Tag Archives: Gary Goodyear

Does the new Minister of State for Science and Technology Gary Rickford really need research experience?

Gary Goodyear,  Canada’s Minister of State for Science and Technology since 2008, was shuffled away and Gary Rickford, fell into his place as of July 15, 2013 in the Harper government’s latest cabinet shuffle (largely viewed as a diversionary tactic in the wake of a Senate expense scandal).

Sadly, the Goodyear/Rickford change didn’t make many waves here in Canada.The mainstream media has barely mentioned it and the Canadian Science Policy Centre (CSPC), where one would expect something, has no mention of it (as of 10:30 am PDT July 17, 2013) on their website homepage. As the CSPC is volunteer-run, I imagine this is an issue of not having enough time during the summer while being in the preparatory stages of the fall 2013 conference. Still, that particular omission does seem a bit odd.

There was, however, a mainstream media plea before the shuffle was announced. Jordan Himelfarb made his plea  in a July 12, 2013 opinion piece for the Toronto Star,

A wise next step: get rid of Gary Goodyear.

For fans of science, this will be an uncontroversial suggestion. Goodyear, the minister of state for science and technology, has presided over the most retrograde federal S&T policy in memory.

During his tenure, the government shuttered the office of the National Science Adviser, blocked asbestos from a UN hazardous chemicals list on which it clearly belongs, gutted the Fisheries Act, gutted the Navigable Waters Protection Act, set out to weaken the Species at Risk Act, killed the long-form census, eroded Environment Canada’s ability to monitor climate change, earned an international reputation for muzzling scientists and, at a great potential cost, defunded the world’s leading freshwater research centre [Experimental Lakes Ares]. (I stop there arbitrarily. The list really does go on and on.)

A change has been made but whether there will be any change is a bit of a mystery. I’ve found some coverage  and commentary about the change in the US and by Canadian science blogger, Eight Crayon Science. As the US coverage is more neutral (relatively) and general in tone, I’ll start there. Wayne Kondro in a July 15, 2013 article for Science Insider notes,

Former lawyer and nurse Greg Rickford has become Canada’s science minister as Prime Minister Stephen Harper shuffled his Cabinet on Monday. The move is an attempt to deflect attention from an expenses scandal that has rocked Harper’s Conservative government and left pundits calling for a reboot prior to the expected national elections in 2015. It has left science associations scrambling to learn a bit about the new junior minister.

…  The position reports to Industry Minister James Moore, who was promoted from the Canadian Heritage Ministry and whose new portfolio oversees all of Canada’s science agencies with the exception of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research …

David Bruggeman in his July 16, 2013 posting on the Pasco Phronesis blog put this news into an international context (Note: Links have been removed),

While the possibility of a new U.K. science minister is only rumor at the moment, the Canadian government has just reshuffled its Cabinet.  Minister for Science and Technology Gary Goodyear is out, and replacing him is Greg Rickford. Minister Rickford has previously served in ministerial positions responsible for development in northern Canada.  While he does have experience as a nurse, like his predecessor Minister Rickford does not have much research experience.

Mention of Rickford’s lack of research experience is made in Kondro’s article and by Canadian science blogger Eight Crayon Science in a July 16, 2013 posting which also details changes in other science portfolios,

We here in Canada had quite a major cabinet shuffle yesterday, precipitated in part due to the departure of a few major cabinet ministers. So, the five positions with the most sciency-ness are now held by:

  • Minister of State for Science and Technology: Greg Rickford (Kenora) replaces Gary Goodyear (Cambridge)
  • Minister of the Environment: Leona Aglukkaq (Nunavut) replaces Peter Kent (Thornhill)
  • Minister of Fisheries and Oceans: Gail Shea (Egmont) replaces Keith Ashfield (Fredericton)
  • Minister of Natural Resources: Joe Oliver (Eglington-Lawrence) remains in the position
  • Minister of Health: Rona Ambrose (Edmonton-Spruce Grove) replaces Leona Aglukkaq (Nunavut)

Let’s go one by one. I’m pleased that Goodyear is gone, because having a science minister who dances around the question of whether or not he believes in evolution is frankly embarrassing. Rickford has worked previously as a nurse (though his law degrees are more emphasized in the bios I’ve seen), which is a step in the right direction. But he’s the MP for Kenora, the riding of the Experimental Lakes Area, and he was previously a vocal proponent for closing the site. So, we’re not exactly off to a flying start.

A sort of secondary (or at least a more chronic issue than a Thing That Needs Attending To Immediately) is the continual lack of MPs with strong science backgrounds. *Lawyers and bankers and business folk of all stripes are a dime a dozen in Parliament, but doctors are rare, and scientists and engineers are even rarer. This isn’t to say that a *lawyer cannot be an excellent Minister of State for Science and Technology, but an MP with a more direct background in science — whether that’s industrial science, academic science, theoretical or applied science — will bring a more relevant perspective to the portfolio. Having worked as a scientist will likely give a Minister of Science a more tangible view of how policy set forth by their portfolio affects Canadian science, scientists, and citizens than a working as an attorney would, and I think that perspective is important.

I’m not entirely in agreement with this notion that a Science and Technology Minister needs direct experience of research as something will have to be sacrificed.  Which skill set do you want to sacrifice: research, administrative, political maneuvering, and/or social? It’s rare to get someone who’s equally good at all of these. Also, someone from outside the research community is less likely to have enemies within that community.

Personally, I’d like to see more science awareness in Parliament as per Preston Manning’s suggestion about the science community reaching out to politicians (Part 1 of an interview with Manning in a Sept. 10, 2009 posting and Part 2 of the Manning interview in a Sept. 11, 2009 posting). There are, for example, UK programmes that address this issue including one where young scientists shadow politicians (my Nov. 26, 2010 posting).

The appointment I find a bit more disturbing, at this point,  is James Moore’s to Industry Canada [ETA July 17, 2013 at 3:55 pm PDT: Science and Technology is a junior ministry included with the senior and important Industry ministry]. Moore once characterized Cory Doctorow, a science fiction writer, and others as ‘extremist radicals’ for 0pposing his (Moore’s) maximalist approach to a then upcoming piece of  copyright legislation (my June 25, 2010 posting) at a public event and later lied about the comment. Unfortunately for Moore, there was video evidence. Given the emphasis on patents in the innovation discussion, Moore’s previous comments on maximizing copyright are not comforting if one feels that even current patent regimes are hindering innovation and by extension the pursuit of science.

During Moore’s tenure as Minister of Canadian Heritage and Official Languages he expressed his displeasure with an exhibition about sex at  the Canada Science and Technology Museum in Ottawa (from my June 13, 2012 posting),

It’s time now to add sex to the mix. Canada’s Science and Technology Museum is currently hosting SEX: A Tell-all Exhibition, which has caused some consternation in our country’s capital (Ottawa), from the May 16, 2012 article by Althia Raj for the **Huffington Post (Canada),

Canada’s Science and Technology Museum has abruptly raised the age limit for a controversial sex exhibit after Heritage Minister James Moore’s office raised concerns and more than 50 individuals complained.

Moore’s office called museum president Denise Amyot to complain that Sex: A Tell-All Exhibition [sic] is completely inappropriate.

“The purpose of the Museum of Science and Technology is to foster scientific and technological literacy throughout Canada,” said Moore’s spokesperson James Maunder.

“It is clear this exhibit does not fit within that mandate. This content cannot be defended, and is insulting to taxpayers,” he said.

This show had already been run in Montréal (where it was developed by the Montréal Science Centre for children 12 years and older) and in Regina (Saskatachewan), without significant distress or insult.

Rickford is going be dealing with a boss who has some very definite ideas, is not afraid to intervene whether it’s appropriate or not, and lies under pressure.

Getting back to Goodyear, while there are many criticisms  Canadian science blogger and well known mathematician,  Nassif Ghoussoub, had good things to say about Goodyear’s ministership in a Nov. 16, 2011 posting and about Goodyear’s attitude to science in a May 17, 2012 posting on his Piece of Mind blog.

For a more extensive view and explanation of some of the concerns regarding Goodyear’s and the Harper government’s science activities, there’s this May 3, 2011 posting by David Ng (science literacy academic at the Michael Smith Laboratories of the University of British Columbia) on the Discover magazine website. H/T to Phil Plait at Slate.com for the Ng article.

* A minor typo was corrected, laywer to lawyer.

** An amusing type  was corrected, Huggington to Huffington.

ETA July 18, 2013: Earlier today, I found this July 15, 2013 article analyzing the situation with the news that the cabinet shuffle involved the ministers for Industry Canada and its junior portfolio Science and Technology written by Ivan Semeniuk for the Globe and Mail.

Gary Goodyear rouses passions: more on Canada’s National Research Council and its new commitment to business

Gary Goodyear’s, Minister of State (Science and Technology), office in attempting to set the record straight has, inadvertently, roused even more passion in Phil Plait’s (Slate.com blogger) bosom and inspired me to examine more commentary about the situation regarding the NRC and its ‘new’ commitment to business.

