Tag Archives: Pan-Canadian Artificial Intelligence Strateg

AI fairytale and April 25, 2018 AI event at Canada’s Ingenium (science and technology museum in Ottawa)

These days it’s all about artificial intelligence (AI) or robots and often, it’s both. They’re everywhere and they will take everyone’s jobs, or not, depending on how you view them. Today, I’ve got two artificial intelligence items, the first of which may provoke writers’ anxieties.

Fairytales

The Princess and the Fox is a new fairytale by the Brothers Grimm or rather, their artificially intelligent surrogate according to an April 18, 2018 article on the British Broadcasting Corporation’s online news website,

It was recently reported that the meditation app Calm had published a “new” fairytale by the Brothers Grimm.

However, The Princess and the Fox was written not by the brothers, who died over 150 years ago, but by humans using an artificial intelligence (AI) tool.

It’s the first fairy tale written by an AI, claims Calm, and is the result of a collaboration with Botnik Studios – a community of writers, artists and developers. Calm says the technique could be referred to as “literary cloning”.

Botnik employees used a predictive-text program to generate words and phrases that might be found in the original Grimm fairytales. Human writers then pieced together sentences to form “the rough shape of a story”, according to Jamie Brew, chief executive of Botnik.

The full version is available to paying customers of Calm, but here’s a short extract:

“Once upon a time, there was a golden horse with a golden saddle and a beautiful purple flower in its hair. The horse would carry the flower to the village where the princess danced for joy at the thought of looking so beautiful and good.

Advertising for a meditation app?

Of course, it’s advertising and it’s ‘smart’ advertising (wordplay intended). Here’s a preview/trailer,

Blair Marnell’s April 18, 2018 article for SyFy Wire provides a bit more detail,

“You might call it a form of literary cloning,” said Calm co-founder Michael Acton Smith. Calm commissioned Botnik to use its predictive text program, Voicebox, to create a new Brothers Grimm story. But first, Voicebox was given the entire collected works of the Brothers Grimm to analyze, before it suggested phrases and sentences based upon those stories. Of course, human writers gave the program an assist when it came to laying out the plot. …

“The Brothers Grimm definitely have a reputation for darkness and many of their best-known tales are undoubtedly scary,” Peter Freedman told SYFY WIRE. Freedman is a spokesperson for Calm who was a part of the team behind the creation of this story. “In the process of machine-human collaboration that generated The Princess and The Fox, we did gently steer the story towards something with a more soothing, calm plot and vibe, that would make it work both as a new Grimm fairy tale and simultaneously as a Sleep Story on Calm.” [emphasis mine]

….

If Marnell’s article is to be believed, Peter Freedman doesn’t hold much hope for writers in the long-term future although we don’t need to start ‘battening down the hatches’ yet.

You can find Calm here.

You can find Botnik  here and Botnik Studios here.

 

AI at Ingenium on April 25, 2018

Formerly known (I believe) as the Canada Science and Technology Museum, Ingenium is hosting a ‘sold out but there will be a livestream’ Google event. From Ingenium’s ‘Curiosity on Stage Evening Edition with Google – The AI Revolution‘ event page,

Join Google, Inc. and the Canada Science and Technology Museum for an evening of thought-provoking discussions about artificial intelligence.

[April 25, 2018
7:00 p.m. – 10:00 p.m. {ET}
Fees: Free]

Invited speakers from industry leaders Google, Facebook, Element AI and Deepmind will explore the intersection of artificial intelligence with robotics, arts, social impact and healthcare. The session will end with a panel discussion and question-and-answer period. Following the event, there will be a reception along with light refreshments and networking opportunities.

The event will be simultaneously translated into both official languages as well as available via livestream from the Museum’s YouTube channel.

Seating is limited

THIS EVENT IS NOW SOLD OUT. Please join us for the livestream from the Museum’s YouTube channel. https://www.youtube.com/cstmweb

Speakers

David Usher (Moderator)

David Usher is an artist, best-selling author, entrepreneur and keynote speaker. As a musician he has sold more than 1.4 million albums, won 4 Junos and has had #1 singles singing in English, French and Thai. When David is not making music, he is equally passionate about his other life, as a Geek. He is the founder of Reimagine AI, an artificial intelligence creative studio working at the intersection of art and artificial intelligence. David is also the founder and creative director of the non-profit, the Human Impact Lab at Concordia University [located in Montréal, Québec]. The Lab uses interactive storytelling to revisualize the story of climate change. David is the co-creator, with Dr. Damon Matthews, of the Climate Clock. Climate Clock has been presented all over the world including the United Nations COP 23 Climate Conference and is presently on a three-year tour with the Canada Museum of Science and Innovation’s Climate Change Exhibit.

Joelle Pineau (Facebook)

The AI Revolution:  From Ideas and Models to Building Smart Robots
Joelle Pineau is head of the Facebook AI Research Lab Montreal, and an Associate Professor and William Dawson Scholar at McGill University. Dr. Pineau’s research focuses on developing new models and algorithms for automatic planning and learning in partially-observable domains. She also applies these algorithms to complex problems in robotics, health-care, games and conversational agents. She serves on the editorial board of the Journal of Artificial Intelligence Research and the Journal of Machine Learning Research and is currently President of the International Machine Learning Society. She is a AAAI Fellow, a Senior Fellow of the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research (CIFAR) and in 2016 was named a member of the College of New Scholars, Artists and Scientists by the Royal Society of Canada.

