Tag Archives: McMaster University

The Hedy Lamarr of international research: Canada’s Third assessment of The State of Science and Technology and Industrial Research and Development in Canada (1 of 2)

Before launching into the assessment, a brief explanation of my theme: Hedy Lamarr was considered to be one of the great beauties of her day,

“Ziegfeld Girl” Hedy Lamarr 1941 MGM *M.V.
Titles: Ziegfeld Girl
People: Hedy Lamarr
Image courtesy mptvimages.com [downloaded from https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0034415/mediaviewer/rm1566611456]

Aside from starring in Hollywood movies and, before that, movies in Europe, she was also an inventor and not just any inventor (from a Dec. 4, 2017 article by Laura Barnett for The Guardian), Note: Links have been removed,

Let’s take a moment to reflect on the mercurial brilliance of Hedy Lamarr. Not only did the Vienna-born actor flee a loveless marriage to a Nazi arms dealer to secure a seven-year, $3,000-a-week contract with MGM, and become (probably) the first Hollywood star to simulate a female orgasm on screen – she also took time out to invent a device that would eventually revolutionise mobile communications.

As described in unprecedented detail by the American journalist and historian Richard Rhodes in his new book, Hedy’s Folly, Lamarr and her business partner, the composer George Antheil, were awarded a patent in 1942 for a “secret communication system”. It was meant for radio-guided torpedoes, and the pair gave to the US Navy. It languished in their files for decades before eventually becoming a constituent part of GPS, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth technology.

(The article goes on to mention other celebrities [Marlon Brando, Barbara Cartland, Mark Twain, etc] and their inventions.)

Lamarr’s work as an inventor was largely overlooked until the 1990’s when the technology community turned her into a ‘cultish’ favourite and from there her reputation grew and acknowledgement increased culminating in Rhodes’ book and the documentary by Alexandra Dean, ‘Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story (to be broadcast as part of PBS’s American Masters series on May 18, 2018).

Canada as Hedy Lamarr

There are some parallels to be drawn between Canada’s S&T and R&D (science and technology; research and development) and Ms. Lamarr. Chief amongst them, we’re not always appreciated for our brains. Not even by people who are supposed to know better such as the experts on the panel for the ‘Third assessment of The State of Science and Technology and Industrial Research and Development in Canada’ (proper title: Competing in a Global Innovation Economy: The Current State of R&D in Canada) from the Expert Panel on the State of Science and Technology and Industrial Research and Development in Canada.

A little history

Before exploring the comparison to Hedy Lamarr further, here’s a bit more about the history of this latest assessment from the Council of Canadian Academies (CCA), from the report released April 10, 2018,

This assessment of Canada’s performance indicators in science, technology, research, and innovation comes at an opportune time. The Government of Canada has expressed a renewed commitment in several tangible ways to this broad domain of activity including its Innovation and Skills Plan, the announcement of five superclusters, its appointment of a new Chief Science Advisor, and its request for the Fundamental Science Review. More specifically, the 2018 Federal Budget demonstrated the government’s strong commitment to research and innovation with historic investments in science.

The CCA has a decade-long history of conducting evidence-based assessments about Canada’s research and development activities, producing seven assessments of relevance:

The State of Science and Technology in Canada (2006) [emphasis mine]
•Innovation and Business Strategy: Why Canada Falls Short (2009)
•Catalyzing Canada’s Digital Economy (2010)
•Informing Research Choices: Indicators and Judgment (2012)
The State of Science and Technology in Canada (2012) [emphasis mine]
The State of Industrial R&D in Canada (2013) [emphasis mine]
•Paradox Lost: Explaining Canada’s Research Strength and Innovation Weakness (2013)

Using similar methods and metrics to those in The State of Science and Technology in Canada (2012) and The State of Industrial R&D in Canada (2013), this assessment tells a similar and familiar story: Canada has much to be proud of, with world-class researchers in many domains of knowledge, but the rest of the world is not standing still. Our peers are also producing high quality results, and many countries are making significant commitments to supporting research and development that will position them to better leverage their strengths to compete globally. Canada will need to take notice as it determines how best to take action. This assessment provides valuable material for that conversation to occur, whether it takes place in the lab or the legislature, the bench or the boardroom. We also hope it will be used to inform public discussion. [p. ix Print, p. 11 PDF]

This latest assessment succeeds the general 2006 and 2012 reports, which were mostly focused on academic research, and combines it with an assessment of industrial research, which was previously separate. Also, this third assessment’s title (Competing in a Global Innovation Economy: The Current State of R&D in Canada) makes what was previously quietly declared in the text, explicit from the cover onwards. It’s all about competition, despite noises such as the 2017 Naylor report (Review of fundamental research) about the importance of fundamental research.

One other quick comment, I did wonder in my July 1, 2016 posting (featuring the announcement of the third assessment) how combining two assessments would impact the size of the expert panel and the size of the final report,

Given the size of the 2012 assessment of science and technology at 232 pp. (PDF) and the 2013 assessment of industrial research and development at 220 pp. (PDF) with two expert panels, the imagination boggles at the potential size of the 2016 expert panel and of the 2016 assessment combining the two areas.

I got my answer with regard to the panel as noted in my Oct. 20, 2016 update (which featured a list of the members),

A few observations, given the size of the task, this panel is lean. As well, there are three women in a group of 13 (less than 25% representation) in 2016? It’s Ontario and Québec-dominant; only BC and Alberta rate a representative on the panel. I hope they will find ways to better balance this panel and communicate that ‘balanced story’ to the rest of us. On the plus side, the panel has representatives from the humanities, arts, and industry in addition to the expected representatives from the sciences.

The imbalance I noted then was addressed, somewhat, with the selection of the reviewers (from the report released April 10, 2018),

The CCA wishes to thank the following individuals for their review of this report:

Ronald Burnett, C.M., O.B.C., RCA, Chevalier de l’ordre des arts et des
lettres, President and Vice-Chancellor, Emily Carr University of Art and Design
(Vancouver, BC)

Michelle N. Chretien, Director, Centre for Advanced Manufacturing and Design
Technologies, Sheridan College; Former Program and Business Development
Manager, Electronic Materials, Xerox Research Centre of Canada (Brampton,
ON)

Lisa Crossley, CEO, Reliq Health Technologies, Inc. (Ancaster, ON)
Natalie Dakers, Founding President and CEO, Accel-Rx Health Sciences
Accelerator (Vancouver, BC)

Fred Gault, Professorial Fellow, United Nations University-MERIT (Maastricht,
Netherlands)

Patrick D. Germain, Principal Engineering Specialist, Advanced Aerodynamics,
Bombardier Aerospace (Montréal, QC)

Robert Brian Haynes, O.C., FRSC, FCAHS, Professor Emeritus, DeGroote
School of Medicine, McMaster University (Hamilton, ON)

Susan Holt, Chief, Innovation and Business Relationships, Government of
New Brunswick (Fredericton, NB)

Pierre A. Mohnen, Professor, United Nations University-MERIT and Maastricht
University (Maastricht, Netherlands)

Peter J. M. Nicholson, C.M., Retired; Former and Founding President and
CEO, Council of Canadian Academies (Annapolis Royal, NS)

Raymond G. Siemens, Distinguished Professor, English and Computer Science
and Former Canada Research Chair in Humanities Computing, University of
Victoria (Victoria, BC) [pp. xii- xiv Print; pp. 15-16 PDF]

The proportion of women to men as reviewers jumped up to about 36% (4 of 11 reviewers) and there are two reviewers from the Maritime provinces. As usual, reviewers external to Canada were from Europe. Although this time, they came from Dutch institutions rather than UK or German institutions. Interestingly and unusually, there was no one from a US institution. When will they start using reviewers from other parts of the world?

As for the report itself, it is 244 pp. (PDF). (For the really curious, I have a  December 15, 2016 post featuring my comments on the preliminary data for the third assessment.)

To sum up, they had a lean expert panel tasked with bringing together two inquiries and two reports. I imagine that was daunting. Good on them for finding a way to make it manageable.

Bibliometrics, patents, and a survey

I wish more attention had been paid to some of the issues around open science, open access, and open data, which are changing how science is being conducted. (I have more about this from an April 5, 2018 article by James Somers for The Atlantic but more about that later.) If I understand rightly, they may not have been possible due to the nature of the questions posed by the government when requested the assessment.

As was done for the second assessment, there is an acknowledgement that the standard measures/metrics (bibliometrics [no. of papers published, which journals published them; number of times papers were cited] and technometrics [no. of patent applications, etc.] of scientific accomplishment and progress are not the best and new approaches need to be developed and adopted (from the report released April 10, 2018),

It is also worth noting that the Panel itself recognized the limits that come from using traditional historic metrics. Additional approaches will be needed the next time this assessment is done. [p. ix Print; p. 11 PDF]

For the second assessment and as a means of addressing some of the problems with metrics, the panel decided to take a survey which the panel for the third assessment has also done (from the report released April 10, 2018),

The Panel relied on evidence from multiple sources to address its charge, including a literature review and data extracted from statistical agencies and organizations such as Statistics Canada and the OECD. For international comparisons, the Panel focused on OECD countries along with developing countries that are among the top 20 producers of peer-reviewed research publications (e.g., China, India, Brazil, Iran, Turkey). In addition to the literature review, two primary research approaches informed the Panel’s assessment:
•a comprehensive bibliometric and technometric analysis of Canadian research publications and patents; and,
•a survey of top-cited researchers around the world.

