Tag Archives: Pasco Phronesis

CRISPR genome editing tools and human genetic engineering issues

This post is going to feature a human genetic engineering roundup of sorts.

First, the field of human genetic engineering encompasses more than the human genome as this paper (open access until June 5, 2015) notes in the context of a discussion about a specific CRISPR gene editing tool,

CRISPR-Cas9 Based Genome Engineering: Opportunities in Agri-Food-Nutrition and Healthcare by Rajendran Subin Raj Cheri Kunnumal, Yau Yuan-Yeu, Pandey Dinesh, and Kumar Anil. OMICS: A Journal of Integrative Biology. May 2015, 19(5): 261-275. doi:10.1089/omi.2015.0023 Published Online Ahead of Print: April 14, 2015

Here’s more about the paper from a May 7, 2015 Mary Ann Liebert publisher news release on EurekAlert,

Researchers have customized and refined a technique derived from the immune system of bacteria to develop the CRISPR-Cas9 genome engineering system, which enables targeted modifications to the genes of virtually any organism. The discovery and development of CRISPR-Cas9 technology, its wide range of potential applications in the agriculture/food industry and in modern medicine, and emerging regulatory issues are explored in a Review article published in OMICS: A Journal of Integrative Biology, …

“CRISPR-Cas9 Based Genome Engineering: Opportunities in Agri-Food-Nutrition and Healthcare” provides a detailed description of the CRISPR system and its applications in post-genomics biology. Subin Raj, Cheri Kunnumal Rajendran, Dinish Pandey, and Anil Kumar, G.B. Pant University of Agriculture and Technology (Uttarakhand, India) and Yuan-Yeu Yau, Northeastern State University (Broken Arrow, OK) describe the advantages of the RNA-guided Cas9 endonuclease-based technology, including the activity, specificity, and target range of the enzyme. The authors discuss the rapidly expanding uses of the CRISPR system in both basic biological research and product development, such as for crop improvement and the discovery of novel therapeutic agents. The regulatory implications of applying CRISPR-based genome editing to agricultural products is an evolving issue awaiting guidance by international regulatory agencies.

“CRISPR-Cas9 technology has triggered a revolution in genome engineering within living systems,” says OMICS Editor-in-Chief Vural Özdemir, MD, PhD, DABCP. “This article explains the varied applications and potentials of this technology from agriculture to nutrition to medicine.

Intellectual property (patents)

The CRISPR technology has spawned a number of intellectual property (patent) issues as a Dec. 21,2014 post by Glyn Moody on Techdirt stated,

Although not many outside the world of the biological sciences have heard of it yet, the CRISPR gene editing technique may turn out to be one of the most important discoveries of recent years — if patent battles don’t ruin it. Technology Review describes it as:

… an invention that may be the most important new genetic engineering technique since the beginning of the biotechnology age in the 1970s. The CRISPR system, dubbed a “search and replace function” for DNA, lets scientists easily disable genes or change their function by replacing DNA letters. During the last few months, scientists have shown that it’s possible to use CRISPR to rid mice of muscular dystrophy, cure them of a rare liver disease, make human cells immune to HIV, and genetically modify monkeys.

Unfortunately, rivalry between scientists claiming the credit for key parts of CRISPR threatens to spill over into patent litigation:

[A researcher at the MIT-Harvard Broad Institute, Feng] Zhang cofounded Editas Medicine, and this week the startup announced that it had licensed his patent from the Broad Institute. But Editas doesn’t have CRISPR sewn up. That’s because [Jennifer] Doudna, a structural biologist at the University of California, Berkeley, was a cofounder of Editas, too. And since Zhang’s patent came out, she’s broken off with the company, and her intellectual property — in the form of her own pending patent — has been licensed to Intellia, a competing startup unveiled only last month. Making matters still more complicated, [another CRISPR researcher, Emmanuelle] Charpentier sold her own rights in the same patent application to CRISPR Therapeutics.

Things are moving quickly on the patent front, not least because the Broad Institute paid extra to speed up its application, conscious of the high stakes at play here:

Along with the patent came more than 1,000 pages of documents. According to Zhang, Doudna’s predictions in her own earlier patent application that her discovery would work in humans was “mere conjecture” and that, instead, he was the first to show it, in a separate and “surprising” act of invention.