Phil Plait in a May 22, 2013 followup to one 0f his recent postings (I have the details about Plait’s and other commentaries in my May 13, 2013 posting about the NRC’s recent declarations) responds to an email from Michele-Jamali Paquette, the director of communication for Goodyear (Note: A link has been removed),

I read the transcripts, and assuming they are accurate, let me be very clear: Yes, the literal word-for-word quotation I used was incorrect, and one point I made was technically and superficially in error. But the overall point—that this is a terrible move by the NRC and the conservative Canadian government, short-changing real science—still stands. And, in my opinion, Goodyear’s office is simply trying to spin what has become a PR problem.

I’ll note that in her email to me, Paquette quoted my own statement:

John MacDougal [sic], President of the NRC, literally said, “Scientific discovery is not valuable unless it has commercial value”

Paquette took exception to my use of the word “literally,” emphasizing it in her email. (The link, in both her email and my original post, goes to the Toronto Sun story with the garbled quotation.) Apparently MacDougal did not literally say that. But the objection strikes me as political spin since the meaning of what MacDougal said at the press conference is just as I said it was in my original post.

As I pointed out in my first post: Science can and should be done for its own sake. It pays off in the end, but that’s not why we do it. To wit …

Paquette’s choice of what issues (the 2nd issue was Plait’s original description of the NRC as a funding agency) to dispute seem odd and picayune as they don’t have an impact on Plait’s main argument,

Unfortunately, despite these errors, the overall meaning remains the same: The NRC is moving away from basic science to support business better, and the statements by both Goodyear and MacDougal [sic] are cause for concern.

Plait goes on to restate his argument and provide a roundup of commentaries. It’s well worth reading for the roundup alone.  (One picayune comment from me, I wish Plait would notice that the head of Canada’s National Research Council’s name is spelled this way, John McDougall.)

Happily, Nassif Ghoussoub has also chimed in with a May 22, 2013 posting (on his Piece of Mind blog) regarding the online discussion (Note: Links have been removed),

The Canadian twitter world has been split in the last couple of days. … But then, you have the story of the Tories’ problem with science, be it defunding, muzzling, disbelieving, doubting, preventing, delegitimizing etc. The latter must have restarted with the incredible announcement about the National Research Council (NRC), presented as “Canada sells out science” in Slate, and as “Failure doesn’t come cheap” in Maclean’s. What went unnoticed was the fact that the restructuring turned out to be totally orthogonal to the recommendations of the Jenkins report about the NRC. Then came the latest Science, Technology and Innovation Council (STIC) report, which showed that Canada’s expenditure on research and development has fallen from 16th out of 41 comparable countries in the year Stephen Harper became prime minister, to 23rd in 2011. Paul Wells seems to be racking up hits on his Maclean’s article,  “Stephen Harper and the knowledge economy: perfect strangers.”  But the story of the last 48 hours has been John Dupuis’s chronology of what he calls, “The Canadian war on science” and much more.

Yes, it’s another roundup but it’s complementary (albeit with one or two repetitions) since Plait does not seem all that familiar with the Canadian scene (I find it’s always valuable to have an outside perspective) and Nassif is a longtime insider.

John Dupuis’ May 20, 2013 posting (on his Confessions of a Science Librarian blog), mentioned by both Nassif and Plait, provides an extraordinary listing of stories ranging from 2006 through to 2013 whose headlines alone paint a very bleak picture of the practice of science in Canada,

As is occasionally my habit, I have pulled together a chronology of sorts. It is a chronology of all the various cuts, insults, muzzlings and cancellations that I’ve been able to dig up. Each of them represents a single shot in the Canadian Conservative war on science. It should be noted that not every item in this chronology, if taken in isolation, is necessarily the end of the world. It’s the accumulated evidence that is so damning.

As I’ve noted before, I am no friend of Stephen Harper and his Conservative government and many of their actions have been reprehensible and, at times, seem childishly spiteful but they do occasionally get something right. There was a serious infrastructure problem in Canada. Buildings dedicated to the pursuit of science were sadly aged and no longer appropriate for the use to which they were being put. Harper and his government have poured money into rebuilding infrastructure and for that they should be acknowledged.

As for what the Conservatives are attempting with this shift in direction for the National Research Council (NRC), which has been ongoing for at least two years as I noted in my May 13, 2013 posting, I believe they are attempting to rebalance the Canadian research enterprise.  It’s generally agreed that Canada historically has very poor levels of industrial research and development (R&D) and high levels of industrial R&D are considered, internationally, as key to a successful economy. (Richard Jones, Pro-Vice Chancellor for Research and Innovation at the University of Sheffield, UK, discusses how a falling percentage of industrial R&D, taking place over decades,  is affecting the UK economy in a May 10, 2013 commentary on the University of  Sheffield SPERI [Sheffield Political Economy Research Institute] website.)

This NRC redirection when taken in conjunction with the recent StartUp visa programme (my May 20, 2013 posting discusses Minister of Immigration Jason Kenney’s recent recruitment tour in San Francisco [Silicon Valley]),  is designed to take Canada and Canadians into uncharted territory—the much desired place where we develop a viable industrial R&D sector and an innovative economy in action.

In having reviewed at least some of the commentary, there are a couple of questions left unasked about this international obsession with industrial R&D,

  • is a country’s economic health truly tied to industrial R&D or is this ‘received’ wisdom?
  • if industrial R&D is the key to economic health, what would be the best balance between it and the practice of basic science?

As for the Canadian situation, what might be some of the unintended consequences? It occurs to me that if scientists are rewarded for turning their research into commercially viable products they might be inclined to constrain access to materials. Understandable if the enterprise is purely private but the NRC redirection is aimed at bringing together academics and private enterprise in a scheme that seems a weird amalgam of both.

For example, cellulose nanocrystals (CNC) are not easily accessed if you’re a run-of-the-mill entrepreneur. I’ve had more than one back-channel request about how to purchase the material and it would seem that access is tightly controlled by the academics and publicly funded enterprise, in this case, a private business, who produce the material. (I’m speaking of the FPInnovations and Domtar comingling in CelluForce, a CNC production facility and much more. It would make a fascinating case study on how public monies are used to help finance private enterprises and their R&D efforts; the relationship between nongovernmental agencies (FPInnovations, which I believe was an NRC spinoff), various federal public funding agencies, and Domtar, a private enterprise; and the power dynamics between all the players including the lowly entrepreneur.

What kind of science do we want? A few thoughts on the National Research Council of Canada and its new dedication to business

Last week in its May 7, 2013 news release, the National Research Council of Canada flung open the doors of its closet and declared itself ‘open for business’,

The National Research Council of Canada (NRC) has transformed into an industry-focused research and technology organization. The refocused NRC will work with Canadian industries to bridge technology gaps, helping build a more innovative Canadian economy.

“NRC plays a pivotal role at the heart of Canada’s innovation system,” said the Honourable Gary Goodyear, Minister of State (Science and Technology). “The refocused NRC will provide Canadian industries with access to strategic research and development, technical services and specialized scientific infrastructure they need to succeed.”

“The Government’s top priority is jobs, growth and long-term prosperity for all Canadians,” said the Honourable Claude Carignan, Deputy Leader of the Government at the Senate. “By refocusing the NRC into a research and technology organization, our Government is ensuring that Canadian firms have the instruments and tools they need to become even more successful on the global stage.”

The refocused NRC will support Canadian industries by investing in large-scale research projects that are directed by and for Canadian business. It will also develop international networks to ensure timely access to primary research and will open the doors to world class scientific infrastructure, technical expertise and people.

“We are very excited about this change. Our organization is now easier for business to understand and access,” said John R. McDougall, President of the National Research Council. “We are committed to being a strong partner for innovation, and focused on achieving the concrete outcomes that will contribute to a stronger and more prosperous Canada. We will measure our success by the success of our clients.”

Research and technology organizations are mission-oriented providers of innovation services to firms and governments, dedicated to building economic competitiveness and, in doing so, improving quality of life. The refocused NRC will strengthen Canadian industry by encouraging more business investment to develop innovative products and services.

Response has ranged from mild interest to apoplexy and heartbreak.

Phil Plait, a US astronomer and creator of the Bad Astronomy blog/book/website, has opined in a May 13, 2013 posting at Slate.com (Note: A link has been removed),

This is not a joke. I wish it were.

John MacDougal [sic], President of the NRC, literally said, “Scientific discovery is not valuable unless it has commercial value”. Gary Goodyear, the Canadian Minister of State for Science and Technology, also stated “There is [sic] only two reasons why we do science and technology. First is to create knowledge … second is to use that knowledge for social and economic benefit. Unfortunately, all too often the knowledge gained is opportunity lost.”

This is monumentally backwards thinking. That is not the reason we do science. Economic benefits are results of doing research, but should not be the reason we do it. Basic scientific research is a vast endeavor, and some of it will pay off economically, and some won’t. In almost every case, you cannot know in advance which will do which.

