Tag Archives: Ivan Semeniuk

Announcing Canada’s Chief Science Advisor: Dr. Mona Nemer

Thanks to the Canadian Science Policy Centre’s September 26, 2017 announcement (received via email) a burning question has been answered,

After great anticipation, Prime Minister Trudeau along with Minister Duncan have announced Canada’s Chief Science Advisor, Dr. Mona Nemer, [emphasis mine]  at a ceremony at the House of Commons. The Canadian Science Policy Centre welcomes this exciting news and congratulates Dr. Nemer on her appointment in this role and we wish her the best in carrying out her duties in this esteemed position. CSPC is looking forward to working closely with Dr. Nemer for the Canadian science policy community. Mehrdad Hariri, CEO & President of the CSPC, stated, “Today’s historic announcement is excellent news for science in Canada, for informed policy-making and for all Canadians. We look forward to working closely with the new Chief Science Advisor.”

In fulfilling our commitment to keep the community up to date and informed regarding science, technology, and innovation policy issues, CSPC has been compiling all news, publications, and editorials in recognition of the importance of the Federal Chief Science Officer as it has been developing, as you may see by clicking here.

We invite your opinions regarding the new Chief Science Advisor, to be published on our CSPC Featured Editorial page. We will publish your reactions on our website, sciencepolicy.ca on our Chief Science Advisor page.

Please send your opinion pieces to editorial@sciencepolicy.ca.

Here are a few (very few) details from the Prime Minister’s (Justin Trudeau) Sept. 26, 2017 press release making the official announcement,

The Government of Canada is committed to strengthen science in government decision-making and to support scientists’ vital work.

In keeping with these commitments, the Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, today announced Dr. Mona Nemer as Canada’s new Chief Science Advisor, following an open, transparent, and merit-based selection process.  

We know Canadians value science. As the new Chief Science Advisor, Dr. Nemer will help promote science and its real benefits for Canadians—new knowledge, novel technologies, and advanced skills for future jobs. These breakthroughs and new opportunities form an essential part of the Government’s strategy to secure a better future for Canadian families and to grow Canada’s middle class.

Dr. Nemer is a distinguished medical researcher whose focus has been on the heart, particularly on the mechanisms of heart failure and congenital heart diseases. In addition to publishing over 200 scholarly articles, her research has led to new diagnostic tests for heart failure and the genetics of cardiac birth defects. Dr. Nemer has spent more than ten years as the Vice-President, Research at the University of Ottawa, has served on many national and international scientific advisory boards, and is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, a Member of the Order of Canada, and a Chevalier de l’Ordre du Québec.

As Canada’s new top scientist, Dr. Nemer will provide impartial scientific advice to the Prime Minister and the Minister of Science. She will also make recommendations to help ensure that government science is fully available and accessible to the public, and that federal scientists remain free to speak about their work. Once a year, she will submit a report about the state of federal government science in Canada to the Prime Minister and the Minister of Science, which will also be made public.

Quotes

“We have taken great strides to fulfill our promise to restore science as a pillar of government decision-making. Today, we took another big step forward by announcing Dr. Mona Nemer as our Chief Science Advisor. Dr. Nemer brings a wealth of expertise to the role. Her advice will be invaluable and inform decisions made at the highest levels. I look forward to working with her to promote a culture of scientific excellence in Canada.”
— The Rt. Hon. Justin Trudeau, Prime Minister of Canada

“A respect for science and for Canada’s remarkable scientists is a core value for our government. I look forward to working with Dr. Nemer, Canada’s new Chief Science Advisor, who will provide us with the evidence we need to make decisions about what matters most to Canadians: their health and safety, their families and communities, their jobs, environment and future prosperity.”
— The Honourable Kirsty Duncan, Minister of Science

“I am honoured and excited to be Canada’s Chief Science Advisor. I am very pleased to be representing Canadian science and research – work that plays a crucial role in protecting and improving the lives of people everywhere. I look forward to advising the Prime Minister and the Minister of Science and working with the science community, policy makers, and the public to make science part of government policy making.”
— Dr. Mona Nemer, Chief Science Advisor, Canada

Quick Facts

  • Dr. Nemer is also a Knight of the Order of Merit of the French Republic, and has been awarded honorary doctorates from universities in France and Finland.
  • The Office of the Chief Science Advisor will be housed at Innovation, Science and Economic Development and supported by a secretariat.

Nemers’ Wikipedia entry does not provide much additional information although you can find out a bit more on her University of Ottawa page. Brian Owens in a Sept. 26, 2017 article for the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s (AAAS) Science Magazine provides a bit more detail, about this newly created office and its budget

Nemer’s office will have a $2 million budget, and she will report to both Trudeau and science minister Kirsty Duncan. Her mandate includes providing scientific advice to government ministers, helping keep government-funded science accessible to the public, and protecting government scientists from being muzzled.

Ivan Semeniuk’s Sept. 26, 2017 article for the Globe and Mail newspaper about Nemer’s appointment is the most informative (that I’ve been able to find),

Mona Nemer, a specialist in the genetics of heart disease and a long time vice-president of research at the University of Ottawa, has been named Canada’s new chief science advisor.

The appointment, announced Tuesday [Sept. 26, 2017] by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, comes two years after the federal Liberals pledged to reinstate the position during the last election campaign and nearly a decade after the previous version of the role was cut by then prime minister Stephen Harper.

Dr. Nemer steps into the job of advising the federal government on science-related policy at a crucial time. Following a landmark review of Canada’s research landscape [Naylor report] released last spring, university-based scientists are lobbying hard for Ottawa to significantly boost science funding, one of the report’s key recommendations. At the same time, scientists and science-advocacy groups are increasingly scrutinizing federal actions on a range of sensitive environment and health-related issues to ensure the Trudeau government is making good on promises to embrace evidence-based decision making.

A key test of the position’s relevance for many observers will be the extent to which Dr. Nemer is able to speak her mind on matters where science may run afoul of political expediency.

Born in 1957, Dr. Nemer grew up in Lebanon and pursued an early passion for chemistry at a time and place where women were typically discouraged from entering scientific fields. With Lebanon’s civil war making it increasingly difficult for her to pursue her studies, her family was able to arrange for her to move to the United States, where she completed an undergraduate degree at Wichita State University in Kansas.

A key turning point came in the summer of 1977 when Dr. Nemer took a trip with friends to Montreal. She quickly fell for the city and, in short order, managed to secure acceptance to McGill University, where she received a PhD in 1982. …

It took a lot of searching to find out that Nemer was born in Lebanon and went to the United States first. A lot of immigrants and their families view Canada as a second choice and Nemer and her family would appear to have followed that pattern. It’s widely believed (amongst Canadians too) that the US is where you go for social mobility. I’m not sure if this is still the case but at one point in the 1980s Israel ranked as having the greatest social mobility in the world. Canada came in second while the US wasn’t even third or fourth ranked.

It’s the second major appointment by Justin Trudeau in the last few months to feature a woman who speaks French. The first was Julie Payette, former astronaut and Québecker, as the upcoming Governor General (there’s more detail and a whiff of sad scandal in this Aug. 21, 2017 Canadian Broadcasting Corporation online news item). Now there’s Dr. Mona Nemer who’s lived both in Québec and Ontario. Trudeau and his feminism, eh? Also, his desire to keep Québeckers happy (more or less).

I’m not surprised by the fact that Nemer has been based in Ottawa for several years. I guess they want someone who’s comfortable with the government apparatus although I for one think a little fresh air might be welcome. After all, the Minister of Science, Kirsty Duncan, is from Toronto which between Nemer and Duncan gives us the age-old Canadian government trifecta (geographically speaking), Ottawa-Montréal-Toronto.

Two final comments, I am surprised that Duncan did not make the announcement. After all, it was in her 2015 mandate letter.But perhaps Paul Wells in his acerbic June 29, 2017 article for Macleans hints at the reason as he discusses the Naylor report (review of fundamental science mentioned in Semeniuk’s article and for which Nemer is expected to provide advice),

The Naylor report represents Canadian research scientists’ side of a power struggle. The struggle has been continuing since Jean Chrétien left office. After early cuts, he presided for years over very large increases to the budgets of the main science granting councils. But since 2003, governments have preferred to put new funding dollars to targeted projects in applied sciences. …

Naylor wants that trend reversed, quickly. He is supported in that call by a frankly astonishingly broad coalition of university administrators and working researchers, who until his report were more often at odds. So you have the group representing Canada’s 15 largest research universities and the group representing all universities and a new group representing early-career researchers and, as far as I can tell, every Canadian scientist on Twitter. All backing Naylor. All fundamentally concerned that new money for research is of no particular interest if it does not back the best science as chosen by scientists, through peer review.

The competing model, the one preferred by governments of all stripes, might best be called superclusters. Very large investments into very large projects with loosely defined scientific objectives, whose real goal is to retain decorated veteran scientists and to improve the Canadian high-tech industry. Vast and sprawling labs and tech incubators, cabinet ministers nodding gravely as world leaders in sexy trendy fields sketch the golden path to Jobs of Tomorrow.

You see the imbalance. On one side, ribbons to cut. On the other, nerds experimenting on tapeworms. Kirsty Duncan, a shaky political performer, transparently a junior minister to the supercluster guy, with no deputy minister or department reporting to her, is in a structurally weak position: her title suggests she’s science’s emissary to the government, but she is not equipped to be anything more than government’s emissary to science.

Second,  our other science minister, Navdeep Bains, Minister of Innovation, Science  and Economic Development does not appear to have been present at the announcement. Quite surprising given where her office will located (from the government’s Sept. 26, 2017 press release in Quick Facts section ) “The Office of the Chief Science Advisor will be housed at Innovation, Science and Economic Development and supported by a secretariat.”

