Tag Archives: Nassif Ghoussoub

Alberta’s (Canada) science education gets shout-out from UK’s (United Kingdom) Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Education, Elizabeth Truss

On July 11, 2013 Elizabeth Truss, UK Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Education (H/T Nassif Ghoussoub’s Piece of Mind), spoke at an International Student Science Fair and cited Alberta’s science education and high performance, along with Singapore’s, in her speech,

So at primary, we want children to get a really solid foundation in the basics of scientific knowledge and language, backed up by more and higher quality practical work and experiments – building on the approaches to science education in high-performing jurisdictions like Singapore and Alberta.

Obviously, Truss is making a case for science and technology education as preparation for the future in a speech that amongst other things emphasizes “non-artificial intelligence,”

As the future comes hurtling towards us, the most important resource any country can boast is not physical, nor technological – but human.

Every leap forward, every flash of insight, relies not on infrastructure, capital or regulatory regimes – important as they are.

But on people. On their brains, their knowledge and their determination to succeed.

On the schoolchildren and students of today – the innovators of tomorrow.

We don’t know yet precisely what skills will be needed in the future.

But as technology transforms the working world – and jobs polarise between the low-skilled and the very high-skilled, highly-educated – we know that the value of high-level skills is growing.

The 21st century will need people who are equally comfortable manipulating numbers, words and lines of computer code; who have the skills and the knowledge to understand both foreign languages and mathematical equations. Rounded individuals who can analyse and think logically, who have mastered both arts and sciences.

Never mind Bitcoin, education is the currency of the future.

International evidence has proved that countries with successful education systems grow more quickly.

Given Truss is speaking at an International Student(s) Science Fair (this is the only site [ ISSF 2012] that seemed to fit the description), it does seem like she’s speaking to the ‘converted’. Students at an international science fair have shown a fair degree of interest and commitment and this speech while inspiring doesn’t address one of the major problems described in a rather interesting UK research project on children’s science attitudes. From my Jan. 31, 2012 posting,

One of the research efforts in the UK is the ASPIRES research project at King’s College London (KCL), which is examining children’s attitudes to science and future careers. Their latest report, Ten Science Facts and Fictions: the case for early education about STEM careers (PDF), is profiled in a Jan. 11, 2012 news item on physorg.com (from the news item),

Professor Archer [Louise Archer, Professor of Sociology of Education at King’s] said: “Children and their parents hold quite complex views of science and scientists and at age 10 or 11 these views are largely positive. The vast majority of children at this age enjoy science at school, have parents who are supportive of them studying science and even undertake science-related activities in their spare time. They associate scientists with important work, such as finding medical cures, and with work that is well paid.

“Nevertheless, less than 17 per cent aspire to a career in science. These positive impressions seem to lead to the perception that science offers only a very limited range of careers, for example doctor, scientist or science teacher. It appears that this positive stereotype is also problematic in that it can lead people to view science as out of reach for many, only for exceptional or clever people, and ‘not for me’.

Professor Archer says the findings indicate that engaging young people in science is not therefore simply a case of making it more interesting or more fun. She said: “There is a disconnect between interest and aspirations. Our research shows that young people’s ambitions are strongly influenced by their social backgrounds – ethnicity, social class and gender – and by family contexts. [emphases mine]

In that 2012 posting, I also featured a US project where researchers developed an intervention for stimulating more adolescent interest in science and technology studies by focusing on the adolescent students’ parents.

Both the UK’s ASPIRES project and the US project suggest getting children to pursue education and careers in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields has more to do with family and social culture than is often recognized.

Adding a somewhat ironic wrinkle to this discussion is a finding from a study by the Brookings Metropolitan Policy program that 20% of all jobs in the US—not 4%-5% of jobs as claimed by the US National Science Foundation—could be described as STEM jobs. From the June 10, 2013 article for Fast Company by Ariel Schwartz,

…, STEM jobs aren’t limited to workers with advanced degrees–50% don’t even require a bachelor’s degree. Many of the more blue-collar STEM jobs are in fields like construction, plant and system operation, and repair (telecommunications equipment, aircraft, computer, office machine, etc.).

The irony is that family members who think that science careers are for other ‘smart and exceptional’ people may themselves have a STEM-based job/career. You can find the Brookings Institute report here. It should be noted this report The Hidden STEM Economy) has a unique definition of STEM, from the Schwartz article,

The Institute explains in a press release: “Previous studies classified workers as STEM only if they worked in a small number of professional occupations, but the Brookings definition classifies occupations according to the level of knowledge in STEM fields that workers need to perform their jobs. As a result, many nonprofessional jobs in manufacturing, health care, construction, and mining industries could be considered STEM jobs.”

Take for example, car mechanics. Today’s mechanics need to know about computers and fairly complex electronics, such as lithium-ion batteries, in addition to standard mechanics. (BTW, In the late 1980s, I had a coop student job at a school board where even then they trying to integrate electronics and information technology into their trades education programmes.)

If you have the time, I do recommend reading Truss’s speech (by following either the link to Nassif’s website or the direct link to the speech) and/or Schwartz’s article.

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

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

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

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

A wise next step: get rid of Gary Goodyear.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* A minor typo was corrected, laywer to lawyer.

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

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

Mathematics, Mexico, and Canada’s Banff International Research Station (BIRS) for Mathematical Innovation and Discovery

Thanks to Nassif Ghoussoub’s July 4, 2013 posting on his Piece of Mind blog where I found this information about a a possible Canada-Mexico mathematics initiative,

Oaxaca to join Banff as a hotbed for the mathematical sciences

The Banff International Research Station for Mathematical Innovation and Discovery (BIRS) is now accepting proposals for its 2015 program. BIRS will again be hosting a 48-week scientific program at its station in Banff. There is also a possibility (to be confirmed later) that BIRS will be running an additional 20-25 workshops at its developing new station in Oaxaca, Mexico. [emphasis mine]

The status and state of readiness of the new research station at Oaxaca is still awaiting final commitments from various private and public sponsors. We are aiming to have the facility open and ready to host an augmented BIRS program as soon as 2015. We shall keep the scientific community informed about this exciting potential to increase the BIRS opportunities.