… If proposed and immediate economic benefits are the prime factors in choosing what science to fund, then the freedom of this human endeavor will be critically curtailed. It’s draining the passion and heart out of one of the best things we humans do.

This intensity suggests that Plait is unaware that the changeover has been taking place over a number of years. Hannah Hoag in an April 19, 2011 piece for Nature magazine noted this about the changeover which was even then taking place,

Canada’s largest research entity has a new focus — and some disaffected scientists. On 1 April [2011], the National Research Council (NRC), made up of more than 20 institutes and programmes with a total annual budget larger than Can$1 billion (US$1 billion), switched to a funding strategy that downplays basic research in favour of programmes designed to attract industry partners and generate revenue. [emphasis mine] Some researchers suggest that the shift is politically driven, because it brings the agency into philosophical alignment with the governing Conservative Party of Canada, which is in the middle of an election campaign.

The change was announced in a memo from NRC president John McDougall on 2 March [2011], and involves the transfer of authority over 20% of the agency’s research funds and the entire Can$60-million budget for large equipment and building costs to the NRC’s senior executive committee, which will direct it towards research with a focus on economic development, rather than pure science. Until now, individual institutes have had authority over research spending. McDougall wrote that in future, 80% of the research budget will be centralized, with “curiosity and exploratory activities” to be funded by the remaining 20%.

In Canada, most funding for academic researchers flows through agencies other than the NRC. [emphasis mine] However, with 4,700 scientists, guest researchers, technologists and support staff pursuing specialities from astrophysics to plant biotechnology at its institutes, the NRC plays a vital part in the nation’s scientific community, as a generator of original research and a service provider to government and industry.

While I’m no friend of the current Canadian government or John McDougall for that matter, this is an attempt to dealt with a longstanding issue, Canada’s failure with industrial research. From the Feb. 27, 2013 article, which prefigures the current discussion by a little over two months, by Tom Spears  in the Ottawa Citizen,

In October [2012], members of the House of Commons Industry Committee challenged McDougall to justify the changes.

Now McDougall has responded that Canada’s economy can’t wait for slow advances.

As science investment has grown in Canada, “our productivity and competitiveness, as measured by various organizations in the world, has been going in exactly the opposite direction,” he said in an interview.

“The primary reason for that is entirely speculative … But it would appear that Canada’s balance is quite different from other countries.”

That means we’re good at academic research, he says. We’re not so good at putting new knowledge to work.

“We’re not doing the things that take technology and ‘productize’ it.” (He makes exceptions to that: We’re strong in informational technology and in space-related industries such as robotics and building satellites.)

And he argues the answer lies in involving industry with the research from the start “rather than shoving it down their throat and hoping they’ll take it.”

For example, one new “flagship program” at NRC is to develop wheat that will resist cold and drought better than today’s, require less fertilizer, and produce greater yields.

“The timeline for this kind of thing is in the order of seven or eight years, which left to normal — I’ll call it traditional approaches — would typically be 20,” he said.

A similar ‘Canada is poor at commercializing research’ theme is mentioned in a May 7, 2013 article by Barrie McKenna and Ivan Semeniuk for the Globe and Mail,

The National Research Council, which gave the country canola and the atomic clock, will now be taking its scientific cues from Canadian industry as part of a makeover of the country’s flagship research labs.

The overhaul, quietly begun two years ago and formally unveiled Tuesday, means the 97-year-old NRC will focus on a clutch of large-scale, business-driven research projects at the expense of the basic science that was once at its core. The Conservative government says it wants to leverage the NRC’s world-class resources – everything from wind tunnels and ice tanks to high-powered microscopes – to help reverse the country’s chronically lagging innovation performance.

“Our businesses are not doing the research that they need to do,” Gary Goodyear, the minister of state for science and technology, told reporters in Ottawa. “So something had to be done.”

The move is in keeping with the Conservative government’s emphasis on a business model for public policy, such as tying foreign aid to economic development. It is also another significant foray into the science file, with critics saying the new approach is shortsighted and may shut the door on vast areas of promising fundamental research.

Mr. Goodyear insisted the government isn’t abandoning basic science, just shifting its focus to commercializing discoveries. “The day is past when a researcher could hit a home run simply by publishing a paper on some new discovery,” he said. “The home run is when somebody utilizes the knowledge that was discovered for social or economic gain.”

As part of the overhaul, the NRC is consolidating its disparate operations into a dozen business units and will focus on just five core areas of research: health costs, manufacturing, community infrastructure, security, and natural resources and the environment. Companies, or industries, will be able to tap the NRC’s expertise and labs, while sharing the cost of projects – as well as the intellectual property that results.

“Our job is to change innovation performance,” NRC president John McDougall explained in an interview. “So we have to do the things that will make that happen. Discovery science is necessary, but it’s not sufficient.”

Kennedy Stewart, the NDP (New Democratic Party; the official opposition) Member of Parliament expresses his opinion in his May 7, 2013 news release,

“Conservative incompetence meets Conservative narrow-mindedness,” said NDP Science and Technology critic Kennedy Stewart (Burnaby–Douglas). “They don’t want research driven by researchers themselves or public funding for science going towards actual scientific advancement. Their short-sighted approach will in fact hurt economic growth in the long run because it shuts the door on the long-view fundamental research that truly leads to scientific breakthroughs.”

Widespread dissatisfaction among the over 4,000 NRC employees and the change of focus away from basic research, patents and publications will increase the drain of Canada’s best and brightest minds to other OECD countries that are investing in scientific research heavily. Under the Conservatives, Canada just can’t compete.

“The government has been handing pink slips to scores of NRC scientists and researchers, lowering the organization’s research capacity and devastating internal morale,” said Stewart.  “It is hard to see how business will get scientific advice from the NRC if they fire all the scientists. Who they keep will spend their time trying to get off this runaway train.”

As best as I can unravel, there are several issues in the material I have excerpted:

  • what is the right mix of science, basic to applied/industrial?
  • it’s widely acknowledged that Canadians have done more poorly in the area of industrial science than colleagues in other OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) countries
  • how do we address the issue?

The solution that the current Canadian government has arrived *at is impossible to assess at this point (although I have a guess as to the outcome) and something needed to be done with the National Research Council of Canada as noted in an April 7, 2010 posting on the Don’t leave Canada behind; Researcher Forum blog (I believe the writer was Rob Annan),

The NRC is a mess.

And the mess of the NRC neatly encapsulates much that’s wrong with Canadian science policy. No direction, no cohesion, multiple conflicting purposes.

Rob goes on to discuss the NRC’s mandate (Note: A link has been removed),

Well, the NRC is mandated, by the original NRC Act of 1916, “to undertaking, assisting or promoting scientific and industrial research in different fields of importance to Canada”. It did this very successfully into the 1960s, at which point, its greatest successes were carved out and handed to new organizations.

So what’s left? Well the NRC Act has a few specific mandates that the NRC fulfills: standards of measurement, manage observatories, investigate and standardize industrial materials, perform agricultural research, and maintain a national science library (which is under major financial stress, but let’s save that for another time). But the general mandate to “undertake, assist, or promote” scientific and industrial research is open to interpretation, and is a source of conflict.

I’m not sure if the NRC Act has been amended since 2010 to allow for these latest changes but Rob goes on to make, what is for me, a more interesting point (Note: A link has been removed),

But since the 1980s, the NRC has been without a strong sense of self. Is it a basic research organization or an applied research organization? Does it exist to perform independent, government-sponsored research, or does it provide research services in support of the private sector? Does it perform early-stage research and then partner with industry, or is it a fee-for-service research organization? The answer is yes.

The NRC is being pulled in too many directions.

What does our Minister of Industry [at the time, Tony Clement] have to say about the NRC?

NRC‘s aim is to bring timely solutions to market in areas of national importance: clean energy, health and wellness, and the environment. NRC will continue to partner with Canadian firms to deliver tangible, market-oriented results in high-impact and emerging industry sectors, such as the automotive sector.

But the NRC isn’t designed to do this – this is a different mandate than what is laid out in the Act. Which would be fine – maybe it’s time for a change – except that the NRC institutes have been, not surprisingly, built according to the mandate outlined in the NRC Act – as research laboratories, not product development laboratories or partnership incubators. And the people recruited to run these labs are scientists, not business-people. They want to do science, not chase down industrial partnerships in the automotive sector or take their clean energy products to market. They’ve been recruited for their scientific abilities; it’s a bit of a stretch to expect them also to be market innovators.

