
the University of Toronto
(Unfortunately, Shoichet was not able to answer a question about the cost for an individual episode but perhaps when there’s time that detail and more about the financing will be made available. [ETA May 11, 2015 1625 PDT: Ivan Semeniuk notes this is a $400,000 project in his Globe and Mail May 11, 2015 article.]) As part of their involvement, the universities decide which of their researchers/projects should be profiled then Research2Reality swings into action. “We shoot our own video, that is, we (Mike and I) come out and conduct interviews that take approximately fifteen minutes. We also shoot a b-roll, that is, footage of the laboratories and other relevant sites so it’s not all ‘talking heads’.” Shoichet and MacMillan are interested in the answer to two questions, “What are you doing? and Why do we care?” Neither interviewer/producer is seen or heard on camera as they wanted to keep the focus on the researcher.
Three videos are being released initially with another 67 in the pipeline for a total of 70. The focus is on research of an international calibre and one of the first interviews to be released (Shoichet’s will be release later) is Raymond Laflamme’s (he’s also featured in the ‘quantum PSA’.
Who convinces a genius that he’s gotten an important cosmological concept wrong or ignored it? Alongside Don Page, Laflamme accomplished that feat as one of Stephen Hawking’s PhD students at the University of Cambridge. Today (May 11, 2015), Laflamme is (from his Wikipedia entry)
… co-founder and current director of the Institute for Quantum Computing at the University of Waterloo. He is also a professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Waterloo and an associate faculty member at Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics. Laflamme is currently a Canada Research Chair in Quantum Information.
Laflamme changed his focus from quantum cosmology to quantum information while at Los Alamos, “To me, it seemed natural. Not much of a change.” It is the difference between being a theoretician and an experimentalist and anyone who’s watched The Big Bang Theory (US television programme) knows that Laflamme made a big leap.
One of his major research interests is quantum cryptography, a means of passing messages you can ensure are private. Laflamme’s team and a team in Vienna (Austria) have enabled two quantum communication systems, one purely terrestrial version, which can exchange messages with another such system up to 100 km. away. There are some problems yet to be solved with terrestrial quantum communication. First, buildings, trees, and other structures provide interference as does the curvature of the earth. Second, fibre optic cables absorb some of the photons en route.
Satellite quantum communication seems more promising as these problems are avoided altogether. The joint Waterloo/Vienna team of researchers has conducted successful satellite experiments in quantum communication in the Canary Islands.
While there don’t seem to be any practical, commercial quantum applications, Laflamme says that isn’t strictly speaking the truth, “In the last 10 to 15 years many ideas have been realized.” The talk turns to quantum sensing and Laflamme mentions two startups and notes he can’t talk about them yet. But there is Universal Quantum Devices (UQD), a company that produces parts for quantum sensors. It is Laflamme’s startup, one he co-founded with two partners. (For anyone unfamiliar with the Canadian academic scene, Laflamme’s home institution, the University of Waterloo, is one of the most actively ‘innovative’ and business-oriented universities in Canada.)
LaFlamme’s interests extend beyond laboratory work and business. He’s an active science communicator as can be seen in this 2010 TEDxWaterloo presentation where he takes his audience from the discovery of fire to quantum physics concepts such as a ‘quantum superposition’ and the ‘observer effect’ to the question, ‘What is reality?’ in approximately 18 mins.
For anyone who needs a little more information, a quantum superposition is a term referring the ability of a quantum object to inhabit two states simultaneously, e.g., on/off. yes/no, alive/dead, as in Schrödinger’s cat. (You can find out more about quantum superpositions in this Wikipedia essay and about Schrodinger’s cat in this Wikipedia essay.) The observer effect is a phenomenon whereby the observer of a quantum experiment affects that experiment by the act of observing it. (You can find out more about the observer effect in this Wikipedia essay.)
The topic of reality is much trickier to explain. No one has yet been able to offer a viable theory for why the world at the macro scale behaves one way (classical physics) and the world at the quantum scale behaves another way (quantum physics). As Laflamme notes, “There is no such thing as a superposition in classical physics but we can prove in the laboratory that it exists in quantum physics.” He goes on to suggest that children, raised in an environment where quantum physics and its applications are commonplace, will have an utterly different notion as to what constitutes reality.
Laflamme is also interested in music and consulted on a ‘quantum symphony’. He has this to say about it in an Sept. 20, 2012 piece on the University of Waterlo website,
Science and art share a common goal — to help us understand our universe and ourselves. Research at IQC [Institute for Quantum Computing] aims to provide important new understanding of nature’s building blocks, and devise methods to turn that understanding into technologies beneficial for society.Since founding IQC a decade ago, I have sought ways to bridge science and the arts, with the belief that scientific discovery itself is a source of beauty and inspiration. Our collaboration with the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony was an example — one of many yet to come — of how science and the arts provide different but complementary insights into our universe and ourselves.