Here’s a little background information about why BIRS wants to expand its offerings and why they hope to expand the programming to Mexico in particular. From Nassif Ghoussoub’s April 19, 2013 posting (Note: links have been removed),

Once again, I had to perform the unpleasant annual task of writing to more than 120 colleagues and their co-applicants all over the world to inform them that their proposals to run a research workshop at the Banff International Research Station (BIRS) in 2014 were not successful. Many of these declined proposals were excellent and some of the disappointed researchers were repeat applicants. The problem? 170 applications received in 2012 (more than double the number of the 2003 competition) for the available 48 weeks of programming at BIRS. The private sector has obvious answers to such increases in customers’ demand. But what do you do if your product is research capacity, your capital is scientific credibility, and your financier is the public sector?

Every year, BIRS hosts over 2000 researchers from 400 institutions in more than 60 countries who participate in its annual series of 48 weekly workshops, each hosting up to 42 researchers in disciplines in which mathematics, computer science and statistics are used in novel ways.  ….

A unique aspect of BIRS is that it is a joint Canada-US-Mexico initiative, which is funded by Mexico’s National Council for Science and Technology (CONACYT), Alberta Innovation, the US National Science Foundation (NSF), and Canada’s Natural Science and Engineering Research Council (NSERC).

Another remarkable feature of the Station is that it is located on the site of the world-renowned Banff Centre in Alberta, which is already internationally recognized as a place of high culture with programs in music and sound, the written, visual and performing arts, leadership and management that draw in many hundreds of artists, students, and intellectual leaders from around the world.

It had been clear to me for a while now that we need to increase the opportunities offered at BIRS by expanding its capacity to no less than 75 workshops per year. In other words, we need an additional research facility, where BIRS can support 25-30 workshops in addition to the 48 programs that currently run in Banff every year.

That special confluence of the arts and mathematics at Banff is something the BIRS organizers want to maintain in any new facilities and it’s why Francisco Toledo’s  CASA (El Centro de las Artes San Augustín) seems ideal for a new mathematics hosting space. From Nassif’s April 2013 posting (Note: Links have been removed),

 CASA, which opened its doors on March 21, 2006, is committed to be a public space, where education, artistic creation and experimentation could thrive. It was founded by Francisco Toledo, a prominent Mexican painter and graphic designer, who purchased the property in 2000 in order to create the first eco-arts center in Latin America. CASA is funded through the National Center for the Arts, the State Government of Oaxaca, and private foundations including the Harp Helú Foundation.

“Today CASA is comprised of a set of spaces providing for artistic initiation and creation. It has spaces equipped for the production of digital graphics, traditional graphic and dyeing workshops and textile design, photographic developing and organic printing. Under the assumption that the interaction with people from different lands stimulates creativity, promotes tolerance and strengthens a community, CASA invites artists to perform residencies giving priority to projects of ecological and community care.”

Francisco Toledo is convinced that mathematical scientists from all over the world can/should be part of these interactions in order to help stimulate another level of creativity, right there in his beloved Oaxaca. Toledo has consequently offered to donate a parcel of land adjacent to CASA on which could be built a facility, where some of the BIRS programs can run. Recent meetings with the Director of CONACYT, the Governor of the State of Oaxaca, and the Harp Helú Foundation were extremely promising.

Here’s more about CASA from the website homepage,

Recently restored, the 1883 textile hacienda founded by Jose Zorrila Trapaga was converted into the most beautiful Centre for the Arts of San Agustin (CASA). This is an outstanding contribution led by Maestro Francisco Toledo, to open a cultural opportunity for all interested in the many art workshops the center offers. Also, it brings extraordinary temporary exhibitions for all to marvel at, musical concerts at the weekends and most recently the former Pochote Cinema Club has moved here where the public can come to see cultural films for free most afternoons and special presentations on weekends.

While I note there’s no mention of mathematics on the CASA homepage, it (CASA) is mentioned in the BIRS 2015 Scientific Programme Call for Proposals (in a BIRS blog June 27, 2013 posting),

The Banff International Research Station for Mathematical Innovation and Discovery (BIRS) is now accepting proposals for its 2015 program. BIRS will again be hosting a 48-week scientific program at its station in Banff. There is also a possibility (to be confirmed later) that BIRS will be running an additional 20-25 workshops at its developing new station in Oaxaca, Mexico.

The status and state of readiness of the new research station at Oaxaca is still awaiting final commitments from various private and public sponsors. We are aiming to have the facility open and ready to host an augmented BIRS program as soon as 2015. We shall keep the scientific community informed about this exciting potential to increase the BIRS opportunities. …

The Station at Banff (and eventually the one in Oaxaca) provides an environment for creative interaction and the exchange of ideas, knowledge, and methods within the mathematical, statistical, and computing sciences, and with related disciplines and industrial sectors. Each week, the station hosts either a full workshop (42 people for 5 days) or two half-workshops (each with 21 people for 5 days). As usual, BIRS provides full accommodation, board, and research facilities at no cost to the invited participants, in a setting conducive to research and collaboration.

Full information, guidelines, and online forms are available at the BIRS website: http://www.birs.ca

The deadline for 5-day Workshop and Summer School proposals is Friday September 27, 2013.