Furthermore, because the government does not fund the full cost of research at the institutes, these labs are dependent on research funding from external sources. If the funding was coming from Canadian business, then the vision of our Industry minister would be fulfilled. Unfortunately, Canadian business is notoriously averse to investing in academic or government research. So these labs are dependent on CIHR, NSERC, or private funding – mostly basic science funding. So, the government builds a system of research laboratories, forces them into dependence on basic science funding, and then complains that there isn’t enough market-driven research going on? [all emphases mine]

I realize that CIHR and NSERC funding programs have changed but the issue with Canadian business paying for research has not. It is, as I have noted in other pieces, a cultural issue with the key question being, How do you inculcate a business culture that innovates? What we have now is a ‘start-up’ culture where people found businesses based on exciting research and plan on growing those businesses to a point where they can be sold to larger companies from the US or Britain or elsewhere. Based on these comments, my guess is that the current changes to the NRC will not result in the ‘innovation’ the government has repeatedly stated is its primary goal since our basic business culture will remain untouched. One last thing, I think people are going to figure out how to game this new NRC.

*at added on May 22, 2013

Canadian government withdraws from UN treaty, recycles old news, and undergoes a ‘muzzled’ science probe

Every once in a while, there’s a slew of announcements that seem to reveal a pattern of sorts with regard to political doings. In this case, I’m looking at three announcements about recent moves by the  Canadian Conservative government and which seem, to me, curiously interlinked.

First there was the announcement (CBC Mar. 27, 2013 news item) that Canada is withdrawing from the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification, in those Countries Experiencing Severe Drought and/or Desertification (to become the only country in the world not party to it) and its annual commitment of $350,000. The CBC Mar. 28, 2013 news item provided more detail,

Prime Minister Stephen Harper said less than one-fifth of the $350,000 Canada contributes to the UN Convention to Combat Desertification goes to programming.

“This particular organization spends less than 20 per cent — 18 per cent — of the funds that we send it are actually spent on programming, the rest goes to various bureaucratic measures.That’s not an effective way to spend taxpayers’ money,” Harper told MPs during question period Thursday.

The Canadian Press reported Wednesday [Mar. 27, 2013?] the UN secretariat that administers the program was unaware of Canada’s decision until contacted by its reporter.

A spokesperson for the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) [emphasis mine] told CBC News the head of the secretariat was informed of the decision on Monday [Mar. 25, 2013?], and written confirmation was delivered to the UN Secretary General’s office in New York the same day.

But a UN official in Bonn told CBC News that Canada notified the UN about its withdrawal “informally last week by telephone” and “this is not considered proper notification… or protocol.”

The proper protocol is to formally write to the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon in New York and formally provide a notice that Canada is withdrawing from the treaty.

Paul Heinbecker, a former Canadian ambassador to the UN and chief foreign policy advisor to Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, wrote an Apr. 1, 2013 essay for the Globe and Mail about some recent history between Canada and the UN, this latest withdrawal, and its implications (Note: A link has been removed),

Following the Harper government’s failure in 2010 to win a Canadian seat on the UN Security Council, its disregard of the UN gave way to disdain. Ottawa’s rare appearances at the UN have tended to stress what it regards as Canada’s uniquely “principled” foreign policy, bringing to mind U.S. Secretary of State Dean Acheson’s characterization of Canadian foreign policy in the fifties as “the stern voice of the daughter of God,” and cementing Canada’s long-standing reputation as global mother-in-law.

Because of the links between drought, land degradation, desertification and climate change, withdrawal from the Desertification Convention comes with potentially significant costs. …

Heinbecker develops this line of thought by noting that the withdrawal makes it seem that Canada does not care about climate change (let’s not forget the withdrawal from Kyoto protocol, the UN Convention on Climate Change, a UN initiative from which the Canadian Conservative government withdrew in 2011) and noting this,

Given that the government of Alberta as well as ministers and departments in Ottawa have been going to considerable effort and expense to argue in the U.S. that Canada does care, it is self-harming to hand America’s Keystone opponents a stick to beat the pipeline with.

Also, because the locus of most of the devastation arising from desertification is in Africa, walking away from a treaty whose creation was led by the Mulroney and Chrétien governments reinforces the impression that Ottawa no longer cares about Africa. It is an impression that this government also went to some trouble and expense to try to reverse. Further, because the worst destruction from desertification is happening in the Sahara region, abandoning the treaty sends a mixed signal about the security issues at stake in Mali and the Sahel, and about Canadian mining interests there as well.

Thankfully, Prime Minister Stephen Harper and the conservative government are ensuring that our annual $350,000 contribution, after 2014, will no be longer wasted on what they termed a ‘talkfest’. To combat this negative impression being made on the rest of the world, there’s been an announcement (Azonano Apr. 6, 2013 news item) recycling some old government news about monies for the second phase of the Canadian International Food Security Research Fund (CIFSRF),

 “The Harper Government is committed to increasing food security to those most in need as part of Canada’s effective international assistance through investing in scientific research and innovation,” said Parliamentary Secretary Brown [Lois Brown]. “Canadian universities, businesses, and NGOs [nongovernmental organizations]  have expertise that they can share with the world. Together, we can use innovation to put an end to global hunger.”

The Canadian International Food Security Research Fund is a joint initiative between the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) and the International Development Research Centre (IDRC). [emphases mine] It supports innovative research partnerships between Canadian and developing-country researchers to respond to immediate food needs while increasing access to quality, nutritious food over the long term. Phase 2 will focus on connecting promising research results to public and private sector organizations that can get them to end users on a larger scale.

“IDRC and CIDA have a long history of supporting Canada’s leadership in agricultural research and innovation for development,” said Jean Lebel, Acting President of IDRC. “CIFSRF demonstrates our mutual commitment to achieving sustainable results that put Canada’s considerable experience in agricultural and nutrition science to work globally to ensure farmers have access to new technologies and specialized expertise to keep pace with the growing demand for food.  Through CIFSRF, we are also expanding Canada’s scientific base and contributing to the country’s science and technology strategy.”

The Canadian International Food Security Research Fund, first launched in 2009, currently supports 19 projects, bringing together some of the best researchers from 11 Canadian and 26 developing-country organizations, as well as partners from scientific, private sector and civil society organizations, to develop innovative solutions to improve global food security.

The part where it got really interesting for me was the April 4, 2013 article by Rick Westhead for  star.com about the funds some of which are bound for the University of Guelph as per its Apr. 5, 2013 news release about the matter. Not to be too confusing but the following excerpt is from the April 4, 2013 Westhead article,

Manish Raizada, a University of Guelph agriculture professor, is changing lives in India, Nepal and Sri Lanka by showing farmers how to boost crop yields with weeding and planting techniques and by adding new crops.

Other Canadian researchers are bolstering Ethiopia’s agriculture sector, introducing farmers to rhizobia, a bacteria that naturally adds nitrogen to the soil and helped Saskatchewan, nearly a century ago, become a leading soybean exporter.

Then there are Canadian-led efforts in India that use nanotechnology to improve the lifespan of mangoes, efforts that should help improve livelihoods in a country where half of children under five are malnourished. [In fact, this an India, Sri Lanka, and Canada effort which I mentioned in a June 21, 2012 posting and again in a Nov. 1, 2012 posting.]

For instance, McGurk [Dr. Stephen McGurk, IDRC director of agriculture programmes] said one government-funded project is helping lengthen the shelf life of mangoes by as much as two weeks by introducing a nanoparticle-based coating that prevents them from ripening as fast.

“That way they’re attractive when they get to market, not looking like pulp,” McGurk said. “That science, once it has been tried in India can be equally applied to fruits here like plums or raspberries.”

Interestingly, McGurk gives this quote to Westhead,

“In no way would Canadian scientists in the agriculture sector say they are muzzled,” said Stephen McGurk, director of IDRC’s agriculture programs. [emphasis mine] “We’re engaged outside our borders and doing research now that’s valuable to Canadians but has to prove its salt somewhere else first.”

What makes McGurk an interesting spokesperson regarding ‘muzzles and Canadian scientists’ is that he  is an economist and a sinologist who prior to his latest appointment as IDRC director of agriculture programmes seems to have lived in Asia for the last 12 years and given this career description is likely from the US originally (from the Oct. 9, 2012 IDRC announcement of McGurk’s appointment),

Stephen McGurk is a Sinologist and economist who has spent more than two decades studying Asia’s rural development.Since 2006, he has been Director of IDRC’s Regional Office for South Asia and China in New Delhi (now the Asia Regional Office). From 2000 to 2006, he led IDRC’s office in Singapore.

Before joining IDRC, McGurk worked with the Ford Foundation in Beijing, where he was responsible for its economic security program in China. He has also taught at the University of California and worked with the World Bank on investments in China’s rural development. McGurk has a PhD from Stanford University’s [California] Food Research Institute.

I am curious as to how Dr. McGurk comes by his information about Canadian government agricultural scientists and their views on muzzles or lack thereof.

In looking at all of these bits of information, the desertification treaty withdrawal seems odd, almost as if it were designed to divert attention from something else the Conservative government is doing. Or, perhaps it’s an example of meanspirited shortsightedness something this government has been accused of before.

The recycled news item seems like it might not be as helpful as one would hope, although governments of all stripes are known to announce monies for projects that have been previously announced making it seem that a great deal more money is being dispersed than is the case. These announcements are always excellent for distraction but one would think the government would be eager to emphasize funding for projects in African countries rather than Asian countries given the conservatives’ current public relations problems in that region, as noted by Heinbecker.