Finally, Wells’ article is well worth reading in its entirety and for those who are information gluttons, I have a three part series on the Naylor report, published June 8, 2017,

INVESTING IN CANADA’S FUTURE; Strengthening the Foundations of Canadian Research (Review of fundamental research final report): 1 of 3

INVESTING IN CANADA’S FUTURE; Strengthening the Foundations of Canadian Research (Review of fundamental research final report): 2 of 3

INVESTING IN CANADA’S FUTURE; Strengthening the Foundations of Canadian Research (Review of fundamental research final report): 3 of 3

INVESTING IN CANADA’S FUTURE; Strengthening the Foundations of Canadian Research (Review of fundamental research final report): 3 of 3

This is the final commentary on the report titled,(INVESTING IN CANADA’S FUTURE; Strengthening the Foundations of Canadian Research). Part 1 of my commentary having provided some introductory material and first thoughts about the report, Part 2 offering more detailed thoughts; this part singles out ‘special cases’, sums up* my thoughts (circling back to ideas introduced in the first part), and offers link to other commentaries.

Special cases

Not all of the science funding in Canada is funneled through the four agencies designed for that purpose, (The Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC), Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC), Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) are known collectively as the tri-council funding agencies and are focused on disbursement of research funds received from the federal government. The fourth ‘pillar’ agency, the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI) is focused on funding for infrastructure and, technically speaking, is a 3rd party organization along with MITACS, CANARIE, the Perimeter Institute, and others.

In any event, there are also major research facilities and science initiatives which may receive direct funding from the federal government bypassing the funding agencies and, it would seem, peer review. For example, I featured this in my April 28, 2015 posting about the 2015 federal budget,

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

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

The Naylor report made this recommendation for Canada’s major research facilities, (MRF)

We heard from many who recommended that the federal government should manage its investments in “Big Science” in a more coordinated manner, with a cradle-to-grave perspective. The Panel agrees. Consistent with NACRI’s overall mandate, it should work closely with the CSA [Chief Science Advisor] in establishing a Standing Committee on Major Research Facilities (MRFs).

CFI defines a national research facility in the following way:

We define a national research facility as one that addresses the needs of a community of Canadian researchers representing a critical mass of users distributed across the country. This is done by providing shared access to substantial and advanced specialized equipment, services, resources, and scientific and technical personnel. The facility supports leading-edge research and technology development, and promotes the mobilization of knowledge and transfer of technology to society. A national research facility requires resource commitments well beyond the capacity of any one institution. A national research facility, whether single-sited, distributed or virtual, is specifically identified or recognized as serving pan-Canadian needs and its governance and management structures reflect this mandate.8

We accept this definition as appropriate for national research facilities to be considered by the Standing Committee on MRFs, but add that the committee should:

• define a capital investment or operating cost level above which such facilities are considered “major” and thus require oversight by this committee (e.g., defined so as to include the national MRFs proposed in Section 6.3: Compute Canada, Canadian Light Source, Canada’s National Design Network, Canadian Research Icebreaker Amundsen, International Vaccine Centre, Ocean Networks Canada, Ocean Tracking Network, and SNOLAB plus the TRIUMF facility); and

• consider international MRFs in which Canada has a significant role, such as astronomical telescopes of global significance.

The structure and function of this Special Standing Committee would closely track the proposal made in 2006 by former NSA [National Science Advisor] Dr Arthur Carty. We return to this topic in Chapter 6. For now, we observe that this approach would involve:

• a peer-reviewed decision on beginning an investment;

• a funded plan for the construction and operation of the facility, with continuing oversight by a peer specialist/agency review group for the specific facility;

• a plan for decommissioning; and

• a regular review scheduled to consider whether the facility still serves current needs.

We suggest that the committee have 10 members, with an eminent scientist as Chair. The members should include the CSA, two representatives from NACRI for liaison, and seven others. The other members should include Canadian and international scientists from a broad range of disciplines and experts on the construction, operation, and administration of MRFs. Consideration should be given to inviting the presidents of NRC [National Research Council of Canada] and CFI to serve as ex-officio members. The committee should be convened by the CSA, have access to the Secretariat associated with the CSA and NACRI, and report regularly to NACRI. (pp. 66-7 print; pp. 100-1 PDF)

I have the impression there’s been some ill feeling over the years regarding some of the major chunks of money given for ‘big science’. At a guess, direct appeals to a federal government that has no official mechanism for assessing the proposed ‘big science’ whether that means a major research facility (e.g., TRIUMF) or major science initiative (e.g., Pan Canadian Artificial Intelligence Strategy [keep reading to find out how I got the concept of a major science initiative wrong]) or 3rd party (MITACS) has seemed unfair to those who have to submit funding applications and go through vetting processes. This recommendation would seem to be an attempt to redress some of the issues.

Moving onto the third-party delivery and matching programs,

Three bodies in particular are the largest of these third-party organizations and illustrate the challenges of evaluating contribution agreements: Genome Canada, Mitacs, and Brain Canada. Genome Canada was created in 2000 at a time when many national genomics initiatives were being developed in the wake of the Human Genome Project. It emerged from a “bottom-up” design process driven by genomic scientists to complement existing programs by focusing on large-scale projects and technology platforms. Its funding model emphasized partnerships and matching funds to leverage federal commitments with the objective of rapidly ramping up genomics research in Canada.

This approach has been successful: Genome Canada has received $1.1 billion from the Government of Canada since its creation in 2000, and has raised over $1.6 billion through co-funding commitments, for a total investment in excess of $2.7 billion.34 The scale of Genome Canada’s funding programs allows it to support large-scale genomics research that the granting councils might otherwise not be able to fund. Genome Canada also supports a network of genomics technology and innovation centres with an emphasis on knowledge translation and has built domestic and international strategic partnerships. While its primary focus has been human health, it has also invested extensively in agriculture, forestry, fisheries, environment, and, more recently, oil and gas and mining— all with a view to the application and commercialization of genomic biotechnology.

Mitacs attracts, trains, and retains HQP [highly qualified personnel] in the Canadian research enterprise. Founded in 1999 as an NCE [Network Centre for Excellence], it was developed at a time when enrolments in graduate programs had flat-lined, and links between mathematics and industry were rare. Independent since 2011, Mitacs has focused on providing industrial research internships and postdoctoral fellowships, branching out beyond mathematics to all disciplines. It has leveraged funding effectively from the federal and provincial governments, industry, and not-for-profit organizations. It has also expanded internationally, providing two-way research mobility. Budget 2015 made Mitacs the single mechanism of federal support for postsecondary research internships with a total federal investment of $135.4 million over the next five years. This led to the wind-down of NSERC’s Industrial Postgraduate Scholarships Program. With matching from multiple other sources, Mitacs’ average annual budget is now $75 to $80 million. The organization aims to more than double the number of internships it funds to 10,000 per year by 2020.35

Finally, Brain Canada was created in 1998 (originally called NeuroScience Canada) to increase the scale of brain research funding in Canada and widen its scope with a view to encouraging interdisciplinary collaboration. In 2011 the federal government established the Canada Brain Research Fund to expand Brain Canada’s work, committing $100 million in new public investment for brain research to be matched 1:1 through contributions raised by Brain Canada. According to the STIC ‘State of the Nation’ 2014 report, Canada’s investment in neuroscience research is only about 40 per cent of that in the U.S. after adjusting for the size of the U.S. economy.36 Brain Canada may be filling a void left by declining success rates and flat funding at CIHR.

Recommendation and Elaboration

The Panel noted that, in general, third-party organizations for delivering research funding are particularly effective in leveraging funding from external partners. They fill important gaps in research funding and complement the work of the granting councils and CFI. At the same time, we questioned the overall efficiency of directing federal research funding through third-party organizations, noting that our consultations solicited mixed reactions. Some respondents favoured more overall funding concentrated in the agencies rather than diverting the funding to third-party entities. Others strongly supported the business models of these organizations.

We have indicated elsewhere that a system-wide review panel such as ours is not well-suited to examine these and other organizations subject to third-party agreements. We recommended instead in Chapter 4 that a new oversight body, NACRI, be created to provide expert advice and guidance on when a new entity might reasonably be supported by such an agreement. Here we make the case for enlisting NACRI in determining not just the desirability of initiating a new entity, but also whether contribution agreements should continue and, if so, on what terms.

The preceding sketches of three diverse organizations subject to contribution agreements help illustrate the rationale for this proposal. To underscore the challenges of adjudication, we elaborate briefly. Submissions highlighted that funding from Genome Canada has enabled fundamental discoveries to be made and important knowledge to be disseminated to the Canadian and international research communities. However, other experts suggested a bifurcation with CIHR or NSERC funding research-intensive development of novel technologies, while Genome Canada would focus on application (e.g., large-scale whole genome studies) and commercialization of existing technologies. From the Panel’s standpoint, these observations underscore the subtleties of determining where and how Genome Canada’s mandate overlaps and departs from that of CIHR and NSERC as well as CFI. Added to the complexity of any assessment is Genome Canada’s meaningful role in providing large-scale infrastructure grants and its commercialization program. Mitacs, even more than Genome Canada, bridges beyond academe to the private and non-profit sectors, again highlighting the advantage of having any review overseen by a body with representatives from both spheres. Finally, as did the other two entities, Brain Canada won plaudits, but some interchanges saw discussants ask when and whether it might be more efficient to flow this type of funding on a programmatic basis through CIHR.