In addition BIRS will operate its Research in Teams and Focused Research Groups programs, which allow smaller groups of researchers to get together for several weeks of uninterrupted work at the station. September 27, 2013 is also the preferred date to apply for these programs. However, proposals for projects involving Research in Teams or Focused Research Groups can be submitted at any time — subject to availability — they must be received at least 4 months before their requested start date.

Proposal submissions should be made using the online submission form. Please use: https://www.birs.ca/proposals

Nassif Ghoussoub, Scientific Director,
The Banff International Research Station

La version française suit ci-dessous. La versión española sigue abajo.

You’ll note the blogger Nassif Ghoussoub is also the BIRS’ scientific director.  He was recently reappointed to his position according to a June 18, 2013 posting on the BIRS blog,

Nassif Ghoussoub has been re-appointed to a five-year term as Scientific Director of the Banff International Research Station (BIRS) beginning July 1, 2013.

“Under Ghoussoub’s leadership BIRS has evolved to become one of the leading research institutions in the world,” said Doug Mitchell, Chair of the BIRS Board of Directors. “BIRS is currently looking for ways to further expand opportunities for the mathematical sciences and we are extremely fortunate that Dr. Ghoussoub has agreed to continue to lead us into this next phase.”

Dr. Ghoussoub is a Professor of Mathematics and a Distinguished University Scholar at the University of British Columbia. He has been a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada since 1993 and a fellow of the American Mathematical Society since 2012. For his research contributions he has received many awards including the Coxeter-James prize and the Jeffrey-Williams prize of the Canadian Mathematical Society.

Dr. Ghoussoub has been acknowledged worldwide for his many contributions to building Canadian and international research capacity and infrastructure, such as his role in the founding of the Pacific Institute for the Mathematical Sciences, the Mitacs network of centres of excellence and the Banff International Research Station. Among his most recent awards are the Queen Elizabeth Diamond Jubilee Medal and the David Borwein Distinguished Career Award. He is a recipient of a Doctorat Honoris Causa from the Université Paris-Dauphine, and was recently invited to receive the degree of Doctor of Science from the University of Victoria.

Congratulations to Nassif! As for this initiative in Mexico, I wish you, Francisco Toledo, BIRS, and CASA all the best. This is a very exciting development.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2012 Canadian science blog roundup and some thoughts on a Canadian science blog network

This is my 3rd annual roundup of Canadian science blogs and the science blogging scene in Canada seems to be getting more lively (see my Dec. 31, 2010 posting and Dec. 29, 2011 posting to compare).

As I did last year, I will start with

Goodbyes

Don’t leave Canada appears to be gone as there hasn’t been posting there since May 4, 2011. I’m sorry to see it go as Rob Annan provided thoughtful commentary on science policy on a regular basis for years. Thank you, Rob. (BTW, he’s now the director of policy, research and evaluation at MITACS.)

Cool Science, John McKay’s blog has been shut down as of Oct. 24, 2012,

Hi everyone. This will mark the final post of the CoolScience.ca site and it will be quietly taken offline in November. I will also be closing down the Twitter and Facebook accounts and moving everything over to my professional accounts that are all focused on communicating science, technology, engineering and medicine.

The Dark Matter science blog by Tom Spears, which I reluctantly (as it was a ‘newspaper blog’ from the Ottawa Citizen)included last year  has since disappeared as has NeuroDojo, a blog written by a Canadian scientist in Texas.

Goodbye ish

Marc Leger’s Atoms and Numbers blog’s latest posting is dated Oct. 23, 2012 but the pattern here seems similar to Marie-Claire’s (see the next one) where the posting is erratic but relatively regular (once or twice per month) until October of this year.

Marie-Claire Shanahan is posting less frequently on her Boundary Vision blog with the last posting there on Oct. 9, 2012.

The Bubble Chamber blog from the University of Toronto’s Science Policy Work Group seems to be fading away with only one posting for 2012, Reply to Wayne Myrvold on the Higgs Boson.

Colin Schulz’s CMBR blog hasn’t had a new posting since July 13, 2012’s 11 Things You Didn’t Know About Canada. In any event, it looks like the blog is no longer primarily focused on science.

The Exponential Book blog by Massimo Boninsegni features an Oct. 24, 2012 posting and a similar posting pattern to Marie-Claire & Marc.

exposure/effect which was new last year has gone into a fairly lengthy hiatus as per its last post in January 30, 2012 posting.

Theoretical biologist, Mario Pineda-Krch of Mario’s Entangled Bank blog is also taking a lengthy hiatus as the last posting on that blog was June 11, 2012.

Nicole Arbour’s Canadian science blog for the UK High Commission in Ottawa hasn’t featured a posting since Oct. 15, 2012’s The Power of We: Adapting to climate change.

Gregor Wolbring’s Nano and Nano- Bio, Info, Cogno, Neuro, Synbio, Geo, Chem… features an Aug. 4, 2012 posting which links to one of his nano articles, (Nanoscale Science and Technology and People with Disabilities in Asia: An Ability Expectation Analysis) published elsewhere.

Jeff Sharom’s Science Canada blog highlights links to editorials and articles on Canadian science policy but doesn’t seem to feature original writing by Sharom or anyone else, consequently, it functions more as a reader/aggregator than a blog.

The Black Hole blog which was always more focused on prospect for Canadian science graduates than Canadian science, hence always a bit of a stretch for inclusion here, has moved to the University Affairs website where it focuses more exclusively on the Canadian academic scene with posts such as this, Free journal access for postdocs in between positions  from Dec. 12, 2012.

Returning to the roundup:

John Dupuis’ Confessions of a Science Librarian whose Dec. 26, 2012 posting, Best Science (Fiction) Books 2012: io9 seems timely for anyone taking a break at this time of year and looking for some reading material.