As for McGurk’s quote about muzzles and agricultural scientists, while it does seem a bit ‘facey’ of him, he, at least, is not afraid to say something (although it’s not clear why he was asked about the muzzle since the news release was strictly about funding). For more about the ‘muzzles’,  there’s this excerpt from the Apr. 2, 2013 Canadian Press news item found at macleans.ca on campus,

Federal policies that restrict what government scientists can say publicly about their work are about to be put under the microscope.

Federal Information Commissioner Suzanne Legault has agreed to investigate how government communications rules on taxpayer-funded science impact public access to information.

Legault is responding to a detailed complaint lodged by the Environmental Law Centre at the University of Victoria and the ethics advocacy group Democracy Watch.

Their lengthy report — “Muzzling Civil Servants: A Threat to Democracy?” — laid out repeated examples of taxpayer-funded science being suppressed or limited to pre-packaged media lines across six different government departments and agencies.

Chris Tollefson, the executive director of UVic’s law centre, said their research into suppressed science revealed both the wide scope of the practice and that it “represents a significant departure” in government practice over the last five to seven years.

…Gary Goodyear, the minister of state for science and technology, was not available Monday to defend Conservative practices. His office provided an email stating government scientists “are readily available to share their research with the media and the public.”

“Last year, Environment Canada participated in more than 1,300 media interviews, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada issued nearly 1,000 scientific publications, and Natural Resources Canada published nearly 500 studies,” said the statement.

It came the same day that the Globe and Mail reported that the National Research Council declined to make available its lead engineer for a front page story on research into truck safety. [emphases mine]

“Great spin — but missing the point,” Democracy Watch’s Duff Conacher said of the government response.

“It’s not the number of documents, it’s what percentage of documents are being released.”

Truck safety? That seems an odd topic for which to suppress or restrict any discussion with the lead engineer. But then, why withdraw from a treaty to save $350,000? As for the recycled announcement about funding for food and agriculture projects in Asia when you have substantive perception issues regarding  Africa and having someone who hasn’t lived in the country for 12 years defending your policies, the whole thing seems rather inept.

A couple of nanoscientists and the Canada Research Chair (CRC) programme

The announcements about Canada’s latest round of Canada Research Chairs were made on Friday, Mar. 15, 2013 (that’s when I received a news release from Simon Fraser University [Vancouver, Canada] about their bonanza). The Canada Research Chairs programme has issued a Mar. 15, 2012 news release but it has no details as to which chairs have been awarded, so I can only offer information from the two agencies touting their nanotechnology chairs.

Simon Fraser University (SFU) had this to say about its latest financial windfall (from the SFU Mar. 15, 2013 news release),

Four Simon Fraser University researchers will gain nearly $2.9 million to continue their research fellowships as Canada Research Chairs in areas as diverse as climate change, marine conservation, children’s health, and nanotechnology.

The funds are part of a $90.6 million injection by the federal government into the Canada Research Chair program, supporting 120 newly awarded and renewed chairs across the country.

Here’s the information about the nanotechnology/materials science chair (from the SFU news release),

Chemistry professor Neil Branda of Chemistry has begun his second seven-year term as SFU’s Tier 1 Canada Research Chair in Materials Science.  Operating at the crossroads of organic chemistry, materials science, and nanotechnology, his research program involves the design and synthesis of photo-responsive compounds and their integration with nanosystems.

Branda, a recognized leader in materials science and co-founder of SFU’s 4D LABS, heads the Prometheus Project, a collaboration of BC’s research universities that will bring global attention to B.C.’s rich capabilities in this industry-relevant field.

I highlighted some information about Branda and the Canada Foundation for Innovation, which had just announced its funding for the Prometheus Project, in a Jan. 15, 2013 posting,

The Federal Government of Canada in the guise of the Canada Foundation for Innovation has just awarded $7.7M to Simon Fraser University (SFU) and its partners for a global innovation hub. From the Jan. 15, 2013 Canada Foundation for Innovation news release,

British Columbia’s research-intensive universities are coming together to create a global hub for materials science and engineering. Simon Fraser University, the University of Victoria, the University of British Columbia and the British Columbia Institute of Technology have received $7.7 million in funding from the Canada Foundation of Innovation to create the Prometheus Project — a research hub for materials science and engineering innovation and commercialization.

“Our goal with the Prometheus Project is to turn our world-class research capacity into jobs and growth for the people of British Columbia,” said Neil Branda, Canada Research Chair in Materials Science at Simon Fraser University and leader of the Prometheus Project. [emphasis added for Mar. 18, 2013 posting]

According to the Mar. 16, 2013 news item on Azonano there was also an announcement in the province of Alberta,

The Honourable Laurie Hawn, Member of Parliament for Edmonton Centre, today announced an investment of $5.8 million to support eight Canada Research Chairs in Alberta as part of the national announcement made by the Honourable Gary Goodyear, Minister of State (Science and Technology).

Today’s event featured Dr. Tian Tang, Canada Research Chair in Nano-biomolecular Hybrid Materials at the University of Alberta. Dr. Tang and her team are working to better understand how nano-sized organic and inorganic materials interact. Their research will help future scientists and innovators develop nano-sized machines that could be useful in electronics, computing, manufacturing and health care. This research will help establish Canada’s leadership in this field, which is expected to be one of the most commercially important and fastest-growing areas of health care and engineering in the 21st century.

Congratulations to all the researchers!

Council of Canadian Academies tries to answer question: What is the state of Canada’s science culture?

The Council of Canadian Academies is an organization designed to answer questions about science in Canada. From the Council’s About Us webpage on their website,

The Council is an independent, not-for-profit corporation that supports science-based, expert assessments (studies) to inform public policy development in Canada. The Council began operation in 2005 and consists of a Board of Governers, a Scientific Advisory Committee and Secretariat. The Council draws upon the intellectual capital that lies within its three Member Academies the Royal Society of Canada (RSC); the Canadian Academy of Engineering;  and the Canadian Academy of Health Sciences.

Our mission is to contribute to the shaping of evidence-based public policy that is in the public interest. This is achieved by appointing independent, multidisciplinary panels of expert volunteers. The Council’s work encompasses a broad definition of science, incorporating the natural, social and health sciences as well as engineering and the humanities.

Expert Panels directly address the question and sub-questions referred to them. Panel assessments may also identify: emerging issues, gaps in knowledge, Canadian strengths, and international trends and practices. Upon completion, assessments provide government decision-makers, academia and stakeholders with high-quality information required to develop informed and innovative public policy.

Several months ago, Gary Goodyear, Canada’s Minister of State (Science and Technology), requested on behalf of the Canada Science and Technology Museums Corporation (CSTMC), Natural Resources Canada, and Industry Canada an assessment of science culture in Canada. From the State of Canada’s Science Culture webpage on the Council of Canadian Academies website,

Over the past 30 years, public interest and debate has been steadily growing in Canada and abroad over the need to foster a science culture as part of the national science and technology agenda. In this period, significant government and private investments have contributed to the development of hundreds of individual science culture programs and institutions.

Now more than ever the volume of programs and data support the need for a national examination of issues, such as the performance indicators that best reflect the vitality of Canada’s science culture, and a need to understand where Canada ranks internationally. The expert panel will be asked to consider these and other questions such as what factors influence an interest in science among youth; what are the key components of the informal system that supports science culture; and what strengths and weaknesses exist in the Canadian system.

Assessments of science culture can focus either on science in the general culture, or the culture among scientists. This assessment will focus principally on the former, with additional interest in understanding the underlying connections among entrepreneurship, innovation and science. …

The full assessment process includes a rigorous peer review exercise to ensure the report is objective, balanced and evidence-based. Following the review and approval by the Council’s Board of Governors, the complete report will be made available on the Council’s website in both official languages. …

Question

What is the state of Canada’s science culture?

Sub-questions:

  1. What is the state of knowledge regarding the impacts of having a strong science culture?
  2. What are the indicators of a strong science culture? How does Canada compare with other countries against these indicators? What is the relationship between output measures and major outcome measures?
  3. What factors (e.g., cultural, economic, age, gender) influence interest in science, particularly among youth?
  4. What are the critical components of the informal system that supports science culture (roles of players, activities, tools and programs run by science museums, science centres, academic and not-for-profit organizations and the private sector)? What strengths and weaknesses exist in Canada’s system?
  5. What are the effective practices that support science culture in Canada and in key competitor countries?

Hopefully, the expert panel will have a definition of some kind for “science culture.”

After waiting what seems to be an unusually long period, the Council announced the chair for the  “science culture” expert panel (from the CCA Dec. 19, 2012 news release),

Arthur Carty to Serve as Expert Panel Chair on the State of Canada’s Science Culture

The Council is pleased to announce the appointment of Dr. Arthur Carty, O.C., as Chair of the Expert Panel on the State of Canada’s Science Culture. In 2011, the Minister of State (Science and Technology) on behalf of the Canada Science and Technology Museums Corporation (CSTMC), Natural Resources Canada, and Industry Canada requested the Council conduct an in-depth, evidence-based assessment on the state of Canada’s science culture.