From deep inside the sewers of Vienna, site of groundbreaking quantum teleportation experiments, to cutting-edge quantum computing labs, to voyages into the minds of the world’s brightest thinkers, including renowned British scientist Stephen Hawking, this documentary explores the coming quantum technological revolution.
All of this suggests an interest in science not seen since the 19th century when scientists could fill theatres for their lectures. Even Hollywood is capitalizing on this interest. Laflamme, who saw ‘Interstellar’, ‘The Imitation Game’ (Alan Turing), and ‘The Theory of Everything’ (Stephen Hawking) in fall 2014 comments, “I was surprised by how much science there was in The Imitation Game and Interstellar.” As for the Theory of Everything, “I was apprehensive since I know Stephen well. But, the actor, Eddie Redmayne, and the movie surprised me. There were times when he moved his head or did something in a particular way—he was Stephen. Also, most people don’t realize what an incredible sense of humour Stephen has and the movie captured that well.” Laflamme also observed that it was a movie about a relationship and not really concerned with science and its impacts (good and ill) or scientific accomplishments. Although he allows, “It could have had more science.”
Co-producer Shoichet has sterling scientific credentials of her own. In addition to this science communication project, she runs the Shoichet Lab at the University of Toronto (from the Dr. Molly Shoichet bio page),
Dr. Molly Shoichet holds the Tier 1 Canada Research Chair in Tissue Engineering and is University Professor of Chemical Engineering & Applied Chemistry, Chemistry and Biomaterials & Biomedical Engineering at the University of Toronto. She is an expert in the study of Polymers for Drug Delivery & Regeneration which are materials that promote healing in the body.
Dr. Shoichet has published over to 480 papers, patents and abstracts and has given over 310 lectures worldwide. She currently leads a laboratory of 25 researchers and has graduated 134 researchers over the past 20 years. She founded two spin-off companies from research in her laboratory.
Dr. Shoichet is the recipient of many prestigious distinctions and the only person to be a Fellow of Canada’s 3 National Academies: Canadian Academy of Sciences of the Royal Society of Canada, Canadian Academy of Engineering, and Canadian Academy of Health Sciences. Dr. Shoichet holds the Order of Ontario, Ontario’s highest honour and is a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. In 2013, her contributions to Canada’s innovation agenda and the advancement of knowledge were recognized with the QEII Diamond Jubilee Award. In 2014, she was given the University of Toronto’s highest distinction, University Professor, a distinction held by less than 2% of the faculty.
MacMIllan’s biography (from the Lithium Studios website About section hints this is his first science-oriented series (Note: Links have been removed),
Founder of Lithium Studios Productions
University of Toronto (‘02)
UCLA’s Professional Producing Program (‘11)
His first feature, the dark comedy / thriller I Put a Hit on You (2014, Telefilm Canada supported), premiered at this year’s Slamdance Film Festival in Park City. Guidance (2014, Telefilm Canada supported, with super producer Alyson Richards over at Edyson), a dark comedy/coming of age story is currently in post-production, expected to join the festival circuit in September 2014.
Mike has produced a dozen short films with Toronto talents Dane Clark and Linsey Stewart (CAN – Long Branch, Margo Lily), Samuel Fluckiger (SWISS – Terminal, Nightlight) and Darragh McDonald (CAN – Love. Marriage. Miscarriage.). They’ve played at the top film fests around the world and won a bunch of awards.
Special skills include kickass hat collection and whiskey. Bam.
It’s nice to see the Canadian scene expanding; I’m particularly pleased to learn social scientists will be included.Too often researchers from the physical sciences or natural sciences and researchers from the social sciences remain aloof from each other. In April 2013, I attended a talk by Evelyn Fox Keller, physicist, feminist, and philosopher, who read from a paper she’d written based on a then relatively recent experience in South Africa where researchers had aligned themselves in two different groups and refused to speak to each other. They were all anthropologists but the sticking point was the type of science they practiced. One group were physical anthropologists and the other were cultural anthropologists. That’s an extreme example unfortunately symptomatic of a great divide. Bravo to Research2Reality for bringing the two groups together.