Despite best efforts to collect and analyze up-to-date information, one of the Panel’s findings is that data limitations continue to constrain the assessment of R&D activity and excellence in Canada. This is particularly the case with industrial R&D and in the social sciences, arts, and humanities. Data on industrial R&D activity continue to suffer from time lags for some measures, such as internationally comparable data on R&D intensity by sector and industry. These data also rely on industrial categories (i.e., NAICS and ISIC codes) that can obscure important trends, particularly in the services sector, though Statistics Canada’s recent revisions to how this data is reported have improved this situation. There is also a lack of internationally comparable metrics relating to R&D outcomes and impacts, aside from those based on patents.

For the social sciences, arts, and humanities, metrics based on journal articles and other indexed publications provide an incomplete and uneven picture of research contributions. The expansion of bibliometric databases and methodological improvements such as greater use of web-based metrics, including paper views/downloads and social media references, will support ongoing, incremental improvements in the availability and accuracy of data. However, future assessments of R&D in Canada may benefit from more substantive integration of expert review, capable of factoring in different types of research outputs (e.g., non-indexed books) and impacts (e.g., contributions to communities or impacts on public policy). The Panel has no doubt that contributions from the humanities, arts, and social sciences are of equal importance to national prosperity. It is vital that such contributions are better measured and assessed. [p. xvii Print; p. 19 PDF]

My reading: there’s a problem and we’re not going to try and fix it this time. Good luck to those who come after us. As for this line: “The Panel has no doubt that contributions from the humanities, arts, and social sciences are of equal importance to national prosperity.” Did no one explain that when you use ‘no doubt’, you are introducing doubt? It’s a cousin to ‘don’t take this the wrong way’ and ‘I don’t mean to be rude but …’ .

Good news

This is somewhat encouraging (from the report released April 10, 2018),

Canada’s international reputation for its capacity to participate in cutting-edge R&D is strong, with 60% of top-cited researchers surveyed internationally indicating that Canada hosts world-leading infrastructure or programs in their fields. This share increased by four percentage points between 2012 and 2017. Canada continues to benefit from a highly educated population and deep pools of research skills and talent. Its population has the highest level of educational attainment in the OECD in the proportion of the population with
a post-secondary education. However, among younger cohorts (aged 25 to 34), Canada has fallen behind Japan and South Korea. The number of researchers per capita in Canada is on a par with that of other developed countries, andincreased modestly between 2004 and 2012. Canada’s output of PhD graduates has also grown in recent years, though it remains low in per capita terms relative to many OECD countries. [pp. xvii-xviii; pp. 19-20]

Don’t let your head get too big

Most of the report observes that our international standing is slipping in various ways such as this (from the report released April 10, 2018),

In contrast, the number of R&D personnel employed in Canadian businesses
dropped by 20% between 2008 and 2013. This is likely related to sustained and
ongoing decline in business R&D investment across the country. R&D as a share
of gross domestic product (GDP) has steadily declined in Canada since 2001,
and now stands well below the OECD average (Figure 1). As one of few OECD
countries with virtually no growth in total national R&D expenditures between
2006 and 2015, Canada would now need to more than double expenditures to
achieve an R&D intensity comparable to that of leading countries.

Low and declining business R&D expenditures are the dominant driver of this
trend; however, R&D spending in all sectors is implicated. Government R&D
expenditures declined, in real terms, over the same period. Expenditures in the
higher education sector (an indicator on which Canada has traditionally ranked
highly) are also increasing more slowly than the OECD average. Significant
erosion of Canada’s international competitiveness and capacity to participate
in R&D and innovation is likely to occur if this decline and underinvestment
continue.

Between 2009 and 2014, Canada produced 3.8% of the world’s research
publications, ranking ninth in the world. This is down from seventh place for
the 2003–2008 period. India and Italy have overtaken Canada although the
difference between Italy and Canada is small. Publication output in Canada grew
by 26% between 2003 and 2014, a growth rate greater than many developed
countries (including United States, France, Germany, United Kingdom, and
Japan), but below the world average, which reflects the rapid growth in China
and other emerging economies. Research output from the federal government,
particularly the National Research Council Canada, dropped significantly
between 2009 and 2014.(emphasis mine)  [p. xviii Print; p. 20 PDF]

For anyone unfamiliar with Canadian politics,  2009 – 2014 were years during which Stephen Harper’s Conservatives formed the government. Justin Trudeau’s Liberals were elected to form the government in late 2015.

During Harper’s years in government, the Conservatives were very interested in changing how the National Research Council of Canada operated and, if memory serves, the focus was on innovation over research. Consequently, the drop in their research output is predictable.

Given my interest in nanotechnology and other emerging technologies, this popped out (from the report released April 10, 2018),

When it comes to research on most enabling and strategic technologies, however, Canada lags other countries. Bibliometric evidence suggests that, with the exception of selected subfields in Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) such as Medical Informatics and Personalized Medicine, Canada accounts for a relatively small share of the world’s research output for promising areas of technology development. This is particularly true for Biotechnology, Nanotechnology, and Materials science [emphasis mine]. Canada’s research impact, as reflected by citations, is also modest in these areas. Aside from Biotechnology, none of the other subfields in Enabling and Strategic Technologies has an ARC rank among the top five countries. Optoelectronics and photonics is the next highest ranked at 7th place, followed by Materials, and Nanoscience and Nanotechnology, both of which have a rank of 9th. Even in areas where Canadian researchers and institutions played a seminal role in early research (and retain a substantial research capacity), such as Artificial Intelligence and Regenerative Medicine, Canada has lost ground to other countries.

Arguably, our early efforts in artificial intelligence wouldn’t have garnered us much in the way of ranking and yet we managed some cutting edge work such as machine learning. I’m not suggesting the expert panel should have or could have found some way to measure these kinds of efforts but I’m wondering if there could have been some acknowledgement in the text of the report. I’m thinking a couple of sentences in a paragraph about the confounding nature of scientific research where areas that are ignored for years and even decades then become important (e.g., machine learning) but are not measured as part of scientific progress until after they are universally recognized.

Still, point taken about our diminishing returns in ’emerging’ technologies and sciences (from the report released April 10, 2018),

The impression that emerges from these data is sobering. With the exception of selected ICT subfields, such as Medical Informatics, bibliometric evidence does not suggest that Canada excels internationally in most of these research areas. In areas such as Nanotechnology and Materials science, Canada lags behind other countries in levels of research output and impact, and other countries are outpacing Canada’s publication growth in these areas — leading to declining shares of world publications. Even in research areas such as AI, where Canadian researchers and institutions played a foundational role, Canadian R&D activity is not keeping pace with that of other countries and some researchers trained in Canada have relocated to other countries (Section 4.4.1). There are isolated exceptions to these trends, but the aggregate data reviewed by this Panel suggest that Canada is not currently a world leader in research on most emerging technologies.

The Hedy Lamarr treatment

We have ‘good looks’ (arts and humanities) but not the kind of brains (physical sciences and engineering) that people admire (from the report released April 10, 2018),

Canada, relative to the world, specializes in subjects generally referred to as the
humanities and social sciences (plus health and the environment), and does
not specialize as much as others in areas traditionally referred to as the physical
sciences and engineering. Specifically, Canada has comparatively high levels
of research output in Psychology and Cognitive Sciences, Public Health and
Health Services, Philosophy and Theology, Earth and Environmental Sciences,
and Visual and Performing Arts. [emphases mine] It accounts for more than 5% of world researchin these fields. Conversely, Canada has lower research output than expected
in Chemistry, Physics and Astronomy, Enabling and Strategic Technologies,
Engineering, and Mathematics and Statistics. The comparatively low research
output in core areas of the natural sciences and engineering is concerning,
and could impair the flexibility of Canada’s research base, preventing research
institutions and researchers from being able to pivot to tomorrow’s emerging
research areas. [p. xix Print; p. 21 PDF]

Couldn’t they have used a more buoyant tone? After all, science was known as ‘natural philosophy’ up until the 19th century. As for visual and performing arts, let’s include poetry as a performing and literary art (both have been the case historically and cross-culturally) and let’s also note that one of the great physics texts, (De rerum natura by Lucretius) was a multi-volume poem (from Lucretius’ Wikipedia entry; Note: Links have been removed).