We emphasize that the Panel’s intent here is neither to signal agreement nor disagreement with any of these submissions or discussions. We simply wish to highlight that decisions about ongoing funding will involve expert judgments informed by deep expertise in the relevant research areas and, in two of these examples, an ability to bridge from research to innovation and from extramural independent research to the private and non-profit sectors. Under current arrangements, management consulting firms and public servants drive the review and decision-making processes. Our position is that oversight by NACRI and stronger reliance on advice from content experts would be prudent given the sums involved and the nature of the issues. (pp. 102-4 print; pp. 136-8 PDF)

I wasn’t able to find anything other than this about major science initiatives (MSIs),

Big Science facilities, such as MSIs, have had particular challenges in securing ongoing stable operating support. Such facilities often have national or international missions. We termed them “major research facilities” (MRFs) xi in Chapter 4, and proposed an improved oversight mechanism that would provide lifecycle stewardship of these national science resources, starting with the decision to build them in the first instance. (p. 132 print; p. 166 PDF)

So, an MSI is an MRF? (head shaking) Why two terms for the same thing? And, how does the newly announced Pan Canadian Artificial Intelligence Strategy fit into the grand scheme of things?

The last ‘special case’ I’m featuring is the ‘Programme for Research Chairs for Excellent Scholars and Scientists’. Here’s what the report had to say about the state of affairs,

The major sources of federal funding for researcher salary support are the CRC [Canada Research Chair]and CERC [Canada Excellence Reseach Chair] programs. While some salary support is provided through council-specific programs, these investments have been declining over time. The Panel supports program simplification but, as noted in Chapter 5, we are concerned about the gaps created by the elimination of these personnel awards. While we focus here on the CRC and CERC programs because of their size, profile, and impact, our recommendations will reflect these concerns.

The CRC program was launched in 2000 and remains the Government of Canada’s flagship initiative to keep Canada among the world’s leading countries in higher education R&D. The program has created 2,000 research professorships across Canada with the stated aim “to attract and retain some of the world’s most accomplished and promising minds”5 as part of an effort to curtail the potential academic brain drain to the U.S. and elsewhere. The program is a tri-council initiative with most Chairs allocated to eligible institutions based on the national proportion of total research grant funding they receive from the three granting councils. The vast majority of Chairs are distributed based on area of research, of which 45 per cent align with NSERC, 35 per cent with CIHR, and 20 per cent with SSHRC; an additional special allocation of 120 Chairs can be used in the area of research chosen by the universities receiving the Chairs. There are two types of Chairs: Tier 1 Chairs are intended for outstanding researchers who are recognized as world leaders in their fields and are renewable; Tier 2 Chairs are targeted at exceptional emerging researchers with the potential to become leaders in their field and can be renewed once. Awards are paid directly to the universities and are valued at $200,000 annually for seven years (Tier 1) or $100,000 annually for five years (Tier 2). The program notes that Tier 2 Chairs are not meant to be a feeder group for Tier 1 Chairs; rather, universities are expected to develop a succession plan for their Tier 2 Chairs.

The CERC program was established in 2008 with the expressed aim of “support[ing] Canadian universities in their efforts to build on Canada’s growing reputation as a global leader in research and innovation.”6 The program aims to award world-renowned researchers and their teams with up to $10 million over seven years to establish ambitious research programs at Canadian universities, making these awards among the most prestigious and generous available internationally. There are currently 27 CERCs with funding available to support up to 30 Chairs, which are awarded in the priority areas established by the federal government. The awards, which are not renewable, require 1:1 matching funds from the host institution, and all degree-granting institutions that receive tri-council funding are eligible to compete. Both the CERC and CRC programs are open to Canadians and foreign citizens. However, until the most recent round, the CERCs have been constrained to the government’s STEM-related priorities; this has limited their availability to scholars and scientists from SSHRC-related disciplines. As well, even though Canadian-based researchers are eligible for CERC awards, the practice has clearly been to use them for international recruitment with every award to date going to researchers from abroad.

Similar to research training support, the funding for salary support to researchers and scholars is a significant proportion of total federal research investments, but relatively small with respect to the research ecosystem as a whole. There are more than 45,000 professors and teaching staff at Canada’s universities7 and a very small fraction hold these awards. Nevertheless, the programs can support research excellence by repatriating top Canadian talent from abroad and by recruiting and retaining top international talent in Canada.

The programs can also lead by example in promoting equity and diversity in the research enterprise. Unfortunately, both the CRC and CERC programs suffer from serious challenges regarding equity and diversity, as described in Chapter 5. Both programs have been criticized in particular for under-recruitment of women.

While the CERC program has recruited exclusively from outside Canada, the CRC program has shown declining performance in that regard. A 2016 evaluation of the CRC program8  observed that a rising number of chairholders were held by nominees who originated from within the host institution (57.5 per cent), and another 14.4 per cent had been recruited from other Canadian institutions. The Panel acknowledges that some of these awards may be important to retaining Canadian talent. However, we were also advised in our consultations that CRCs are being used with some frequency to offset salaries as part of regular faculty complement planning.

The evaluation further found that 28.1 per cent of current chairholders had been recruited from abroad, a decline from 32 per cent in the 2010 evaluation. That decline appears set to continue. The evaluation reported that “foreign nominees accounted, on average, for 13 per cent and 15 per cent respectively of new Tier 1 and Tier 2 nominees over the five-year period 2010 to 2014”, terming it a “large decrease” from 2005 to 2009 when the averages respectively were 32 per cent and 31 per cent. As well, between 2010-11 and 2014-15, the attrition rate for chairholders recruited from abroad was 75 per cent higher than for Canadian chairholders, indicating that the program is also falling short in its ability to retain international talent.9

One important factor here appears to be the value of the CRC awards. While they were generous in 2000, their value has remained unchanged for some 17 years, making it increasingly difficult to offer the level of support that world-leading research professors require. The diminishing real value of the awards also means that Chair positions are becoming less distinguishable from regular faculty positions, threatening the program’s relevance and effectiveness. To rejuvenate this program and make it relevant for recruitment and retention of top talent, it seems logical to take two steps:

• ask the granting councils and the Chairs Secretariat to work with universities in developing a plan to restore the effectiveness of these awards; and

• once that plan is approved, increase the award values by 35 per cent, thereby restoring the awards to their original value and making them internationally competitive once again.

In addition, the Panel observes that the original goal was for the program to fund 2,000 Chairs. Due to turnover and delays in filling Chair positions, approximately 10 to 15 per cent of them are unoccupied at any one time.i As a result, the program budget was reduced by $35 million in 2012. However, the occupancy rate has continued to decline since then, with an all-time low of only 1,612 Chair positions (80.6 per cent) filled as of December 2016. The Panel is dismayed by this inefficiency, especially at a time when Tier 2 Chairs remain one of the only external sources of salary support for ECRs [early career researchers]—a group that represents the future of Canadian research and scholarship. (pp. 142-4 print; pp. 176-8 PDF)

I think what you can see as a partial subtext in this report and which I’m attempting to highlight here in ‘special cases’ is a balancing act between supporting a broad range of research inquiries and focusing or pouring huge sums of money into ‘important’ research inquiries for high impact outcomes.

Final comments

There are many things to commend this report including the writing style. The notion that more coordination is needed amongst the various granting agencies, that greater recognition (i.e,, encouragement and funding opportunities) should be given to boundary-crossing research, and that we need to do more interprovincial collaboration is welcome. And yes, they want more money too. (That request is perfectly predictable. When was the last time a report suggested less funding?) Perhaps more tellingly, the request for money is buttressed with a plea to make it partisan-proof. In short, that funding doesn’t keep changing with the political tides.

One area that was not specifically mentioned, except when discussing prizes, was mathematics. I found that a bit surprising given how important the field of mathematics is to  to virtually all the ‘sciences’. A 2013 report, Spotlight on Science, suggests there’s a problem(as noted my Oct. 9, 2013 posting about that report,  (I also mention Canada’s PISA scores [Programme for International Student Assessment] by the OECD [Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development], which consistently show Canadian students at the age of 15 [grade 10] do well) ,

… it appears that we have high drop out rates in the sciences and maths, from an Oct. 8, 2013 news item on the CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) website,

… Canadians are paying a heavy price for the fact that less than 50 per cent of Canadian high school students graduate with senior courses in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) at a time when 70 per cent of Canada’s top jobs require an education in those fields, said report released by the science education advocacy group Let’s Talk Science and the pharmaceutical company Amgen Canada.

Spotlight on Science Learning 2013 compiles publicly available information about individual and societal costs of students dropping out STEM courses early.

Even though most provinces only require math and science courses until Grade 10, the report [Spotlight on Science published by Let’s Talk Science and pharmaceutical company Amgen Canada) found students without Grade 12 math could expect to be excluded from 40 to 75 per cent of programs at Canadian universities, and students without Grade 11 could expect to be excluded from half of community college programs. [emphasis mine]

While I realize that education wasn’t the panel’s mandate they do reference the topic  elsewhere and while secondary education is a provincial responsibility there is a direct relationship between it and postsecondary education.

On the lack of imagination front, there was some mention of our aging population but not much planning or discussion about integrating older researchers into the grand scheme of things. It’s all very well to talk about the aging population but shouldn’t we start introducing these ideas into more of our discussions on such topics as research rather than only those discussions focused on aging?

Continuing on with the lack of  imagination and lack of forethought, I was not able to find any mention of independent scholars. The assumption, as always, is that one is affiliated with an institution. Given the ways in which our work world is changing with fewer jobs at the institutional level, it seems the panel was not focused on important and fra reaching trends. Also, there was no mention of technologies, such as artificial intelligence, that could affect basic research. One other thing from my wish list, which didn’t get mentioned, art/science or SciArt. Although that really would have been reaching.

Weirdly, one of the topics the panel did note, the pitiifull lack of interprovincial scientific collaboration, was completely ignored when it came time for recommendations.

Should you spot any errors in this commentary, please do drop me a comment.

Other responses to the report:

Nassif Ghoussoub (Piece of Mind blog; he’s a professor mathematics at the University of British Columbia; he attended one of the roundtable discussions held by the panel). As you might expect, he focuses on the money end of things in his May 1, 2017 posting.

You can find a series of essays about the report here under the title Response to Naylor Panel Report ** on the Canadian Science Policy Centre website.

