Tag Archives: New Zealand

Science advice tidbits: Canada and New Zealand

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The participatory science platform has the potential to:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New ways to think about water

This post features two items about water both of which suggest we should reconsider our ideas about it. This first item concerns hydrogen bonds and coordinated vibrations. From a July 16 2014 news item on Azonano,

Using a newly developed, ultrafast femtosecond infrared light source, chemists at the University of Chicago have been able to directly visualize the coordinated vibrations between hydrogen-bonded molecules — the first time this sort of chemical interaction, which is found in nature everywhere at the molecular level, has been directly visualized. They describe their experimental techniques and observations in The Journal of Chemical Physics, from AIP [American Institute of Physics] Publishing.

“These two-dimensional infrared spectroscopy techniques provide a new avenue to directly visualize both hydrogen bond partners,” said Andrei Tokmakoff, the lab’s primary investigator. “They have the spectral content and bandwidth to really interrogate huge parts of the vibrational spectrum of molecules. It’s opened up the ability to look at how very different types of vibrations on different molecules interact with one another.”

A July 15, 2014 AIP news release by John Arnst (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, provides more detail,

Tokmakoff and his colleagues sought to use two-dimensional infrared spectroscopy to directly characterize structural parameters such as intermolecular distances and hydrogen-bonding configurations, as this information can be encoded in intermolecular cross-peaks that spectroscopy detects between solute-solvent vibrations.

“You pluck on the bonds of one molecule and watch how it influences the other,” Tokmakoff said. “In our experiment, you’re basically plucking on both because they’re so strongly bound.”

Hydrogen bonds are typically perceived as the attractive force between the slightly negative and slightly positive ends of neutrally-charged molecules, such as water. While water stands apart with its unique polar properties, hydrogen bonds can form between a wide range of molecules containing electronegative atoms and range from weakly polar to nearly covalent in strength. Hydrogen bonding plays a key role in the action of large, biologically-relevant molecules and is often an important element in the discovery of new pharmaceuticals.

For their initial visualizations, Tokmakoff’s group used N-methylacetamide, a molecule called a peptide that forms medium-strength hydrogen-bonded dimers in organic solution due to its polar nitrogen-hydrogen and carbon-oxygen tails. By using a targeted three-pulse sequence of mid-infrared light and apparatus described in their article, Tokmakoff’s group was able to render the vibrational patterns of the two peptide units.

“All of the internal vibrations of hydrogen bonded molecules that we look at become intertwined, inextricably; you can’t think of them as just a simple sum of two parts,” Tokmakoff said.

More research is being planned while Tokmakoff suggests that water must be rethought from an atomistic perspective (from the news release),

Future work in Tokmakoff’s group involves visualizing the dynamics and structure of water around biological molecules such as proteins and DNA.

“You can’t just think of the water as sort of an amorphous solvent, you really have to at least on some level think of it atomistically and treat it that way,” Tokmakoff said. “And if you believe that, it has huge consequences all over the place, particularly in biology, where so much computational biology ignores the fact that water has real structure and real quantum mechanical properties of its own.”

The researchers have provided an illustration of hydrogen’s vibrating bonds,

The hydrogen-bonding interaction causes the atoms on each individual N-methylacetamide molecule to vibrate in unison. CREDIT: L. De Marco/UChicago

The hydrogen-bonding interaction causes the atoms on each individual N-methylacetamide molecule to vibrate in unison.
CREDIT: L. De Marco/UChicago

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

Direct observation of intermolecular interactions mediated by hydrogen bonding by Luigi De Marco, Martin Thämer, Mike Reppert, and Andrei Tokmakoff. J. Chem. Phys. 141, 034502 (2014); http://dx.doi.org/10.1063/1.4885145

This paper is open access. (I was able to view the entire HTML version.)

A July 15, 2014 University of Southampton press release on EurekAlert offers another surprise about water,

University of Southampton researchers have found that rainwater can penetrate below the Earth’s fractured upper crust, which could have major implications for our understanding of earthquakes and the generation of valuable mineral deposits.

The reason that water’s ability to penetrate below the earth’s upper crust is a surprise (from the news release),

It had been thought that surface water could not penetrate the ductile crust – where temperatures of more than 300°C and high pressures cause rocks to flex and flow rather than fracture – but researchers, led by Southampton’s Dr Catriona Menzies, have now found fluids derived from rainwater at these levels.