Daniel Lemire’s blog is known simply as Daniel Lemire. He’s a computer scientist in Montréal who writes one of the more technical blogs I’ve come across and his focus seems to be databases although his Dec. 10, 2012 posting covers the topic of how to get things accomplished when you’re already busy.

Dave Ng, a professor with the Michael Smith Laboratories at the University of British Columbia, is a very active science communicator who maintain the Popperfont blog. The latest posting (Dec. 24, 2012) features Sciencegeek Advent Calendar Extravaganza! – Day 24.

Eric Michael Johnson continues with his The Primate Diaries blog on the Scientific American blog network. His Dec. 6, 2012 posting is a reposted article but he has kept up a regular (once per month, more or less) posting schedule,

Author’s Note: The following originally appeared at ScienceBlogs.com and was subsequently a finalist in the 3 Quarks Daily Science Prize judged by Richard Dawkins. Fairness is the basis of the social contract. As citizens we expect that when we contribute our fair share we should receive our just reward. When social benefits are handed out …

Rosie Redfield is keeping with both her blogs, RRTeaching (latest posting, Dec. 6, 2012) and RRResearch (Nov. 17, 2012).

Sci/Why is a science blog being written by Canadian children’s writers who discuss science, words, and the eternal question – why?

Mathematician Nassif Ghoussoub’s Piece of Mind blog continues to feature incisive writing about science, science funding, policy and academe.

Canadian science writer Heather Pringle continues to post on the The Last Word on Nothing, a blog shared collectively by a number of well known science writers. Her next posting is scheduled for Jan. 3, 2013, according to the notice on the blog.

A little off my usual beat but I included these last year as they do write about science albeit medical and/or health science:

Susan Baxter’s blog Curmudgeon’s Corner features her insights into various medical matters, for example there’s her Dec. 1, 2012 posting on stress, the immune system, and the French antipathy towards capitalism.

Peter Janiszewski and Travis Saunders co-own two different blogs, Obesity Panacea, which is part of the PLoS (Public Library of Science) blogs network, and Science of Blogging which features very occasional posting but it’s worth a look for nuggets like this Oct. 12, 2012 (?) posting on social media for scientists.

After posting the 2011 roundup,

I had a number of suggestions for more Canadian science blogs such as these four who are part of the Scientific American SA) blogging network (in common with Eric Michael Johnson),

Dr. Carin Bondar posts on the SA blog, PsiVid, along with Joanne Manaster. There’s more than one Canadian science blogger who co-writes a blog. This one is self-described as, A cross section of science on the cyberscreen.

Glendon Mellow, a professional science illustrator,  posts on The Flying Trilobite (his own blog) and Symbiartic: the art of science and the science of art, an SA blog he shares with Kalliopi Monoyios.

Larry Moran, a biochemist at the University of Toronto, posts on science and anything else that tickles his fancy on his Sandwalk blog.

Eva Amsen who posts on a number of blogs including the NODE; the community site for developmental biologists  (which she also manages) but the best place to find a listing of her many blogs and interests is at easternblot.net, where she includes this self-description on the About page,

Online Projects

  • Musicians and Scientists – Why are so many people involved in both music and science? I’m on a mission to find out.
  • the NodeMy day job is managing a community site for developmental biologists around the world. The site is used by equal numbers of postdocs, PhD students, and lab heads.
  • SciBarCamp/SciBarCamb – I co-instigated SciBarCamp, an unconference for scientists, in Toronto in 2008. Since then I have co-organized five similar events in three countries, and have advised others on how to run science unconferences.
  • You Learn Something New Every Day – a Tumblr site that automatically aggregates tweets with the hashtag #ylsned, and Flickr photos tagged ylsned, to collect the interesting bits of trivia that people come across on a daily basis.
  • Lab Waste – During my last months in the lab as a PhD student, I made a mini-documentary (using CC-licensed materials) about the excessive amount of disposable plastics used in research labs. It screened in 2009 in the “Quirky Shorts” program of the Imagine Science Film Festival in New York.
  • Expression Patterns – In 2007 I was invited to blog on Nature Network. The complete archives from 2007-2012 are now on this site.
  • easternblot.net – Confusingly, my other science blog was named after this entire domain. It ran from 2005 to 2010, and can be found at science.easternblot.net

I believe Amsen is Canadian and working in the UK but if anyone could confirm, I would be much relieved.

Someone, who according to their About page prefers to remain anonymous but lives in Victoria, BC, and posts (somewhat irregularly, the last posting is dated Nov. 10, 2012) on The Olive Ridley Crawl,

I am an environmental scientist blogging about environmental and development issues that interest me. I prefer to be anonymous(e) because I work with some of the companies I may talk about and I want to avoid conflict of interest issues at work. This gets tricky because I am at the periphery of a lot of events happening in the world of my greatest expertise, persistent organic pollutants, endocrine disrupting compounds, their effects on health and the policy fights around chemicals, their use the controversies! So, I’ve reluctantly moved away from writing about what I know most about, which means this blog suffers severely. I still soldier on, though!

I was born, and grew up in India, so I am interested in all things South Asian and tend to view most all Western government and Western institution actions through a colonialist scratched lens! I am also becoming much more active about my feminism, so who knows what that will do to this blog. I have been meaning to write a monstrous essay about women, the environment and justice, but that’s a task!

I used to live in Chapel Hill, NC with a partner of long vintage (the partnership, that is, not her!) and a crazy cat who thinks he’s a dog. We moved to Victoria, BC in 2008 and I’ve been busy learning about Canadian policy, enjoying this most beautiful town I live in.