Pablo Samuel Castro (Google)

Building an Intelligent Assistant for Music Creators
Pablo was born and raised in Quito, Ecuador, and moved to Montreal after high school to study at McGill. He stayed in Montreal for the next 10 years, finished his bachelors, worked at a flight simulator company, and then eventually obtained his masters and PhD at McGill, focusing on Reinforcement Learning. After his PhD Pablo did a 10-month postdoc in Paris before moving to Pittsburgh to join Google. He has worked at Google for almost 6 years, and is currently a research Software Engineer in Google Brain in Montreal, focusing on fundamental Reinforcement Learning research, as well as Machine Learning and Music. Aside from his interest in coding/AI/math, Pablo is an active musician (https://www.psctrio.com), loves running (5 marathons so far, including Boston!), and discussing politics and activism.

Philippe Beaudoin (Element AI)

Concrete AI-for-Good initiatives at Element AI
Philippe cofounded Element AI in 2016 and currently leads its applied lab and AI-for-Good initiatives. His team has helped tackle some of the biggest and most interesting business challenges using machine learning. Philippe holds a Ph.D in Computer Science and taught virtual bipeds to walk by themselves during his postdoc at UBC. He spent five years at Google as a Senior Developer and Technical Lead Manager, partly with the Chrome Machine Learning team. Philippe also founded ArcBees, specializing in cloud-based development. Prior to that he worked in the videogame and graphics hardware industries. When he has some free time, Philippe likes to invent new boardgames — the kind of games where he can still beat the AI!

Doina Precup (Deepmind)

Challenges and opportunities for the AI revolution in health care
Doina Precup splits her time between McGill University, where she co-directs the Reasoning and Learning Lab in the School of Computer Science, and DeepMind Montreal, where she leads the newly formed research team since October 2017.  She got her BSc degree in computer science form the Technical University Cluj-Napoca, Romania, and her MSc and PhD degrees from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, where she was a Fulbright fellow. Her research interests are in the areas of reinforcement learning, deep learning, time series analysis, and diverse applications of machine learning in health care, automated control and other fields. She became a senior member of AAAI in 2015, a Canada Research Chair in Machine Learning in 2016 and a Senior Fellow of CIFAR in 2017.

Interesting, oui? Not a single expert from Ottawa or Toronto. Well, Element AI has an office in Toronto. Still, I wonder why this singular focus on AI in Montréal. After all, one of the current darlings of AI, machine learning, was developed at the University of Toronto which houses the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research (CIFAR),  the institution in charge of the Pan-Canadian Artificial Intelligence Strategy and the Vector Institutes (more about that in my March 31,2017 posting).

Enough with my musing: For those of us on the West Coast, there’s an opportunity to attend via livestream from 4 pm to 7 pm on April 25, 2018 on https://www.youtube.com/cstmweb.

For more about Element AI, go here; for more about DeepMind, go here for information about parent company in the UK and the most I dug up about their Montréal office was this job posting; and, finally , Reimagine.AI is here.

Science funding, 2018 Canadian federal budget, and a conversation between Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and US science popularizer, Bill Nye (the Science Guy)

It may be too soon to describe it as a fallback position but Canadian Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, seems to return to science when he wants to generate or bask in positive news coverage.  Coming off a not entirely successful state visit to India (February 17 – 23, 2018), he received some of the worst notices of his international diplomatic efforts to date. (This February 23, 2018 article, ‘India to Justin Trudeau: Stop trying so hard‘, by Vidhi Doshi for The Washington Post was one of the kinder pieces while this February 25, 2018 article, ‘Why Justin Trudeau’s India tour turned out to be a diplomatic disaster‘, by Candice Malcolm and published on economictimes.indiatimes.com was one of the more scathing.

Budget 2018: We’re in the money

The announcement of the federal budget (February 27, 2018) might be viewed as offering welcome relief from torrents of criticism.  From a March 7, 2018 Canadian Science Policy Centre announcement (CSPC; received via email) about the publication of a series of opinion pieces (editorials) concerning the 2018 federal budget,

CSPC’s Official Statement on the Federal Budget 2018
Déclaration officielle du CPSC concernant le budget fédéral 2018

Canadian Science Policy Centre commends the Government of Canada for the strong investment in Science projected in the Budget 2018 for the next five years. The Centre congratulates all Canadians, in particular members of the Fundamental Science Review Panel and the entire community who strongly supported the panel recommendations and the investment in Science.

Le Centre sur les politiques scientifiques canadiennes félicite le Gouvernement du Canada pour son investissement substantiel en sciences prévu dans le budget 2018 pour les cinq prochaines années. Le Centre félicite tous les Canadiens, plus particulièrement les membres du Comité de l’examen du soutien aux sciences ainsi que la communauté dans son ensemble, qui a vivement appuyé les recommandations du Comité et l’investissement en sciences.