The news release also covers the implications of this finding,

Fluids in the Earth’s crust can weaken rocks and may help to initiate earthquakes along locked fault lines. They also concentrate valuable metals such as gold. The new findings suggest that rainwater may be responsible for controlling these important processes, even deep in the Earth.

Researchers from the University of Southampton, GNS Science (New Zealand), the University of Otago, and the Scottish Universities Environmental Research Centre studied geothermal fluids and mineral veins from the Southern Alps of New Zealand, where the collision of two tectonic plates forces deeper layers of the earth closer to the surface.

The team looked into the origin of the fluids, how hot they were and to what extent they had reacted with rocks deep within the mountain belt.

“When fluids flow through the crust they leave behind deposits of minerals that contain a small amount of water trapped within them,” says Postdoctoral Researcher Catriona, who is based at the National Oceanography Centre. “We have analysed these waters and minerals to identify where the fluids deep in the crust came from.

“Fluids may come from a variety of sources in the crust. In the Southern Alps fluids may flow upwards from deep in the crust, where they are released from hot rocks by metamorphic reactions, or rainwater may flow down from the surface, forced by the high mountains above. We wanted to test the limits of where rainwater may flow in the crust. Although it has been suggested before, our data shows for the first time that rainwater does penetrate into rocks that are too deep and hot to fracture.”

Surface-derived waters reaching such depths are heated to over 400°C and significantly react with crustal rocks. However, through testing the researchers were able to establish the water’s meteoric origin.

Funding for this research, which has been published in Earth and Planetary Science Letters, was provided by the Natural Environmental Research Council (NERC). Catriona and her team are now looking further at the implications of their findings in relation to earthquake cycles as part of the international Deep Fault Drilling Project [DFDP], which aims to drill a hole through the Alpine Fault at a depth of about 1km later this year.

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

Incursion of meteoric waters into the ductile regime in an active orogen by Catriona D. Menzies, Damon A.H. Teagle, Dave Craw, Simon C. Cox, Adrian J. Boyce, Craig D. Barrie, and Stephen Roberts. Earth and Planetary Science Letters Volume 399, 1 August 2014, Pages 1–13 DOI: 10.1016/j.epsl.2014.04.046

Open Access funded by Natural Environment Research Council

This is the first time I’ve seen the funding agency which made the paper’s open access status possible cited.

Science Advice to Government; a global conference in August 2014

There’s a big science advice conference on the horizon for August 28 – 29, 2014 to be held in New Zealand according to David Bruggeman’s March 19, 2014 posting on his Pasco Phronesis blog (Note: Links have been removed),

… It [the global science advice conference] will take place in Auckland, New Zealand August 28 and 29 [2014].  It will be hosted by the New Zealand Chief Science Adviser, Sir Peter Gluckman.

(If you’re not following Sir Peter’s work and writings on science advice and science policy, you’re missing out.)

The announced panelists and speakers include chief scientists and/or chief science advisers from several countries and the European Union.  It’s a very impressive roster.  The conference is organised around five challenges:

  • The process and systems for procuring evidence and developing/delivering scientific      advice for government
  • Science advice in dealing with crisis
  • Science advice in the context of opposing political/ideological positions
  • Developing an approach to international science advice
  • The modalities of science advice: accumulated wisdom

The 2014 Science Advice to Governments; a global conference for leading practitioners is being organized by the International Council for Science. Here’s a list of the confirmed speakers and panellists (Note: Links have been removed),

We are delighted that the following distinguished scientists have confirmed their participation in the formal programme:

Prof. Shaukat Abdulrazak, CEO National Commission for Science, Technology and Innovation, Kenya

Dr. Ian Boyd, Chief Science Advisor, Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) UK

Dr. Phil Campbell, Editor-in-Chief, Nature

Dr. Raja Chidambaram, Principal Scientific Advisor to the Government of India, and Chairman of the Scientific Advisory Committee to the Cabinet, India

Prof. Ian Chubb, Chief Scientist for Australia

Prof. Brian Collins, University College London’s Department of Science, Technology, Engineering and Public Policy (UCL STEaPP)