Why Olive Ridley? Well, the Olive Ridley sea turtle (Lepidochelys Olivacea) nests on the coasts of Madras, India and I got my start in the wonderful world of conservation working on the Olive Ridley with the Students’ Sea Turtle Conservation Network. So, I do have fond memories for this beautiful creature. And yes, as my dear partner reminds me, I did meet her on the beach when I was doing this work.

Agence Science-Presse (based in Québec and headed by Pascal Lapointe) features three blogs of its own:

Blogue ta science : les billets dédiés aux jeunes.

Discutez avec notre expert : avez-vous suivi notre enquête CSI ?

Autour des Blogues : les actualités de nos blogueurs et de la communauté.

There’s also a regular podcast under the Je vote pour la science banner.

genegeek appears to be Canadian (it has a domain in Canada) but the blog owner doesn’t really identify herself (there’s a photo) on the About page but no name and no biographical details. I did receive a tweet last year about genegeek from C. Anderson who I imagine is the blog owner.

There’s also the Canadian BioTechnologist2.0 blog, which is sponsored by Bio-Rad Canada and is written by an employee.

These next ones were added later in the year:

Chuck Black writes two blogs as he noted in June 2012,

I write two blogs which, while they focus more on space than science, do possess strong science components and overlap with some of the other blogs here.

They are: Commercial Space and Space Conference News.

Andy Park also came to my attention in June 2012. He writes the  It’s the Ecology, Stupid! blog.

Something About Science is a blog I featured in an Aug. 17, 2012 posting and I’m glad to see blogger, Lynn K, is still blogging.

New to the roundup in 2012:

SSChow, Sarah Chow’s blog, focuses on science events in Vancouver (Canada) and science events at the University of British Columbia and miscellaneous matters pertinent to her many science communication efforts.

The Canadian federal government seems to be trying its hand at science blogging with the Science.gc.ca Blogs (http://www.science.gc.ca/Blogs-WSE6EBB690-1_En.htm). An anemic effort given that boasts a total of six (or perhaps it’s five) posting in two or three years.

The Canadian Science Writers Association (CSWA) currently features a blog roll of its members’ blogs. This is a new initiative from the association and one I’m glad to see.  Here’s the list (from the CSWA member blog page),

Anne Steinø (Research Through the Eyes of a Biochemist)
Arielle Duhame-Ross (Salamander Hours)
Bob McDonald (I’m choking on this one since it’s a CBC [Canadian Broadcasting Corporation] blog for its Quirks and Quarks science pr0gram)
Cadell Last (The Ratchet)
Edward Willett
Elizabeth Howell (she seems to be blogging again and the easiest way for me to get to her postings was to click on the Archives link [I clicked on December 2012 to get the latest] after doing that I realized that the images on the page link to postings)
Heather Maughan
Justin Joschko
Kimberly Gerson (Endless Forms Most Beautiful)
Mark Green (a CSWA member, he was born and educated in the US where he lives and works; ordinarily I would not include him, even with his  CSWA membership status,  but he writes a monthly science column for a Cape Breton newspaper, which has made me pause)
Pamela Lincez (For the Love of Science)
Sarah Boon (Watershed Moments)
Susan Eaton (she seems to be reposting articles written [presumably by her] for the AAPG [American Association of Petroleum Geologists] Explorer and other organizations in her blog]

Barry Shell’s site (listed as a CSWA member blog) doesn’t match my admittedly foggy notion of a blog. It seems more of an all round Canadian science resource featuring profiles of Canadian scientists, a regularly updated news archive, and more. Science.ca is extraordinary and I’m thankful to have finally stumbled across it but it doesn’t feature dated posts in common with the other blogs listed here, even the most commercial ones.

Tyler Irving (I had no idea he had his own blog when I mentioned him in my Sept. 25, 2012 posting about Canadian chemists and the Canadian Chemical Institute’s publications) posts at the Scientific Canadian.

I choke again, as I do when mentioning blogs that are corporate media blogs, but in the interest of being as complete as possible Julia Belluz writes the Scien-ish blog about health for MacLean’s magazine.

Genome Alberta hosts a couple of blogs: Genomics and Livestock News & Views.

Occam’s Typewriter is an informal network of science bloggers two of whom are Canadian:

Cath Ennis (VWXYNot?) and Richard Wintle (Adventures in Wonderland). Note: The Guardian Science Blogs network seems to have some sort of relationship with Occam’s Typewriter as you will see postings from the Occam’s network featured as part of Occam’s Corner on the Guardian website.

My last blogger in this posting is James Colliander from the University of  Toronto’s Mathematics Department. He and Nassif (Piece of Mind blog mentioned previously) seem to share a similar interest in science policy and funding issues.

ETA Jan.2.13: This is a social science oriented blog maintained by a SSHRC- (Social Science and Humanities Research Council) funded network cluster called the Situating Science Cluster and the blog’s official name is: Cluster Blog. This is where you go to find out about Science and Technology Studies (STS) and History of Science Studies, etc. and events associated with those studies.

I probably should have started with this definition of a Canadian blogger, from the Wikipedia entry,

A Canadian blogger is the author of a weblog who lives in Canada, has Canadian citizenship, or writes primarily on Canadian subjects. One could also be considered a Canadian blogger if one has a significant Canadian connection, though this is debatable.

Given how lively the Canadian science blogging scene has become, I’m not sure I can continue with these roundups as they take more time each year.  At the very least, I’ll need to define the term Canadian Science blogger, in the hope of reducing the workload,  if I decide to continue after this year.