As Chair of the Council’s Expert Panel, Dr. Carty will work with a multidisciplinary group of experts, to be appointed by the Council, to address the following question: What is the state of Canada’s science culture?

Dr. Carty is currently the Executive Director of the Waterloo Institute for Nanotechnology at the University of Waterloo. Dr. Carty also serves as Special Advisor to the President on international science and technology collaboration, and as Research Professor in the Department of Chemistry. Prior to this, Dr. Carty served as Canada’s first National Science Advisor to the Prime Minister and to the Government of Canada from 2004-2007 and as President of the National Research Council Canada from 1994-2004.

You can find out more on Carty’s biography webpage, on the CCA website,

Arthur Carty is the Executive Director of the Waterloo Institute for Nanotechnology at the University of Waterloo, Special Advisor to the President on international science and technology collaboration, and Research Professor in the Department of Chemistry

From 2004-2008, Dr. Carty served as Canada’s first National Science Advisor to the Prime Minister and to the Government of Canada. Prior to this appointment, he was President of the National Research Council Canada for 10 years. Before this, he spent 2 years at Memorial University and then 27 years at the University of Waterloo, where he was successively Professor of Chemistry, Director of the Guelph-Waterloo Centre for Graduate Work in Chemistry and Biochemistry, Chair of the Department of Chemistry, and Dean of Research.

….

Carty’s profile page on the Waterloo Institute of Nanotechnology (WIN) website offers the same information but in more detail.

It’s difficult to divine much from the biographical information about Carty as it is very purpose-oriented to impress the reader with Carty’s international and national involvements in the field of science advice and collaboration. Carty may have extensive experience with multi-disciplinary teams and an avid interest in a science culture that includes informal science education and the arts and humanities, unfortunately, it’s not visible on either the CCA or WIN website biographies.

Hopefully,  Carty and the CCA will assemble a diverse expert panel. (Warning: blatant self-promotion ahead) If they are looking for a person of diverse personal and professional interests

  • who has an MA in Creative Writing (nonfiction and fiction) and New Media from De Montfort University in Leicester, UK and
  • a BA (Communication – Honors) from Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, Canada and
  • who has built up one of the largest and longest-running independent science blogs in the country thereby contributing to science culture in Canada,
  • neatly combining the social sciences, the humanities, and an informed perspective on science and science culture in Canada in one person,

they may want to contact me at [email protected] I have more details in the CV and can supply references.

2012 Canadian Science Policy Conference and thinking big about Canadian science culture and policy

The 2012 Canadian Science Policy Conference is coming up in Calgary, Alberta on Nov. 5-7, 2012. and FrogHeart will be there moderating the Thinking Big: Science Culture and Policy in Canada panel. More about that in a minute but first, here’s the announcement, which I received at about  12:30 pm PDT, Oct. 1, 2012 (so this is pretty fresh off the email) :

Minister of State for Science and Technology, the Hon. Gary Goodyear, and Alberta Minister of Enterprise and Advanced Education, the Hon. Stephen Khan, will be speaking at the CSPC 2012

Calgary, Alberta November 5th – 7th

TORONTO, ONTARIO–(Marketwire – Sept. 28, 2012) - CSPC 2012 is pleased to announce that the Hon. Gary Goodyear, Minister of State for Science and Technology will provide the opening keynote address on Monday, November 5th at 8:45 AM.

Also, the Hon. Stephen Khan, Alberta Minister of Enterprise and Advanced Education will provide a luncheon keynote speech on Tuesday, November 6th.

CSPC 2012 will feature an impressive program with more than 90 speakers – leaders of science and innovation – from industry, academia, the media and government. These include:

  • Hon. Moira Stilwell,  MLA, Minister of Social Development, BC
  • Bob Fessenden, Premier’s Council for Economic Strategy, Government of Alberta
  • Dan Wicklum, CEO, Canada Oil Sands Innovation Alliance, (COSIA)
  • Antonia Maioni, Incoming President, Canadian Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences
  • Jeffrey Simpson, National Affairs Columnist, The Globe and Mail
  • Jay Ingram, Founder, Beakerhead, Science Journalist
  • Rory McAlpine, Vice President, Maple Leaf Foods
  • Mike Herrington, Executive Director, Global Entrepreneurship Monitor (GEM)
  • Richard Hawkins, Canada Research Chair, Science, Technology and Innovation Policy, University of Calgary

Keynote session: Pulling Together: “What is the appropriate division of labour between business, government, and the academy in advancing science-based innovation in Canada?” a dialogue with the three Honourary Co-Chairs:

  • The Hon. Preston Manning C.C., President & CEO, Manning Centre for Building Democracy
  • Dr. Eric Newell, Chancellor Emeritus, University of Alberta, Former Chair and CEO, Syncrude Canada Ltd.
  • M. Elizabeth Cannon, PhD, FCAE, FRSC, President and Vice-Chancellor, University of Calgary

Twenty-one panel sessions, reflecting the four conference themes, submitted from across the country and internationally, including:

  • Innovation, R&D, and Productivity in the Oil and Gas Sector
  • Dissecting Canada’s Science & Technology Landscape
  • Innovation and Agriculture and the Role of Policy
  • Next Generation e-Health: Integrating Research, Policy, Industry
  • Entrepreneurship as a vehicle for innovation
  • “Science Policy 101″ workshop

For the complete agenda please go to http://www.cspc2012.ca/glance.php and for descriptions of all the panel discussions see http://www.cspc2012.ca/paneldescriptions.php.

Don’t miss Canada’s premiere science policy conference as it brings a spotlight to Western Canada!

Follow us on Twitter @sciencepolicy, Facebook, and LinkedIn for the latest in science policy news and conference updates.

Register Now!

Register today at https://www.verney.ca/cspc2012/registration/index.php to benefit from the Early Bird rate (ends October 1, 2012).

The Canadian conference has a major fan in David Bruggeman of the Pasco Phronesis blog as per his Aug. 28, 2012 posting titled ‘Where Canada Might Lead The World – The Fourth Canadian Science Policy Conference‘,

Later this year the fourth Canadian Science Policy Conference (CSPC) will take place in Alberta, Calgary.  I attended the first conference in 2009, when it was held in Toronto.  I found it quite valuable, and not being Canadian, I think that says something.  In the three years since the first conference, the number of presenters and panels has grown consistently, and I think the conference provides an important convening function for the nation’s researchers and practitioners interested in science policy.

I wish we had something like it in the United States. …

As for the Thinking big panel, here’s the description,

Science culture is more than encouraging kids to become scientists to insure our economic future; more than having people visit a science museum or centre and having fun; more than reading an interesting article in a newspaper or magazine about the latest whizbang breakthrough; more than educating people so they become scientifically literate and encourage ‘good’ science policies; it is a comprehensive approach to community- and society-building.

We live in a grand (in English, magnificent and en francais, big) country, the 2nd largest in the world and it behooves us all to be engaged in developing a vibrant science culture which includes

  • artists (performing and visual),
  • writers,
  • scientists,
  • children,
  • seniors,
  • games developers,
  • doctors,
  • business people,
  • elected officials,
  • philosophers,
  • government bureaucrats,
  • educators,
  • social scientists,
  • and others

as we grapple with 21st century scientific and technical developments.

As scientists work on prosthetic neurons for repair in people with Parkinsons and other neurological diseases, techniques for tissue engineering, self-cleaning windows, exponentially increased tracking capabilities for devices and goods tagged with RFID devices, engineered bacteria that produce petroleum and other products (US Defense Advanced Research Projects Living Foundries project), and more, Canadians will be challenged to understand and adapt to a future that can be only dimly imagined.

Composed of provocative thinkers from the worlds of science writing, science education, art/science work, and scientific endeavour, during this panel discussion they will offer their ideas and visions for a Canadian science culture and invite you to share yours. In addition to answering questions, each panelist will prepare their own question for audience members to answer.

The panelists are:

Marie-Claire Shanahan

Marie-Claire Shanahan is a professor of science education and science communication at the University of Alberta. She is interested in how and why students make decisions to pursue their interests science, in high schools, post-secondary education and informal science education. She also conducts research on interactions between readers and writers in online science communications.

Stephen Strauss

Stephen Strauss, Canadian Science Writers’ Association president, has been writing about science for 30 years. After receiving a B.A. (history) from the University of Colorado, he worked as an English teacher, a social worker, an editor before joining the Globe and Mail in 1979. He began writing about science there.

Since leaving the newspaper in 2004 he has written for the CBC.ca, Nature, New Scientist, The Canadian Medical Association Journal as well as authored books and book chapters. He has written for organizations such as the Canada Foundation for Innovation and the Government of Ontario and has won numerous awards.