His poem De rerum natura (usually translated as “On the Nature of Things” or “On the Nature of the Universe”) transmits the ideas of Epicureanism, which includes Atomism [the concept of atoms forming materials] and psychology. Lucretius was the first writer to introduce Roman readers to Epicurean philosophy.[15] The poem, written in some 7,400 dactylic hexameters, is divided into six untitled books, and explores Epicurean physics through richly poetic language and metaphors. Lucretius presents the principles of atomism; the nature of the mind and soul; explanations of sensation and thought; the development of the world and its phenomena; and explains a variety of celestial and terrestrial phenomena. The universe described in the poem operates according to these physical principles, guided by fortuna, “chance”, and not the divine intervention of the traditional Roman deities.[16]

Should you need more proof that the arts might have something to contribute to physical sciences, there’s this in my March 7, 2018 posting,

It’s not often you see research that combines biologically inspired engineering and a molecular biophysicist with a professional animator who worked at Peter Jackson’s (Lord of the Rings film trilogy, etc.) Park Road Post film studio. An Oct. 18, 2017 news item on ScienceDaily describes the project,

Like many other scientists, Don Ingber, M.D., Ph.D., the Founding Director of the Wyss Institute, [emphasis mine] is concerned that non-scientists have become skeptical and even fearful of his field at a time when technology can offer solutions to many of the world’s greatest problems. “I feel that there’s a huge disconnect between science and the public because it’s depicted as rote memorization in schools, when by definition, if you can memorize it, it’s not science,” says Ingber, who is also the Judah Folkman Professor of Vascular Biology at Harvard Medical School and the Vascular Biology Program at Boston Children’s Hospital, and Professor of Bioengineering at the Harvard Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS). [emphasis mine] “Science is the pursuit of the unknown. We have a responsibility to reach out to the public and convey that excitement of exploration and discovery, and fortunately, the film industry is already great at doing that.”

“Not only is our physics-based simulation and animation system as good as other data-based modeling systems, it led to the new scientific insight [emphasis mine] that the limited motion of the dynein hinge focuses the energy released by ATP hydrolysis, which causes dynein’s shape change and drives microtubule sliding and axoneme motion,” says Ingber. “Additionally, while previous studies of dynein have revealed the molecule’s two different static conformations, our animation visually depicts one plausible way that the protein can transition between those shapes at atomic resolution, which is something that other simulations can’t do. The animation approach also allows us to visualize how rows of dyneins work in unison, like rowers pulling together in a boat, which is difficult using conventional scientific simulation approaches.”

It comes down to how we look at things. Yes, physical sciences and engineering are very important. If the report is to be believed we have a very highly educated population and according to PISA scores our students rank highly in mathematics, science, and reading skills. (For more information on Canada’s latest PISA scores from 2015 see this OECD page. As for PISA itself, it’s an OECD [Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development] programme where 15-year-old students from around the world are tested on their reading, mathematics, and science skills, you can get some information from my Oct. 9, 2013 posting.)

Is it really so bad that we choose to apply those skills in fields other than the physical sciences and engineering? It’s a little bit like Hedy Lamarr’s problem except instead of being judged for our looks and having our inventions dismissed, we’re being judged for not applying ourselves to physical sciences and engineering and having our work in other closely aligned fields dismissed as less important.

Canada’s Industrial R&D: an oft-told, very sad story

Bemoaning the state of Canada’s industrial research and development efforts has been a national pastime as long as I can remember. Here’s this from the report released April 10, 2018,

There has been a sustained erosion in Canada’s industrial R&D capacity and competitiveness. Canada ranks 33rd among leading countries on an index assessing the magnitude, intensity, and growth of industrial R&D expenditures. Although Canada is the 11th largest spender, its industrial R&D intensity (0.9%) is only half the OECD average and total spending is declining (−0.7%). Compared with G7 countries, the Canadian portfolio of R&D investment is more concentrated in industries that are intrinsically not as R&D intensive. Canada invests more heavily than the G7 average in oil and gas, forestry, machinery and equipment, and finance where R&D has been less central to business strategy than in many other industries. …  About 50% of Canada’s industrial R&D spending is in high-tech sectors (including industries such as ICT, aerospace, pharmaceuticals, and automotive) compared with the G7 average of 80%. Canadian Business Enterprise Expenditures on R&D (BERD) intensity is also below the OECD average in these sectors. In contrast, Canadian investment in low and medium-low tech sectors is substantially higher than the G7 average. Canada’s spending reflects both its long-standing industrial structure and patterns of economic activity.

R&D investment patterns in Canada appear to be evolving in response to global and domestic shifts. While small and medium-sized enterprises continue to perform a greater share of industrial R&D in Canada than in the United States, between 2009 and 2013, there was a shift in R&D from smaller to larger firms. Canada is an increasingly attractive place to conduct R&D. Investment by foreign-controlled firms in Canada has increased to more than 35% of total R&D investment, with the United States accounting for more than half of that. [emphasis mine]  Multinational enterprises seem to be increasingly locating some of their R&D operations outside their country of ownership, possibly to gain proximity to superior talent. Increasing foreign-controlled R&D, however, also could signal a long-term strategic loss of control over intellectual property (IP) developed in this country, ultimately undermining the government’s efforts to support high-growth firms as they scale up. [pp. xxii-xxiii Print; pp. 24-25 PDF]

Canada has been known as a ‘branch plant’ economy for decades. For anyone unfamiliar with the term, it means that companies from other countries come here, open up a branch and that’s how we get our jobs as we don’t have all that many large companies here. Increasingly, multinationals are locating R&D shops here.

While our small to medium size companies fund industrial R&D, it’s large companies (multinationals) which can afford long-term and serious investment in R&D. Luckily for companies from other countries, we have a well-educated population of people looking for jobs.

In 2017, we opened the door more widely so we can scoop up talented researchers and scientists from other countries, from a June 14, 2017 article by Beckie Smith for The PIE News,

Universities have welcomed the inclusion of the work permit exemption for academic stays of up to 120 days in the strategy, which also introduces expedited visa processing for some highly skilled professions.

Foreign researchers working on projects at a publicly funded degree-granting institution or affiliated research institution will be eligible for one 120-day stay in Canada every 12 months.

And universities will also be able to access a dedicated service channel that will support employers and provide guidance on visa applications for foreign talent.

The Global Skills Strategy, which came into force on June 12 [2017], aims to boost the Canadian economy by filling skills gaps with international talent.

As well as the short term work permit exemption, the Global Skills Strategy aims to make it easier for employers to recruit highly skilled workers in certain fields such as computer engineering.

“Employers that are making plans for job-creating investments in Canada will often need an experienced leader, dynamic researcher or an innovator with unique skills not readily available in Canada to make that investment happen,” said Ahmed Hussen, Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship.

“The Global Skills Strategy aims to give those employers confidence that when they need to hire from abroad, they’ll have faster, more reliable access to top talent.”

Coincidentally, Microsoft, Facebook, Google, etc. have announced, in 2017, new jobs and new offices in Canadian cities. There’s a also Chinese multinational telecom company Huawei Canada which has enjoyed success in Canada and continues to invest here (from a Jan. 19, 2018 article about security concerns by Matthew Braga for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) online news,

For the past decade, Chinese tech company Huawei has found no shortage of success in Canada. Its equipment is used in telecommunications infrastructure run by the country’s major carriers, and some have sold Huawei’s phones.

The company has struck up partnerships with Canadian universities, and say it is investing more than half a billion dollars in researching next generation cellular networks here. [emphasis mine]

While I’m not thrilled about using patents as an indicator of progress, this is interesting to note (from the report released April 10, 2018),

Canada produces about 1% of global patents, ranking 18th in the world. It lags further behind in trademark (34th) and design applications (34th). Despite relatively weak performance overall in patents, Canada excels in some technical fields such as Civil Engineering, Digital Communication, Other Special Machines, Computer Technology, and Telecommunications. [emphases mine] Canada is a net exporter of patents, which signals the R&D strength of some technology industries. It may also reflect increasing R&D investment by foreign-controlled firms. [emphasis mine] [p. xxiii Print; p. 25 PDF]

Getting back to my point, we don’t have large companies here. In fact, the dream for most of our high tech startups is to build up the company so it’s attractive to buyers, sell, and retire (hopefully before the age of 40). Strangely, the expert panel doesn’t seem to share my insight into this matter,

Canada’s combination of high performance in measures of research output and impact, and low performance on measures of industrial R&D investment and innovation (e.g., subpar productivity growth), continue to be viewed as a paradox, leading to the hypothesis that barriers are impeding the flow of Canada’s research achievements into commercial applications. The Panel’s analysis suggests the need for a more nuanced view. The process of transforming research into innovation and wealth creation is a complex multifaceted process, making it difficult to point to any definitive cause of Canada’s deficit in R&D investment and productivity growth. Based on the Panel’s interpretation of the evidence, Canada is a highly innovative nation, but significant barriers prevent the translation of innovation into wealth creation. The available evidence does point to a number of important contributing factors that are analyzed in this report. Figure 5 represents the relationships between R&D, innovation, and wealth creation.