There’s a rather interesting Nov. 26, 2012 article by Stephanie Taylor for McGill Daily about the Canadian public’s science awareness and a dearth of Canadian science communication,

Much of the science media that Canadians consume and have access to is either American or British: both nations have a robust, highly visible science media sector. While most Canadians wouldn’t look primarily to American journalism for political news and analysis, science doesn’t have the same inherent national boundaries that politics does. While the laws of physics don’t change depending on which side of the Atlantic you’re on, there are scientific endeavours that are important to Canadians but have little importance to other nations. It’s unlikely that a British researcher would investigate the state of the Canadian cod fishery, or that the British press would cover it, but that research is critical to a substantial number of Canadians’ livelihoods.

On the other hand, as Canadian traditional media struggles to consistently cover science news, there’s been an explosion of scientists of all stripes doing a lot of the necessary big picture, broad context, critical analysis on the internet. The lack of space restrictions and accessibility of the internet (it’s much easier to start a blog than try to break in to traditional media) mean that two of the major barriers to complex discussion of science in the media are gone. Blogs struggle to have the same reach as newspapers and traditional media, though, and many of the most successful science blogs are under the online umbrella of mainstream outlets like Scientific American and Discover. Unfortunately and perhaps unsurprisingly, there is currently no Canadian science blog network like this. [emphasis mine]

Yes, let’s create a Canadian science blog network. I having been talking to various individuals about this over the last year (2012) and while there’s interest, someone offered to help and then changed their mind. Plus, I was hoping to persuade the the Canadian Science Writers Association to take it on but I think they were too far advanced in their planning for a member’s network to consider something more generalized (and far more expensive). So, if anyone out there has ideas about how to do this, please do comment and perhaps we can get something launched in 2013.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Encouraging STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) careers while opportunities decline in Canada

The problem never seems to get solved. One end of the organization or institution makes a decision without considering the impact on those affected. Take for example the current drive to encourage more students to undertake STEM (science, technology, engineering, and/or mathematics) careers when there are few job opportunities (except for engineers).

The University of British Columbia has just announced a science outreach toolkit, from the Aug. 30, 2012 news release on EurekAlert,

Outreach programs that offer a taste of real-world science and pair secondary students with enthusiastic young researchers are key to promoting careers in science and technology, according to University of British Columbia researchers.

In a paper published this week in PLoS Computational Biology, UBC researchers document their work on the Genomics Field Trip Program hosted at the Michael Smith Laboratories (MSL). Joanne Fox, Jennifer McQueen and Jody Wright outline the benefits of research-based field trips, offering a blueprint for designing science outreach programs.

The Genomics Field Trip program encourages exploration of the sciences through a full day genomics experience which takes place at the MSL laboratories. Program instructors are typically UBC graduate students who benefit from the experience by developing their ability to communicate scientific ideas to the general public. They also develop skills in lesson design and delivery, allowing them to enhance their instructional skills, something that does not always occur in teaching assistantship positions.

Fox hopes the success of the Genomics Field Trip Program will inspire other institutions to develop similar programs. The recommendations included in her paper can be used as a blueprint for science programs and an online genomics toolkit provides valuable information for lesson plans.

“This type of program helps graduate students remember why science is so exciting, and in turn inspires the next generation of scientists,” Fox explains.

The toolkit available here is designed for grade nine classes and it looks to be quite engaging. However, it is a disconcerting effort in light of the current situation for many STEM graduates. Nassif Ghoussoub (a mathematician at the University of British Columbia) in an Aug. 20, 2012 posting on his Piece of Mind blog writes about the diminishing opportunities for postgraduate science work (Note: I have removed links),

Canada’s “Natural Science and Engineering Research Council” has grown uncomfortable with the rapidly dwindling success rate in its postdoctoral fellowship programme, the latest having clocked in at 7.8%. So, it has decided to artificially inflate these rates by limiting the number of times young Canadian scholars can apply for such awards to … once. Never mind that the pathetic $40,000 salary (see comments below for corrections) for a highly trained Canadian post-doc hasn’t changed in more than 25 years, young Canadian scientists will now be fighting tooth and nail for the privilege of living on the fringe of the poverty line while trying to jumpstart their research careers. Welcome to Canada’s new lottery system for deciding the future of the nation’s capacity for advanced study and research.

I guess something needed to be done to cover up the fact that NSERC is now awarding 66% fewer fellowships than it did 5 years ago. Last year, we wondered whether the following numbers reflected a policy shift at NSERC or just collateral damage.

  • (2008) 250 awards/ 1169 applicants
  • (2009) 254 awards/ 1220 applicants
  • (2010) 286 awards/ 1341 applicants
  • (2011) 133 awards/ 1431 applicants
  • (2012) 98 awards/ 1254 applicants

These 98 fellowships are to be shared by 20 scientific disciplines and to be split among the 59 PhD-granting Canadian universities.

This theme is also addressed in an Aug. 24, 2012 posting by Jonathan Thon on the Black Hole blog which is now being hosted by the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada (AUCC), Note: I have removed a link,

It should come as no surprise that by increasing the supply of graduate students (and in turn post-doctoral fellows), we have arranged to produce more knowledge workers than we can employ, creating a labor-excess economy that keeps labor costs down and productivity high (How much is a scientist worth?) – but is this what we want? While advantageous in the short-term, there is little room for additional gains and a more efficient and productive system will need to be created if we wish to actualize research-based economic growth.

As for opportunities in the industrial sector, Canada has a longstanding reputation for exceptionally low rates of industrial R&D (research and development).

I’ve yet to see the programme for the 2012 Canadian Science Policy Conference taking place in Calagary (Alberta) from Nov. 5 – 7, 2012 but I’m hoping this will be on the agenda.