Amber Didow

Amber Didow is the Executive Director for the Canadian Association of Science Centres. She has over 20 years experience in the non-profit sector and advancing informal education. She has worked within the Science Centre field for many years including the Saskatchewan Science Centre and Science World British Columbia.  Amber’s background includes new business development; educational outreach; programming with at-risk youth; creating community based science events; melding science with art and overseeing the creation and development of both permanent and travelling exhibitions. Amber has a strong passion for community development within the sector.

Maryse de la Giroday (moderator)

Maryse de la Giroday currently runs one of the largest and longest running Canadian science blogs (frogheart.ca) where she writes commentary on  nanotechnology, science policy, science communication, society, and the arts. With a BA in Communication (Simon Fraser University, Canada) and an MA in Creative Writing and New Media (De Montfort University, UK), she combines education and training in the social sciences and humanities with her commitment as an informed member of the science public. An independent scholar, she has presented at international conferences on topics of nanotechnology, storytelling, and memristors.

Dr. Moira Stilwell, MLA

Dr. Moira Stilwell was appointed Minister of Social Development  for the province of British Columbia in September 2012. Elected MLA for Vancouver-Langara in the 2009 provincial general election. She previously served as Parliamentary Secretary for Industry, Research and Innovation to the Minister of Jobs, Tourism and Innovation and Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Health with a focus on Health Innovation. She also served as Vice Chair of the Cabinet Committee on Jobs and Economic Growth. In her first cabinet appointment, she served as Minister of Advanced Education and Labour Market Development from June 2009 to October 2010.

Prior to her political career, Stilwell graduated from the University of Calgary Medical School. She received further training in nuclear medicine at the University of British Columbia and in radiology at the University of Toronto after that. She served for several years as the Head of Nuclear Medicine at St. Paul’s Hospital, Vancouver, Surrey Memorial Hospital, and Abbotsford Regional Hospital and Cancer Clinic but left all those positions in 2009 to run for public office.

The driving force behind the province’s Year of Science in BC (2010-11) initiative for schools, Stilwell has a passionate interest and commitment to integrating science awareness and culture in government, education, and society.

Rob Annan

Rob is the Director of Policy, Research and Evaluation at Mitacs, a leading Canadian not-for-profit that supports innovation through skills development, research, and collaboration between students, researchers, and industry. Mitacs supports research across sciences, humanities and social sciences and understands that innovation often occurs at the intersection of science and culture. Mitacs’ approach to innovation is reflected in our outreach activities, most notably Math Out Loud – a theatre musical designed to inspire Canadian students to understand and appreciate the mathematics that surround them. Inspired by Laval University’s renowned Professor of Mathematics Jean-Marie De Koninck and produced by Academy Award winner Dale Hartleben, Math Out Loud explores the relationships between math and culture as an effective outreach tool.

Prior to joining Mitacs, Rob worked as a consultant to universities, researchers and non-profit agencies for strategic planning and policy, and was active as a blogger on science policy issues in Canada. Rob embodies the intersection of arts and science, with a PhD in Biochemistry from McGill University, a BSc in Biology from UVic and a BA in English from Queen’s University.

Hope to see you at the conference!

Canada’s National Research Council wins in national science reshuffle while fumbling with employee relations

Hats off to Nassif Ghoussoub at his Piece of Mind blog for the latest information on the institutional science scene and the government’s response to last year’s (2011) Jenkins report (Review of Federal Support to R&D, aka, Innovation Canada: A Call to Action).

Nassif’s Sept. 11, 2012 posting highlights an unusually high number of recent announcements about federal funding for R&D (research and development). From the posting,

As always, politicians were crowding the Monday morning issue of the Hill Times newspaper. But today’s was different from any other day. No less than four politicians were either making “major” statements about federal plans for funding R&D, or taking the time to write about it. One wonders why we are witnessing this unusual surge of science-related interest in Ottawa’s political discourse.

Nassif makes some very provocative comments (Note: I have removed some links),

Gary Goodyear, the minister responsible for science and technology, seemed to be announcing that the National Research Council (NRC) has already won the battle of who is going to lead the federal effort of coordinating research partnerships with the industrial sector. “The NRC will be ‘transformed’ to respond to private sector demand”. How did they convince the PMO? Where are the universities? The Tri-Council [funding agencies: Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council {SSHRC}; Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council {NSERC}; and Canadian Institutes of Health Research {CIHR}]? And so much for the recommendations of the Jenkins panel, which in spite of the carefully chosen words, go quite far in the direction of suggesting the dismantlement of this venerable institution. Yet, the NRC is emerging as the ultimate winner in this sweepstakes of federal funding for industrial R&D. We can now kiss goodbye the “Industrial Research and Innovation Council” (IRIC), as recommended by the Jenkins panel and as vigorously defended by UT [University of Toronto] President, David Naylor.

I didn’t view the panel’s recommendations regarding the NRC in quite the same way in my Oct. 21, 2011 posting (which features my review of the Jenkins report). I start by commenting on the recommendation for ‘a single innovation voice’ in government and then mention the NRC,

This one seems like one of those recommendations that are impossible to implement,

  • ·Establish a clear federal voice for innovation and work with the provinces to improve coordination.
  • Currently, there is a lack of government-wide clarity when it comes to innovation. Responsibility is spread across a number of cabinet portfolios. The Prime Minister should assign responsibility for innovation to a single minister, supported by a whole-of-government Innovation Advisory Committee, evolved from the current Science Technology and Innovation Council (STIC), composed of external stakeholders, who would then work with the provincial and territorial governments to initiate a collaborative dialogue to improve coordination and impact.

I base my comment about the last recommendation on my experience with the gnashing of teeth I’ve observed when someone is going to lose an area of responsibility that is associated with power and other good things. Who do you imagine will want to give up innovation and what will they want in return?  Another question which springs to mind is this one: How are they going to develop a single voice for discussion of innovation across several federal bureaucracies with thousands of people and miles between them when even a small office of 20 people experiences difficulty doing this (again, this is based on my personal experience).

As for the suggested changes to the NRC? Well, those should provide some fodder for lively discussion. I’m sure the other items will provide conversational fodder too but it seems to me that the two I’ve highlighted in these comments are likely to be the among the most contentious.

For anyone who doesn’t recall the NRC recommendation offhand (from my Oct. 21, 2011 posting),

However, there are some major recommendations being made, notably this one about the National Research Council (from the Review of Federal Support to R&D home page),

  • Transform the institutes of the National Research Council [NRC] into a series of large-scale, collaborative centres involving business, universities and the provinces.
  • The NRC was created during World War I to kick-start Canada’s research capacity. It has a long and storied history of discoveries and innovation, including numerous commercial spin-offs. While the NRC continues to do good work, research and commercialization activity in Canada has grown immensely.  In this new context, the NRC can play a unique role, linking its large-scale, long-term research activity with the academic and business communities. The panel recommends evolving NRC institutes, consistent with the current strategic direction, into not-for-profit centres run with stakeholders, and incorporating its public policy research into other departments.

My current interpretation (based on the information in Nassif’s posting) of  the status of the NRC recommendation is that the government has conflated a couple of recommendations and instead of creating an Industrial Research and Innovation Council (IRIC; continued after), here’s the IRIC recommendation (from my Oct. 21,2011 posting),

The panel also suggests cutting down on the number of funding agencies and creating a portal or ‘concierge’ to help businesses find the right funding solution for their needs,

  • The creation of an Industrial Research and Innovation Council (IRIC) to deliver the federal government’s business innovation programs.
    • There are currently more than 60 programs across 17 different government departments. The creation of an arm’s-length funding and delivery agency – the Industrial Research and Innovation Council – would begin to streamline the process as the development of a common application portal and service to help businesses find the right programs for their needs (a “concierge”).

Back to where I was going, instead of creating an IRIC the federal government is shifting at least part of that proposed mandate over to the NRC. As for establishing “a clear federal voice,” I suspect that too is becoming part of the NRC’s mandate.

I find it interesting to note that the NRC’s president (John McDougall) is from Alberta. Any guesses as to which province is home to the riding Canada’s Prime Minister represents as a member of Parliament?

This looks like  some very astute political manuevering on McDougall’s part. Oddly, he doesn’t seem to be as good at understanding employee relations. Mia Rabson’s July 5, 2012 article for the Winnipeg Free Press highlights a remarkably block-headed attempt at recognition,

Have a doughnut on your way out the door. That is the message several dozen employees of the National Research Council took away June 29 as the president of the agency issued gift cards for a coffee and a doughnut to all employees, including 65 who are being laid off this month.

“Thank you for the contribution you have made in helping NRC successfully work through our massive transformation,” read the letter from NRC president John McDougall. “To celebrate our success in gaining government support, here is a token of appreciation: have a coffee and a doughnut on me.”

A $3 gift card to Tim Hortons accompanied each letter to more than 4,000 NRC employees. It cost taxpayers more than $12,000.

It appears the ineptitude extends from the president’s office to the media relations office,

Charles Drouin, chief media relations officer for the NRC, said the letters and gift cards were a way to say thank you to employees for their work during a difficult year at the agency. He said not all employees were scheduled to leave on June 29.