The Panel concluded that many factors commonly identified as points of concern do not adequately explain the overall weakness in Canada’s innovation performance compared with other countries. [emphasis mine] Academia-business linkages appear relatively robust in quantitative terms given the extent of cross-sectoral R&D funding and increasing academia-industry partnerships, though the volume of academia-industry interactions does not indicate the nature or the quality of that interaction, nor the extent to which firms are capitalizing on the research conducted and the resulting IP. The educational system is high performing by international standards and there does not appear to be a widespread lack of researchers or STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) skills. IP policies differ across universities and are unlikely to explain a divergence in research commercialization activity between Canadian and U.S. institutions, though Canadian universities and governments could do more to help Canadian firms access university IP and compete in IP management and strategy. Venture capital availability in Canada has improved dramatically in recent years and is now competitive internationally, though still overshadowed by Silicon Valley. Technology start-ups and start-up ecosystems are also flourishing in many sectors and regions, demonstrating their ability to build on research advances to develop and deliver innovative products and services.

You’ll note there’s no mention of a cultural issue where start-ups are designed for sale as soon as possible and this isn’t new. Years ago, there was an accounting firm that published a series of historical maps (the last one I saw was in 2005) of technology companies in the Vancouver region. Technology companies were being developed and sold to large foreign companies from the 19th century to present day.

Part 2

Science for the global citizen course at McMaster University in Winter 2018

It’s never too early to start planning for your course load if a June 20, 2017 McMaster University (Ontario, Canada) news release is to be believed,

In the Winter 2018 term, the School of Interdisciplinary Science is offering Science 2M03: Science for the Global Citizen, a new course designed to explore those questions and more. In this blended-learning course, students from all Faculties will examine the links between science and the larger society through live guest lecturers and evidence-based online discussions.This course is open to students enrolled in Level II or above in any program. No scientific background is needed, only an interest in becoming a more engaged and informed citizen.

The new course will cover a broad range of contemporary scientific issues with significant political, economic, social, and health implications. Topics range from artificial intelligence (AI) to genetically modified organisms (GMOs) to space exploration.

Course instructors, Dr. Kim Dej, Dr. Chad Harvey, Dr. Rosa da Silva, and Dr. Sarah Symons, all from the School of Interdisciplinary Science, will examine the basic scientific theories and concepts behind these topical issues, and highlight the application and interpretation of science in popular media and public policy.

After taking this course, students from all academic backgrounds will have a better understanding of how science is conducted, how knowledge changes, and how we can become better consumers of scientific information and more informed citizens.

3 
 63 
 1 
 68 How can science help address the key challenges in our society? How does society affect the way that science is conducted? Do citizens have a strong enough understanding of science and its methods to answer these and other similar questions? In the Winter 2018 term, the School of Interdisciplinary Science is offering Science 2M03: Science for the Global Citizen, a new course designed to explore those questions and more. In this blended-learning course, students from all Faculties will examine the links between science and the larger society through live guest lecturers and evidence-based online discussions. This course is open to students enrolled in Level II or above in any program. No scientific background is needed, only an interest in becoming a more engaged and informed citizen. The new course will cover a broad range of contemporary scientific issues with significant political, economic, social, and health implications. Topics range from artificial intelligence (AI) to genetically modified organisms (GMOs) to space exploration. Course instructors, Dr. Kim Dej, Dr. Chad Harvey, Dr. Rosa da Silva, and Dr. Sarah Symons, all from the School of Interdisciplinary Science, will examine the basic scientific theories and concepts behind these topical issues, and highlight the application and interpretation of science in popular media and public policy. After taking this course, students from all academic backgrounds will have a better understanding of how science is conducted, how knowledge changes, and how we can become better consumers of scientific information and more informed citizens.

I’m glad to see this kind of course being offered. It does seem a bit odd that none of the instructors involved with this course appear to be from the social sciences or humanities. Drs. Dej, Harvey, and da Silva all have a background in biological sciences and Dr. Symons is a physicist. Taking another look at this line from the course description, “The new course will cover a broad range of contemporary scientific issues with significant political, economic, social, and health implications,” has me wondering how these scientists are going to cover the material, especially as I couldn’t find any papers on these topics written by any of these instructors. This section puzzles me even more, “… highlight the application and interpretation of science in popular media and public policy.” Again none of these instructors seem to have published on the topic of science in popular media or science public policy.

Guest speakers can help to fill in the blanks but with four instructors (and I would imagine a tight budget) it’s hard to believe there are going to be that many guests.

I appreciate that this is more of what they used to call a ‘survey course’ meant to introduce a number of ideas rather than conveying any in depth information but I do find the instructors’ apparent lack of theoretical knowledge about anything other than their respective fields of science somewhat disconcerting.

Regardless, I wish both the instructors and the students all the best.

Meet Pepper, a robot for health care clinical settings

A Canadian project to introduce robots like Pepper into clinical settings (aside: can seniors’ facilities be far behind?) is the subject of a June 23, 2017 news item on phys.org,

McMaster and Ryerson universities today announced the Smart Robots for Health Communication project, a joint research initiative designed to introduce social robotics and artificial intelligence into clinical health care.

A June 22, 2017 McMaster University news release, which originated the news item, provides more detail,

With the help of Softbank’s humanoid robot Pepper and IBM Bluemix Watson Cognitive Services, the researchers will study health information exchange through a state-of-the-art human-robot interaction system. The project is a collaboration between David Harris Smith, professor in the Department of Communication Studies and Multimedia at McMaster University, Frauke Zeller, professor in the School of Professional Communication at Ryerson University and Hermenio Lima, a dermatologist and professor of medicine at McMaster’s Michael G. DeGroote School of Medicine. His main research interests are in the area of immunodermatology and technology applied to human health.

The research project involves the development and analysis of physical and virtual human-robot interactions, and has the capability to improve healthcare outcomes by helping healthcare professionals better understand patients’ behaviour.

Zeller and Harris Smith have previously worked together on hitchBOT, the friendly hitchhiking robot that travelled across Canada and has since found its new home in the [Canada] Science and Technology Museum in Ottawa.

“Pepper will help us highlight some very important aspects and motives of human behaviour and communication,” said Zeller.

Designed to be used in professional environments, Pepper is a humanoid robot that can interact with people, ‘read’ emotions, learn, move and adapt to its environment, and even recharge on its own. Pepper is able to perform facial recognition and develop individualized relationships when it interacts with people.

Lima, the clinic director, said: “We are excited to have the opportunity to potentially transform patient engagement in a clinical setting, and ultimately improve healthcare outcomes by adapting to clients’ communications needs.”

At Ryerson, Pepper was funded by the Co-lab in the Faculty of Communication and Design. FCAD’s Co-lab provides strategic leadership, technological support and acquisitions of technologies that are shaping the future of communications.

“This partnership is a testament to the collaborative nature of innovation,” said dean of FCAD, Charles Falzon. “I’m thrilled to support this multidisciplinary project that pushes the boundaries of research, and allows our faculty and students to find uses for emerging tech inside and outside the classroom.”

“This project exemplifies the value that research in the Humanities can bring to the wider world, in this case building understanding and enhancing communications in critical settings such as health care,” says McMaster’s Dean of Humanities, Ken Cruikshank.

The integration of IBM Watson cognitive computing services with the state-of-the-art social robot Pepper, offers a rich source of research potential for the projects at Ryerson and McMaster. This integration is also supported by IBM Canada and [Southern Ontario Smart Computing Innovation Platform] SOSCIP by providing the project access to high performance research computing resources and staff in Ontario.

“We see this as the initiation of an ongoing collaborative university and industry research program to develop and test applications of embodied AI, a research program that is well-positioned to integrate and apply emerging improvements in machine learning and social robotics innovations,” said Harris Smith.

I just went to a presentation at the facility where my mother lives and it was all about delivering more individualized and better care for residents. Given that most seniors in British Columbia care facilities do not receive the number of service hours per resident recommended by the province due to funding issues, it seemed a well-meaning initiative offered in the face of daunting odds against success. Now with this news, I wonder what impact ‘Pepper’ might ultimately have on seniors and on the people who currently deliver service. Of course, this assumes that researchers will be able to tackle problems with understanding various accents and communication strategies, which are strongly influenced by culture and, over time, the aging process.

After writing that last paragraph I stumbled onto this June 27, 2017 Sage Publications press release on EurekAlert about a related matter,

Existing digital technologies must be exploited to enable a paradigm shift in current healthcare delivery which focuses on tests, treatments and targets rather than the therapeutic benefits of empathy. Writing in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, Dr Jeremy Howick and Dr Sian Rees of the Oxford Empathy Programme, say a new paradigm of empathy-based medicine is needed to improve patient outcomes, reduce practitioner burnout and save money.

Empathy-based medicine, they write, re-establishes relationship as the heart of healthcare. “Time pressure, conflicting priorities and bureaucracy can make practitioners less likely to express empathy. By re-establishing the clinical encounter as the heart of healthcare, and exploiting available technologies, this can change”, said Dr Howick, a Senior Researcher in Oxford University’s Nuffield Department of Primary Care Health Sciences.