As for the science appetite Shoichet and MacMillan see in Canada, this is not the only country experiencing a resurgence of interest; they’ve been experiencing a science media expansion in the US. Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Star Talk television talk show, which also exists as a radio podcast, debuted on April 19, 2015 (Yahoo article by Calla Cofield); Public Radio Exchange’s (PRX) Transistor; a STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) audio project debuted in Feb. 2015; and video podcast Science Goes to the Movies also debuted in Feb. 2015 (more about the last two initiatives in my March 6, 2015 posting [scroll down about 40% of the way]). Finally (for the burgeoning US science media scene) and neither least nor new, David Bruggeman has a series of posts titled, Science and Technology Guests on Late Night, Week of …, on his Pasco Phronesis blog which has been running for many years. Bruggeman’s series is being included here because most people don’t realize that US late night talk shows have jumped into the science scene. You can check David’s site here as he posts this series on Mondays and this is Monday, May 11, 2015.
It’s early days for Research2Reality and it doesn’t yet have the depth one might wish. The videos are short (the one featured on the Discovery Channel’s complementary website is less than 2 mins. and prepare yourself for ads). They may not be satisfying from an information perspective but what makes The Orange Chair Series fascinating is the peek into the Canadian research scene. Welcome to Research2Reality and I hope to hear more about you in the coming months.
[ETA May 11, 2015 at 1625 PDT: Semeniuk’s May 11, 2015 article mentions a few other efforts to publicize Canadian research (Note: Links have been removed),
For example, Research Matters, a promotional effort by the Council of Ontario Universities, has built up a large bank of short articles on its website that highlight researchers across the province. Similarly, the Canada Foundation for Innovation, which channels federal dollars toward research infrastructure and projects, produces features stories with embedded videos about the scientists who are enabled by their investments.
What makes Research2Reality different, said Dr. Shoichet, is an approach that doesn’t speak for one region, field of research of [sic] funding stream.
One other aspect which distinguishes Research2Reality from the other science promotion efforts is the attempt to reach out to the audience. The Canada Foundation for Innovation and Council for Ontario Universities are not known for reaching out directly to the general public.]
Tom McFadden has debuted the first video of this year’s Science Rap Academy. Seventh and eighth grade students at the Nueva School prepare a music video based on a science concept, usually reworking a rap or hip-hop song.
There are many posts on this blog about Tom McFadden and his various science rap projects (many of them courtesy of David Bruggeman/Pasco Phronesis). Here’s one of the more recent ones, a May 30, 2014 posting.
Getting back to David’s April 17, 2015 news, he also mentions the latest installment of “Science goes to the movies” which features three movies (Kingsman: The Secret Service, The Lazarus Effect, and Them!) and has Neil deGrasse Tyson as a guest. David has embedded the episode on his blog. One brief comment, it’s hard to tell how familiar Tyson or the hosts, Faith Salie and Dr. Heather Berlin are with the history of the novel or science. But the first few minutes of the conversation suggest that Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is the first novel to demonize scientists. (I had the advantage of not getting caught up in their moment and access to search engines.) Well, novels were still pretty new in Europe and I don’t believe that there were any other novels featuring scientists prior to Mary Shelley’s work.
A brief history of novels: Japan can lay claim to the first novel, The Tale of Genji, in the 11th century CE, (The plot concerned itself with aristocratic life and romance.) Europe and its experience with the novel is a little more confusing. From the City University of New York, Brooklyn site, The Novel webpage,
The term for the novel in most European languages is roman, which suggests its closeness to the medieval romance. The English name is derived from the Italian novella, meaning “a little new thing.” Romances and novelle, short tales in prose, were predecessors of the novel, as were picaresque narratives. Picaro is Spanish for “rogue,” and the typical picaresque story is of the escapades of a rascal who lives by his wits. The development of the realistic novel owes much to such works, which were written to deflate romantic or idealized fictional forms. Cervantes’ Don Quixote (1605-15), the story of an engaging madman who tries to live by the ideals of chivalric romance, explores the role of illusion and reality in life and was the single most important progenitor of the modern novel.
The novel broke from those narrative predecessors that used timeless stories to mirror unchanging moral truths. It was a product of an intellectual milieu shaped by the great seventeenth-century philosophers, Descartes and Locke, who insisted upon the importance of individual experience. They believed that reality could be discovered by the individual through the senses. Thus, the novel emphasized specific, observed details. It individualized its characters by locating them precisely in time and space. And its subjects reflected the popular eighteenth-century concern with the social structures of everyday life.