There’s also this May 31, 2017 opinion piece by Jamie Cassels for The Vancouver Sun exhorting us to go forth collaborate internationally, presumably with added funding for the University of Victoria of which Cassels is the president and vice-chancellor. He seems not to have noticed that Canadian do much more poorly with interprovincial collaboration.

*ETA June 21, 2017: I’ve just stumbled across Ivan Semeniuk’s April 10, 2017 analysis (Globe and Mail newspaper) of the report. It’s substantive and well worth checking out.*

Again, here’s a link to the other parts:

INVESTING IN CANADA’S FUTURE; Strengthening the Foundations of Canadian Research (Review of fundamental research final report) Commentaries

Part 1

Part 2

*’up’ added on June 8, 2017 at 15:10 hours PDT.

**’Science Funding Review Panel Repor’t was changed to ‘Responses to Naylor Panel Report’ on June 22, 2017.

Canadian Science Policy Centre hosts panel discussion on April 18, 2017 about the April 22, 2017 US March for Science

Coming soon (April 22, 2017) to a city near you is a US ‘March for Science’. The big one will be held in Washington, DC but some 400 satellite marches are planned in cities across the US and around the world.

The Canadian Science Policy Centre has organized two panel discussions (one in Toronto and one in Ottawa) as a prelude to those cities’ marches,

A ‘March for Science’ is set to take place in over 400 locations around the world, including in Ottawa and Toronto, on April 22nd [2017]. The Canadian Science Policy Centre (CSPC) invites you to attend public panels discussing the implications of the march.

To RSVP for the Ottawa event [4:30 pm – 6 pm EDT], please click here

To RSVP for the Toronto event [4:30 – 6:30 pm EDT] please click here

The Ottawa panel features:

Paul Dufour

Paul Dufour is a Fellow and Adjunct Professor at the Institute for Science, Society and Policy in the University of Ottawa and science policy Principal with PaulicyWorks in Gatineau, Québec. He is on the Board of Directors of the graduate student led Science Policy Exchange based in Montréal, and is member of the Investment Committee for Grand Challenges Canada. Paul Dufour has been senior advisor in science policy with several Canadian agencies and organizations over the course of the past 30 years. Among these: Senior Program Specialist with the International Development Research Centre, and interim Executive Director at the former Office of the National Science Advisor to the Canadian Government advising on international S&T matters and broad questions of R&D policy directions for the country. Mr. Dufour lectures regularly on science policy, has authored numerous articles on international S&T relations, and Canadian innovation policy. He is series co-editor of the Cartermill Guides to World Science and is the author of the Canada chapter for the UNESCO 2015 Science Report released in November 2015.

Dr. Kristin Baetz

Dr. Kristin Baetz is a Canada Research Chair in Chemical and Functional Genomics, Director of the Ottawa Institute of Systems Biology at uOttawa, President of the Canadian Society for Molecular Biosciences.

Katie Gibbs

Katie Gibbs is a scientist, community organizer and advocate for science and evidence-based policies. While completing her PhD at the University of Ottawa researching threats to endangered species, she was the lead organizer of the ‘Death of Evidence’ rally which was one of the largest science rallies in Canadian history. Katie is a co-founder and Executive Director of Evidence for Democracy, a national, non-partisan, not-for- profit organization that promotes science integrity and the transparent use of evidence in government decision-making. She has a diverse background organizing and managing various causes and campaigns including playing an integral role in Elizabeth May’s winning election campaign in 2011. Katie is frequently asked to comment on science policy issues and has been quoted and published in numerous media outlets, including the CBC, The Hill Times, the Globe and Mail and the National Post.

Professor Kathryn O’Hara

Professor Kathryn O’Hara has been a faculty member in the School of Journalism and Communication at Carleton University since 2001. She is the first person to hold the School’s CTV Chair in Science Broadcast Journalism, the first such chair of its kind in anglophone Canada. A long-standing broadcast journalist, Professor O’Hara is the former consumer columnist with CBC’s Midday , a former co- anchor of CBC’s Newsday in Ottawa, and the former host of Later the Same Day , CBC Radio Toronto’s “drive-home” program. Her work has also appeared on CBC’s Quirks and Quarks and Ideas programs. Three years before coming to Carleton University, Professor O’Hara was an independent health and science producer for outlets such as RTE and CBC. She serves on the Science and Technology Advisory Boards for Environment Canada and Health Canada and chairs the EC panel on Environment and Health. She is an Associate Professor with the Carleton School of Journalism and Communication.

The Toronto panel is organized a little differently:

Canadian Science Policy Centre in collaboration with Ryerson University’s Faculty of Science presents a panel discussion on the ‘March for Science’. Join us for coffee/tea and light refreshment at 4:00pm followed by the panel discussion at 4:30pm.

Light reception sponsored by Ryerson University’s Faculty of Science

Dr. Imogen Coe

Dr. Imogen R. Coe is currently the Dean of the Faculty of Science at Ryerson University. Imogen possesses a doctorate (Ph.D.) and masters degree in Biology from the University of Victoria, B.C. and a bachelor’s degree from Exeter University in the U.K.  She is an affiliate scientist with Li Ka Shing Knowledge Institute, Keenan Research Centre at St. Michael’s Hospital which is where her research program is located.  She is an accomplished cell biologist and is internationally known for her work on membrane transport proteins (transporters) that are the route of entry into cells for a large class of anti-cancer, anti-viral and anti-parasite drugs.  She has served on NSERC, CIHR and NCIC scientific review panels and continues to supervise research projects of undergraduates, graduate students, postdoctoral fellows and research associates in her group. More about her research can be found  at her research website.

Mehrdad Hariri

Mehrdad Hariri is the founder and CEO of Canadian Science Policy Centre. The Centre is becoming the HUB for science technology and innovation policy in the country. He established the first national annual Canadian Science Policy Conference (CSPC), a forum dedicated to the Canadian Science Technology and Innovation (STI) Policy issues. The Conference engages stakeholders from the science and innovation field, academia and government in discussions of policy issues at the intersection of science and society. Now in its 9th year, CSPC has become the most comprehensive national forum on science and innovation policy issues.

Dr. Jim Woodgett

In his dual roles as Investigator and Director of Research of the Lunenfeld-Tanenbaum Research Institute, Dr. Jim Woodgett applies his visionary approach to research into the manipulation of cell processes to treat certain cancers, diabetes and neurodegenerative conditions, and to ensuring that discoveries made by the world-renowned Institute are applied to patient care. Dr. Woodgett is interested in the causes and treatment of breast cancer, colorectal cancer, diabetes, Alzheimer Disease and bipolar disorder. What links this apparently broad range of diseases is their common basis in disruption of the lines of communication within the cells, or the signalling pathways. By studying the ways in which components of these pathways are mutated and transformed by disease, Dr. Woodgett can identify new and more effective therapeutic targets. Study of the WNT pathway, which contains a number of genes which account for about 90% of human colon cancer, is a particular area of interest. Recent advancements made by Dr. Woodgett’s team in adult stem cell division pave the way for scientists to harvest large quantities of these specialized cells which hold great promise for the treatment and cure of life- threatening illnesses.

Margrit Eichler

Margrit Eichler is Professor emerita of Sociology and Equity Studies at OISE/UT. Her over 200 publications deal, among other topics, with feminist methodology, gender issues, public health, environmental issues, and paid and unpaid work. She is a fellow Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada and the European Academy of Sciences. Since her retirement, she has been active in various citizens’ organizations, including as Secretary of Science for Peace and as President of the advocacy group Our Right to Know.

Ivan Semeniuk [science writer for Globe & Mail newspaper]

Dan Weaver

Dan Weaver is a Ph.D. candidate at the U of T Dept. of Physics. His research involves collecting and analyzing atmospheric measurements taken at the Polar Environment Atmospheric Research Laboratory (PEARL) on Ellesmere Island, Nunavut. He is also involved in the validation of satellites such as Canada’s Atmospheric Chemistry Experiment.In 2012, Dan was at PEARL for fieldwork when the federal government cut science funding that supported PEARL and other research programs across the country. He started a campaign called Save PEARL to advocate for continued funding for climate and Arctic atmospheric research. Dan joined Evidence for Democracy to advocate for science and evidence-based decision-making in 2013 and is a member of its Board of Directors. Dan is also a member of the Toronto March for Science organizing committee.

Toronto tickets are going faster than Ottawa tickets.

I’m feeling just a bit indignant; there are not just two Canadian satellite marches as you might expect given how this notice is written up. There are 18! Eight provinces are represented with marches in Calgary (Alberta), Montréal (Québec), Prince George (British Columbia), Vancouver (British Columbia), Edmonton (Alberta), Winnipeg (Manitoba), Halifax (Nova Scotia), London (Ontario), Windsor (Ontario),  Hamilton (Ontario), Ottawa (Ontario), Toronto (Ontario), Victoria (British Columbia), Lethbridge (Alberta), St. John’s (Newfoundland and Labrador), Kitchener-Waterloo (Ontario), Sudbury (Ontario), and Saskatoon (Saskatchewan). Honestly, these folks in Ontario seem to have gotten quite insular. In any event, you can figure out how to join in by clicking here.

For those who might appreciate some cogent insight into the current science situation in the US (and an antidote to what I suspect will be a great deal of self-congratulation on these April 18, 2017 CSPC panels), there’s an April 14, 2017 article by Jason Lloyd for Slate.com (Note: Links have been removed),

The most prominent response to the situation will come April 22 [2017], as science advocates—including members of major organizations like the Union of Concerned Scientists, the American Geophysical Union, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science—“walk out of the lab and into the streets” for the first-ever March for Science. Modeled in part on January’s record-breaking Women’s March, organizers have planned a march in Washington and satellite marches in more than 400 cities across six continents. The March for Science is intended to be the largest assemblage of science advocates in history.

Too bad it will likely undermine their cause.