Technology is already available that could reduce the burden of practitioner paperwork by gathering basic information prior to consultation, for example via email or a mobile device in the waiting room.

During the consultation, the computer screen could be placed so that both patient and clinician can see it, a help to both if needed, for example, to show infographics on risks and treatment options to aid decision-making and the joint development of a treatment plan.

Dr Howick said: “The spread of alternatives to face-to-face consultations is still in its infancy, as is our understanding of when a machine will do and when a person-to-person relationship is needed.” However, he warned, technology can also get in the way. A computer screen can become a barrier to communication rather than an aid to decision-making. “Patients and carers need to be involved in determining the need for, and designing, new technologies”, he said.

I sincerely hope that the Canadian project has taken into account some of the issues described in the ’empathy’ press release and in the article, which can be found here,

Overthrowing barriers to empathy in healthcare: empathy in the age of the Internet
by J Howick and S Rees. Journaly= of the Royal Society of Medicine Article first published online: June 27, 2017 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1177/0141076817714443

This article is open access.

Nanotechnology at the University of McGill (Montréal, Canada) and other Canadian universities

On the occasion of the McGill University’s new minor program in nanotechnology, I decided to find other Canadian university nanotechnology programs.

First, here’s more about the McGill program from an Oct. 25, 2016 article by Miguel Principe for The McGill Tribune (Note: Links have been removed),

McGill’s Faculty of Engineering launched a new minor program this year that explores into the world of nanotechnology. It’s a relatively young field that focuses on nanomaterials—materials that have one dimension measuring 100 nanometres or less. …

“Nanomaterials are going to be very prominent in our everyday lives,” Assistant Professor Nathalie Tufenkji, of McGill’s Department of Chemical Engineering, said.  “We’re incorporating these materials into our everyday consumer products […] we’re putting these materials on our skin, […] in our paints, and electronics that we are contacting everyday.”

The new engineering minor program aims to introduce undergraduates to techniques in nanomaterial characterization and detection, as well as nanomaterial synthesis and processing. These concepts will be covered in courses such as Nanoscience and Nanotechnology, Supramolecular Chemistry, and Design and Manufacture of Microdevices.

Tufenkji, along with Professor Peter Grutter in the Department of Physics were instrumental in organizing this program. The minor is interdepartmental and includes courses in physics and engineering.

“Of course there’s a flipside on how do we best develop nanotechnology to […] take advantage of its promise,” Tufenkji said. “One of the questions […] is what are the potential impacts on our health and environment of nanomaterials?”

Tufenkji believes it is important that Canada has scientists and engineers that are educated in emerging scientific concepts and cutting-edge technology. Giving undergraduate students exposure to nanotechnology research early in their studies is a good stepping stone for further investigation into the evolving field.

The most comprehensive list of nanotechnology degree programs in Canada (16 programs) is at Nanowerk (Note: Links have been removed and you may find some repetition),

Carleton University – BSc Chemistry with a concentration in Nanotechnology
This concentration allows students to study atoms and molecules used to create computer chips and other devices that are the size of a few nanometres – thousands of times smaller than current technology permits. Such discoveries will be useful in a number of fields, including aerospace, medicine, and electronics.

Carleton University – BSc Nanoscience
At Carleton, you will examine nanoscience through the disciplines of physical chemistry and electrical engineering to understand the physical, chemical and electronic characteristics of matter in this size regime. The combination of these two areas of study will equip you to fully understand nanoscience in photonic, electronic, energy and communication technologies. The focus of the program will be on materials – their use in electronic devices, their scalability and control of their properties.

McGill University – Bachelor of Engineering, Minor Nanotechnology
Through courses already offered in the Faculties of Science, Engineering, and Medicine, depending on the courses completed, undergraduate students will acquire knowledge in areas related to nanotechnology.

Northern Alberta Institute of Technology – Nanotechnology Systems Diploma Program
The two year program will provide graduates with the skills to operate systems and equipment associated with Canada’s emerging nanotechnology industry and lead to a Diploma in Nanotechnology Systems.

University of Alberta – BSc Computer Engineering with Nanoscale System Design Option
This options provides an introduction to the processes involved in the fabrication of nanoscale integrated circuits and to the computer aided design (CAD) tools necessary for the engineering of large scale system on a chip. By selecting this option, students will learn about fault tolerance in nanoscale systems and gain an understanding of quantum phenomena in systems design.

University of Alberta – BSc Electrical Engineering with Nanoengineering Option
This option provides an introduction to the principles of electronics, electromagnetics and photonics as they apply at the nanoscale level. By selecting this option, students will learn about the process involved in the fabrication of nanoscale structures and become familiar with the computer aided design (CAD) tools necessary for analyzing phenomena at these very high levels of miniaturization.

University of Alberta – BSc Engineering Physics with Nanoengineering Option
The Nanoengineering Option provides broad skills suitable for entry to the nanotechnology professions, combining core Electrical Engineering and Physics courses with additional instruction in biochemistry and chemistry, and specialized instruction in nanoelectronics, nanobioengineering, and nanofabrication.

University of Alberta – BSc Materials Engineering with Nano and Functional Materials Option
Students entering this option will be exposed to the exciting and emerging field of nano and functional materials. Subject areas covered include electronic, optical and magnetic materials, nanomaterials and their applications, nanostructured molecular sieves, nano and functional materials processing and fabrication. Employment opportunities exist in several sectors of Canadian industry, such as microelectronic/optoelectronic device fabrication, MEMS processing and fuel cell development.

University of Calgary – B.Sc. Concentration in Nanoscience
Starting Fall 2008/Winter 2009, students can enroll in the only process learning driven Nanoscience program in North America. Courses offered are a B.Sc. Minor in Nanoscience and a B.Sc. Concentration in Nanoscience.

University of Calgary – B.Sc. Minor in Nanoscience
Starting Fall 2008/Winter 2009, students can enroll in the only process learning driven Nanoscience program in North America. Courses offered are a B.Sc. Minor in Nanoscience and a B.Sc. Concentration in Nanoscience.

University of Guelph – Nanoscience B.Sc. Program
At Guelph we have created a unique approach to nanoscience studies. Fundamental science course are combined with specially designed courses in nanoscience covering material that would previously only be found in graduate programs.

University of Toronto – BASc in Engineering Science (Nanoengineering Option)
This option transcends the traditional boundaries between physics, chemistry, and biology. Starting with a foundation in materials engineering and augmented by research from the leading-edge of nanoengineering, students receive an education that is at the forefront of this constantly evolving area.

University of Waterloo – Bachelor of Applied Science Nanotechnology Engineering
The Nanotechnology Engineering honours degree program is designed to provide a practical education in key areas of nanotechnology, including the fundamental chemistry, physics, and engineering of nanostructures or nanosystems, as well as the theories and techniques used to model, design, fabricate, or characterize them. Great emphasis is placed on training with modern instrumentation techniques as used in the research and development of these emerging technologies.

University of Waterloo – Master of Applied Science Nanotechnology
The interdisciplinary research programs, jointly offered by three departments in the Faculty of Science and four in the Faculty of Engineering, provide students with a stimulating educational environment that spans from basic research through to application. The goal of the collaborative programs is to allow students to gain perspectives on nanotechnology from a wide community of scholars within and outside their disciplines in both course and thesis work. The MASc and MSc degree collaborative programs provide a strong foundation in the emerging areas of nano-science or nano-engineering in preparation for the workforce or for further graduate study and research leading to a doctoral degree.

University of Waterloo – Master of Science Nanotechnology
The interdisciplinary research programs, jointly offered by three departments in the Faculty of Science and four in the Faculty of Engineering, provide students with a stimulating educational environment that spans from basic research through to application. The goal of the collaborative programs is to allow students to gain perspectives on nanotechnology from a wide community of scholars within and outside their disciplines in both course and thesis work. The MASc and MSc degree collaborative programs provide a strong foundation in the emerging areas of nano-science or nano-engineering in preparation for the workforce or for further graduate study and research leading to a doctoral degree.

University of Waterloo – Ph.D. Program in Nanotechnology
The objective of the PhD program is to prepare students for careers in academia, industrial R&D and government research labs. Students from Science and Engineering will work side-by-side in world class laboratory facilities namely, the Giga-to-Nano Electronics Lab (G2N), Waterloo Advanced Technology Lab (WatLAB) and the new 225,000 gross sq. ft. Quantum-Nano Center expected to be completed in early 2011.

The Wikipedia entry for Nanotechnology education lists a few Canadian university programs that seem to have been missed, as well as a few previously seen in the Nanowerk list (Note: Links have been removed),

  • University of Alberta – B.Sc in Engineering Physics with Nanoengineering option
  • University of Toronto – B.A.Sc in Engineering Science with Nanoengineering option
  • University of Waterloo – B.A.Sc in Nanotechnology Engineering
    • Waterloo Institute for Nanotechnology -B.Sc, B.A.Sc, master’s, Ph.D, Post Doctorate
  • McMaster University – B.Sc in Engineering Physics with Nanotechnology option
  • University of British Columbia – B.A.Sc in Electrical Engineering with Nanotechnology & Microsystems option
  • Carleton University – B.Sc in Chemistry with Concentration in Nanotechnology
  • University of Calgary – B.Sc Minor in Nanoscience, B.Sc Concentration in Nanoscience
  • University of Guelph – B.Sc in Nanoscience

So, there you have it.