The novel is often said to have emerged with the appearance of Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719) and Moll Flanders (1722). Both are picaresque stories, in that each is a sequence of episodes held together largely because they happen to one person. But the central character in both novels is so convincing and set in so solid and specific a world that Defoe is often credited with being the first writer of “realistic” fiction. The first “novel of character” or psychological novel is Samuel Richardson’s Pamela (1740-41), an epistolary novel (or novel in which the narrative is conveyed entirely by an exchange of letters). It is a work characterized by the careful plotting of emotional states. Even more significant in this vein is Richardson’s masterpiece Clarissa (1747-48). Defoe and Richardson were the first great writers in our literature who did not take their plots from mythology, history, legend, or previous literature. They established the novel’s claim as an authentic account of the actual experience of individuals.
As far as I’m aware none of these novels are concerned with science or scientists for that matter. After all, science was still emerging from a period where alchemy reined supreme. One of the great European scientists, Isaac Newton (1642-1726/7), practiced alchemy along with his science. And that practice did not die with Newton.
With those provisos in mind, or not, do enjoy the movie reviews embedded in David’s April 17, 2015 news. One final note,David in his weekly roundup of science on late night tv noted that Neil deGrasse Tyson’s late night tv talk show, Star Talks, debuted April 20, 2015, the episode can be seen again later this week while deGrasse Tyson continues to make the rounds of other talk shows to publicize his own.
I have three math items for this posting and one women in technology item, here they are in an almost date order.
A British movie titled X+Y provides a fictionalized view of a team member on the British squad competing in an International Mathematics Olympiad.The Guardian’s science blog network hosted a March 11, 2015 review by Adam P. Goucher who also provides an insider’s view (Note: Links have been removed),
As a competition it is brutal and intense.
I speak from experience; I was in the UK team in 2011.
So it was with great expectation that I went to see X+Y, a star-studded British film about the travails of a British IMO hopeful who is struggling against the challenges of romance, Asperger’s and really tough maths.
Obviously, there were a few oversimplifications and departures from reality necessary for a coherent storyline. There were other problems too, but we’ll get to them later.
In order to get chosen for the UK IMO team, you must sit the first round test of the British Mathematical Olympiad (BMO1). About 1200 candidates take this test around the country.
I sat BMO1 on a cold December day at my sixth form, Netherthorpe School in Chesterfield. Apart from the invigilator and me, the room was completely empty, although the surroundings became irrelevant as soon as I was captivated by the problems. The test comprises six questions over the course of three and a half hours. As is the case with all Olympiad problems, there are often many distinct ways to solve them, and correct complete solutions are maximally rewarded irrespective of the elegance or complexity of the proof.
The highest twenty scorers are invited to another training camp at Trinity College, Cambridge, and the top six are selected to represent the UK at an annual competition in Romania.
In Romania, there was much maths, but we also enjoyed a snowball fight against the Italian delegation and sampled the delights of Romanian rum-endowed chocolate. Since I was teetotal at this point in time, the rum content was sufficient to alter my perception in such a way that I decided to attack a problem using Cartesian coordinates (considered by many to be barbaric and masochistic). Luckily my recklessness paid off, enabling me to scrape a much-coveted gold medal by the narrowest of margins.
The connection between the UK and Eastern Europe is rather complicated to explain, being intimately entangled with the history of the IMO. The inaugural Olympiad was held in Romania in 1959, with the competition being only open to countries under the Soviet bloc. A Hungarian mathematician, Béla Bollobás, competed in the first three Olympiads, seizing a perfect score on the third. After his PhD, Bollobás moved to Trinity College, Cambridge, to continue his research, where he fertilised Cambridge with his contributions in probabilistic and extremal combinatorics (becoming a Fellow of the Royal Society in the process). Consequently, there is a close relationship between Hungarian and Cantabrigian mathematics.
Rafe Spall’s character was very convincing, and his eccentricities injected some much-needed humour into the film. Similarly, Asa Butterfield’s portrayal of a “typical mathmo” was realistic. On the other hand, certain characters such as Richard (the team leader) were unnatural and exaggerated. In particular, I was disappointed that all of the competitors were portrayed as being borderline-autistic, when in reality there is a much more diverse mixture of individuals.
X+Y is also a love story, and one based on a true story covered in Morgan Matthews’ earlier work, the documentary Beautiful Young Minds. This followed the 2006 IMO, in China, where one of the members of the UK team fell in love and married the receptionist of the hotel the team were staying at. They have since separated, although his enamourment with China persisted – he switched from studying Mathematics to Chinese Studies.
It is common for relationships to develop during maths Olympiads. Indeed after a member of our team enjoyed a ménage-a-trois at an IMO in the 1980s, the committee increased the security and prohibited boys and girls from entering each others’ rooms.
The film was given a general release March 13, 2015 in the UK and is on the festival circuit elsewhere. Whether or not you can get to see the film, I recommend Goucher’s engaging review/memoir.