The patent documents have caused consternation. The scientific literature shows that several scientists managed to get CRISPR to work in human cells. In fact, its easy reproducibility in different organisms is the technology’s most exciting hallmark. That would suggest that, in patent terms, it was “obvious” that CRISPR would work in human cells, and that Zhang’s invention might not be worthy of its own patent.


Ethical and moral issues

The CRISPR technology has reignited a discussion about ethical and moral issues of human genetic engineering some of which is reviewed in an April 7, 2015 posting about a moratorium by Sheila Jasanoff, J. Benjamin Hurlbut and Krishanu Saha for the Guardian science blogs (Note: A link has been removed),

On April 3, 2015, a group of prominent biologists and ethicists writing in Science called for a moratorium on germline gene engineering; modifications to the human genome that will be passed on to future generations. The moratorium would apply to a technology called CRISPR/Cas9, which enables the removal of undesirable genes, insertion of desirable ones, and the broad recoding of nearly any DNA sequence.

Such modifications could affect every cell in an adult human being, including germ cells, and therefore be passed down through the generations. Many organisms across the range of biological complexity have already been edited in this way to generate designer bacteria, plants and primates. There is little reason to believe the same could not be done with human eggs, sperm and embryos. Now that the technology to engineer human germlines is here, the advocates for a moratorium declared, it is time to chart a prudent path forward. They recommend four actions: a hold on clinical applications; creation of expert forums; transparent research; and a globally representative group to recommend policy approaches.

The authors go on to review precedents and reasons for the moratorium while suggesting we need better ways for citizens to engage with and debate these issues,

An effective moratorium must be grounded in the principle that the power to modify the human genome demands serious engagement not only from scientists and ethicists but from all citizens. We need a more complex architecture for public deliberation, built on the recognition that we, as citizens, have a duty to participate in shaping our biotechnological futures, just as governments have a duty to empower us to participate in that process. Decisions such as whether or not to edit human genes should not be left to elite and invisible experts, whether in universities, ad hoc commissions, or parliamentary advisory committees. Nor should public deliberation be temporally limited by the span of a moratorium or narrowed to topics that experts deem reasonable to debate.

I recommend reading the post in its entirety as there are nuances that are best appreciated in the entirety of the piece.

Shortly after this essay was published, Chinese scientists announced they had genetically modified (nonviable) human embryos. From an April 22, 2015 article by David Cyranoski and Sara Reardon in Nature where the research and some of the ethical issues discussed,

In a world first, Chinese scientists have reported editing the genomes of human embryos. The results are published1 in the online journal Protein & Cell and confirm widespread rumours that such experiments had been conducted — rumours that sparked a high-profile debate last month2, 3 about the ethical implications of such work.

In the paper, researchers led by Junjiu Huang, a gene-function researcher at Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou, tried to head off such concerns by using ‘non-viable’ embryos, which cannot result in a live birth, that were obtained from local fertility clinics. The team attempted to modify the gene responsible for β-thalassaemia, a potentially fatal blood disorder, using a gene-editing technique known as CRISPR/Cas9. The researchers say that their results reveal serious obstacles to using the method in medical applications.

“I believe this is the first report of CRISPR/Cas9 applied to human pre-implantation embryos and as such the study is a landmark, as well as a cautionary tale,” says George Daley, a stem-cell biologist at Harvard Medical School in Boston, Massachusetts. “Their study should be a stern warning to any practitioner who thinks the technology is ready for testing to eradicate disease genes.”


Huang says that the paper was rejected by Nature and Science, in part because of ethical objections; both journals declined to comment on the claim. (Nature’s news team is editorially independent of its research editorial team.)

He adds that critics of the paper have noted that the low efficiencies and high number of off-target mutations could be specific to the abnormal embryos used in the study. Huang acknowledges the critique, but because there are no examples of gene editing in normal embryos he says that there is no way to know if the technique operates differently in them.

Still, he maintains that the embryos allow for a more meaningful model — and one closer to a normal human embryo — than an animal model or one using adult human cells. “We wanted to show our data to the world so people know what really happened with this model, rather than just talking about what would happen without data,” he says.