Banff, mathematics, networks, and live streaming

The Banff International Research Station for Mathematical Innovation and Discovery (BIRS) is opening its virtual doors to the scientific community. I think Nassif Ghoussoub in his April 3, 2012 posting on his Piece of Mind blog says it better,

The Banff International Research Station (BIRS) has announced that its new physical meeting space at the beautiful TransCanada Pipelines Pavilion in Banff Canada,  is now accessible to the scientific community in virtual space, via live video streaming and high quality video recordings, produced by a state-of-the-art automated video production system. This is a first step in our collaborative effort with the Mprime network and the other mathematical sciences institutes, towards building and coordinating a national Internet infrastructure supporting mathematical research and education, including a unified video capture, video streaming, video archiving, and video storage service for the world’s mathematical science community.

I last mentioned  BIRS in my Jan. 9, 2012 posting (scroll down about 1/2 way) in the context of a mathematics workshop held there for poets.

Here’s more from Nassif about the virtual network,

Further into the future, we would like to add some interactive features that allow remote parties to participate in workshops. Sophisticated video conferencing integration has been part of the plan from the beginning, and remains a priority.…

BIRS alone will be broadcasting 25-30 lectures per week for 49 weeks of every year. Each lecture has the potential to open up new threads for research. Future authors working with these ideas will be empowered to provide precise citations to video archives of lectures inspiring their research. The citations to video lectures that appear in subsequent publications will contribute to a biblio-metric metadata stream demonstrating research impact. BIRS will be collaborating with the other institutes to define a unified video capture, video streaming, video archiving, and video storage service for all interested mathematical institutions.

In the meantime, you can find the latest lectures and notices about upcoming events here. Not all of these lectures will be livestreamed and/or recorded as the speaker must make the choice of pressing the ‘webcast’ button.

From the About BIRS Live Stream webpage (note: some links have been removed),

In January of 2012, BIRS installed a system of cameras, microphones, and automation technology in it’s main lecture room in order to fully automate the production, recording, broadcasting, and distribution of high-quality lecture videos. An overview of how it works is posted here. Since then, we have been busy writing software, adding features, and tweaking the behaviour of the system. As a work in progress, you should expect the occasional hiccup. We would love to hear your feedback or suggestions, since we are building this for the benefit of the community and consider it a collaborative effort.

I would like to extend a huge thank-you to all of the participants at BIRS who, in choosing to record — and now broadcast — their lectures online, provide a valuable resource, contributing to educational and scientific progress.

Brent Kearney
Technology Manager for BIRS

System Requirements

The live stream should work on any modern computer or mobile device that supports Flash or HTML5 streaming video. It has been casually tested and works with Microsoft Windows IE 8 and 9, Chrome, Firefox, Safari, iPhones, iPads, Playbooks, and some Android phones. Please let us know if it does not work on your device.

The live video uses dynamic streaming to automatically scale the video quality up or down based on your connection speed. Switching to fullscreen mode, or attempting to advance the play position, will force a re-evaluation of your bandwidth constraints. In it’s highest mode, the stream displays 1920×720 resolution HD video at 1800kbps and 30fps. In its lowest mode, it plays in most mobile devices at 320×180 resolution at 400kbps and 24fps. There are two modes in between.

Very exciting stuff. I think it would be wonderful if those plans to include interactivity happened to coincide with the next Canadian Science Policy Conference. BTW, despite what I wrote in my Feb. 20, 2012 posting (scroll down 2/3 of the way) about an imminent announcement, the location for the 2012 conference has not yet been divulged.

Shifting winds in the world of particle accelerators: the Fermilab

I’ve been spending more time with physicists (in my own mind, anyway) than is usual for me.  I’m sure this will pass but while I’m hot (so to speak) on the topic, here’s an item about the Fermilab in the US. From the Feb. 1, 2012 news release on EurekAlert,

In this month’s Physics World, reviews and careers editor, Margaret Harris, visits the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab) to explore what future projects are in the pipeline now that the Tevatron particle accelerator has closed for good.

After 28 years of ground-breaking discoveries, the Tevatron accelerator has finally surrendered to the mighty Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN [European Laboratory for Particle Physics], placing Fermilab, in some people’s mind, on the brink of disappearing into obscurity.

(I did cover some of the excitement over the Higgs Boson search at the the LHC at CERN in my Dec. 14, 2011 posting.) As for the folks at the Fermilab, they  do have plans (from the news release),

Fermilab can no longer compete with the LHC when it comes to smashing particles together at high energies, but it can look for rare interactions between particles at lower energies. In this type of experiment, the key is not a beam’s energy but its intensity: the number of particles produced per second.

Their plans include two experiments – one already being built and another in the pipeline – that will send beams of neutrinos underground to distant detectors to see how these particles change between one form and another.

More ambitious still is Project X – expected to cost between $1-2bn – which will provide intense beams of protons for experiments on neutrinos, rare decays and heavy nuclei. Outside of high-energy physics, the lab currently participates in experiments into cosmic rays, dark matter and dark energy.

One aspect,  I find particularly interesting about this news release and article is that it makes some of the positioning and jockeying for funds visible to a larger audience than is common in Canadian circles. From the news release,

One obstacle that stands in the way of Fermilab’s progression is money. With the US Congress’s budgetary process – which allocates funds one year at a time – threatening to delay projects, combined with the current economic downturn, there is cause for concern, especially for a lab currently in transition.

The other aspect I find interesting is that while the Fermilab is based in Illinois (US), the article is being published by the UK-based Institute of Physics in their Physics World journal. Is this article part of a larger public relations initiative on behalf of physicists in the UK concerned about their funding? Nassif Ghoussoub at his Piece of Mind blog notes some of the discussion currently taking place in the UK about one of its funding agencies in his Jan. 31, 2012 posting and what is sometimes called ‘basic research’.