The Great Math Mystery and the SET award for the Portrayal of a Female in Technology
David Bruggeman in a March 13, 2015 post on his Pasco Phronesis blog describes the upcoming première of a maths installment in the NOVA series presented on the US PBS (Public Broadcasting Service), Note: Links have been removed,
… PBS has announced a new math special. Mario Livio will host a NOVA special called The Great Math Mystery, premiering April 15. Livio is an astrophysicist, science and math writer, and fan of science/culture mashups. The mystery of the title is whether math(s) is invented or was discovered.
The Entertainment Industries Council is seeking votes for its first SET Award for Portrayal of a Female in Technology. … Voting on the award is via a Google form, so you will need a Google account to participate. The nominees appear to be most of the women playing characters with technical jobs in television programs or recent films. They are:
Annedroids on Amazon
Arrow: “Felicity Smoak” played by Emily Bett Rickards
Bones: “Angela Montenegro” played by Michaela Conlin
Here’s a video describing the competition and the competitors,
H/t to David Bruggeman again. This time it’s a Feb. 6, 2015 post on his Pasco Phronesis blog which announces (Note: Links have been removed),
On April 18 , the Smithsonian Institution will host the first National Math Festival in Washington, D.C. It will be the culmination of a weekend of events in the city to recognize outstanding math research, educators and books.
On April 16 there will be a morning breakfast briefing on Capitol Hill to discuss mathematics education. It will be followed by a policy seminar in the Library of Congress and an evening gala to support basic research in mathematics and science.
You can find out more about the 2015 National Math Festival here (from the homepage),
On Saturday, April 18th, experience mathematics like never before, when the first-of-its-kind National Math Festival comes to Washington, D.C. As the country’s first national festival dedicated to discovering the delight and power of mathematics, this free and public celebration will feature dozens of activities for every age—from hands-on magic and Houdini-like getaways to lectures with some of the most influential mathematicians of our time.
The National Math Festival is organized by the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute (MSRI) and the Institute for Advanced Study (IAS) in cooperation with the Smithsonian Institution.
In honour of International Women’s Day 2015, here are four items about women and science. The first features Canada’s Perimeter Institute (PI) and a tribute to pioneering women in physics, from a Feb. 26, 2015 PI news release,
They discovered pulsars, found the first evidence of dark matter, pioneered mathematics, radioactivity, nuclear fission, elasticity, and computer programming, and have even stopped light.
It’s a fascinating group of women and these four provide a taste only.
The second item about women in science is also from the Perimeter Institute, which is hosting an ‘Inspiring Future Women in Science’ conference on Friday, May 6, 2015. From the PI program page,
Are you interested in turning your love of science into a career? Perimeter Institute is inviting female high school students to participate in an inspirational half day conference on Friday March 6, 2015. The goal is to bring together like minded young women with a strong interest in science and expose them to the rewards, challenges and possibilities of a career in science.
Rima Brek – Rima is a Ubisoft veteran of 16 years and a founding team member of the Toronto studio. There, she was responsible for kick-starting the technology team and helping ship the critically-acclaimed Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell Blacklist. She is a sought-after advisor whose guidance and leadership have directly helped Ubisoft Toronto grow to over 300 game developers in just five years.
Dianna Cowern – Dianna is a science communicator and educator. She received her degree in physics from MIT and completed a post-baccalaureate fellowship in astrophysics at Harvard. She then worked on mobile applications as a software engineer at General Electric before beginning a position at the University of California, San Diego as a physics outreach coordinator. She is the primary content creator for her educational YouTube channel, Physics Girl.
Roslyn Bern – As president of the Leacross Foundation, Roslyn Bern has been creating opportunities for women and girls throughout Canada. She has worked on initiatives for over 20 years, as an educator, a business woman, and as a philanthropist. She has focused on developing scholarships and bursaries for girls in under-represented career fields. She has been instrumental on sending teenage girls to the Arctic and Antarctic with Students on Ice, and created a partnership with colleges and corporations to certify STEM women in Electrical engineering. …
By the time this piece is posted it will be too late to attend this year’s event but interested parties could plan for next year in Waterloo, Ontario, Canada.
The third item concerns an initiative from the Public Radio Exchange, PRX. Called Transistor; a STEM [science, technology, engineering, and mathematics] audio project. From the series page,
Transistor is a transformative STEM podcast, taking the electricity of a story and channeling it to listeners. Three scientist hosts — a biologist, an astrophysicist, and a neuroscientist — report on conundrums, curiosities, and current events in and beyond their fields. Sprinkled among their episodes are the winners of the STEM Story Project, a competition we held for unique science radio.