Untangling carbon nanotubes at McMaster University (Canada)

Carbon nanotubes can be wiggly, entangled things (more about McMaster in a bit) as Dr. Andrew Maynard notes in this video (part of his Risk Bites video series) describing carbon nanotubes, their ‘infinite’ variety, and risks,

Researchers at Canada’s McMaster University have found a way to untangle carbon nanotubes according to an Aug. 16, 2016 news item on Nanowerk (Note: A link has been removed),

Imagine an electronic newspaper that you could roll up and spill your coffee on, even as it updated itself before your eyes.

It’s an example of the technological revolution that has been waiting to happen, except for one major problem that, until now, scientists have not been able to resolve.

Researchers at McMaster University have cleared that obstacle by developing a new way to purify carbon nanotubes – the smaller, nimbler semiconductors that are expected to replace silicon within computer chips and a wide array of electronics (Chemistry – A European Journal, “Influence of Polymer Electronics on Selective Dispersion of Single-Walled Carbon Nanotubes”).

“Once we have a reliable source of pure nanotubes that are not very expensive, a lot can happen very quickly,” says Alex Adronov, a professor of Chemistry at McMaster whose research team has developed a new and potentially cost-efficient way to purify carbon nanotubes.

The researchers have provided a gorgeous image,

Artistic rendition of a metallic carbon nanotube being pulled into solution, in analogy to the work described by the Adronov group. Image: Alex Adronov McMaster

Artistic rendition of a metallic carbon nanotube being pulled into solution, in analogy to the work described by the Adronov group. Image: Alex Adronov McMaster University

An Aug. 15, 2016 McMaster University news release, which originated the news item, provides a beginner’s introduction to carbon nanotubes and describes the purification process that will make production of carbon nanotubes easier,

Carbon nanotubes – hair-like structures that are one billionth of a metre in diameter but thousands of times longer ­– are tiny, flexible conductive nano-scale materials, expected to revolutionize computers and electronics by replacing much larger silicon-based chips.

A major problem standing in the way of the new technology, however, has been untangling metallic and semiconducting carbon nanotubes, since both are created simultaneously in the process of producing the microscopic structures, which typically involves heating carbon-based gases to a point where mixed clusters of nanotubes form spontaneously as black soot.

Only pure semiconducting or metallic carbon nanotubes are effective in device applications, but efficiently isolating them has proven to be a challenging problem to overcome. Even when the nanotube soot is ground down, semiconducting and metallic nanotubes are knotted together within each grain of powder. Both components are valuable, but only when separated.

Researchers around the world have spent years trying to find effective and efficient ways to isolate carbon nanotubes and unleash their value.

While previous researchers had created polymers that could allow semiconducting carbon nanotubes to be dissolved and washed away, leaving metallic nanotubes behind, there was no such process for doing the opposite: dispersing the metallic nanotubes and leaving behind the semiconducting structures.

Now, Adronov’s research group has managed to reverse the electronic characteristics of a polymer known to disperse semiconducting nanotubes – while leaving the rest of the polymer’s structure intact. By so doing, they have reversed the process, leaving the semiconducting nanotubes behind while making it possible to disperse the metallic nanotubes.

The researchers worked closely with experts and equipment from McMaster’s Faculty of Engineering and the Canada Centre for Electron Microscopy, located on the university’s campus.

“There aren’t many places in the world where you can do this type of interdisciplinary work,” Adronov says.

The next step, he explains, is for his team or other researchers to exploit the discovery by finding a way to develop even more efficient polymers and scale up the process for commercial production.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Influence of Polymer Electronics on Selective Dispersion of Single-Walled Carbon Nanotubes by *Darryl Fong*, William J. Bodnaryk, Dr. Nicole A. Rice, Sokunthearath Saem, Prof. Jose M. Moran-Mirabal, Prof. Alex Adronov. Chemistry A European Journal DOI: 10.1002/chem.201603553 First published: 16 August 2016

This paper appears to be open access.

*’Daryl Fon’ changed to ‘Darryl Fong’ on Oct. 3, 2016.

DNA as a sensor

McMaster University (Ontario, Canada) researchers have developed a technique for using DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) as a sensor according to a July 7, 2016 news item on ScienceDaily,

Researchers at McMaster University have established a way to harness DNA as the engine of a microscopic “machine” they can turn on to detect trace amounts of substances that range from viruses and bacteria to cocaine and metals.

“It’s a completely new platform that can be adapted to many kinds of uses,” says John Brennan, director of McMaster’s Biointerfaces Insitute and co-author of a paper in the journal Nature Communications that describes the technology. “These DNA nano-architectures are adaptable, so that any target should be detectable.”

A July 7, 2016 McMaster University news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, expands on the theme,

DNA is best known as a genetic material, but is also a very programmable molecule that lends itself to engineering for synthetic applications.

The new method shapes separately programmed pieces of DNA material into pairs of interlocking circles.

The first remains inactive until it is released by the second, like a bicycle wheel in a lock. When the second circle, acting as the lock, is exposed to even a trace of the target substance, it opens, freeing the first circle of DNA, which replicates quickly and creates a signal, such as a colour change.

“The key is that it’s selectively triggered by whatever we want to detect,” says Brennan, who holds the Canada Research Chair in Bioanalytical Chemistry and Biointerfaces. “We have essentially taken a piece of DNA and forced it to do something it was never designed to do. We can design the lock to be specific to a certain key. All the parts are made of DNA, and ultimately that key is defined by how we build it.”

The idea for the “DNA nanomachine” comes from nature itself, explains co-author Yingfu Li, who holds the Canada Research Chair in Nucleic Acids Research.

“Biology uses all kinds of nanoscale molecular machines to achieve important functions in cells,” Li says. “For the first time, we have designed a DNA-based nano-machine that is capable of achieving ultra-sensitive detection of a bacterial pathogen.”

The DNA-based nanomachine is being further developed into a user-friendly detection kit that will enable rapid testing of a variety of substances, and could move to clinical testing within a year.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Programming a topologically constrained DNA nanostructure into a sensor by Meng Liu, Qiang Zhang, Zhongping Li, Jimmy Gu, John D. Brennan, & Yingfu Li. Nature Communications 7, Article number: 12074  doi:10.1038/ncomms12074 Published 23 June 2016

This paper is open access.

Self-assembling molecular rings from McMaster University (Canada)

An April 21, 2016 news item on Nanotechnology Now highlights some research from Canada’s McMaster University,

Imagine throwing Lego pieces into the air and seeing them fall to the ground assembled into the shape of a house or plane.

Nature effortlessly does the equivalent all the time, using molecules as building blocks.

The right combination of ingredients and conditions spontaneously assembles structures as complex as viruses or cellular membranes. Chemists marvel at this very efficient approach to creating large molecular structures and keep searching for new ways to emulate the process using their own components.

Now, in a McMaster University laboratory, chemistry researchers have managed to coax molecules known as tellurazole oxides into assembling themselves into cyclic structures – a major advance in their field that creates a new and promising set of materials.

An April 20, 2016 McMaster University news release by Wade Hemsworth, which originated the news item, provides more detail,

“This is a seed we have found – one we have never seen. It has sprouted, now we need to see how tall the tree will grow and what kind of fruit it will bear,” says Ignacio Vargas Baca, an associate professor in McMaster’s Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology. “Once we understand the properties of these new materials, we can look at their potential applications.”

Barca’s group works in the realm of supramolecular chemistry, where the key is to exploit the forces that keep molecules together. Hydrogen atoms, for example, can form strong bridges between water molecules or pairs of DNA strands.

Earlier, the realization that atoms of iodine and bromine can act in a similar way had sparked great excitement in chemistry circles, giving rise to the hot field of “halogen bonding,” where other researchers have had success with enormous assemblies, but have had difficulties controlling the association of just a few molecules.

Meanwhile, Vargas’ group moved over one column on the periodic table of elements to work with chalcogens instead.

They discovered that certain molecules that contain the element tellurium assemble automatically into rings in solution, a success that has no rival in halogen bonding and constitutes a significant advance in supramolecular chemistry.

For now, he and his team envision uses in areas as diverse as communication technologies, gas storage and catalysis.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Supramolecular macrocycles reversibly assembled by Te…O chalcogen bonding by Peter C. Ho, Patrick Szydlowski, Jocelyn Sinclair, Philip J. W. Elder, Joachim Kübel, Chris Gendy, Lucia Myongwon Lee, Hilary Jenkins, James F. Britten, Derek R. Morim, & Ignacio Vargas-Baca.    Nature Communications 7, Article number: 11299  doi:10.1038/ncomms11299 Published 19 April 2016

This is an open access paper.