A math musical in Vancouver (BC, Canada) and a math workshop for poets at Banff (Alberta, Canada)

Mathematicians in Canada must be the wildest group of scientists we’ve got or perhaps they’re just the most creative of the lot. How else can you explain a math musical, Math Out Loud, which premiered Dec. 14, 2011 in Vancouver, and a workshop titled, Mathematics: Muse, Maker, and Measure of the Arts, held at the Banff International Research Station (BIRS) from Dec. 4 – 9, 2011?

I found out about the math musical in a Jan. 5, 2012 community newspaper article by Martha Perkins (for the WestEnder),

When Mackenzie Gray talks about the way Paul McCartney used a recursive sequence to make the song “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” seem to last forever, you realize that part of the Beatles’ phenomenal success might have sprung from McCartney’s genius as a mathematician.

When Roger Kemp draws on a napkin to illustrate that you just have to change the way you think about numbers to come up with a binary code for pi (as in 3.14 ad infinitum), you get a sense that math can actually be a lot of fun.

Here’s a little more information about the play from a Dec. 14, 2011 news release,

Math Out Loud is a major theatrical production that uses comedy, dance and music to make math approachable. Our goal is to reintroduce math to students in a new, creative light and hopefully re-open a door some may have considered closed.” [said Mackenzie Gray]

Highly-visible and well-recognized Vancouver television and film actor Mackenzie Gray (Superman: Man of Steel; Smallville; The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus) directed and wrote the script and songs. Academy Award-winning producer Dale Hartleben (The Man Who Skied Down Everest; 1976) produced the play. Acclaimed choreographer and Royal Winnipeg Ballet alumnus Joel Sturrock created the Broadway style dance numbers. Composer Joe Docherty arranged and recorded the music. A team of eight actors brings the production to life.

Math Out Loud tells the story of high school students Damon and Kelly as they share an adventure through a mathematical time-travelling dream full of colourful characters and conflicts that highlight the relevance of mathematics in a student’s busy modern life. Characters such as Christopher Columbus, Greek mathematician Eratosthenes and Cleopatra demonstrate mathematical principals tied to modern pop culture references. …

“If someone had told me three months ago a play could spark my interest in studying math, I wouldn’t have believed them,” said Sayer Roberts, one of the actors on stage with Math Out Loud. “I nearly failed math when I was in school. If math and science had been approached in a fun, unusual and creative way when I was in school, I’m pretty sure I’d have a different outlook on those subjects today.” [emphasis mine]

Yes, I heartily agree with Roberts’ sentiment. It’s amazing how many people shut down when they hear the word ‘science’ and it is, as he notes, all about how it’s introduced and taught. Bravo to the mathematicians for trying to turn that around.

The other project I mentioned, Mathematics: Muse, Maker, and Measure of the Arts, was profiled in a Dec. 16, 2011 post by Nassif Ghoussoub of Piece of Mind,

“Thank you so much for this opportunity for a non-mathematician to be part of the BIRS community”, wrote Alice Major. It doesn’t happen often that an illiterate mathematician gets an email from a Poet Laureate. Major was writing about her experience at last week’s workshop at BIRS (The Banff International Research Station). Entitled, “Mathematics: Muse, Maker, and Measure of the Arts”, the workshop was a BIRS classic. Her email made me feel even worse about not being there, and not only because I missed the likes of Ingrid Daubechies, David Mumford, and Robert Moody, who were merely the math. reps. for that event. Artists, musicians, poets, physicists and engineers were also there and they are now writing about it.

Artistic beauty and mathematical complexity have a history of interaction for as long as civilization itself: The golden ratio and the pyramids, Alhambra’s tessellations and the Penrose tiling, of course Da Vinci, Dali, Esher, and various minimalist and abstract schools of art, which had their roots in mathematics. But the workshop was about a totally different matter. It was about modern science and the future of such interactions.

Take for example, Stylometry analysis of literary style, which was initiated by the English logician, Augustus de Morgan, in the mid 1800’s as a way to settle questions of authorship by, for example, finding patterns in the length of words used by various authors.

Nassif goes on to a discussion of origami, Penrose tiles quasicrytals, robotics and more, as they relate to mathematics.

Alice Major, the poet laureate mentioned in Nassif’s post, wrote about her experience at Banff in a Dec. 14, 2011 posting,

The invitation to Banff thrilled me, but it also tipped me through a trap door in my psyche.  I would be surrounded by people who negotiated the academic environment easily. The list of participants detailed their various affiliations, but I had to be categorized as ‘independent.’ That sounds a lot sturdier than I felt. University had been a very scary place for me four decades ago. All my fellow students seemed to know so much more than me, to be so much more sophisticated than a kid from Outer Scarberia. I never seemed to have the right answers in class, the right clothes. And at that time I was only coping with the English program – a language I could supposedly understand – not the dense math language of symbol and equation.

So here I was. Nor could I just sit at the back of the class and absorb. At some point I was going to have to stand up and wring myself out. I’d have to talk to them. By the time I actually did so, my brain was melting jelly.

I intended to talk about metaphor, how it is an underlying mode of thought, not just a decoration, and applies to all realms of creation. Fortunately, writers can read bits of what they’ve written, and at least those sentences are coherent. I got through the outline of what I meant to say. But, in the discussion afterwards, when David Mumford asked a question about how we might teach metaphor better, I could only look at him and think, “A Fields medalist is asking me a question. What the $%@# do I say now?”

I gave some feebly irrelevant response. It was only afterwards, when the neural jelly was starting to re-set, that I thought, “For heavens sake, Alice, that whole chapter of the book is about how we can teach and learn metaphorical thinking!”

The book Major was remembering was her recently published, Intersecting Sets: A Poet Looks at Science.

So there you have it, math, poetry, musicals, dance, Penrose tiles, Gaussian distribution curves, etc.