Much as the transistor radio was a new technical leap, this Transistor features new women voices and sounds from new science producers.
PRX presents Transistor, applying our storytelling and podcast experience to science. The Sloan Foundation powers Transistor with funding and support. And listeners complete the circuit.
PRX is thrilled to announce the launch of a new weekly podcast series Transistor (official press release). Three scientist hosts — a biologist, an astrophysicist, and a neuroscientist — report on conundrums, curiosities, and current events in and beyond their fields. Sprinkled among their episodes are the winners of the PRX STEM Story Project, a competition we held for unique science radio.
Just as the transistor radio was a new technical leap, this Transistor features new women voices and their science perspectives. We’ve launched with four episodes from our three scientist hosts:
Dr. Michelle Thaller, an astrophysicist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, who studies binary stars and the life cycles of the stars.
We Are Stardust: We’re closer than ever before to discovering if we’re not alone in the universe. Astrophysicist Michelle Thaller visits the NASA lab that discovered that comets contain some of the very same chemical elements that we contain. Then, Michelle talks to a Vatican planetary scientist about how science and religion can meet on the topic of life beyond Earth.
Dr. Christina Agapakis, a biologist and writer based in Los Angeles. Her research focuses on the intersection of microbiology and design, exploring the symbiosis among microbes and biology, technology, and culture.
Food, Meet Fungus: The microbiome — the trillions of bacteria, fungi, and viruses that live in and on our body — is hot right now. We explore what we do know in the face of so much hope and hype, starting with food.
Dr. Wendy Suzuki, a Professor of Neural Science and Psychology in the Center for Neural Science at New York University, whose research focuses on understanding how our brains form and retain new long-term memories and the effects of aerobic exercise on memory. Her book Healthy Brain, Happy Life will be published by Harper Collins in the Spring of 2015.
Totally Cerebral: Untangling the Mystery of Memory: Neuroscientist Wendy Suzuki introduces us to scientists who have uncovered some of the deepest secrets about our brains. She begins by talking with experimental psychologist Brenda Milner [interviewed in her office at McGill University, Montréal, Quebéc], who in the 1950s, completely changed our understanding of the parts of the brain important for forming new long-term memories.
Totally Cerebral: The Man Without a Memory: Imagine never being able to form a new long term memory after the age of 27. Welcome to the life of the famous amnesic patient “HM”. Neuroscientist Suzanne Corkin studied HM for almost half a century, and gives us a glimpse of what daily life was like for him, and his tremendous contribution to our understanding of how our memories work.
I listened to all four of the introductory programs which ranged in running time from about 16 mins. to 37 mins. All three hosts are obviously excited about sharing their science stories and I look forward to hearing more from them.
Science Goes to the Movies is a new program produced by the City University of New York and sponsored by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. … The hosts are Faith Salie, a journalist and host you might have heard before as a panelist on Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me, and Dr. Heather Berlin, a neuroscientist whose research focuses on brain-body relationships and psychological disorders. (In what makes for a small world, Berlin is married to Canadian rap troubadour Baba Brinkman.) …
Hallucinations and black holes vie for the 2015 Oscar. Co-hosts Faith Salie and Dr. Heather Berlin are joined by AMNH astrophysicist Dr. Emily Rice for a look at the science in three of the top films of the year, Birdman, The Theory of Everything, and Interstellar.
Episode 102 featuring Into the Woods and the Imitation Game will première on March 20, 2015,
Science Goes to the Movies looks at The Imitation Game and Into the Woods. With special guest cryptologist Rosario Gennaro, we discuss pattern recognition in the work of both Alan Turing and Stephen Sondheim.
Science Goes to the Movies is made possible by generous support from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.
Kudos to the Alfred P. Sloan foundation for funding two exciting ventures: Transistors and Science Goes to the Movies.
Getting back to where I started: Happy International Women’s Day 2015!
It’s been over four years since I last mentioned the mandatory Canadian long form census, a topic which seems to be enjoying some new interest. For those unfamiliar or whose memory of the controversy is foggy, here’s a brief description of the situation. The mandatory aspect of the long form census was abolished by the Conservative government despite serious opposition from core Conservative supporters in the business community and at least two of the Prime Minister’s own cabinet members. There’s more about the discussion at the time in my July 20, 2010 posting (scroll down about 25% of the way).
Thanks to David Bruggeman’s Feb. 1, 2015 post cleverly titled, Counting The Impact Of How A Government Counts, on his Pasco Phronesis blog, I can update the situation (Note: Links have been removed).