You can find the editorials here (17 in total including an interview with Science Minister Kirsty Duncan … surprisingly[!!!!], she’s very proud of the government’s budget for science) along with editorials on other issues. Russ Roberts’ piece (Federal Budget 2018 – Missed Another Opportunity to Maximize ROI on Canadians’ Investments in Innovation) stands out as it is rather ‘grumpy’ but only in comparison to pretty much everyone else who is pleased to one degree or another.

The editorials put me in mind of an old song celebrating money in a Busby Berkeley production. Prepare yourself, over the top was where he liked to live,

Budget 2018: a little more nuance

Brooke Struck over on sciencemetrics.org offers some incisive analysis in two separate blog postings. First, he tackles the money in a February 28, 2018 posting (Note: Links have been removed),

The Naylor report [links to my 3-part series on the report also known as, INVESTING IN CANADA’S FUTURE; Strengthening the Foundations of Canadian Research {Review of fundamental research final report} follow at the end of this posting] contained many recommendations, but the one that got the most press—and surely is the focus of attention right now, given the release of the budget yesterday—is the recommendation that funding for the three granting councils be increased. The amounts were quite high, too, calling for an increase from $3.5 billion to $4.8 billion to remediate slides over the decade of the previous government’s term.

The timing of the report’s release was wise, as a release before that year’s budget might have created the expectation that the money would flow immediately, which simply doesn’t fit with the timelines of federal budget development processes. From April 2017 to now, the research community in Canada has rallied around the report and its recommendations, sustaining a campaign to keep research (and its funding) in the national discussion.

One note that the panel emphasized was that the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) had been hit particularly hard. The rule of thumb is apparently that SSHRC is supposed to get 20% of the total granting council budget, while 40% goes to the natural sciences & engineering [Natural Sciences and Engineering Council] (NSERC) and 40% goes to health research [Canadian Institutes of Health Research] (CIHR). SSHRC’s portion had consistently clocked in at around 15%.

Furthermore, the report emphasized that the underlying reasoning behind the 40-40-20 split might not hold water anymore, as the social sciences and humanities really don’t have any other major sources of funding beyond government support, whereas other types of research can draw on support from other players as well. The 40-40-20 split from government is not a 40-40-20 split in practice once additional sources are considered in the equation.

Delivery: as promised?

And that brings us to yesterday’s budget. While the report had called for an injection of $1.3 billion, the finance minister apparently couldn’t scrape together more than a measly $925 million—which, of course, is a huge amount of money. Some will lament the gap and rend their shirts in twain about promises broken, while others will cheer the victory of science retaking its rightful place through another #PromiseKept. That increase translated into a 25% bump in fundamental research spending, so I guess how you feel about it depends on your views about how much a 25% increase really means. For those keeping score at home, that apparently closes the gap to about 90% of real spending power levels before the slides under Harper.

But was it a 25% increase for everyone? No, the $925 million was not split evenly between the councils. Identical portions of $354.7 million will go to NSERC and CIHR (roughly 38% each from the new money) while $215.5 million will go to SSHRC (just over 23% of the new money). Comparing their funding levels this morning to those of yesterday morning, NSERC and CIHR saw increases of about 20%–25%, while SSHRC saw an increase of over 40%.

But did the government really heed the advice of their panel about getting back to the 40-40-20 allocation across the councils (while acknowledging that even that split is perhaps not sufficient anymore)? With its increase, SSHRC will be up from 15% of the tri-council total to about 16.5% of the total. That sounds like progress.

On the flip side, though, the government has just announced a massive injection to research spending, with an ongoing annual increase after that (following the same split as the one-time boost). No further increases are likely to happen again in the near future, and it would take three more increases just like this one for SSHRC to reach its 20%. The social sciences and humanities have made some headway, but they aren’t likely to get any closer than this to their 20%. The big investment has been made, and this will be the status quo for a while—consider that the Naylor panel was the first of its kind in 40 years.

I don’t think this excerpt does justice to Struck’s posting and recommend you read it in its entirety if you have the time and there’s this March 8, 2018 posting where he examines ‘evidence’ in relation to the budget (Note: Links have been removed),

The new budget provides a lot of money for science. It also emphasizes the importance of evidence-based decision-making to government, employing the term “evidence-based” about 20 times in the document. A lot of the new science money is earmarked to increase science for policy as well, separate from the fundamental science funding we discussed last week.

For example, Statistics Canada will get millions of extra dollars, in one-time injections as well as increases to ongoing, regular operating budgets. Why? “Better data will… support [the Government’s] commitment to evidence-based policy-making.” (p. 187). There are also hundreds of millions of dollars for science conducted within the federal government: labs and facilities (p.83) as well as highlighted projects (e.g., ocean and freshwater surveillance, p. 98). Again, all this is on top of the $925 million for fundamental research outside of government, administered by the funding councils. All told, that’s a big boost for research.

What about the uptake of that research in decision-making? There’s a whole section in Chapter 2 entitled “Placing Evidence at the Centre of Program Evaluation and Design.” The result? Statistics Canada gets $1 million annually to “improve performance evaluations for innovation-related programs,” and the Treasury Board gets $2 million annually to build an internal team for innovation performance evaluation, drawing on (among other things) the StatsCan innovation data.