The goals of organizers and participants are varied and worthy, but its critics—most prominently the president himself—will smear the march as simply anti-Trump or anti-Republican partisanship. Whether that’s true is beside the point, and scientists who are keen to participate ought to do so without worrying that they’re sullying their objectivity. The many communities distressed by the actions of this administration should of course exercise their right to protest, and the March for Science may inspire deeper social and political engagement.

But participants must understand that the social and political context in which this march takes place means that it cannot produce the outcomes intended by its organizers. The officially nonpartisan march embodies in miniature the larger challenges that confront the scientific enterprise in its relationship with a society that’s undergoing profound and often distressing changes.

Let’s start by looking at what the largest representative of the scientific community, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, intends by endorsing the march. According to the AAAS’s statement of support, the march will help:

…  protect the rights of scientists to pursue and communicate their inquiries unimpeded, expand the placement of scientists throughout the government, build public policies upon scientific evidence, and support broad educational efforts to expand public understanding of the scientific process.

In other words, scientists want support for instructing—not involving—the public in the scientific process, a greater influence on policymaking, and no political accountability. That’s a pretty audacious power play, and it’s easy to see how critics might cast the march’s intent as a privileged group seeking to protect and enhance its privileges. The thing is, they wouldn’t be entirely wrong.

As science policy journalist Colin Macilwain points out in Nature, scientists and other members of the technocratic class have generally enjoyed stable, middle-class employment and society’s respect and admiration for most of the past 70 years. They have benefited from scientific and technological progress while mostly remaining insulated from the collateral damage wrought by creative destruction. Federal funding has remained generous under progressive and conservative governments and through economic booms and busts. Scientists possess a variety of relatively comfortable perches from which they can express their ideas and shape public policy.

But there are a lot of people to whom the past seven decades have not been nearly so kind. They’ve struggled to find and keep well-paying jobs in a world in which technological advancement has decoupled economic growth from employment opportunities. They’ve lost a sense of having their voices heard in policymaking, as governance and regulation becomes increasingly complex. To see a select group of people and institutions profit from this complexity has, understandably, bred resentment throughout post-industrial countries.

So what should scientists do to safeguard and support their community instead? A good first step would be to acknowledge the scope and depth of the problem. The biggest issue confronting science is not a malicious and incompetent executive, or a research enterprise that might receive less generous funding than it’s enjoyed in the past. The critical challenge—and one that will still be relevant long after Donald Trump has gone back to making poor real estate decisions—is figuring out how scientists can build an enduring relationship with all segments of the American public, so that discounting, defunding, or vilifying scientists’ important work is politically intolerable.

This does not excuse whatever appalling policies Trump will no doubt seek to implement, against which scientists should speak out forcefully in the language of public values like free speech. They did this successfully against requests for the names of Department of Energy employees who attended U.N. climate talks and the clampdown on federal agencies’ external communications. But over the longer term, scientists need to improve their connection to the public and articulate their importance to society in a way that resonates with all Americans.

Academia can also challenge the insularity of scientific practice (and not just in the sciences). Instead of an overriding focus on publishing and grants, renewed attention to teaching could train more students in academic rigor and critical appraisal of, among other things, the false claims of a populist demagogue. With research universities scattered throughout the country, academics should be incentivized to improve ties with people who might otherwise consider scientists to be condescending eggheads who only give them bad news about the climate or the economy. University medical centers and military bases provide great models for these types of strong local relationships.

Finally, scientists and technologists must also attend to the social implications of their research. This includes anticipating and mitigating the socioeconomic effects of their innovations (here’s looking at you, Silicon Valley) by allocating resources to address problems they may exacerbate, such as inequality and job loss. The high-level discussion around CRISPR, the revolutionary gene-editing technology, is a good example of both the opportunity for and difficulty of responsible innovation. This process might be made more effective by bringing the public into scientific practice and policymaking using the tools of citizen science and deliberative democracy, rather than simply telling people what scientists are doing or explaining what policymakers have already decided.

If you have the time, please read Lloyd’s piece in its entirety. The piece has certainly generated a fair number of comments (121 when I last looked).

I have run a couple of posts which feature some well-meaning advice for our southern neighbours from Canadians along with my suggestion that they might not be as helpful as we hope.

Jan. 27, 2017 posting (scroll down past the internship announcement, about 15% of the way down)

Feb. 13, 2017 posting

The Canadian science scene and the 2017 Canadian federal budget

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here are highlights from the 2017 federal budget:

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

You can find the entire 2017-18 budget here.

Science and the 2017-18 budget

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stem Cell Research

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

Space Exploration

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

Quantum Information

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

Social Innovation

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

International Research Collaborations

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

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

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

Canada a Pioneer in Deep Learning in Machines and Brains

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

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

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

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

Attracting brains from afar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thankfully, Bernstein calms down a bit,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Digital policy and intellectual property issues

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Canada and its review of fundamental science

Big thanks to David Bruggeman’s June 14, 2016 post (on his Pasco Phronesis blog) for news of Canada’s Fundamental Science Review, which was launched on June 13, 2016 (Note: Links have been removed),

The panel’s mandate focuses on support for fundamental research, research facilities, and platform technologies.  This will include the three granting councils as well as other research organisations such as the Canada Foundation for Innovation. But it does not preclude the panel from considering and providing advice and recommendations on research matters outside of the mandate.  The plan is to make the panel’s work and recommendations readily accessible to the public, either online or through any report or reports the panel produces.  The panel’s recommendations to Minister Duncan are non-binding. …

As Ivan Semeniuk notes at The Globe and Mail [Canadian ‘national’ newspaper], the recent Nurse Review in the U.K., which led to the notable changes underway in the organization of that country’s research councils, seems comparable to this effort.  But I think it worth noting the differences in the research systems of the two countries, and the different political pressures in play.  It is not at all obvious to this writer that the Canadian review would necessarily lead to similar recommendations for a streamlining and reorganization of the Canadian research councils.

Longtime observers of the Canadian science funding scene may recall an earlier review held under the auspices of the Steven Harper Conservative government known as the ‘Review of Federal Support to R&D’. In fact it was focused on streamlining government funding for innovation and commercialization of science. The result was the 2011 report, ‘Innovation Canada: A Call to Action’, known popularly as the ‘Jenkins report’ after the panel chair, Tom Jenkins. (More about the report and responses to it can be found in my Oct. 21, 2011 post).

It’s nice to see that fundamental science is being given its turn for attention.

A June 13, 2016 Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada news release provides more detail about the review and the panel guiding the review,

The Government of Canada understands the role of science in maintaining a thriving, clean economy and in providing the evidence for sound policy decisions. To deliver on this role however, federal programs that support Canada’s research efforts must be aligned in such a way as to ensure they are strategic, effective and focused on meeting the needs of scientists first.

That is why the Honourable Kirsty Duncan, Minister of Science, today launched an independent review of federal funding for fundamental science. The review will assess the program machinery that is currently in place to support science and scientists in Canada. The scope of the review includes the three granting councils [Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council {SSHRC}, Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council {NSERC}, Canadian Institutes of Health Research {CIHR}] along with certain federally funded organizations such as the Canada Foundation for Innovation [CFI].

The review will be led by an independent panel of distinguished research leaders and innovators including Dr. David Naylor, former president of the University of Toronto and chair of the panel. Other panelists include:

  • Dr. Robert Birgeneau, former chancellor, University of California, Berkeley
  • Dr. Martha Crago, Vice-President, Research, Dalhousie University
  • Mike Lazaridis, co-founder, Quantum Valley Investments
  • Dr. Claudia Malacrida, Associate Vice-President, Research, University of Lethbridge
  • Dr. Art McDonald, former director of the Sudbury Neutrino Laboratory, Nobel Laureate
  • Dr. Martha Piper, interim president, University of British Columbia
  • Dr. Rémi Quirion, Chief Scientist, Quebec
  • Dr. Anne Wilson, Canadian Institute for Advanced Research Successful Societies Fellow and professor of psychology, Wilfrid Laurier University

The panel will spend the next six months seeking input from the research community and Canadians on how to optimize support for fundamental science in Canada. The panel will also survey international best practices for funding science and examine whether emerging researchers face barriers that prevent them from achieving career goals. It will look at what must be done to address these barriers and what more can be done to encourage Canada’s scientists to take on bold new research challenges. In addition to collecting input from the research community, the panel will also invite Canadians to participate in the review [emphasis mine] through an online consultation.

Ivan Semeniuk in his June 13, 2016 article for The Globe and Mail provides some interesting commentary about the possible outcomes of this review,

Depending on how its recommendations are taken on board, the panel could trigger anything from minor tweaks to a major rebuild of Ottawa’s science-funding apparatus, which this year is expected to funnel more than $3-billion to Canadian researchers and their labs.

Asked what she most wanted the panel to address, Ms. Duncan cited, as an example, the plight of younger researchers who, in many cases, must wait until they are in their 40s to get federal support.

Another is the risk of losing the benefits of previous investments when funding rules become restrictive, such as a 14-year limit on how long the government can support one of its existing networks of centres of excellence, or the dependence of research projects that are in the national interest on funding streams that require support from provincial governments or private sources.

The current system for proposing and reviewing research grants has been criticized as cumbersome and fraught with biases that mean the best science is not always supported.

In a paper published on Friday in the research journal PLOS One, Trent University biologist Dennis Murray and colleagues combed through 13,526 grant proposals to the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council between 2011 and 2014 and found significant evidence that researchers at smaller universities have consistently lower success rates.

Dr. Murray advocates for a more quantitative and impartial system of review to keep such biases at bay.

“There are too many opportunities for human impressions — conscious or unconscious — to make their way into the current evaluation process,” Dr. Murray said.

More broadly, researchers say the time is right for a look at a system that has grown convoluted and less suited to a world in which science is increasingly cross-disciplinary, and international research collaborations are more important.