Back in 2010, the Canadian government opted to make the long form portion of its 2011 census voluntary. Researchers who use the data in their work, and policymakers who use the data to make decisions were concerned about how a voluntary survey would impact the resulting data.
As expected, the early analysis suggests that the lower quality data will lead to higher spending. …
Ted Hsu, Liberal member of Parliament (MP), introduced Bill C-626 An Act to amend the Statistics Act (appointment of Chief Statistician and long-form census in Sept. 2014 when it received its first reading. Last week, Jan. 29, 2015, the bill received its second reading and was referred to committee according to this Bill C-626 webpage on the openparliament.ca website. I’m excerpting portions of Ted Hsu’s Jan. 29, 2015 (?) comments from the House of Commons floor, (from openparliament.ca’s Bill C-626 webpage; Note: Links have been removed),
Today I rise to present my private member’s bill, Bill C-626. It is a bill that reflects the belief that people must have trustworthy information about themselves to govern themselves wisely.
Indeed, the Prime Minister himself said in his recent speech to the United Nations:
…vital statistics are critical.
You can’t manage what you can’t measure.
We parliamentarians should aspire to safeguard the integrity and quality of fundamental information about the people of Canada, whom we endeavour to serve. Is that not what we seek when we pray at the beginning of each day in the House of Commons: Grant us wisdom, knowledge, and understanding to preserve the blessings of this country for the benefit of all, and to make good laws and wise decisions?
However, the quality of national statistics has been compromised. In 2011, the voluntary national household survey replaced the long form census. Researchers have publicly called that survey worthless.
What are some of the effects? In May 2014, the Progressive Conservative premier of New Brunswick said that the elimination of the long form census makes it hard to track the outcomes of the province’s poverty program. That is, it is hard to figure out what New Brunswick got from the money spent to help the poor.
National household survey data were too meaningless to be published for 25% of Canada’s towns and cities because of low response rates, rising to 30% in Newfoundland and Labrador’s and 40% in Saskatchewan.
All levels of government and the private sector have been handicapped by bad data here in Canada. What is worse is that the one mandatory long form census forms an essential anchor that is needed to adjust for errors in many other voluntary surveys. We have lost that data anchor.
Why is the voluntary national household survey so poor? The problem is that certain groups of people tended not to fill out the voluntary survey. Rural residents, single parents, one-person households, renters, the very rich, the poor, and younger people all tended not to complete the national household survey. The result is a biased and misleading picture of Canada and Canadians. This is what scientists call a systematic error. A systematic error, unlike a random error, cannot be corrected by sending out more census forms.
This systematic error is eliminated if everyone who receives a long form survey fills it out. Not filling out the long form census is a disservice to the country. That is why filling out the census should be considered a civic duty.
In 2011, the government went ahead and sent out more voluntary surveys to compensate for the lower response rate. This inflated the cost of the census by approximately $20 million, but it gave us poorer information. Avoiding such waste is another reason we should restore the mandatory long form census.
More importantly, making business and investment decisions and managing the economy and the affairs of the people all require trustworthy information about the people. That is why, just this past summer, the Canadian Chamber of Commerce passed a policy resolution calling for the restoration of the mandatory long form census. That is why, in 2010, groups such as the Canadian Association for Business Economics, the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, the Conference Board of Canada, and the Toronto Region Board of Trade opposed the elimination of the mandatory long form census.
Let me say this again. The Canadian Chamber of Commerce, the Canadian Association for Business Economics, the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, the Conference Board of Canada, and the Toronto Region Board of Trade want the mandatory long form census.
It’s well worth reading all of the comments as they run both pro and con. BTW, kudos to the openparliament.ca website for making information about legislation and the legislative process so accessible!
Bill C-626, a private member’s bill that would restore the mandatory long-form census and shield the Chief Statistician of Canada from political interference, has no chance of becoming law. It was introduced by a Liberal MP, Ted Hsu, and has limited support in Parliament. Even more foreboding, its adoption would require the Harper government [Stephen Harper, Prime Minister, Canada] to do something it loathes: admit an error.
But an error it was – and a now well-documented one – for the government to eliminate the mandatory long-form census in 2010 and replace it with the voluntary National Household Survey.
To be fair, I don’t know of any government that admits its errors easily but, even by those standards, the Harper government seems extraordinarily loathe to do so.
More of the new National Household Survey’s shortcomings come to light in a Jan. 29, 2015 article by Tavia Grant for the Globe & Mail,
The cancellation of the mandatory long-form census has damaged research in key areas, from how immigrants are doing in the labour market to how the middle class is faring, while making it more difficult for cities to ensure taxpayer dollars are being spent wisely, planners and researchers say.