Beyond that, the previous budget outlined $2 million annually for the federal Chief Science Advisor and her secretariat. That outlay doesn’t mention improving evidence-based decision-making, though it’s a key part of the CSA’s mandate. Together, what we see here is that there’s a huge disparity between the new money being spent on research and data, and the new money being spent to develop “a strong culture of evidence-based decision-making” (Budget 2018, p. 276).

Reading between the line items

The funding disparity suggests that the government feels that evidence-based policymaking is hampered primarily by supply-side problems. If we just pushed more science in the front end, we’d get a better flow of evidence through the policymaking pipeline. There’s almost no money to patch up whatever holes there may be in that pipeline between the research money inputs and the better policy outputs.

This quality of analysis is what one would hope for from the Canadian Science Policy Centre (CSPC). Perhaps once their initial euphoria and back-patting has passed, the CSPC commentators will offer more nuanced takes on the budget.

Budget 2018: The good includes a new intellectual property strategy

First, there’s a lot to like in the 2018 budget as the CSPC folks noticed. Advancing gender equality, supporting innovation and business, supporting fundamental research through the tri-council agencies, and more are all to the good.

Surprisingly, no one else seems to have mentioned a new (?) intellectual property strategy introduced in the document (from Chapter 2: Progress; scroll down about 80% of the way, Note: The formatting has been changed),

Budget 2018 proposes measures in support of a new Intellectual Property Strategy to help Canadian entrepreneurs better understand and protect intellectual property, and get better access to shared intellectual property.

What Is a Patent Collective?
A Patent Collective is a way for firms to share, generate, and license or purchase intellectual property. The collective approach is intended to help Canadian firms ensure a global “freedom to operate”, mitigate the risk of infringing a patent, and aid in the defence of a patent infringement suit.

Budget 2018 proposes to invest $85.3 million over five years, starting in 2018–19, with $10 million per year ongoing, in support of the strategy. The Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development will bring forward the full details of the strategy in the coming months, including the following initiatives to increase the intellectual property literacy of Canadian entrepreneurs, and to reduce costs and create incentives for Canadian businesses to leverage their intellectual property:

  • To better enable firms to access and share intellectual property, the Government proposes to provide $30 million in 2019–20 to pilot a Patent Collective. This collective will work with Canada’s entrepreneurs to pool patents, so that small and medium-sized firms have better access to the critical intellectual property they need to grow their businesses.
  • To support the development of intellectual property expertise and legal advice for Canada’s innovation community, the Government proposes to provide $21.5 million over five years, starting in 2018–19, to Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada. This funding will improve access for Canadian entrepreneurs to intellectual property legal clinics at universities. It will also enable the creation of a team in the federal government to work with Canadian entrepreneurs to help them develop tailored strategies for using their intellectual property and expanding into international markets.
  • To support strategic intellectual property tools that enable economic growth, Budget 2018 also proposes to provide $33.8 million over five years, starting in 2018–19, to Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada, including $4.5 million for the creation of an intellectual property marketplace. This marketplace will be a one-stop, online listing of public sector-owned intellectual property available for licensing or sale to reduce transaction costs for businesses and researchers, and to improve Canadian entrepreneurs’ access to public sector-owned intellectual property.

The Government will also consider further measures, including through legislation, in support of the new intellectual property strategy.

Helping All Canadians Harness Intellectual Property
Intellectual property is one of our most valuable resources, and every Canadian business owner should understand how to protect and use it.

To better understand what groups of Canadians are benefiting the most from intellectual property, Budget 2018 proposes to provide Statistics Canada with $2 million over three years to conduct an intellectual property awareness and use survey. This survey will help identify how Canadians understand and use intellectual property, including groups that have traditionally been less likely to use intellectual property, such as women and Indigenous entrepreneurs. The results of the survey should help the Government better meet the needs of these groups through education and awareness initiatives.

The Canadian Intellectual Property Office will also increase the number of education and awareness initiatives that are delivered in partnership with business, intermediaries and academia to ensure Canadians better understand, integrate and take advantage of intellectual property when building their business strategies. This will include targeted initiatives to support underrepresented groups.

Finally, Budget 2018 also proposes to invest $1 million over five years to enable representatives of Canada’s Indigenous Peoples to participate in discussions at the World Intellectual Property Organization related to traditional knowledge and traditional cultural expressions, an important form of intellectual property.

It’s not wholly clear what they mean by ‘intellectual property’. The focus seems to be on  patents as they are the only intellectual property (as opposed to copyright and trademarks) singled out in the budget. As for how the ‘patent collective’ is going to meet all its objectives, this budget supplies no clarity on the matter. On the plus side, I’m glad to see that indigenous peoples’ knowledge is being acknowledged as “an important form of intellectual property” and I hope the discussions at the World Intellectual Property Organization are fruitful.

That said, it’s good to see the government adopting a fresh approach to the matter.

Budget 2018: Who’s watching over us?

Russ Roberts (CSPC editorial) makes an excellent point in his piece about getting some sort of return on investment (ROI) made by the Canadian government on behalf of its taxpayers. One note, the issue is not new and unique to this Liberal government. As far as I’m aware, there never has been any mechanism for determining whether taxpayers’ money has been well spent and other than knowing that insulin was a huge boon to the world and could be described as a great ROI. So, I’m not suggesting that everything has to be measured in dollars and cents but just that we occasionally give it some thought.