If you have time, I encourage you to take a look at Semeniuk’s entire article as for the paper he mentions, here’s a link to and a citation for it,

Bias in Research Grant Evaluation Has Dire Consequences for Small Universities by Dennis L. Murray, Douglas Morris, Claude Lavoie, Peter R. Leavitt, Hugh MacIsaac,  Michael E. J. Masson, & Marc-Andre Villard. PLOS http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0155876  Published: June 3, 2016

This paper is open access.

Getting back to the review and more specifically, the panel, it’s good to see that four of the nine participants are women but other than that there doesn’t seem to be much diversity, i.e.,the majority (five) spring from the Ontario/Québec nexus of power and all the Canadians are from the southern part of country. Back to diversity, there is one business man, Mike Laziridis known primarily as the founder of Research in Motion (RIM or more popularly as the Blackberry company) making the panel not a wholly ivory tower affair. Still, I hope one day these panels will have members from the Canadian North and international members who come from somewhere other than the US, Great Britain, and/or if they’re having a particularly wild day, Germany. Here are some candidate countries for other places to look for panel members: Japan, Israel, China, South Korea, and India. Other possibilities include one of the South American countries, African countries, and/or the Middle Eastern countries.

Take the continent of Africa for example, where many countries seem to have successfully tackled one of the issues as we face. Specifically, the problem of encouraging young researchers. James Wilsdon notes some success in his April 9, 2016 post about Africa and science advice for the Guardian science blogs (Note: Links have been removed),

… some of the brightest talents and most exciting advances in African science were on display at the Next Einstein Forum. This landmark meeting, initiated by the African Institute of Mathematical Sciences, and held in Senegal, brought together almost 1000 researchers, entrepreneurs, businesses and policymakers from across Africa to celebrate and support the continent’s most promising early-career researchers.

A new cadre of fifteen Next Einstein Fellows and fifty-four ambassadors was announced, and the forum ended with an upbeat declaration of commitment to Africa’s role in world-leading, locally-relevant science. …

… UNESCO’s latest global audit of science, published at the end of 2015, concludes that African science is firmly on the rise. The number of journal articles published on the continent rose by sixty per cent from 2008 to 2014. Research investment rose from $12.9 billion in 2007 to $19.9 billion (US dollars) in 2013. Over the same period, R&D expenditure as a percentage of GDP nudged upwards from 0.36 per cent to 0.45 per cent, and the population of active researchers expanded from 150,000 to 190,000.

If you have the time, do read Wilsdon’s piece which covers some of the more difficult aspects facing the science communities in Africa and more.

In any event, it’s a bit late to bemoan the panel’s makeup but hopefully the government will take note for the future as I’m planning to include some of my critique in my comments to the panel in answer to their request for public comments.

You can find out more about Canada’s Fundamental Science Review here and you can easily participate here and/or go here to subscribe for updates.

Synthetic Aesthetics update and an informal Canadian synthetic biology roundup

Amanda Ruggeri has written a very good introduction to synthetic biology for nonexperts in her May 20, 2015 Globe and Mail article about ‘Designing for the Sixth Extinction’, an exhibit showcasing designs and thought experiments focused on synthetic biology ,

In a corner of Istanbul’s Design Biennial late last year [2014], photographs of bizarre creatures sat alongside more conventional displays of product design and typefaces. Diaphanous globes, like transparent balloons, clung to the mossy trunk of an oak tree. Rust-coloured patterns ran across green leaves, as if the foliage had been decorated with henna. On the forest floor, a slug-like creature slithered, its back dotted with gold markings; in another photograph, what looked like a porcupine without a head crawled over the dirt, its quills tipped blood-red.

But as strange as the creatures looked, what they actually are is even stranger. Not quite living things, not quite machines, these imagined prototypes inhabit a dystopic, future world – a world in which they had been created to solve the problems of the living. The porcupine, for example, is an Autonomous Seed Disperser, described as a device that would collect and disperse seeds to increase biodiversity. The slug would be programmed to seek out acidic soils and neutralize them by dispersing an alkali hygroscopic fluid.

They are the designs – and thought experiments – of London-based Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg, designer, artist and lead author of the book Synthetic Aesthetics: Investigating Synthetic Biology’s Designs on Nature. In her project Designing for the Sixth Extinction, which after Istanbul is now on display at the Design Museum in London, Ginsberg imagines what a synthetic biology-designed world would look like – and whether it’s desirable. “

I have a couple of comments. First, the ‘Synthetic Aesthetics: Investigating Synthetic Biology’s Designs on Nature’ book launch last year was covered here in a May 5, 2014 post. where you’ll notice a number of the academics included in Ruggeri’s article are contributors to the book (but not mentioned as such). Second, I cannot find ‘Design for the Sixth Extinction’ listed as an exhibition on London’s Design Museum website.

Getting back to the matter at hand, not all of the projects mentioned in Ruggeri’s article are ‘art’ projects, there is also this rather practical and controversial initiative,

Designing even more complex organisms is the inevitable, and controversial, next step. And those designs have already begun. The British company Oxitec has designed a sterile male mosquito. When the bugs are released into nature and mate, no offspring result, reducing the population or eliminating it altogether. This could be a solution to dengue fever, a mosquito-carried disease that infects more than 50 million people each year: In field trials in Cayman, Panama and Brazil, the wild population of the dengue-carrying mosquito species was reduced by 90 per cent. Yet, as a genetically engineered solution, it also makes some skittish. The consequences of such manipulations remain unforeseen, they say. Proponents counter that the solution is more elegant, and safer, than the current practice of spraying chemicals.

Even so, the engineered mosquito leads to overarching questions: What are the dangers of tinkering with life? Could this cause a slide toward eugenics? Currently, the field doesn’t have an established ethics oversight process, something some critics are pushing to change.

It’s a surprising piece for the Globe and Mail newspaper to run since it doesn’t have a Canadian angle to it and the Globe and Mail doesn’t specialize in science (not withstanding Ivan Semeniuk’s science articles) or art/science or synthetic biology writing, for that matter. Perhaps it bodes an interest and more pieces on emerging science and technology and on art/science projects?

In any event, it seems like a good time to review some of the synthetic biology work or the centres of activity in Canada.  I believe the last time I tackled this particular topic was in a May 24, 2010 post titled, Canada and synthetic biology in the wake of the first ‘synthetic’ bacteria.

After a brief search, I found three centres for research:

Concordia [University] Centre for Applied Synthetic Biology (CASB)

[University of Toronto] The Synthetic Biology and Cellular Control Lab

[University of British Columbia] Centre for High-Throughput Biology (CHiBi)

Following an Oct. 27 – 28, 2014 UK-Canada Synthetic Biology Workshop held at Concordia University, Rémi Quirion, Vincent Martin, Pierre Meulien and Marc LePage co-wrote a Nov. 4, 2014 Concordia University post titled, How Canada is poised to revolutionize synthetic biology,

Rémi Quirion is the Chief Scientist of Québec, Fonds de recherche du Québec. Vincent Martin is Canada Research Chair in Microbial Genomics and Engineering and a professor in the Department of Biology at Concordia University in Montreal. Pierre Meulien is President and CEO of Genome Canada. Marc LePage is the President and CEO of Génome Québec.

Canada’s research and business communities have an opportunity to become world leaders in a burgeoning field that is fast shaping how we deal with everything from climate change to global food security and the production of lifesaving medications. The science of synthetic biology has the transformative capacity to equip us with novel technology tools and products to build a more sustainable society, while creating new business and employment opportunities for the economy of tomorrow.

We can now decipher the code of life for any organism faster and less expensively than ever before. Canadian scientists are producing anti-malarial drugs from organic materials that increase the availability and decrease the cost of lifesaving medicines. They are also developing energy efficient biofuels to dramatically reduce environmental and manufacturing costs, helping Canadian industry to thrive in the global marketplace.

The groundwork has also been laid for a Canadian revolution in the field. Canada’s scientific community is internationally recognized for its leadership in genomics research and strong partnerships with key industries. Since 2000, Genome Canada and partners have invested more than $2.3 billion in deciphering the genomes of economically important plants, animals and microbes in order to understand how they function. A significant proportion of these funds has been invested in building the technological toolkits that can be applied to synthetic biology.

But science cannot do it alone. Innovation on this scale requires multiple forms of expertise in order to be successful. Research in law, business, social sciences and humanities is vital to addressing questions of ethics, supply chain management, social innovation and cultural adaptation to new technologies. Industry knowledge and investments, as well as the capacity to incentivize entrepreneurship, are key to devising business models that will enable new products to thrive. Governments and funding agencies also need to do their part by supporting multidisciplinary research, training and infrastructure.

It’s a bit ‘hype happy’ for my taste but it does provide some fascinating insight in what seems to be a male activity in Canada.

Counterbalancing that impression is an Oct. 6, 2013 article by Ivan Semeniuk for the Globe and Mail about a University of Lethbridge team winning the top prize in a synthetic biology contest,

If you want to succeed in the scientific revolution of the future, it helps to think about life as a computer program.

That strategy helped University of Lethbridge students walk away with the top prize in a synthetic biology competition Sunday. Often touted as the genetic equivalent of the personal computer revolution, synthetic biology involves thinking about cells as programmable machines that can be designed and built to suit a particular need – whether it’s mass producing a vaccine or breaking down a hazardous chemical in the environment.

The five member Lethbridge team came up with a way to modify how cells translate genetic information into proteins. Rather than one bit of DNA carrying the information to make one protein – the usual way cells go about their business – the method involves inserting a genetic command that jiggles a cell’s translational machinery while it’s in mid-operation, coaxing it to produce two proteins out of the same DNA input.