This, too, is a good and thoughtful read.

There was an official response in the US to the publication of this research, from an April 29, 2015 post by David Bruggeman on his Pasco Phronesis blog (Note: Links have been removed),

In light of Chinese researchers reporting their efforts to edit the genes of ‘non-viable’ human embryos, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Director Francis Collins issued a statement (H/T Carl Zimmer).

“NIH will not fund any use of gene-editing technologies in human embryos. The concept of altering the human germline in embryos for clinical purposes has been debated over many years from many different perspectives, and has been viewed almost universally as a line that should not be crossed. Advances in technology have given us an elegant new way of carrying out genome editing, but the strong arguments against engaging in this activity remain. These include the serious and unquantifiable safety issues, ethical issues presented by altering the germline in a way that affects the next generation without their consent, and a current lack of compelling medical applications justifying the use of CRISPR/Cas9 in embryos.” …

More than CRISPR

As well, following on the April 22, 2015 Nature article about the controversial research, the Guardian published an April 26, 2015 post by Filippa Lentzos, Koos van der Bruggen and Kathryn Nixdorff which makes the case that CRISPR techniques do not comprise the only worrisome genetic engineering technology,

The genome-editing technique CRISPR-Cas9 is the latest in a series of technologies to hit the headlines. This week Chinese scientists used the technology to genetically modify human embryos – the news coming less than a month after a prominent group of scientists had called for a moratorium on the technology. The use of ‘gene drives’ to alter the genetic composition of whole populations of insects and other life forms has also raised significant concern.

But the technology posing the greatest, most immediate threat to humanity comes from ‘gain-of-function’ (GOF) experiments. This technology adds new properties to biological agents such as viruses, allowing them to jump to new species or making them more transmissible. While these are not new concepts, there is grave concern about a subset of experiments on influenza and SARS viruses which could metamorphose them into pandemic pathogens with catastrophic potential.

In October 2014 the US government stepped in, imposing a federal funding pause on the most dangerous GOF experiments and announcing a year-long deliberative process. Yet, this process has not been without its teething-problems. Foremost is the de facto lack of transparency and open discussion. Genuine engagement is essential in the GOF debate where the stakes for public health and safety are unusually high, and the benefits seem marginal at best, or non-existent at worst. …

Particularly worrisome about the GOF process is that it is exceedingly US-centric and lacks engagement with the international community. Microbes know no borders. The rest of the world has a huge stake in the regulation and oversight of GOF experiments.

Canadian perspective?

I became somewhat curious about the Canadian perspective on all this genome engineering discussion and found a focus on agricultural issues in the single Canadian blog piece I found. It’s an April 30, 2015 posting by Lisa Willemse on Genome Alberta’s Livestock blog has a twist in the final paragraph,

The spectre of undesirable inherited traits as a result of DNA disruption via genome editing in human germline has placed the technique – and the ethical debate – on the front page of newspapers around the globe. Calls for a moratorium on further research until both the ethical implications can be worked out and the procedure better refined and understood, will undoubtedly temper research activities in many labs for months and years to come.

On the surface, it’s hard to see how any of this will advance similar research in livestock or crops – at least initially.

Groups already wary of so-called “frankenfoods” may step up efforts to prevent genome-edited food products from hitting supermarket shelves. In the EU, where a stringent ban on genetically-modified (GM) foods is already in place, there are concerns that genome-edited foods will be captured under this rubric, holding back many perceived benefits. This includes pork and beef from animals with disease resistance, lower methane emissions and improved feed-to-food ratios, milk from higher-yield or hornless cattle, as well as food and feed crops with better, higher quality yields or weed resistance.

Still, at the heart of the human germline editing is the notion of a permanent genetic change that can be passed on to offspring, leading to concerns of designer babies and other advantages afforded only to those who can pay. This is far less of a concern in genome-editing involving crops and livestock, where the overriding aim is to increase food supply for the world’s population at lower cost. Given this, and that research for human medical benefits has always relied on safety testing and data accumulation through experimentation in non-human animals, it’s more likely that any moratorium in human studies will place increased pressure to demonstrate long-term safety of such techniques on those who are conducting the work in other species.