Dr. Lourdes J Cruz, President of the National Research Council of the Philippines and National Scientist

Prof. Heather Douglas, Chair in Science & Society, Balsillie School of International Affairs, U. of Waterloo Canada

Prof. Mark Ferguson, Chief Scientific Adviser to the Government of Ireland, and Director General, Science Foundation Ireland

Prof. Anne Glover, Chief Science Adviser to the President of the European Commission

Sir Peter Gluckman, Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor, New Zealand

Dr. Jörg Hacker, President of the German Academy of Sciences – Leopoldina; Member of UN Secretary General’s Scientific Advisory Board

Dr. Yuko Harayama, Executive member of Council for Science and Technology Policy, Cabinet Office of Japan; Member of UN Secretary General’s Scientific Advisory Board; former Deputy Director OECD Directorate for Science, Technology and Industry

Prof. Andreas Hensel, President of the Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR), Germany

Prof. Gordon McBean, President-elect, International Council for Science (ICSU)

Prof. Romain Murenzi, Executive Director of The World Academy of Sciences (TWAS)

Dr. Mary Okane, Chief Scientist and Engineer, New South Wales Australia

Prof. Remi Quirion, Chief Scientist, Province of Quebec, Canada

Chancellor Emeritus Kari Raivio, Council of Finnish Academies, Finland

Prof. Nils Chr. Stenseth, President of the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters and President of the International Biological Union (IUBS)

Dr. Chris Tyler, Director of the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST) in UK

Sir Mark Walport, Chief Scientific Advisor to the Government of the UK

Dr. James Wilsdon, Professor of Science and Democracy, University of Sussex, UK

Dr. Steven Wilson, Executive Director, International Council for Science (ICSU)

Dr. Hamid Zakri, Science Advisor to the Prime Minister of Malaysia; Member of UN Secretary General’s Scientific Advisory Board

I noticed a couple of Canadian representatives (Heather Douglas, Chair in Science & Society at the University of Waterloo, and Remi Quirion, Chief Scientist, province of Québec) on the list. We don’t have any science advisors for the Canadian federal government but it seems they’ve instituted some such position for the province of Québec. In lieu of a science advisor, there is the Council of Canadian Academies, which “is an independent, not-for-profit organization that supports independent, authoritative, and evidence-based expert assessments that inform public policy development in Canada” (from their About page).

One other person should be noted (within the Canadian context), James Wilsdon is a member of the Expert Panel for the Council of Canadian Academies’ still-in-progress assessment, The State of State of Canada’s Science Culture. (My Feb. 22, 2013 posting about the assessments provides a lengthy discourse about the assessment and my concerns about both it and the panel.)

Getting back to this meeting in New Zealand, the organizers have added a pre-conference symposium on science diplomacy (from the Science and Diplomacy webpage), Note: A link has been removed,

We are pleased to announce the addition of a pre-conference symposium to our programme of events. Co-chaired by Dr. Vaughan Turekian, Editor-in-Chief of the AAAS Journal Science and Diplomacy, and the CE of New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, this symposium will explore ‘the place of science in foreign ministries’.

Overview of the symposium

The past decade has seen unprecedented interested in the interface between science and diplomacy from a number of perspectives including:

- Diplomacy for Science – building international relationships to foster robust collaborative scientific networks and shared expertise and infrastructure;
- Science for Diplomacy – the science enterprise as a doorway to relationship building between nations with shared goals and values;
- Science in Diplomacy – the role of science in various diplomatic endeavours (e.g.: verification of agreements on climate change, nuclear treaties etc; in support of aid projects; in promoting economic and trade relationships; and in various international agreements and instruments such as phyto-sanitary regulations, free trade agreements, biodiversity agreements etc.).

Yet, despite the growing interest in this intersection, there has been little discussion of the practical realities of fostering the rapprochement between two very distinct professional cultures and practices, particularly with specific reference to the classical pillars of foreign policy: diplomacy; trade/economic; and aid. Thus, this pre-conference symposium will be focusing on the essential question:

How should scientists have input into the operation of foreign ministries and in particular into three pillars of foreign affairs (diplomacy, trade/economics and foreign aid)?