“We started off with a computer analogy – kind of like zipping your files together – so you’d zip two protein sequences together and therefore save space,” said Jenna Friedt, a graduate student in biochemistry at Lethbridge. [emphasis mine]

There are concerns other than gender issues, chief amongst them, ethics. The Canadian Biotechnology Action Network maintains an information page on Synthetic Biology which boasts this as its latest update,

October 2014: In a unanimous decision of 194 countries, the United Nation’s Convention on Biological Diversity formally urged countries to regulate synthetic biology, a new extreme form of genetic engineering. The landmark decision follows ten days of hard-fought negotiations between developing countries and a small group of wealthy biotech-friendly economies. Until now, synthetic organisms have been developed and commercialized without international regulations. …

Finally, there’s a June 2014 synthetic biology timeline from the University of Ottawa’s Institute for Science, Society, and Policy (ISSP) which contextualizes Canadian research, policy and regulation with Australia, the European Union, the UK, and the US.

(On a closely related note, there’s my May 14, 2015 post about genetic engineering and newly raised concerns.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2015 Canadian federal budget and science

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

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

Where’s the Science Beef in Canadian Budget 2015?

Andrew Casey
President and CEO, BIOTECanada

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

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

Opinion on 2015 Federal Budget

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

Workman-Like Budget Preserves Key National Programs

Paul Davidson
President, Universities Canada

A Reality Check on Budget 2015

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

The 2015 Federal Budget Targets Key Segments of Voters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Science Culture: Where Canada Stands; an expert assessment, Part 1 of 3: Canadians are doing pretty well

After almost two years, Science Culture: Where Canada Stands (256 pp. PDF; 222 pp. print) was released in August  2014 by the Council of Canadian Academies (CAC). The assessment as the CAC calls these reports was first mentioned here in a Dec. 19, 2012 post about the questions being asked and with a follow up Feb. 22, 2013 post when its Expert Panel was announced.

I believe this is the first document of its kind, i.e., assessing science culture in Canada, and it is very welcome. I have mixed feelings about the report; there’s some excellent content packaged in a rather unfortunate manner. (BTW, I was chuffed to find that my blog and I were mentioned in it.)

I will start with the good stuff first. The CAC has provided an infographic of how Canada compares to other countries where science culture is concerned,

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It’s encouraging to see how well we’re doing globally although the report does note that some countries don’t have data for comparison and other countries’ may have older data (Canadian data gathered for this report is relatively recent as per one of the excerpts [further in this post] from Ivan Semeniuk’s August 28, 2014 Globe and Mail article) so the rankings may not reflect a truly accurate global ranking.

Here’s another infographic; this one describing Canadians’ attitudes towards and beliefs about science and technology,

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As encouraging as these infographics are, Ivan Semeniuk (also namechecked in the report) notes some of the concerns broached in the assessment in his Aug, 28, 2014 Globe and Mail article,

From knowing what a molecule is to endorsing government support for basic research, Canadians as a whole display a clearer understanding of and a more positive attitude toward science than people in most other developed countries.

Overall, the report’s message is a positive one for Canada. “Canadians rank quite highly when it comes to science knowledge, attitudes and engagement in comparison with other countries in the world,” said Arthur Carty, chair of the panel that produced the report and a former national science adviser.

But despite high levels of interest, the report also reveals that in practical terms, most Canadians have an arm’s-length relationship with science. [emphasis mine] Only 20 per cent of first university degrees in Canada are awarded in science and engineering fields and only 30 per cent of employed Canadians work at science and technology related jobs – fewer than in the majority of other countries with a comparable standard of living.

It seems Semeniuk and the expert panel subscribe to the notion that formal science education is the only true measure of a ;close’ relationship with science. Neither party seems to take much comfort in the fact that Canadians keep up with science once their formal education (scientific or otherwise) is over (from Semeniuk’s article,

Among the most striking results from the survey is that Canada ranks first in science literacy, with 42 per cent of Canadians able to read and understand newspaper stories detailing scientific findings.

The comparatively high interest in science that Canadians express suggests they may be doing better than most at keeping up with the discoveries that have come along since their formal education ended. [emphasis mine] An emphasis on lifelong learning is important for cultivating a national science culture, the report’s authors say, because the leading edge of research is driven by knowledge that was not available 10 or 20 years ago.

The comparatively recent Canadian data, as mentioned earlier, may not provide a true picture of Canada’s ranking (from Semeniuk’s article),

But ongoing research by Dr. Miller [Jon Miller, a panel member and director of the International Center for the Advancement of Scientific Literacy at the University of Michigan] and others suggest that science literacy is on the rise everywhere, and therefore Canada’s high ranking could also be a function of how recently it was surveyed relative to other countries. Whatever the reason, the report’s numbers suggest there is more to be learned about precisely how Canadians are relating to science and how that is changing, says broadcaster and author Jay Ingram, who was also on the panel.

Getting on to the report/assessment proper, I do like the note of skepticism about the impact a strong science culture has on society given the somewhat hysterical claims made by some adherents to this philosophy,

Many claims have been advanced about the impacts of a strong science culture. Such claims are often plausible given the extent to which science and technology feature in most aspects of individual and social life. However, there is limited empirical evidence to substantiate these claims, and in some cases that evidence points to more complexity in the way these impacts are manifested than is typically acknowledged. Much of this evidence suggests that, while a stronger science culture may contribute to a range of personal or social benefits, it is not always in itself sufficient to ensure the realization of those benefits.(p. 24 PDF; p. xxii print]

It’s a thoughtfulness I very much appreciate.

The report offers a definition of science that could include social science but, given a rather egregious omission (more about that in part 3 of this commentary), does not appear to do so,

Science is a systematic means of discovery and exploration that enriches our collective understanding of the world and universe around us. It is a fundamental part of Canadian culture and society, implicated in nearly every aspect of individual and social life. (p. 34 PDF; p. 2 print)

I was intrigued to learn the term ‘science culture’ is specific to Canada,

One of the first challenges faced by the Panel was to define science culture. While often used in Canadian discussions of science and technology policy, the term is rarely defined with precision. It is most frequently used to convey the degree to which society and the public are broadly engaged in, and supportive of, science. For example, at the launch of Canada’s National Science and Technology Week in 1990, the then Minister for Science, William Winegard, stated that “a science culture means a society that embraces science, involves itself in the development, application and use of new technologies, and celebrates national achievements [in science] with pride and enthusiasm” (National Science and Technology Week, 1990).

The use of this term in Canada partly reflects Canada’s bilingual heritage. In other English-speaking countries, terms such as science literacy, public understanding of science, public engagement in science, and public communication of science are more common (Durant, 1993). These terms are not synonymous with each other, or with science culture. However, they are related concepts, representing a range of perspectives that have been applied to the study of how the public relates to, interacts with, and develops views about science and technology. Patterns in the use of these terms in the literature over time also reflect an evolution in the way in which scholars, scientists, and policy-makers discuss science and society issues (Bauer, 2009). In French, the preferred term is generally la culture scientifique or la culture scientifique et technique, and the use of these terms in Quebec may have contributed to the use of the English science culture throughout Canada.

Compared with science literacy or public understanding of science, science culture is a more expansive concept, encompassing different aspects of the relationship between society and science. (p. 39 PDF; p, 7 print)

Globally, discussions about science are necessary,

Public discussions about the role of science in society are now dominated by a number of critical issues. Debates about nuclear power, climate change, biotechnology, nanotechnology, and stem cells are common across many countries and have been frequently the source of both national and international studies. For example, concern about anthropogenic global warming has generated a significant amount of research on public perception and attitudes related to science and technology. … The global reach of many of these issues requires international policy responses involving coordination and alignment of many governments. Both government actions and media coverage of these issues can have an impact on public perception of science and technology on an international scale.

Specific events abroad can also have a major impact on science culture around the world. The crisis at the Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan in 2011, for example, caused widespread concern over nuclear safety across many countries and significantly affected public perception of the safety of these technologies (Kim et al., 2013). In Canada this event precipitated a review of all major nuclear facilities and the development of a four-year action plan to strengthen the safety of the nuclear industry (Canadian Nuclear Association, 2012; Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, 2012) (pp. 46/7 PDF; pp. 14/5 print)

In a description of how new technologies are changing society and affecting the practice of science, the expert panel introduces the notion of ‘citizen science’ (Note: I agree with the notion and have a category for citizen science on this blog),

One such impact concerns how the public can participate in and contribute to scientific work. Canadian physicist Michael Nielsen argues that new possibilities for large-scale scientific collaboration resulting from web-based platforms can potentially transform the practice of science due to changes in how scientists collaborate, and to the development of online platforms for engaging the public in scientific research (Nielsen, 2012). “Citizen science” initiatives allow the public to contribute to many kinds of scientific activity, often through collaborative, web-based platforms … (p. 47 PDF; p. 15 print)

I was pleased to see that the influence of popular culture was also mentioned although I did feel it was a bit lacking,

First, popular culture can influence attitudes towards science and technology and perceptions of scientists and their role in society. The foundation of science is the acquisition of knowledge. Ungar (2000) argues that in some segments of society, attaining highly specialized knowledge is viewed as elitist. [emphasis mine] As such, it is sometimes popular to denigrate intellectualism in favour of a more egalitarian and conversational ethos, which may devalue the contributions of scientists. In a review of U.S. children’s educational science programs, Long and Steinke (1996) report that images of science have emphasized characteristics such as truth, fun, accessibility, and ubiquity. Scientists were portrayed through several stereotypes in these shows, ranging from being omniscient and elite to eccentric and antisocial. (p. 51 PDF; p. 19 print)

The panel adopted a rather interesting approach to a fairly complex topic and, in my view, gave it shorter shrift than it deserved. Frankly, the view that the science community is elitist has some merit. How do you like someone using the term ‘dumbing down’ in your presence?