Willemse’s last paragraph offers a strong contrast to the Guardian and Nature pieces.

Finally, there’s a May 8, 2015 posting (which seems to be an automat4d summary of an article in the New Scientist) on a blog maintained by the Canadian Raelian Movement. These are people who believe that alien scientists landed on earth and created all the forms of life on this planet. You can find  more on their About page. In case it needs to be said, I do not subscribe to this belief system but I do find it interesting in and of itself and because one of the few Canadian sites that I could find offering an opinion on the matter even if it is in the form of a borrowed piece from the New Scientist.

April 2015 (US) National Math festival; inside story on math tournaments; US tv programme: The Great Math Mystery; and the SET Award (tech women in the movies and on tv)

I have three math items for this posting and one women in technology item, here they are in an almost date order.


A British movie titled X+Y provides a fictionalized view of a team member on the British squad competing in an International Mathematics Olympiad.The Guardian’s science blog network hosted a March 11, 2015 review by Adam P. Goucher who also provides an insider’s view (Note: Links have been removed),

As a competition it is brutal and intense.

I speak from experience; I was in the UK team in 2011.

So it was with great expectation that I went to see X+Y, a star-studded British film about the travails of a British IMO hopeful who is struggling against the challenges of romance, Asperger’s and really tough maths.

Obviously, there were a few oversimplifications and departures from reality necessary for a coherent storyline. There were other problems too, but we’ll get to them later.

In order to get chosen for the UK IMO team, you must sit the first round test of the British Mathematical Olympiad (BMO1). About 1200 candidates take this test around the country.

I sat BMO1 on a cold December day at my sixth form, Netherthorpe School in Chesterfield. Apart from the invigilator and me, the room was completely empty, although the surroundings became irrelevant as soon as I was captivated by the problems. The test comprises six questions over the course of three and a half hours. As is the case with all Olympiad problems, there are often many distinct ways to solve them, and correct complete solutions are maximally rewarded irrespective of the elegance or complexity of the proof.

The highest twenty scorers are invited to another training camp at Trinity College, Cambridge, and the top six are selected to represent the UK at an annual competition in Romania.

In Romania, there was much maths, but we also enjoyed a snowball fight against the Italian delegation and sampled the delights of Romanian rum-endowed chocolate. Since I was teetotal at this point in time, the rum content was sufficient to alter my perception in such a way that I decided to attack a problem using Cartesian coordinates (considered by many to be barbaric and masochistic). Luckily my recklessness paid off, enabling me to scrape a much-coveted gold medal by the narrowest of margins.

The connection between the UK and Eastern Europe is rather complicated to explain, being intimately entangled with the history of the IMO. The inaugural Olympiad was held in Romania in 1959, with the competition being only open to countries under the Soviet bloc. A Hungarian mathematician, Béla Bollobás, competed in the first three Olympiads, seizing a perfect score on the third. After his PhD, Bollobás moved to Trinity College, Cambridge, to continue his research, where he fertilised Cambridge with his contributions in probabilistic and extremal combinatorics (becoming a Fellow of the Royal Society in the process). Consequently, there is a close relationship between Hungarian and Cantabrigian mathematics.

Rafe Spall’s character was very convincing, and his eccentricities injected some much-needed humour into the film. Similarly, Asa Butterfield’s portrayal of a “typical mathmo” was realistic. On the other hand, certain characters such as Richard (the team leader) were unnatural and exaggerated. In particular, I was disappointed that all of the competitors were portrayed as being borderline-autistic, when in reality there is a much more diverse mixture of individuals.

X+Y is also a love story, and one based on a true story covered in Morgan Matthews’ earlier work, the documentary Beautiful Young Minds. This followed the 2006 IMO, in China, where one of the members of the UK team fell in love and married the receptionist of the hotel the team were staying at. They have since separated, although his enamourment with China persisted – he switched from studying Mathematics to Chinese Studies.

It is common for relationships to develop during maths Olympiads. Indeed after a member of our team enjoyed a ménage-a-trois at an IMO in the 1980s, the committee increased the security and prohibited boys and girls from entering each others’ rooms.