The discussion will focus on questions such as: What are the mechanisms and methods that can bring scientists and policy makers in science and technology in closer alignment with ministries or departments of foreign affairs and vice versa? What is the role of public scientists in assisting countries’ foreign policy positions and how can this be optimised? What are the challenges and opportunities in enhancing the role of science in international affairs? How does the perception of science in diplomacy vary between large and small countries and between developed and developing countries?

To ensure vibrant discussion the workshop will be limited to 70 participants. Anyone interested is invited to write to [email protected] with a request to be considered for this event.

The conference with this newly added symposium looks to be even more interesting than before. As for anyone wishing to attend the science diplomacy symposium, the notice has been up since March 6, 2014 so you may wish to get your request sent off while there’s still space (I assume they’ll put a notice on the webpage once the spaces are spoken for). One final observation, it’s surprising in a science conference of this size that there’s no representation from a US institution (e.g., the National Academy of Sciences, Harvard University, etc.) other than the AAAS (American Association for the Advancement of Science) organizer of the pre-conference symposium.

Phyto-mining; using plants to extract minerals

Plants do it anyway, so, why not harness their ability to absorb nutrients and transform them into various materials for the mining industry? In the scientists at the University of York (UK) mentioned in a Sept. 20, 2012 news item on Nanowerk are doing precisely that,

Scientists at the University of York are to lead an international team that will explore the use of plants to recover precious metals from mine tailings around the world.

Researchers in the University’s Green Chemistry Centre of Excellence and the Centre for Novel Agricultural Products (CNAP) aim to develop ways to extract platinum group metals (PGM) discarded during mine processing which might then be used in catalysis. The research will investigate “phyto-mining,” which involves growing plants on mine waste materials to sponge up PGM into their cellular structure.

Initial studies show that plant cells used to phyto-mine PGM can be turned into materials for a variety of industrial applications – the one in most demand being catalytic converters for vehicle emissions control.

The Sept. 20, 2012 University of York news release (which originated the news item) notes,

The $1.4 million PHYTOCAT project is supported by the G8 Research Councils Initiative on Multilateral Research Funding. The team is led by the University of York in the UK with support from Yale University, the University of British Columbia and Massey University in New Zealand. [emphasis mine]

Professor James Clark, the Director of the Green Chemistry Centre of Excellence at York, says: “We are looking at ways of turning these residual metals into their catalytically active form using the plants to extract them from the mine waste. The plant is heated in a controlled way with the result that the metal is embedded in a nano-form in the carbonised plant.

“The trick is to control the decomposition of the plant in a way which keeps the metal in its nano-particulate or catalytically active form. Catalysis is being used more and more in industrial processes and particularly for emission control because of the demand for cleaners cars, so ‘phyto-mining’ could provide a sustainable supply of catalytically active metals.”

For PGM phyto-mining, the researchers will investigate plants known as hyperaccumulators which include about 400 species from more than 40 plant families. Plants such as willow, corn and mustard have evolved a resistance to specific metals and can accumulate relatively large amounts of these metals, which once absorbed into the plants’ cellular structure form nano-scale clusters than can then be used directly as a catalyst.

Professor Neil Bruce, of CNAP, added: “The ability of plants to extract PGMs from soil and redeposit the metal as nanoparticles in cells is remarkable. This project will allow us to investigate the mechanisms behind this process and provide a green method for extracting metals from mine tailings that are currently uneconomical to recover.”

(It makes sense that the University of British Columbia from my home province is participating, given the province’s heavy involvement in the mining industry.)

This proposed phyto-mining process has much in common with phytoremediation where plants are grown in polluted areas so they can absorb the pollutants from the soil as per my March 30, 2012 posting, which featured a guest writer, Joe Martin on the topic of phytoremediation.

I wonder what they will be doing to the plants for make them more suitable for the phyto-mining process.

Pourable electronics?

A group of scientists at Ruhr Universtät Bochum (RUB) have won a European Union Competition Call for proposals in Unconventional Computing.