Statistics Canada developed a voluntary survey after Ottawa cancelled the long-form census in 2010. Many had warned that the switch would mean lower response rates and policies based on an eroded understanding of important trends. Now researchers – from city planners to public health units – say they have sifted through the 2011 data and found it lacking.
Their comments come as a private member’s bill to reinstate the mandatory long-form census will be debated in the House of Commons Thursday [Jan. 29, 2015]. The bill, expected to be voted on next week, has slim odds of passing, given the Conservative majority. But it is drawing attention to the impact of the switch, which has created difficulties in determining income-inequality trends, housing needs and whether low-income families are getting adequate services.
The impact isn’t just on researchers. Cities, such as Toronto, say it’s become more expensive and requires more staffing to obtain data that’s of lower quality. …
Sara Mayo, social planner at the Social Planning and Research Council of Hamilton [Ontario], says the result of the census changes has been less data for more money. “In terms of fiscal prudence, this made no sense. Why would any government want to pay more for worse-quality data?” [emphasis mine]
Many, many people noted in 2010 that we would be paying more for lower quality data. Adding insult to injury, the cancellation was not made due to a huge public outcry demanding the end of the mandatory long form census, In fact, as I noted earlier, many of Stephen Harper’s core supporters were not in favour of his initiative.
Moving on to Ted Hsu for a moment, I was interested to note that he will not be running for election later this year (2015) according to an Aug.7, 2014 article on thestar.com website. For now, according to his Wikipedia entry, Hsu is the the Liberal Party’s Critic for Science and Technology, Post-Secondary Education, Federal Economic Development Agency for Southern Ontario and Federal Economic Development Initiative in Northern Ontario. By training, Hsu is a physicist.
While no one seems to hold much hope for Hsu’s bill, there is a timeline provided for its passage through Parliament before the final vote (from tedshu.ca’s C-626 webpage),
First reading: September 22, 2014
First hour of second reading debate: November 7, 2014
Second hour of second reading debate: January 29, 2015
Second reading vote to send the bill to committee: February 4, 2015
Committee hearings: March-April (expected)
Report Stage to vote on any amendments and the report from committee: April 2015 (expected)
Final hour of debate and third reading vote to send the bill to the Senate: April 2015 (expected)
According to the openparliament.ca website the Jan. 29, 2015 reading was the one where the bill was sent to committee but Ted Hsu’s site suggests that today’s Feb. 4, 2015 reading is when the vote to send the bill to committee will be held.
ETA Feb. 4, 2014 1420 PDT: Apparently, city governments are weighing in the discussion, from a Feb. 3, 2015 article by Tavia Grant and Elizabeth Church for the Globe & Mail,
The debate over the demise of the mandatory long-form census has reached the city level in Canada, where mayors and local officials say the cancellation has hampered the ability to plan and support the needs of their communities.
Toronto Mayor John Tory told The Globe and Mail he plans to raise the issue at the big city mayors’ meeting this week.
Across the country, cities are feeling the impact of the census changes, said Brad Woodside, president of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities and mayor of Fredericton [New Brunswick].
“We’ve heard from our members that the change to the new National Household Survey [NHS] is impacting their ability to effectively plan and monitor the changing needs of their communities,” he said in an e-mailed statement to The Globe. “We support all efforts to increase the reliability of the data from the census.”
A website that lobbies for more accessible data, called Datalibre.ca, lists 11 individuals and organizations that supported the government’s decision to scrap the census and 488 who oppose it. Those who were against the move include 42 cities – from Red Deer to Montreal, Victoria and Fredericton.
Regina’s mayor said the loss of detailed data is a concern. He wants the long-form reinstated.
In Vancouver, city planner Michael Gordon said the end of the mandatory census is a “significant issue,” hampering the ability to analyze infrastructure needs, such as transportation planning, along with housing, particularly affordable housing. Mr. Gordon, president of the Canadian Institute of Planners, has found some data from NHS “fishy,” and says there has been a “very disappointing” impact in the ability to provide sound advice based on factual information.
Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to find any information as to whether today’s vote to send this bill committee was successful or not.
ETA Feb. 5, 2015 0840 PDT: The bill did not make it past the second reading, from a Feb. 4, 2015 news item (posted at 2000 hours EDT) on the Huffington Post,
Liberal MP Ted Hsu’s drive to resurrect the long-form census has come to an end.
His private member’s bill to bring back the long-form census and bolster the independence of the chief statistician was voted down on second reading in the Commons on Wednesday.