Getting back to the assessment, I was happy to see that Québec was more or less given its due,

As the only Canadian province with a predominantly French-speaking population, Quebec has its own organizations dedicated to the promotion of science in the public (e.g., Association francophone pour le savoir); its own set of French- language science media organizations and programs (e.g., Agence Science-Presse, “Découverte,” “Le Code Chastenay”); French-language science museums and centres (e.g., Centre des sciences de Montréal); science festivals (e.g., Festival Eurêka!); and many other organizations and programs involved in supporting science culture and communication for the Francophone population. The formal science education and training system also differs in Quebec, given the role of institutions such as the collèges d’enseignement général et professionnel (CEGEP). The historical development of science culture in Quebec is also distinct from that of Anglophone Canada, more firmly rooted in French and European discourses about science, culture, and cultural policies (Chartrand et al., 1987; Schiele et al., 1994). As a result of these differences, past inquiries into science culture in Canada have often treated Quebec as separate from the rest of Canada, and the Quebec government has sponsored its own investigations into science culture in the province (e.g., CST, 2002a). (p. 53 PDF; p. 21 print)

I believe it’s the province with the most support of any for science culture and it cannot be an accident that Seed (a former Canadian and once successful English language science magazine and enterprise) was founded in Montréal, Québec.

The report also notes Aboriginal contributions to Canadian science culture,

Canada’s Aboriginal cultures also play a role in defining the science culture landscape in Canada, both through their own knowledge traditions and their impacts on science education and outreach. Aboriginal knowledge has also been incorporated into some provincial science curricula, and some science textbooks now teach students about both scientific and Aboriginal knowledge systems, as a result of the collaboration between ministries of education, Aboriginal Elders, and one Canadian publisher (Aikenhead & Elliott, 2010). Aboriginal knowledge and traditions have also had impacts on scientific research in Canada, with biologists, ecologists, climatologists, and geologists incorporating Aboriginal knowledge in their research in a number of ways … (pp. 53/4 PDF; pp. 21/2 print)

It would have been nice to know if any experts of Aboriginal origin were included in the expert panel and/or in the group of reviewers as it would have been nice to see more women in those groups. If you’re going to discuss diversity and opening things up then perhaps you should consider ‘being the change’ rather than simply discussing it.

The report also mentioned Canada’s ageing population never once suggesting there might be ways to integrate that population into the larger science culture. The report’s bias was definitely youthful. Again on the subject of ‘being the change’, it might have been interesting to include youth and seniors in an advisory capacity to the panel.

On to part 2 and part 3.

Science advice tidbits: Canada and New Zealand

Eight months after the fact, I find out from the Canadian Science Policy Centre website that a private member’s bill calling for the establishment of a parliamentary science officer was tabled (November 2013) in Canada’s House of Commons. From a Nov. 21, 2013 article by Ivan Semeniuk for the Globe and Mail,

With the Harper government facing continued criticism from many quarters over its policies towards science, the opposition has announced it wants to put in place a parliamentary champion to better shield government researchers and their work from political misuse.

In a private member’s bill to be tabled next week the NDP [New Democratic Party] science and technology critic, Kennedy Stewart, calls for the establishment of a parliamentary science officer reporting not to the government nor to the Prime Minister’s office, but to Parliament as a whole.

The role envisioned in the NDP bill is based in part on a U.K. model and is similar in its independence to that of the Parliamentary Budget Officer. The seven-year, one-term appointment would also work in concert with other federal science advisory bodies, including the Science, Technology and Innovation Council – which provides confidential scientific advice to the government but not to Parliament – and the Council of Canadian Academies, which provides publicly accessible information related to science policy but does not make recommendations.

Speaking to a room mainly filled with science policy professionals, Dr. Stewart drew applause for the idea but also skepticism about whether such an ambitious multi-faceted role could be realistically achieved or appropriately contained within one job.

Stewart was speaking about his private member’s bill at the 2013 Canadian Science Policy Conference held in Toronto, Ontario from Nov. 20 – 22, 2013.

More recently and in New Zealand, a national strategic plan for science in society was released (h/t to James Wilsdon’s twitter feed). From a July 29, 2014 Office of the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor media release,

With today’s [July 29, 2014] launch of A Nation of Curious Minds, the national strategic plan for science in society by Ministers Joyce and Parata [Minister of Science and Innovation, Hon Steven Joyce, and Minister of Education, Hon Hekia Parata ], Sir Peter Gluckman, the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor,called it an important next step in a journey. Sir Peter was Chair of the National Science Challenges Panel that recommended Government take action in this area, and was Chair of the Reference Group that advised on the plan.

Sir Peter noted that a stand-out feature of the plan is that it does not simply put the onus on the public – whether students, families, or communities – to become better informed about science. Rather, there is a clear indication of the responsibility of the science sector and the role of the media in making research more accessible and relevant to all New Zealanders. “It is a two-way conversation,” said Sir Peter. “Scientists can no longer assume that their research direction and their results are of interest only to their peers, just as the public and governments need to better understand the types of answers that they can and cannot expect from science.”

The plan also calls for a Participatory Science Platform. Curiosity aroused, I chased down more information, From p. 31 (PDF) of New Zealand’s national strategic plan for science in society,

The participatory science platform builds on traditional concepts in citizen science and enhances these through collaborative approaches more common to community-based participatory research. [emphasis mine] Participatory science is a method of undertaking scientific research where volunteers can be meaningfully involved in research in collaboration with science professionals (including post- graduate students or researchers and private sector scientists) and builds on international models of engagement.

The goal is to involve schools/kura and/or community-based organisations such as museums and associations in projects with broad appeal, that have both scientific value and pedagogical rigour, and that resonate with the community. In addition, several ideas are being tested for projects of national significance that would integrate with the National Science Challenges and be national in reach.

The participatory science platform has the potential to:

›offer inspiring and relevant learning opportunities for students and teachers
›engage learners and participants beyond the school/kura community to reach parents, whānau
and wider communities
›offer researchers opportunities to become involved in locally relevant  lines of enquiry, where data can be enriched by the local knowledge and contribution of citizens.

The participatory science platform is built on four core components and incorporates mātauranga
Māori:

1. A process that seeks ideas for participatory science projects both from the community (including early childhood education services and kōhanga reo, schools/kura, museums and other organisations, Kiwi authorities or community associations) and from science professionals (from post-graduate students to principal investigators in both the public and private sectors
2. A managed process for evaluating these ideas for both pedagogical potential (in the case of schools/kura) and scientific quality, and for ensuring their practicality and relevance to the participating partners (science sector and community-based)
3. A web-based match-making process between interested community-based partners and science professionals
4. A resource for teachers and other community or learning leaders to assist in developing their projects to robust standards.

The platform’s website will serve as a match-making tool between scientists and potential community-based partners seeking to take part in a research project by offering a platform for community-initiated and scientist-initiated research.

A multi-sectoral management and review panel will be established to maintain quality control over the programme and advise on any research ethics requirements.

All projects will have an institutional home which will provide a coordination role. This could be a school, museum, zoo, science centre, iwi office or research institute, university or other tertiary
organisation.

The projects will be offered as opportunities for community-based partners to participate in scientific research as a way to enhance their local input, their science knowledge and their interest,
and (in the case of schools) to strengthen learning programmes through stronger links to relevant learning environments and expertise.

Once matches are made between community-based partners and scientists, these partners would self-direct their involvement in carrying out the research according to an agreed plan and approach.

A multi-media campaign will accompany the launch of programme, and a dedicated website/social media site will provide a sustained channel of communication for ideas that continue to emerge. It will build on the momentum created by the Great New Zealand Science Project and leverages the legacy of that project, including its Facebook page. [emphasis mine]

To enable more sophisticated projects, a limited number of seed grants will be made available to help foster a meaningful level of community involvement. The seed grants will part-fund science professionals and community/school groups to plan together the research question, data collection, analysis and knowledge translation strategy for the project. In addition, eligible costs could include research tools or consumables that would not otherwise be accessible to community partners.

I admire the ambitiousness and imagination of the Participatory Science Platform project and hope that it will be successful. As for the rest of the report, there are 52 pp. in the PDF version for those who want to pore over it.

For anyone unfamiliar (such as me) with the Great New Zealand Science Project, it was a public consultation where New Zealanders were invited to submit ideas and comments about science to the government.  As a consequence of the project, 10 research areas were selected as New Zealand’s National Science Challenges. From a June 25, 2014 government update,

On 1 May 2013 Prime Minister John Key and Hon Steven Joyce, Minister of Science and Innovation, announced the final 10 National Science Challenges.

The ten research areas identified as New Zealand’s first National Science Challenges are:

Ageing well – harnessing science to sustain health and wellbeing into the later years of life …

A better start – improving the potential of young New Zealanders to have a healthy and successful life …

Healthier lives – research to reduce the burden of major New Zealand health problems …

High value nutrition – developing high value foods with validated health benefits …

New Zealand’s biological heritage – protecting and managing our biodiversity, improving our biosecurity, and enhancing our resilience to harmful organisms …

Our land and water  – Research to enhance primary sector production and productivity while maintaining and improving our land and water quality for future generations …

Sustainable seas – enhance utilisation of our marine resources within environmental and biological constraints.

The deep south – understanding the role of the Antarctic and the Southern Ocean in determining our climate and our future environment …

Science for technological innovation – enhancing the capacity of New Zealand to use physical and engineering sciences for economic growth …

Resilience to nature’s challenges – research into enhancing our resilience to natural disasters …

The release of “A Nation of Curious Minds, the national strategic plan for science in society” is timely, given that the 2014 Science Advice to Governments; a global conference for leading practitioners is being held mere weeks away in Auckland, New Zealand (Aug. 28, – 29, 2014).

In Canada, we are waiting for the Council of Canadian Academies’ forthcoming assessment  The State of Canada’s Science Culture, sometime later in 2014. The assessment is mentioned at more length here in the context of a Feb. 22, 2013 posting where I commented on the expert panel assembled to investigate the situation and write the report.