A new concept to me, I looked for a description of ‘unconventional computing’ and found this by Susan Stepney in an April 2011 issue of ERCIM [European Research Consortium for Informatics and Mathematics] News,

Despite being formulated post-relativity and post-quantum mechanics, classical Turing computation is essentially based in classical physics. This is understandable given the source of its abstraction, but today’s nano-scale computer components are embodied in the quantum world. …

The Turing model was inspired by a single paradigm: the actions of human clerks. Unconventional computation can be inspired by the whole of wider nature. We can look to physics (from general relativity and quantum mechanics, to annealing processes, analogue computing, and on to fully embodied computation), to chemistry (reaction-diffusion systems, complex chemical reactions, DNA binding), and to biology (bacteria, flocks, social insects, evolution, growth and self-assembly, immune systems, neural systems), to mention just a few.

Here’s a description of the competition that these scientists entered, from the Unconventional Computation (UCOMP) page on the Future and Emerging Technology (FET) website,

Nature (e.g. living cells), and our physical environment in general, show many unconventional ways of information processing, such as those based on (bio-)chemical, natural, wetware, DNA, molecular, amorphous, reversible, analogue computing, etc. These are generally very sophisticated, ingenious and highly effective for specific purposes, but sufficient knowledge (either from a theoretical or an engineering perspective) to properly exploit, mimic, or adapt these systems, is lacking.

Proposals should develop alternative approaches for situations or problems that are challenging or impossible to solve with conventional methods and models of computation (i.e. von Neumann [John von Neumann], Turing [Alan Turing]). Typical examples include computing in vivo, and performing massively parallel computation.

Here’s how the winning project is described in the Aug. 29, 2012 news item on Nanowerk,

First place in an EU competitive call on “Unconventional Computing” was awarded to a collaborative proposal coordinated by Prof. John McCaskill from the RUB Faculty of Chemistry and Biochemistry. The project MICREAgents plans to build autonomous self-assembling electronic microreagents that are almost as small as cells. They will exchange chemical and electronic information to jointly direct complex chemical reactions and analyses in the solutions they are poured into. This is a form of embedded computation – “to compute is to construct” – in which for example the output is a particular catalyst or coating needed in the (input) local chemical environment. The EU supports the project within the FP7 programme with 3.4 million Euros for three years. Four research groups at RUB will join forces with top teams across Europe, from Israel and New Zealand.

Bit of a challenge understanding it, eh? The RUB Aug. 29, 2012 press release (it originated the news item on Nanowerk), offers some background information about some of the ideas and work leading to the winning collaboration,

John von Neumann envisioned information devices that can construct more complex machines than themselves, in his theory of self-reproducing automata2, but he did not arrive at a robust architecture for this. Modern initiatives towards Living Technology, exploiting the core properties of living systems to push back this frontier, have been spearheaded by RUB in the past decade. McCaskill cofounded (2004-5) the European Centre for Living Technology in Venice (ECLT), an ongoing multi-university institution of which RUB is a member. He has also helped to link up a world-wide community on Sustainable Personal Living Technology (2010). This initiative requires a fundamental integration of molecular construction and information processing and thereby of chemistry and ICT (information and communication technology). Currently, RUB is assembling a roadmap in an EU coordination action (COBRA) for the area of chem-bio ICT, and indeed this integration is most developed in biological organisms. The MICREAgents project represents the next major research program towards these overarching initiatives, one that could change the level of fine-grained algorithmic control in chemical construction, bringing the important social goal of sustainable personal fabrication one step closer.

Here’s a description of what the scientists are planning to do (from the RUB press release),

In order to create this programmable microscale electronic chemistry, MICRE-Agents (Microscopic Chemically Reactive Electronic Agents) will contain electronic circuits on 3D microchips (called lablets, diameter ≤ 100 μm) that self-assemble in pairs or like dominos to enclose transient reaction compartments, using the electronics to control chemical access, surface coatings and reactions via physical and chemical processes such as electroosmosis, electrowetting and electrochemistry. Chemicals can be selectively concentrated, processed and released into the surrounding solution, under local electronic control, in a similar way to which the genetic information in cells controls local chemical processes. The reversible pairwise association in solution of electronic surfaces in the nanometer range will also be used to avoid the prohibitive energetic costs of broadcast communication, allowing lablets to transfer information (including heritable information) from one to another. The lablet devices will integrate transistors, supercapacitors, energy transducers, sensors and actuators, involving electronically constructed nanofilms, and will be essentially genetically encoded, translating electronic signals into constructive chemical processing and recording the results of this processing. [emphais mine] Instead of making chemical reactors to contain chemicals, the smart MICREAgents will be poured into chemical mixtures, to organize the chemistry from within. Ultimately, such microreactors, like cells in the bloodstream, will open up the possibility of controlling complex chemistry from the inside out.