The film was given a general release March 13, 2015 in the UK and is on the festival circuit elsewhere. Whether or not you can get to see the film, I recommend Goucher’s engaging review/memoir.

The Great Math Mystery and the SET award for the Portrayal of a Female in Technology

David Bruggeman in a March 13, 2015 post on his Pasco Phronesis blog describes the upcoming première of a maths installment in the NOVA series presented on the US PBS (Public Broadcasting Service), Note: Links have been removed,

… PBS has announced a new math special.  Mario Livio will host a NOVA special called The Great Math Mystery, premiering April 15.  Livio is an astrophysicist, science and math writer, and fan of science/culture mashups.  The mystery of the title is whether math(s) is invented or was discovered.

You can find out more about The Great Math Mystery here.

David also mentions this,

The Entertainment Industries Council is seeking votes for its first SET Award for Portrayal of a Female in Technology. … Voting on the award is via a Google form, so you will need a Google account to participate.  The nominees appear to be most of the women playing characters with technical jobs in television programs or recent films.  They are:

  • Annedroids on Amazon
  • Arrow: “Felicity Smoak” played by Emily Bett Rickards
  • Bones: “Angela Montenegro” played by Michaela Conlin

Here’s a video describing the competition and the competitors,

More details about the competition are available in David’s March 13, 2015 post or here or here. The deadline for voting is April 6, 2015. Here’s one more link, this one’s to the SET Awards website.

(US) National Math Festival

H/t to David Bruggeman again. This time it’s a Feb. 6, 2015 post on his Pasco Phronesis blog which announces (Note: Links have been removed),

On April 18 [2015], the Smithsonian Institution will host the first National Math Festival in Washington, D.C.  It will be the culmination of a weekend of events in the city to recognize outstanding math research, educators and books.

On April 16 there will be a morning breakfast briefing on Capitol Hill to discuss mathematics education.  It will be followed by a policy seminar in the Library of Congress and an evening gala to support basic research in mathematics and science.

You can find out more about the 2015 National Math Festival here (from the homepage),

On Saturday, April 18th, experience mathematics like never before, when the first-of-its-kind National Math Festival comes to Washington, D.C. As the country’s first national festival dedicated to discovering the delight and power of mathematics, this free and public celebration will feature dozens of activities for every age—from hands-on magic and Houdini-like getaways to lectures with some of the most influential mathematicians of our time.

The National Math Festival is organized by the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute (MSRI) and the Institute for Advanced Study (IAS) in cooperation with the Smithsonian Institution.

There you have it.

FrogHeart and 2014: acknowledging active colleagues and saying good-bye to defunct blogs and hello to the new

It’s been quite the year. In Feb. 2014, TED offered me free livestreaming of the event in Vancouver. In March/April 2014, Google tweaked its search function and sometime in September 2014 I decided to publish two pieces per day rather than three with the consequence that the visit numbers for this blog are lower than they might otherwise have been. More about statistics and traffic to this blog will be in the post I usually publish just the new year has started.

On other fronts, I taught two courses (Bioelectronics and Nanotechnology, the next big idea) this year for Simon Fraser University (Vancouver, Canada) in its Continuing Studies (aka Lifelong Learning) programmes. I also attended a World Congress on Alternatives to Animal Testing in the Life Sciences in Prague. The trip, sponsored by SEURAT-1 (Safety Evaluation Ultimately Replacing Animal Testing), will result in a total of five stories, the first having been recently (Dec. 26, 2014) published. I’m currently preparing a submission for the International Symposium on Electronic Arts being held in Vancouver in August 2015 based on a project I have embarked upon, ‘Steep’. Focused on gold nanoparticles, the project is Raewyn Turner‘s (an artist from New Zealand) brainchild. She has kindly opened up the project in such a way that I too can contribute. There are two other members of the Steep project, Brian Harris, an electrical designer, who works closely with Raewyn on a number of arts projects and there’s Mark Wiesner as our science consultant. Wiesner is a professor of civil and environmental engineering,at Duke University in North Carolina.

There is one other thing which you may have noticed, I placed a ‘Donate’ button on the blog early in 2014.