Another aspect I’d like to see considered is oversight. In my March 5, 2018 posting I posed a question, What is happening with Alberta’s (Canada) Ingenuity Lab? In sum, Dr. Carlo Montemagno came to Alberta to head up the lab which is funded to the tune of $100M over 10 years. He was making over $500,000/year when he left some five years into the project to become Chancellor at Southern Illinois University (SIU). I had some questions about Montemagno’s tenure in Alberta. For example, was hiring his daughter and son-in-law (as he did again at SIU where he has received severe criticism) to work at the Ingenuity Lab a good idea? It may have been but it seems as if the question was never asked. Other questions also present themselves such as, what is happening to an industrial pilot project on carbon transformation that Montemagno touted?

Increasingly, I’m wondering what sort of oversight these heavily funded science projects are receiving, especially in light of the government’s massive foul up over the Phoenix pay system for federal government employees. (I’m aware that I’m conflating science and technology.) We’re entering the third year of a botched (a very polite term) and increasingly expensive payroll technology implementation. Take for example this recommendation from the Canada Treasury Board’s Lessons Learned from the Transformation of Pay Administration Initiative webpage which has me shaking my head,

Fully test the IT Solution before launch
Lesson 14: Launch any required new IT solution only after it has been fully tested with end-to-end real-life simulations using a broad spectrum of real users and when all doubts regarding success have been addressed and verified independently.

The federal government has over 300,000 employees whose payroll was migrated to this system and they didn’t test it (!) or so I infer from this recommendation. (According to a CBC [Canadian Broadcasting Corporation] news online August 24, 2017 news item, a little over 1/2 of Canada’s federal public servants have been affected,

Nearly one in every two federal public servants paid through the problem-plagued Phoenix system has opened a file seeking redress for a pay issue, CBC News has learned.

As of Aug. 8 [2017], there were 156,035 employees who had been waiting at least 30 days to have their pay complaint dealt with, according to data released to Radio-Canada by a government source.

That number represents nearly one-half of the 313,734 public servants paid through Phoenix. It’s also the first instance in which the scope of the Phoenix payroll issues has been laid clear in terms of people affected, rather than in terms of “transactions” or “cases.”

The documents show the government has been tracking the numbers of individuals affected by Phoenix since at least June 26 [2017].

“It’s shocking that we’ve just learned that they were hiding those numbers, because they didn’t want to show how big that catastrophe is for our public servants,” said Alexandre Boulerice, the NDP’s [New Democratic Party] finance critic.

Interestingly,  the government is hoping to introduce more technology into their governance. Michael Karlin’s (@supergovernance) Twitter feed and his latest essay provide some insight into the government’s preparations for the introduction of artificial intelligence (AI), Note: Links have been removed,

Towards Rules for Automation in Government

Caveat: This is a personal view of work underway that I’m leading. What I describe is subject to incredible change as this policy work winds its way through government and consultations. Our approach may change for reasons that I’m simply not privy to, and that’s fine. This is meant to solicit ideas, but also show the complexity about what it takes to make policy. I hope that people find it useful, particularly students of public admin. It also represents my view of the world only, and neither my organization’s or the Government of Canada writ large.

AI is a rapidly evolving space, and trying to create rules in a time of disruption is risky. Too severe and innovation can be hindered; this is unacceptable during a time when the Government of Canada is embracing digital culture. On the other hand, if the rules don’t have meaning and teeth, and Canadians will not be sufficiently protected from the negative outcomes of this technology, like this or this. Trying to strike the right balance between facilitating innovation while being protective of right is a challenge, and one that benefits from ongoing discussions with different sectors across the country. It also means that I might work hard to build a consensus around a set of rules that we try out and have to scrap and redesign after a year in deployment because they don’t work.

Let’s not forget the 2017 Canadian federal budget introduced funding ($125M) for a Pan-Canadian Artificial Intelligence Strategy to be administered by the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research (CIFAR). So, federal funding for science is often intimately linked to technology., hence the conflation.

Sunny ways: a discussion between Justin Trudeau and Bill Nye

Billed as a discussion about the Canadian federal 2018 budget and science, Justin Trudeau sat down with Bill Nye, a US science popularizer and television personality on March 6, 2018 for about an hour. Kate Young, parliamentary secretary to the minister of science (Kirsty Duncan) was moderator.

As to be expected Bill Nye did not know much about the budget and the funding it provided for science, technology, research, and innovation but he was favourably impressed overall. In short, if you were looking for an incisive policy discussion, this was not the venue for it.

The conversation was quite genial throughout. Paul Wells in his March 6, 2018 article for Maclean’s offers a good summary of the main points and answers a few questions I had (for example, why a US television science personality?),

News of this bit of show-business [televised discussion] drew a fair bit of advance comment, most of it on Twitter on Monday night, some of it critical or worried. Some who don’t like Nye’s climate-change activism said he’s not a scientist. This is, by many definitions, true: He’s a mechanical engineer. I’m here to tell you that it’s hard to get a degree in mechanical engineering without learning some science, but for those inclined to draw distinctions, fill your boots. Others wished a Canadian scientist had been Trudeau’s chosen interlocutor, instead of some TV Yankee.