I’m far out of my comfort zone with this material so these questions may not be relevant but I wonder how the lablets, which will self-assemble and integrate supercapacitors, transistors, transducers, etc., will be constituted and how they will be produced. No details are offered in the RUB press release but there is this paragraph, which seems to be discussing future applications,

MICREAgents will provide an unconventional form of computation that microscopically links reaction processing with computation in autonomous mobile smart reactors. This corresponds to a radical integration of autonomous chemical experimentation, a very recent research area, and represents a novel form of computation intertwined with construction. The self-assembling smart micro reactors can be programmed for molecular amplification and other chemical processing pathways, that start from complex mixtures, concentrate and purify chemicals, perform reactions in programmed cascades, sense completion, and transport and release products to defined locations. The project defines a continuous achievable path towards this ambitious goal, making use of a novel pairwise local communication strategy to overcome the limitations of current smart dust and autonomous sensor network communication. It will provide a technical platform spawning research in new computing paradigms that integrate multilevel construction with electronic ICT.

Based on the description of the competition, they seem to be working towards integration of electronics with materials in a way that mimics nature/the human body. It almost seems that this work could lead to buildings and other constructions that are sentient in some fashion or other.

Nanopore instruments, femtomolar concentrations, Ireland, and New Zealand

It was the word femtomolar that did it for me. While I have somehow managed to conceptualize the nanoscale, the other scales (pico, femto, atto, zetto, and yocto) continue to  elude me. If my experience with the ‘nanoscale ‘ is any guide, the only solution will be to find as much information as I can on these other ones and immerse myself in them. With that said, here’s more from the July 19, 2012 Izon press release,

Researchers at the Lee Bionanosciences Laboratory at UCD [University College Dublin] School of Chemistry and Chemical Biology in Dublin have demonstrated the detection and measurement of biological analytes down to femtomolar concentration levels using an off the shelf qNano instrument. This ultra low level biodetection capability has implications for biomedical research and clinical development as trace amounts of a biological substance in a sample can now be detected amd quantfied using standard commercially available equipment.

Platt [Dr Mark Platt] and colleagues’ [Professor Gil Lee and Dr Geoff Willmott] method for femtomolar-level detection uses magnetic particle systems and can be applied to any biological particle or protein for which specific aptamers or antibodies exist. Resistive pulse sensing, the underlying technology of the qNano [Izon product], was used to monitor individual and aggregated rod-shaped nanoparticles as they move through tunable pores in elastomeric membranes.

Dr Platt says, “The strength of using the qNano is the ability to interrogate individual particles through a nanopore. This allowed us to establish a very sensitive measurement of concentration because we could detect the interactions occurring down to individual particle level.

”The unique and technically innovative approach of the authors was to detect a molecule’s presence by a process that results in end on end or side by side aggregation of rod shaped nickel-gold particles. The rods were designed so that the aptamers could be attached to one end only.

“By comparing particles of similar dimensions we demonstrated that the resistive pulse signal is fundamentally different for rod and sphere-shaped particles, and for rod shaped particles of different lengths. We could exploit these differences in a new agglutina¬tion assay to achieve these low detection levels,” says Dr Platt.

In the agglutination assay particles with a particular aspect ratio can be distinguished by two measurements: the measured drop in current as particles traverse the pore (∆ip), which reveals the particle’s size; and the full width at half maximum (FWHM) duration of the resistive pulse, which relates to the particle’s speed and length. Limits of detection down to femtomolar levels were thus able to be demonstrated.

I’m a little unclear as to what qNano actually is. I did find this description on the qNano product page,

qNano uses unique nanopore-based detection to enable the physical properties of a wide range of particle types to be measured with unsurpassed accuracy.

Detailed Multi-Parameter Analysis.

Particle-by-particle measurement through qNano enables detailed determination of:

Nanopore-based detection allows thousands of particles to be measured individually, providing far greater detail and accuracy than light-based techniques.