Reactions to Canada’s 2015 election Liberal majority and speculations about science and the new cabinet

The euphoria is dying down and, on balance, there was surprisingly little, the tone being more one of optimism laced with caution on the occasion of the Conservative’s defeat at the hands of the Liberal party in the Oct. 19, 2015 Canadian federal election.

Of course the big question for me and other Canadian science bloggers is:

What about science in the wake of the 2015 Liberal majority government in Canada?

I’ve gathered bits and pieces from various published opinions on the topic. First, there’s Brian Owen, a freelance writer in St. Stephen, New Brunswick (there’s more about him in my Aug. 18, 2015 posting about the upcoming Canadian Science Policy Conference to be held Nov. 25 -27, 2015 in Ottawa [Canada’s capital]) in an Oct. 20, 2015 opinion piece for ScienceInsider,

Many Canadian scientists are celebrating the result of yesterday’s federal election, which saw Stephen Harper’s Conservative government defeated after nearly 10 years in power.

The center-left Liberal Party under Justin Trudeau won an unexpected majority government, taking 184 of the 338 seats in the House of Commons. The Conservatives will form the opposition with 99 seats, while the left-leaning New Democratic Party (NDP) fell to third place with just 44 seats.

“Many scientists will be pleased with the outcome,” says Jim Woodgett, director of research at the Lunenfeld-Tanenbaum Research Institute at Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto. “The Liberal party has a strong record in supporting science.” [emphasis mine]

I don’t think the Liberal record is that great. If I understand it rightly, the first muzzle placed on government scientists was applied by a then Liberal government to Health Canada. That’s right the Conservatives got the idea from the Liberals and it’s not the only one they got from that source. Omnibus bills were also pioneered by the Liberal government.

However, hope still springs in mine and others’ bosoms as can be seen in an Oct. 21, 2015 essay in the Guardian (UK newspaper) by Michael Halpern of the Center for Science and Democracy at the US-based Union of Concerned Scientists  (Note: Links have been removed),

There was a palpable outpouring of relief from Canadian scientists as the Liberal Party won a majority on Monday night [Oct. 19, 2015], bringing to an end nine years of escalating hostility by the Harper government towards its own research base. Drastic cuts to funding and constraints on scientific freedom have significantly damaged Canadian research and its capacity to develop science-based public health and environmental policies.

Eight hundred scientists from thirty-two countries wrote an open letter urging the prime minster to ease restrictions on scientists and data. In October 2014, a Ryerson University professor wrote in Science magazine that the election presented an “opportunity to reboot the federal government’s controversial approach to science policy and research.”

All of this advocacy worked. Science became a major campaign issue during the election. There were all-party debates on science policy and extensive media coverage. The Green, Liberal and NDP platforms included significant commitments to restore science to its rightful place in society and public policy.

“We’ll reverse the $40 million cut that Harper made to our federal ocean science and monitoring programs,” said Liberal leader Justin Trudeau at a September campaign stop. “The war on science ends with the liberal government.” In tweet after tweet after tweet, opposition candidates argued that they were best positioned to defend scientific integrity.

Now that it’s been elected with a healthy majority, the Liberal Party says it will make data openly available, unmuzzle scientists, bring back the long form census, appoint a chief science officer, and make the agency Statistics Canada fully independent.

In the United States, many celebrated the end of the Bush administration in 2008, thinking that its restrictions on science would evaporate the moment that the Obama administration took office. It wasn’t true. There has been significant progress in protecting scientists from political influence. But the public has still lacked access to scientific information on multiple environmental and public health issues.

So who will keep watch over the new government, as it’s forced to choose among its many priorities? Canadian unions, scientists, policy experts and activists need to continue to push for real change. It’s up to those who care most about science and democracy to keep Trudeau on his toes.

Returning to Owen’s article, there are more pledges from the new Liberal government,

… Trudeau has also said his party will embrace “evidence based policy” and “data-driven decision-making,”  do more to address climate change, protect endangered species, and review the environmental impact of major energy and development projects.

Woodgett welcomes those pledges, but warns that they would not address the larger issue of what he sees as the government’s neglect of basic research funding. “I hope we will see less short-term thinking and much greater support for discovery research going forward,” he says. “We are at serious risk of a lost generation of scientists and it’s critical that younger researchers are given a clear indication that Canada is open to their ideas and needs.”

Science advocates plan to watch the new government closely to ensure it lives up to its promises. “Great to see Harper gone, but another majority is an awfully big blank cheque,” wrote Michael Rennie, a freshwater ecologist at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, on Twitter.

David Bruggeman in a cautionary Oct. 22, 2015 posting (on his Pasco Phronesis blog) sums things up in this title: Will New Canadian Government Be The Change Its Scientists Can Believe In? (Note: Links have been removed),

… Only one of the four party representatives at the recent science and technology debate managed to win a seat in the upcoming Parliament.  MP Marc Garneau will remain in Parliament, and his experience in the Canadian Space Agency means he may be able to better manage the changes sought in official government (as opposed to Parliamentary) policy.

The Conservatives will now shift to being the Official Opposition (the largest party not in power).  However, the current cabinet minister responsible for science and technology, and at least two of his predecessors, lost their seats.  The party that was the Official Opposition, the New Democratic Party (NDP), lost several seats, returning to the third largest party in Parliament.  (However, they appear to be a more natural ally for the Liberals than the Conservatives) MP Kennedy Stewart, who has championed the establishment of a Parliamentary Science Officer, barely retained his seat.  He will likely remain as the NDP science critic.

… While the policies on media access to government scientists are part of this trend, they may not be the first priority for Trudeau and his cabinet.  It may turn out to be something similar to the transition from the Bush to the Obama Administrations.  Changes to policies concerning so-called political interference with science were promised, but have not gotten the thorough commitment from the Obama Administration that some would have liked and/or expected.

As David notes. we lost significant critical voices when those Conservative MPs failed to get re-elected.

In a post-election Oct. 24, 2015 posting, Sarah Boon offers a call to action on her Watershed Moments blog (Note: Links have been removed),

I think it’s important to realize, however, that the work doesn’t end here.

Canadian scientists found their voice in the run up to the election, but they’d better not lose it now.

In a pre-election editorial on the Science Borealis Blog, Pascal Lapointe suggested that – after the election – the organizations that worked so hard to make science an election issue should join forces and keep pushing the government to keep science as a top priority. These groups include Evidence for Democracy, the Science Integrity Project, Get Science Right, Our Right to Know, the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada, and more.

Finally, there’s an Oct. 20, 2015 posting by Canadians Julia Whidden and Rachel Skubel on the Southern Fried Science blog explaining the Canadian election to American colleagues in what begins in a facey style which, thankfully and quickly, switches to informative and opinionated (Note: They have nothing good to say about the Conservatives and science),

Up until this past year, the thought of Canadian politics had probably never crossed your mind. For some of you, your introduction to the topic may have been via the astute criticisms of John Oliver published this past weekend. His YouTube video currently skyrocketing at just under 3 million views in less than 48 hours, may have even been the introduction to Canadian politics for some Canadians. Let’s face it: in comparison to the flashy and sometimes trashy race of our neighbors to the south (ahem, you Americans), Canadian politics are usually tame, boring, and dry. …

We present a few major issues related to marine science and conservation that Harper either dragged down or destroyed, and the complementary response by our new PM Trudeau from his platform. …

Based on the Liberals party’s platform, and their statements throughout the last year, here’s a taste of the contrasts between old and new:

Harper/Conservatives Trudeau/Liberals
Marine Protected AreasCommitted in 2011 to protect 10% of Canada’s coastal marine and coastal areas by 2020 under the International Convention on Biodiversity, but is lagging at a meager 1.3% – and only 0.11% is fully closed to “extractive activities.” 

 

MPApercent

 

Proposed MPAs have been stalled by inaction, failure to cooperate by the federal government or stakeholders, and overall a system which needs an infusion of resources – not cuts – to meet ambitious goals.

“We will increase the amount of Canada’s marine and coastal areas that are protected from 1.3 percent to 5 percent by 2017, and 10 percent by 2020.” Liberal Party’s Protecting our Oceans mandate

There is a bit of misinformation in the Southern Fried Science posting,

The National Research Council (NRC) is Canada’s equivalent of America’s National Science Foundation (NSF).

The closest analogue to the US National Science Foundation is Canada’s Tri-Council Agencies comprised of the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC), the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC), and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR).

Next step: appointing a cabinet

Oddly, I haven’t found anyone speculating as to what will happen to science when Justin Trudeau announces his cabinet. He has already stated that his cabinet will be significantly smaller than Stephen Harper’s cabinet of 39 ministers. Numbers for the new cabinet range from 25 to 28 to 30. The largest proposed Trudeau cabinet (30) is almost 25% less than the previous one. Clearly, some ministries will have to go or be combined with other ones.