Part of the answer to that came from the U of O students, who were pleased to see the Prime Minister but plainly way more pleased to see Bill Nye the Science Guy. There simply isn’t a Canadian scientist (or science-friendly mechanical engineer) who would have provoked as much excitement. [emphasis mine; sadly true]

My own concern was that Nye, who has been critical of the Trump administration, might attempt to draw distinctions between the blackened anti-science hell-pit of his own country and the bright shiny city on a hill called Canada. Such distinctions would have been misinformed, for reasons I’ll explain in a bit, but in fact Nye mostly managed to avoid making them.

Mostly he and Trudeau just shot the breeze, in ways that were low on detail but not unpleasant.

One comment that Trudeau made raised a lot of interest on Paul Wells’ fTwitfer feed (#inklessPW), ‘all babies are scientists’. Wells’ notes where this idea likely originated (Note: A link has been removed),

The babies-are-scientists bit, I heard from a former New Brunswick education minister named Kelly Lamrock, could come from a book that was in vogue at about the time Trudeau was working as a schoolteacher, The Scientist in the Crib. To anyone who’s watched a toddler who was fascinated about dinosaurs grow into a teenager who couldn’t care less, Trudeau’s reverie makes sense as folk wisdom if not as a precise description of the scientific method.

There are also people who claim all babies are artists or musicians or mathematicians or … . Take your pick.

Wells goes on to highlight two female researchers (Trudeau being famously feminist and whose government just presented a budget boosting women) invited onstage to participate in the conversation (Note: Links have been removed),

… two young women researchers were invited onstage. Plainly their role was to be admired as pathbreaking young women researchers, pulverizing glass ceilings, embodying budget initiatives. To my relief, neither seemed interested in acting the part, or at least not in behaving as if sent straight from Central Casting.

Caitlin Miron from Queen’s University has already received some coverage for discovering a… thing… that could “switch off” cancer cells. This is how Miron was introduced. She could switch off cancer cells. It’s how Nye addressed her. You could switch off cancer cells! Miron answered, reasonably enough, that that’s how it might turn out someday, but that on the other hand it might not, and in the meantime she’s learning interesting new things about cancer cells. She was plainly flattered by the attention, but not interested in boiling her work down to slogans just yet.

Then the PM and the science guy turned to Ayda Elhage, who’s a PhD student in Chemistry at the University of Ottawa. Elhage, who was born in Lebanon, launched into a description of her work, which concentrates on (among other things) the tunable photocatalytic activity of palladium-decorated titanium dioxide [likely titanium dioxide nanoparticles]. I’m sure I don’t have to tell you how important this work is! At least I hope I don’t, because I understood almost none of it! I think it’s about complex new materials whose properties can be triggered by light. Or not. Anyway, the way she resisted any attempt to reduce her work to a gimmick or gadget was heartening to hear.

Wells winds up with this,

…  the truth is that even now, today, in the second of the dark Trump years, the United States is far more of a performer in science research than Canada is. The U.S. National Institutes of Health have about 6 or 7 times the per-capita budget of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research; NASA and the National Science Foundation together spend about twice as much per capita as Canada’s Natural Science and Engineering Research Council.

The new investments in last week’s budget, while welcome, won’t change the orders of magnitude here. The U.S. commitment to science research is cultural and durable. The Trump White House’s call for cuts to granting agencies was met with budget increases to those agencies from Congress. Trudeau’s conversion to the cause comes after almost a year’s steady pressure from the Canadian research community. But I bet those researchers were heartened to hear Trudeau talking like one of them so soon after the budget came down.

Wells also covers their comments on support for fundamental research and a foray into the Kinder Morgan pipeline controversy.

From Wells’ Twitter feed (on the day of),

2 hours ago

Nye asks Trudeau about “this pipeline, Morgan Kinder.” Uh oh.

2 hours ago

Trudeau talks about “tremendous potential” for renewables. “However, we’re not going to get there tomorrow.” The has to be a “transition phase.”

2 hours ago

This answer is longer than the Oscars.

Nye did not correctly identify the pipeline but he did comment on his visit to Fort McMurray. In any event, the Kinder Morgan portion of the discussion seemed scripted (to me), i.e, Trudeau knew the question was coming and was prepared for it. I’m guessing he also knew Nye was going to give him and his government a pass after hearing the reasons for their decision.

One question that I found interesting but not mentioned in Wells’ article was about language and the arts. It was neither Trudeau’s not Nye’s finest moment. They were clearly unable to shift gears, part of their problem being that much of what they discussed in terms of ‘baby scientists’ could also be said about the arts. Yes, all babies make art!

Final thoughts

As noted earlier, here’s a lot to applaud in the new budget, more support for fundamental research, catch up funding for the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, and greater support for women in the sciences and technology.

At the same time, I wish this government put more thought into how it’s spending taxpayers’ money.

Extras

For anyone who’s curious, you can find the full 2018 federal budget here and you’ll find the science funding in Chapter 2: Progress.

For the curious, you can watch the entire (!) Trudeau/Nye conversation, 1 hour, 9 minutes and 30 seconds here.