Acknowledgements, good-byes, and hellos

Dexter Johnson on his Nanoclast blog (on the IEEE [Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers] website) remains a constant in the nano sector of the blogosphere where he provides his incisive opinions and context for the nano scene.

David Bruggeman on his Pasco Phronesis blog offers valuable insight into the US science policy scene along with a lively calendar of art/science events and an accounting of the science and technology guests on late night US television.

Andrew Maynard archived his 2020 Science blog in July 2014 but he does continue writing and communication science as director of the University of Michigan Risk Science Center. Notably, Andrew continues to write, along with other contributors, on the Risk Without Borders blog at the University of Michigan.

Sadly, Cientifica, a emerging technologies business consultancy, where Tim Harper published a number of valuable white papers, reports, and blog postings is no longer with us. Happily, Tim continues with an eponymous website where he blogs and communicates about various business interests, “I’m currently involved in graphene, nanotechnology, construction, heating, and biosensing, working for a UK public company, as well as organisations ranging from MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology] to the World Economic Forum.” Glad to you’re back to blogging Tim. I missed your business savvy approach and occasional cheekiness!

I was delighted to learn of a new nano blog, NanoScéal, this year and relieved to see they’re hanging in. Their approach is curatorial where they present a week of selected nano stories. I don’t think a lot of people realize how much work a curatorial approach requires. Bravo!

Sir Martyn Poliakoff and the Periodic Table of Videos

Just as I was wondering what happened to the Periodic Table of Videos (my April 25, 2011 post offers a description of the project) Grrl Scientist on the Guardian science blog network offers information about one of the moving forces behind the project, Martyn Poliakoff in a Dec. 31, 2014 post,

This morning [Dec. 31, 2014], I was most pleased to learn that Martyn Poliakoff, professor of chemistry at the University of Nottingham, was awarded a bachelor knighthood by the Queen. So pleased was I that I struggled out of bed (badly wrecked back), my teeth gritted, so I could share this news with you.

Now Professor Poliakoff — who now is more properly known as Professor SIR Martyn Poliakoff — was awarded one of the highest civilian honours in the land, and his continued online presence has played a significant role in this.

“I think it may be the first time that YouTube has been mentioned when somebody has got a knighthood, and so I feel really quite proud about that. And I also really want to thank you YouTube viewers who have made this possible through your enthusiasm for chemistry.”

As for the Periodic Table of Videos, the series continues past the 118 elements currently identified to a include discussions on molecules.

Science Borealis, the Canadian science blog aggregator, which I helped to organize (albeit desultorily), celebrated its first full year of operation. Congratulations to all those who worked to make this project such a success that it welcomed its 100th blog earlier this year. From a Sept. 24, 2014 news item on Yahoo (Note: Links have been removed),

This week the Science Borealis team celebrated the addition of the 100th blog to its roster of Canadian science blog sites! As was recently noted in the Council of Canadian Academies report on Science Culture, science blogging in Canada is a rapidly growing means of science communication. Our digital milestone is one of many initiatives that are bringing to fruition the vision of a rich Canadian online science communication community.

The honour of being syndicated as the 100th blog goes to Spider Bytes, by Catherine Scott, an MSc [Master of Science] student at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, British Columbia. …

As always, it’s been a pleasure and privilege writing and publishing this blog. Thank you all for your support whether it comes in the form of reading it, commenting, tweeting,  subscribing, and/or deciding to publish your own blog. May you have a wonderful and rewarding 2015!

Update on proposal for a science watchdog in Canada and a change for the Chief Public Health Officer

“Round and round it goes, where it stops nobody knows.” I always think of roulette wheels when I hear that one but now I’m going to be thinking about the mysterious ways of the internet.

David Bruggeman in a Nov. 26, 2014 posting on his Pasco Phronesis blog writes about a bill before the Canadian Parliament to create a position for a Parliamentary Science Officer. Interestingly, he got the information from FrogHeart Daily. It’s a paper I created a few years ago and had forgotten until now. So, I guess thanks  to David and to me (?). In any event I had written about this proposed position (months after the fact) in July 30, 2014 post regarding science policy and advice in Canada and in New Zealand.