I’m guessing that Science, which is considered a junior ministry, will be rolled into another ministry, possibly Industry, to be renamed, Industry and Science. Or, by appointing a Chief Science Advisor, Trudeau trumpets the new importance of science with this special status and disburses the Science Ministry responsibilities amongst a variety of ministries.

In any event, I look forward to finding out later this week (Nov. 2 – 6, 2015) whether either or neither of my predictions comes true.

*Canadian cabinet update: To see how I got it both wrong and right see my Nov.4, 2015 posting.

ETA Nov. 5, 2015: I found one more piece for this roundup, an Oct. 22, 2015 article by Helen Carmichael for Chemistry World published by the UK’s Royal Society of Chemistry (Note: Links have been removed),

There will likely be a shift in the Canadian government’s target research areas towards areas such as green energy and away from fossil fuels, observers say. In addition, they expect that the Trudeau government will be more hands off when it comes to the science that it funds – giving money to the granting councils and trusting them to disburse those funds via peer review. …

The way that science is funded – the politicisation of science – will be less of an issue for the next while,’ says John Brennan, a chemistry and chemical biology professor at McMaster University in Ontario, Canada, who directs the school’s Biointerfaces Institute.

Trudeau and his Liberal party have promised to appoint a chief science officer similar to the national science adviser position that the Harper government eliminated in 2008. Canada’s new chief science officer would report to the prime minister and ensure that government science is available to the public, that all the country’s scientists are able to speak freely about their work and that scientific analyses are considered when the Canadian government develops policy. The Trudeau government has also said that it will create a central online portal for government-funded scientific research to enable greater public access.

The Liberals offer quite a different vision for the Canadian economy than the Conservatives, planning to run short-term budget deficits to increase government spending on public infrastructure, and to return the country to a balanced budget in 2019–20. The party has committed to C$25 million (£12 million) in funding for National Parks and reversing budget cuts to government ocean science and monitoring programmes.

In addition to proposing initiatives to increase business investment in research and development, the Liberals want a tax credit, and will invest C$200 million annually to support innovation in the forestry, fisheries, mining, energy and agriculture sectors. Public science is particularly important in Canada, where the private sector funds a much lower proportion of research than most industrialised nations.

Provincial governments own Canada’s natural resources, with fossil fuel production largely in Alberta and Saskatchewan. Energy production is a major part of the Canadian economy. Trudeau has committed to set up a C$2 billion fund to help the country transition to a low carbon economy, but meanwhile he is not expected to withdraw support for the proposed Alberta to Texas Keystone XL oil pipeline.

Incoming president and chief executive of the Chemistry Industry Association of Canada (CIAC), Bob Masterson, recently told Chemistry World that rapid policy decisions by Canadian governments and retailers, without sufficient consultation with industry, are not advantageous or based on sound science. He described missed opportunities for the Canadian chemical industry to engage with regulators, coupled with a lack of coordination between various tiers of Canada’s national and regional regulations. On key issues, such as Canada’s Chemical Management Plan, global trade and maintaining competitive corporate tax rates, Masterson says the CIAC believes the liberal positions represent continuity rather than change from the previous government.

Carmichael’s offers a good overview and is the only one of *three* (the others* being from David Bruggeman *and Michael Halpern*) analyses  I’ve found, that are being written by people who are not navel gazing.

*’two’ changed to ‘three’, ‘other’ changed to ‘others’, and ‘and Michael Halpern’ added 1250 PST on Nov. 5, 2015.

Cellulose nanocrystals and supercapacitors at McMaster University (Canada)

Photos: Xuan Yang and Kevin Yager.

Photos: Xuan Yang and Kevin Yager. Courtesy McMaster University

I love that featherlike structure holding up a tiny block of something while balanced on what appears to be a series of medallions. What it has to do with supercapacitors (energy storage) and cellulose nanocrystals is a mystery but that’s one of the images you’ll find illustrating an Oct. 7, 2015 news item on Nanotechnology Now featuring research at McMaster University,

McMaster Engineering researchers Emily Cranston and Igor Zhitomirsky are turning trees into energy storage devices capable of powering everything from a smart watch to a hybrid car.

The scientists are using cellulose, an organic compound found in plants, bacteria, algae and trees, to build more efficient and longer-lasting energy storage devices or supercapacitors. This development paves the way toward the production of lightweight, flexible, and high-power electronics, such as wearable devices, portable power supplies and hybrid and electric vehicles.

A Sept. 10, 2015 McMaster University news release, which originated the news item, describes the research in more detail,

Cellulose offers the advantages of high strength and flexibility for many advanced applications; of particular interest are nanocellulose-based materials. The work by Cranston, an assistant chemical engineering professor, and Zhitomirsky, a materials science and engineering professor, demonstrates an improved three-dimensional energy storage device constructed by trapping functional nanoparticles within the walls of a nanocellulose foam.

The foam is made in a simplified and fast one-step process. The type of nanocellulose used is called cellulose nanocrystals and looks like uncooked long-grain rice but with nanometer-dimensions. In these new devices, the ‘rice grains’ have been glued together at random points forming a mesh-like structure with lots of open space, hence the extremely lightweight nature of the material. This can be used to produce more sustainable capacitor devices with higher power density and faster charging abilities compared to rechargeable batteries.

Lightweight and high-power density capacitors are of particular interest for the development of hybrid and electric vehicles. The fast-charging devices allow for significant energy saving, because they can accumulate energy during braking and release it during acceleration.

For anyone interested in a more detailed description of supercapacitors, there’s my favourite one which involves Captain America’s shield along with some serious science in my April 28, 2014 posting.

Getting back to the research at McMaster, here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Cellulose Nanocrystal Aerogels as Universal 3D Lightweight Substrates for Supercapacitor Materials by Xuan Yang, Kaiyuan Shi, Igor Zhitomirsky, and Emily D. Cranston. Advanced Materials DOI: 10.1002/adma.201502284View/save citation First published online 2 September 2015

This paper is behind a paywall.

One final bit, cellulose nanocrystals (CNC) are sometimes referred to as nanocrystalline cellulose (NCC).

Mystery of glass—shattered and Happy Canada Day!

I’m pretty sure I’ve said this before but a repetition can’t hurt, “I love glass both for the art and the mystery.” Naturally, I am of two minds about this ‘shattered’ glass mystery from the University of Waterloo (Canada).

A June 29, 2015 University of Waterloo news release (also on EurekAlert) provides a teasing (for impatient people like me) introduction before describing the solution to the mystery,

A physicist at the University of Waterloo is among a team of scientists who have described how glasses form at the molecular level and provided a possible solution to a problem that has stumped scientists for decades.

Their simple theory is expected to open up the study of glasses to non-experts and undergraduates as well as inspire breakthroughs in novel nanomaterials.

The paper published by physicists from the University of Waterloo, McMaster University, ESPCI ParisTech and Université Paris Diderot appeared in the prestigious peer-reviewed journal, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

Glasses are much more than silicon-based materials in bottles and windows. In fact, any solid without an ordered, crystalline structure — metal, plastic, a polymer — that forms a molten liquid when heated above a certain temperature is a glass. Glasses are an essential material in technology, pharmaceuticals, housing, renewable energy and increasingly nano electronics.

“We were surprised — delighted — that the model turned out to be so simple,” said author James Forrest, a University Research Chair and professor in the Faculty of Science. “We were convinced it had already been published.”

The theory relies on two basic concepts: molecular crowding and string-like co-operative movement. [emphasis mine] Molecular crowding describes how molecules within glasses move like people in a crowded room. As the number of people increase, the amount of free volume decreases and the slower people can move through the crowd. Those people next to the door are able to move more freely, just as the surfaces of glasses never actually stop flowing, even at lower temperatures.

The more crowded the room, the more you rely on the co-operative movement with your neighbours to get where you’re going. Likewise, individual molecules within a glass aren’t able to move totally freely. They move with, yet are confined by, strings of weak molecular bonds with their neighbours.

Theories of crowding and cooperative movement are decades old. This is the first time scientists combined both theories to describe how a liquid turns into a glass.

“Research on glasses is normally reserved for specialists in condensed matter physics,” said Forrest, who is also an associate faculty member at Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics and a member of the Waterloo Institute for Nanotechnology.  “Now a whole new generation of scientists can study and apply glasses just using first-year calculus.”

Their theory successfully predicts everything from bulk behaviour to surface flow to the once-elusive phenomenon of the glass transition itself. Forrest and colleagues worked for 20 years to bring theory in agreement with decades of observation on glassy materials.

An accurate theory becomes particularly important when trying to understand glass dynamics at the nanoscale. This finding has implications for developing and manufacturing new nanomaterials, such as glasses with conductive properties, or even calculating the uptake of glassy forms of pharmaceuticals.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Cooperative strings and glassy interfaces by Thomas Salez, Justin Salez, Kari Dalnoki-Veress, Elie Raphaël, and James A. Forrest. PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences) Published online before print June 22, 2015, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1503133112

This paper is behind a paywall.

Finally and again, Happy Canada Day!