For anyone interested in the Naylor report (or my comments on it), there’s this three-part series:

  • INVESTING IN CANADA’S FUTURE; Strengthening the Foundations of Canadian Research (Review of fundamental research final report): 1 of 3
  • INVESTING IN CANADA’S FUTURE; Strengthening the Foundations of Canadian Research (Review of fundamental research final report): 2 of 3
  • INVESTING IN CANADA’S FUTURE; Strengthening the Foundations of Canadian Research (Review of fundamental research final report): 3 of 3

For anyone who hasn’t been following the Canadian political scene, “sunny ways” is a term that Justin Trudeau uses to describe, in part, his political philosophy. Here’s an explanation of the term from the Liberal Party of Canada’s website,

Canadians have often heard Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speak of Sir Wilfrid Laurier’s [Canadian Prime Minister from 1896-1911] sunny ways – a guiding philosophy that both men share. Like Laurier, the Prime Minister knows that politics can be a positive and powerful force for change. …

Wilfrid Laurier’s appeal for the “sunny way” in political discourse has its roots in the Manitoba Schools Question. When Manitoba became a province in 1870, a dual school system was established to reflect the province’s Protestant and largely English-speaking population, and its Catholic and predominantly French-speaking, residents.

“The sun’s warm rays prove more effective than the wind’s bluster.”

By 1890, the Anglophone population widely outnumbered the Francophones. Seeking to appeal to this growing population, the provincial government of Thomas Greenway attempted to abolish the dual school system. With the support of the federal Conservative government, Manitoba’s Catholic community launched a court challenge of the school law. The Judicial Committee of the Privy Council ruled that while the law was valid, the federal government could restore public funding to denominational schools. In 1895, despite it being deeply divisive, Prime Minister Mackenzie Bowell introduced legislation to force Manitoba to restore Catholic schools – a measure that was then postponed due to severe opposition within his own cabinet, ultimately leading to his resignation.

In contrast to Bowell’s heavy-handed approach, Liberal Leader Wilfrid Laurier proposed that a diplomatic “sunny way” would work better, using as an illustration Aesop’s fable in which the sun and the wind hold a contest to see who can remove a traveler’s coat. The sun’s warm rays prove more effective than the wind’s bluster.

While more than 120 years have passed, Prime Minister Trudeau shares Laurier’s belief that the “sunny way” remains essential to solving the complex problems facing our country.

Trudeau seems to have had remarkable luck with his ‘sunny ways’ which sometimes seem more like a form of teflon coating than an approach to diplomacy as per Sir Wilfred Laurier. At other times, Trudeau appears to have a magic touch where diplomacy is concerned. He is famously able to deal with the volatile US President, Donald Trump.

FrogHeart’s good-bye to 2017 and hello to 2018

This is going to be relatively short and sweet(ish). Starting with the 2017 review:

Nano blogosphere and the Canadian blogosphere

From my perspective there’s been a change taking place in the nano blogosphere over the last few years. There are fewer blogs along with fewer postings from those who still blog. Interestingly, some blogs are becoming more generalized. At the same time, Foresight Institute’s Nanodot blog (as has FrogHeart) has expanded its range of topics to include artificial intelligence and other topics. Andrew Maynard’s 2020 Science blog now exists in an archived from but before its demise, it, too, had started to include other topics, notably risk in its many forms as opposed to risk and nanomaterials. Dexter Johnson’s blog, Nanoclast (on the IEEE [Institute for Electrical and Electronics Engineers] website), maintains its 3x weekly postings. Tim Harper who often wrote about nanotechnology on his Cientifica blog appears to have found a more freewheeling approach that is dominated by his Twitter feed although he also seems (I can’t confirm that the latest posts were written in 2017) to blog here on timharper.net.

The Canadian science blogosphere seems to be getting quieter if Science Borealis (blog aggregator) is a measure. My overall impression is that the bloggers have been a bit quieter this year with fewer postings on the feed or perhaps that’s due to some technical issues (sometimes FrogHeart posts do not get onto the feed). On the promising side, Science Borealis teamed with the Science Writers and Communicators of Canada Association to run a contest, “2017 People’s Choice Awards: Canada’s Favourite Science Online!”  There were two categories (Favourite Science Blog and Favourite Science Site) and you can find a list of the finalists with links to the winners here.

Big congratulations for the winners: Canada’s Favourite Blog 2017: Body of Evidence (Dec. 6, 2017 article by Alina Fisher for Science Borealis) and Let’s Talk Science won Canada’s Favourite Science Online 2017 category as per this announcement.

However, I can’t help wondering: where were ASAP Science, Acapella Science, Quirks & Quarks, IFLS (I f***ing love science), and others on the list for finalists? I would have thought any of these would have a lock on a position as a finalist. These are Canadian online science purveyors and they are hugely popular, which should mean they’d have no problem getting nominated and getting votes. I can’t find the criteria for nominations (or any hint there will be a 2018 contest) so I imagine their nonpresence on the 2017 finalists list will remain a mystery to me.

Looking forward to 2018, I think that the nano blogosphere will continue with its transformation into a more general science/technology-oriented community. To some extent, I believe this reflects the fact that nanotechnology is being absorbed into the larger science/technology effort as foundational (something wiser folks than me predicted some years ago).