Applications & Particle Types

A wide range of biological and synthetic particle types, spanning 50 nm – 10 μm, can be measured, across a broad range of research fields.

qNano Package

qNano is sold as a full system ready for use including the base instrument, variable pressure module, fluid cell and a starter kit of nanopores, buffer solution and standard particle sets.

Here’s what the product looks like,

qNano (from the Izon website)

As for what this all might mean to those of us who exist at the macroscale (from the Izon press release),

Izon Science will continue to work with Dr Platt at Loughborough, and with University College Dublin and various customers to develop a series of diagnostic kits that can be used with the qNano to identify and measure biomolecules, viruses, and microvesicles.“This is a real milestone for Izon’s technology as being able to measure biomolecules down to these extremely low levels opens up new bio-analysis options for researchers. 10 femtomolar was achieved, which is the equivalent dilution to 1 gram in 3.3 billion litres, or 1 gram in 1300 Olympic sized swimming pools,” says Hans van der Voorn, Executive Chairman of Izon Science.

For those interested in finding out about nanopores, these were mentioned in my July 18, 2012 posting while aptamers were discussed in my interview (Oct. 25, 2011 posting) with Dr. Maria DeRosa who researches them in her Carleton University laboratory (Ottawa, Canada).

Prediction about New Zealand’s $166M R&D gamble from Izon’s van der Voorn

It’s an interesting problem and one that governments worldwide are attempting to solve in any number of ways. Funding research and development with one eye to stimulating ‘innovation’, i.e. commercialization and economic prosperity in the near future, while keeping  one eye to supporting the grand scientific  discoveries and thinking that will influence future generations but  have no immediate prospects for development is a tricky balancing act.

Having gone through a recent review of Canadian federal government funding in research and development (R&D) where there was an attempt to redress that balance here, I found  the May 28, 2012 article by Hamish Fletcher for the New Zealand Herald provided some insight into how at least one other jurisdiction is responding,

The Government said last week it would dedicate $90 million of operating funding and $76.1 million of capital funding over the next four years to create the Advanced Technology Institute (ATI).

A number of scientists welcomed news of the funding and New Zealand Association of Scientists’ president Shaun Hendy said it would build stronger links between science and industry.

But the chairman of Izon Science, Hans van der Voorn, said the ATI was a bad idea and would not be successful in driving innovation.

Van der Voorn said although Crown research institutes “do good science”, they had no track record when it came to commercialisation. Instead of putting money into the ATI, van der Voorn said the Government should look at giving more funding to research centres at universities.

New Zealand’s Minister of Science and Innovation, Steven Joyce, noted van der Voorn’s criticism was justified and replied the government was carefully designing the new centre so it was being driven by industry rather than science.

I look forward to seeing how this experiment in New Zealand works as Joyce’s and van der Voorn’s comments remind me of one of the recommendations from Canada’s recent R&D review,

Recommendation 4: Transform the institutes of the National Research Council (NRC) into a constellation of large-scale, sectoral collaboration R&D centres involving business, the university sector and the provinces while transferring public policy-related research activity to the appropriate federal agencies. (p. E12 print version, p. 26 PDF, Innovation Canada: A Call to Action)

I’ve not gotten word yet as to whether this recommendation has been adopted or whether it’s being implemented. Some days I think it’s more likely I’ll hear about what’s going on with New Zealand’s initiative before I find out about the Canadian one.

One final note, I have written about Izon Science before notably in my Sept. 26, 2011 posting regarding a race they sponsored to make measurements at the nanoscale. I believe they will be holding the race again in  Sept. 2012 and this time there may be some Canadian participation. For anyone who’s interested in Izon, from their home page,

Izon provides the world’s most comprehensive nanoparticle analysis system in a single instrument.

Virtually all particles including nanoparticles, viruses, bacteria and bioparticles (such as exosomes and liposomes) can be measured and characterised. Particle size, concentration, electrophoretic mobilty and aggregation may all be analysed. Monitoring subtle changes in the characteristics of particle sets allows interactions between particles and particles and biomolecules to be monitored in real time. Explore our technology, learn about our applications and ask how we can take your research to the next level.