“It just coincided. We wanted to try and include everyone. The president thought the note would be a good way to thank our employees.”

He added not all employees reacted badly to the gift. The president received one official complaint, said Drouin. [emphasis mine]

In the public relations business it’s generally believed that  one letter/official complaint = 100. Just because most people won’t write a letter doesn’t mean they didn’t ‘react badly’. One would expect the chief media relations officer to know that, especially since the rest of us do.

I recommend reading Nassif’s post for more about this science shuffle’s  impact on the Tri-Council funding agencies and Mia Rabson’s article for more about the NRC’s cost-cutting efforts and future plans.

Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council {SSHRC}; Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council {NSERC}; and Canadian Institutes of Health Research {CIHR}

Canada-Japan Nanotechnology Workshop at the University of Waterloo

Today (Nov. 21, 2011) and tomorrow (Nov. 22), the Waterloo Institute for Nanotechnology (WIN) at the University of Waterloo is hosting a nanotechnology workshop celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Canada-Japan Agreement on Cooperation in Science and Technology. The Honourable Gary Goodyear Minister of State (Science and Technology) gave the opening remarks (from the Nov. 21, 2011 news release on the Industry Canada website),

“There are tremendous opportunities for international researchers and businesses to come to Canada and invest in research and development,” said Minister of State Goodyear. “This conference allows us to showcase opportunities in nanotechnology and promote stronger linkages with Canadian researchers and innovators. The relationship we are building will benefit the Canadian and Japanese economies.”

The conference drew a number of high-profile delegates, including His Excellency Kaoru Ishikawa, Ambassador of Japan to Canada and Mr. Yasuyoshi Kakita, Director of the Generic Research and Research Platform Division of Japan’s Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology.

WIN’s workshop webpage offers more details about the Canada-Japan relationship and our mutual interest in nanotechnology,

Nanotechnology is identified in both countries as a priority area by the Expert Advisory Group (EAG) on Canada-Japan S&T Cooperation. Four major nanotechnology collaborations were recently identified by the Embassies of Japan and Canada for their on-going execution of annual workshops, proven mobility and exchange programs, research funding and number of projects initiated. These are: (in order of MOU signing).

- National Institute for Nanotechnology (NINT) & National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology (AIST) – 2006
- NanoQuebec & Nagano Techno Foundation – 2009
- Waterloo Institute for Nanotechnology (WIN) & National Institute for Materials Science (NIMS) – 2010
- McGill University & RIKEN – 2010

The Canada-Japan nanotechnology workshop is designed to bring Canadian and Japanese stakeholders together to highlight their success at a national level and for individual researcher teams to advance their collaborative projects. Scientists including Canadian Research Chairs in the field of nanotechnology, government representatives and administrators from leading universities and nanotechnology organizations will be on hand to discuss the future of nanotechnology and recommend paths ahead.

By coming together we will help define a nanotechnology road map for Canada and Japan cooperation that will identify future areas for research funding, commercialization and trade for our respective Governments and Embassies. [emphasis mine]

I’m not sure how they’re going to be able to define a nanotechnology road map for cooperation with Japan when there isn’t any kind of nanotechnology roadmap for Canada. You can check that out for yourself here.

I hope there will be more news from the workshop as it progresses.

UK’s David Willetts discusses the importance of science writing

I’m impressed that the UK’s Minister for Universities and Science is busy talking and writing about the importance of science writing. Here’s an excerpt from Willetts’ Oct. 27, 2011 posting on the Guardian science blogs website,

Meeting the finalists of the Medical Research Council’s [MRC] Max Perutz Science Writing Award recently, I was reminded of the important role of science writing. The ability of science and evidence to transcend tribal loyalties – meeting John Rawls’s test of public reason – make them vital elements of rational discourse in a modern society.

The MRC’s prize and others like the Wellcome Trust’s science writing prize demonstrate that research funders agree. Science writing is all about making information and evidence available and accessible.

Historically, we have relied on a small number of journalists and editors to decide what is important, what is true. Now we have a much greater choice. Each of us is able to choose only the sources we want to hear from. If that means people with whom we already agree, do we risk losing the important function that traditional media have played in challenging our views or preconceptions?

People will differentiate between the many voices, in part on the basis of whom they consider authoritative, who is easy to find and who has been recommended by peers. Both authority and presence can be imparted to an author by the name of the host under whose banner the article is published, a job title, or an excellent track record. That is as true online as anywhere else and, of course, trust is earned slowly and lost quickly.

Independent scientists are consistently rated as well trusted sources of information. But will that hold true throughout a crisis if the major source of reporting is from within a community under scrutiny? Is merely checking copy a threat to “the sort of science journalism that everyone claims they want to see”?

With the trend for more and more online, self-generated material, organisations do have much more control over some of the information available about them. But how is this material produced and by whom? How does a research institute manage its messages if all of its researchers are potential mouthpieces? And what is the interaction between different types of coverage? Is a tweet or blog written for peers, the public, journalists, or all of the above?

I wonder if Gary Goodyear, Canada’s Minister of State (Science and Technology) could be persuaded to post here as a guest? I suspect not.

In any event, David Willetts has spoken previously on the importance of science writing at May 24, 2011 event. From the article by George Wigmore for the Association of British Science Writers on the events page,

Speaking at City University on Tuesday (24 May), David Willetts, Minister for Universities and Science, talked about the importance of science writing and public engagement.

Describing science journalists as “custodians of empiricism”, and science writers as “more GPs than hospital consultants”. The minister also described parallels between the jobs of science journalist and politician. He went on to describe the pressures that science journalists are under, including “the sheer pressure of time” and the tension “between the scientists doing the primary research, and the newsroom with its demands for a useable story with a vivid headline.”

Touching on a range of issues, including balance and open-access, Willetts stressed the government’s contributions to science writing and engagement. In particular, he mentioned libel reform, transparency, and financial support for institutions such as Science Media Centre.

“Science writing matters,” said Willetts. “It’s about making information and evidence available and accessible. It’s crucial in the public discourse.”

The article page hosts a video of the speech (approximately 55 mins.) and, of course, you can read the rest of the article.

In his posting on the Guardian Science blogs website, Willetts mentions a government initiative, the Online Media Group for Science (from their About page),

Over the next few months we’ll be posing a series of case studies on this site for discussion. They will explore how different people and organisations use online media as they communicate science to a range of audiences. The case studies are intended to be honest and interesting examples of how people and organisations have used online media; what has or hasn’t worked and why. We’re really grateful to the contributors for writing them so honestly.

We’re not intending to create a comprehensive list of what’s out there but the case studies will draw on the experiences of journalists, press officers, science communicators and many others. Rather than defining these familiar roles in an online context, or providing hard and fast rules about how you should use online media, we hope discussions here will help you think about the tools that exist and how they can be used to achieve your aims – whatever they are.

So please take part in the discussion, nominate someone else who you’d like to hear from, share stuff with colleagues or even submit your own case study!

I spotted four case studies from Research Councils UK (RCUK), Guardian News and Media, Wellcome Trust, and Ideas Lab, respectively.  Here’s a paragraph from each,

Research Councils UK:

The website has origins in another age, when it was OK to use it as one big electronic document store.  Even this, if done well, would perhaps have been fine, but now it is so huge that it is just unwieldy.

Guardian News and Media:

What *don’t* we use? We publish things to our website using a homegrown CMS, which also includes our blogging platform. But we use a variety of other sites and services, too. Twitter is an important way for staff to engage with (and contribute to) communities of interest – we have about 50 official accounts (like  @guardiannews, @guardianfilm etc) and well over 500 individual staff members with Twitter accounts. We also use Flickr to publish photos by staff photographers and engage with photography-loving communities, and have a number of fan pages on Facebook. You can also find us at guardian.tumblr.com, where we curate interesting snippets from the day’s news.

Wellcome Trust:

I can’t comment on how much we spend, but we have a communications team of about 40 people that encompasses Editorial, Media Office, Web, Design and Marketing. Together we produce our print and online communications. We have to support the infrastructure to run our websites but beyond this our channels, such as the blog, are run on free services and the main resource is employee time.

Ideas Lab:

We don’t have a written strategy for their [website, Twitter, Facebook, podcasting, & online video) use, but we do work to some unwritten rules:

  • Lo- to-no budget for online (excluding staff time).
  • Having a limited amount of publicly available information. Our online materials are there to encourage communication with us on the phone or face to face.
  • Keeping podcasts and tweets frequent and regular.
  • Keeping all communication very targeted – having a fixed maximum length for podcasts, and no off-topic/general Tweets.
  • Sharing content with third party sites where possible – letting others post our video and podcasts on their sites if they would like to.
  • Cross-promoting everything (such as having our Twitter name on our email signatures).
  • Keeping at it – even if something isn’t fantastic, just doing it regularly and building up a catalogue can pay off. It’s sometimes about quantity as well as quality.

One of these days I’ll have to go back for a longer look.