As for Science Borealis and the Canadian science online effort, I’m going to interpret the quieter feeds as a sign of a maturing community. After all, there are always ups and downs in terms of enthusiasm and participation and as I noted earlier the launch of an online contest is promising as is the collaboration with Science Writers and Communicators of Canada.

Canadian science policy

It was a big year.

Canada’s Chief Science Advisor

With Canada’s first chief science advisor in many years, being announced Dr. Mona Nemer stepped into her position sometime in Fall 2017. The official announcement was made on Sept. 26, 2017. I covered the event in my Sept. 26, 2017 posting, which includes a few more details than found the official announcement.

You’ll also find in that Sept. 26, 2017 posting a brief discourse on the Naylor report (also known as the Review of Fundamental Science) and some speculation on why, to my knowledge, there has been no action taken as a consequence.  The Naylor report was released April 10, 2017 and was covered here in a three-part review, published on June 8, 2017,

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

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

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

I have found another commentary (much briefer than mine) by Paul Dufour on the Canadian Science Policy Centre website. (November 9, 2017)

Subnational and regional science funding

This began in 2016 with a workshop mentioned in my November 10, 2016 posting: ‘Council of Canadian Academies and science policy for Alberta.” By the time the report was published the endeavour had been transformed into: Science Policy: Considerations for Subnational Governments (report here and my June 22, 2017 commentary here).

I don’t know what will come of this but I imagine scientists will be supportive as it means more money and they are always looking for more money. Still, the new government in British Columbia has only one ‘science entity’ and I’m not sure it’s still operational but i was called the Premier’s Technology Council. To my knowledge, there is no ministry or other agency that is focused primarily or partially on science.

Meanwhile, a couple of representatives from the health sciences (neither of whom were involved in the production of the report) seem quite enthused about the prospects for provincial money in their (Bev Holmes, Interim CEO, Michael Smith Foundation for Health Research, British Columbia, and Patrick Odnokon (CEO, Saskatchewan Health Research Foundation) October 27, 2017 opinion piece for the Canadian Science Policy Centre.

Artificial intelligence and Canadians

An event which I find more interesting with time was the announcement of the Pan=Canadian Artificial Intelligence Strategy in the 2017 Canadian federal budget. Since then there has been a veritable gold rush mentality with regard to artificial intelligence in Canada. One announcement after the next about various corporations opening new offices in Toronto or Montréal has been made in the months since.

What has really piqued my interest recently is a report being written for Canada’s Treasury Board by Michael Karlin (you can learn more from his Twitter feed although you may need to scroll down past some of his more personal tweets (something cassoulet in the Dec. 29, 2017 tweets).  As for Karlin’s report, which is a work in progress, you can find out more about the report and Karlin in a December 12, 2017 article by Rob Hunt for the Algorithmic Media Observatory (sponsored by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada [SHRCC], the Centre for Study of Democratic Citizenship, and the Fonds de recherche du Québec: Société et culture).

You can ring in 2018 by reading and making comments, which could influence the final version, on Karlin’s “Responsible Artificial Intelligence in the Government of Canada” part of the government’s Digital Disruption White Paper Series.

As for other 2018 news, the Council of Canadian Academies is expected to publish “The State of Science and Technology and Industrial Research and Development in Canada” at some point soon (we hope). This report follows and incorporates two previous ‘states’, The State of Science and Technology in Canada, 2012 (the first of these was a 2006 report) and the 2013 version of The State of Industrial R&D in Canada. There is already some preliminary data for this latest ‘state of’  (you can find a link and commentary in my December 15, 2016 posting).

FrogHeart then (2017) and soon (2018)

On looking back I see that the year started out at quite a clip as I was attempting to hit the 5000th blog posting mark, which I did on March 3,  2017. I have cut back somewhat from the 3 postings/day high to approximately 1 posting/day. It makes things more manageable allowing me to focus on other matters.

By the way, you may note that the ‘Donate’ button has disappeared from my sidebard. I thank everyone who donated from the bottom of my heart. The money was more than currency, it also symbolized encouragement. On the sad side, I moved from one hosting service to a new one (Sibername) late in December 2016 and have been experiencing serious bandwidth issues which result on FrogHeart’s disappearance from the web for days at a time. I am trying to resolve the issues and hope that such actions as removing the ‘Donate’ button will help.

I wish my readers all the best for 2018 as we explore nanotechnology and other emerging technologies!

(I apologize for any and all errors. I usually take a little more time to write this end-of-year and coming-year piece but due to bandwidth issues I was unable to access my draft and give it at least one review. And at this point, I’m too tired to try spotting error. If you see any, please do let me know.)

The Canadian science scene and the 2017 Canadian federal budget

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here are highlights from the 2017 federal budget:

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

You can find the entire 2017-18 budget here.

Science and the 2017-18 budget

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stem Cell Research

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

Space Exploration

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

Quantum Information

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

Social Innovation

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

International Research Collaborations

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

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

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

Canada a Pioneer in Deep Learning in Machines and Brains

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

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

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

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

Attracting brains from afar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thankfully, Bernstein calms down a bit,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Digital policy and intellectual property issues

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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