YouTube space lab contest winners

The YouTube Space Lab contest (mentioned here in an Oct. 12, 2011 posting) recently announced its two global winners (winners will get to have their research carried out on the space station). From the March 22, 2012 Space Adventures press release,

YouTube, Lenovo, and Space Adventures today announced the two global winners of YouTube Space Lab (youtube.com/spacelab), the worldwide science competition that challenged 14-18 year-olds to design a science experiment that can be performed in space.

Amr Mohamed from Egypt (17-18 year old age group) and Dorothy Chen and Sara Ma from the U.S. (14-16 year old age group) were awarded the honor at a ceremony in Washington, DC, attended by members of Space Lab partners including the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the European Space Agency (ESA), and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA).  The students will have their experiments conducted by astronauts 250 miles above Earth aboard the International Space Station (ISS) and live streamed to the world on a Lenovo ThinkPad laptop via YouTube later this year.

Amr Mohamed, 18, from Alexandria, Egypt, came up with an experiment to explore the question: “Can you teach an old spider new tricks?”  Amr proposed investigating the effects of microgravity on the way the zebra spider catches its prey and whether it could adapt its behavior in this environment.  “The idea of sending an experiment into space is the most exciting thing I have ever heard in my life,” said Amr. “Winning YouTube Space Lab means everything to me, to my family, and to the people of the Middle East.”

Dorothy Chen and Sara Ma, both 16, who attend Troy High School in Troy, Michigan, created an experiment that asks: “Could alien superbugs cure disease on Earth?”  Dorothy and Sara want to send bacteria to the space station to see if introducing different nutrients and compounds can block their growth in the hopes of providing new tools to fight germs on Earth.  “The idea that something that is your experiment being sent up into space and actually becoming a reality is incredible,” said Sara. “I definitely want to pursue science as a career,” added Dorothy.

The global winners were in Washington, DC, with the regional winners, from the article by Nidhi Subbaraman on the Fast Company website,

Six teens between the ages of 14 and 18 from the U.S., Spain, Egypt, India, and New Zealand were just rewarded for their stellar science projects with a Zero-G flight above Washington, D.C., courtesy of Space Adventures.

… [Four regional winners:]

  • Patrick Zeng and Derek Chan from New Zealand hoped to see if heat transfers between hot and cold fluids would occur differently in a gravity-free environment. The results of their experiment could lead to more efficient heating and cooling systems here on Earth.
  • Spanish middle schoolers Laura Calvo and María Vilas wanted to test how weightless liquids behave–their surface behavior in low gravity have valuable insights into the construction of microelectronics.
  • Emerald Bresnahan, from the U.S., was curious to see how snowflakes would form in space.
  • Indian mechanical engineer in training Sachin Kukke is studying magnetic liquids called ferro fluids, towards understanding if they can absorb heat from the engines of spaceships, pushing them further into space.

You can find the contest videos (190 of them) here at YouTube Space Lab.  To whet your appetite, here’s the video from Amr Mohamed,

Congratulations to everyone who entered the contest.

Hockey and nanotechnology; size issues in Australia

The snippet was intriguing, I mean just how does hockey, Australia, and nanotechnology link together? Anyway, there aren’t many Canadians who could resist the urge to check it out. From the Oct. 19, 2011 article by Guy Hand for ninemsn.com,

Imagine a pro golfer being told the hole will be made smaller, or a tennis player who finds his racquet has been swapped for a table tennis bat.

That’s the scenario facing new Kookaburras goalkeeper Tristan Clemons in this week’s four-nations hockey tournament in Perth with new rules in which the goals have been made a metre wider.

Hold on, the nanotechnology is coming,

For a player who will be confronted with size issues for the remainder of this week, strangely in his day job, Clemons works with the smallest of the small.

He is involved in nanotechnology, doing a PhD in developing medical technology from the tiniest of particles that can be absorbed into the bloodstream, aimed at finding cures for diseases such as cancer.

This tournament will also be attracting teams from Pakistan, New Zealand, and India. Another hockey tournament taking place at this time features Australian and Malaysian hockey players. Oh, they’re playing field hockey. (Yes, it took me until this morning [Oct. 21, 2011] before I remembered that hockey isn’t always played on ice.)