Getting back to David’s Nov. 26, 2014 posting (Note: A link has been removed),

The bill, introduced in December of last year [2013], would establish a Parliamentary Science Officer.  As outlined in the bill, the position would be an independent officer of Parliament, meaning the person would be appointed with the approval of Parliament, and serve a term of seven years.  The position would appear to be on par with the Information Commissioner of Canada and other appointed positions.  (MP [Kennedy] Stewart [NDP] has referred to the Parliamentary Budget Officer, likely because that position is more advisory than the Information Commissioner.)

Here’s Kennedy Stewart’s Nov. 21, 2013 news release regarding his proposed Parliamentary Science Officer bill,

Bill C-558: Parliamentary Science Officer

“This bill represents the strongest effort yet to protect the pursuit and use of scientific research in the federal government. It goes beyond what we had in the past and charts a bold vision for where we need to go,” said MP Kennedy Stewart (Burnaby-Douglas), an Associate Professor on leave from Simon Fraser University’s School of Public Policy. “After years of muzzling, mismanagement, and misuse of science by the Conservative government, this new office will promote real transparency and ensure decisions made in Ottawa are based on the best available scientific evidence.”

Modeled on the current Parliamentary Budget Officer, the UK’s Parliamentary Office of Science & Technology, and the White House Office of Science & Technology Policy, the Parliamentary Science Officer would be established as an independent agent of Parliament. It would have a legislated mandate to:

Assess the state of scientific evidence relevant to any proposal or bill before Parliament;
Answer requests from Committees and individual Members for unbiased scientific information;

Conduct independent analysis of federal science and technology policy;
Raise awareness of scientific issues across government and among Canadians;
Encourage coordination between departments and agencies conducting scientific research.

“Beginning with the closure of the National Science Advisor to the Prime Minister, the Conservatives have used every tool at their disposal to prevent, limit, and restrict Canadian scientists from sharing their research with policy-makers and the public,” said MP Laurin Liu (Rivière-des-Mille-Îles), Deputy Critic for Science and Technology. “Being independent from the government and responsible for serving the needs of the legislature, a Parliamentary Science Officer would revitalize scientific integrity in Ottawa.”

I’m not sure chiding the Conservative government is necessarily the best way to go about establishing this new position and, as noted in the 2013 news release and elsewhere, this government axed the National Science Advisor position when they first came to power with a minority in the House of Commons. At this juncture, it seems unlikely that the government which has a healthy majority in the House of Commons will vote to create a Parliamentary Science Officer position.

Nonetheless, Kennedy Stewart has issued a Nov. 26, 2014 news release about Bill C-558,

Important members of the scientific community are endorsing the NDP’s proposal to create an independent science watchdog with responsibility to curb the muzzling of public scientists and provide Parliament with sound information and expert advice on scientific issues.

“Science in Canada is at a crossroads. After years of government scientists being muzzled by the Conservatives, this new office will promote real transparency and ensure decisions made in Ottawa are based on the best available scientific evidence,” said NDP Science & Technology Critic Kennedy Stewart (Burnaby-Douglas).

The Parliamentary Science Officer Act, Bill C-558, introduced by Dr. Stewart will be a first practical step to mend the relationship between scientists and politicians, and will give public science a more robust voice in the federal government.

“For too long we have heard that scientific evidence is ignored by policy-makers and that federal scientists are being unduly prevented from sharing their research with Canadians. I’m proud that the scientific community is rallying behind the NDP’s proposal for a Parliamentary Science Officer,” said Dr. Stewart, an Associate Professor on-leave from Simon Fraser University’s School of Public Policy.

Endorsement Quotes

“Public interest science and smart government decision-making are essential for keeping Canadians safe, healthy and prosperous. Yet there is growing concerns that the role of science and evidence in informing smart policy decisions is being eroded. Creating a Parliamentary Science Officer to be a dedicated office that provides non-partisan, independent, objective, and readily available analysis of the science relevant for public policy issues would be a huge step in the right direction. It’s time for Canada to create a Parliamentary Science Officer to give science a stronger voice in the federal government.”

– Katie Gibbs, Executive Director, Evidence for Democracy

“Canadians and their elected representatives need unbiased and non-partisan advice on science policy. The Office of the National Science Advisor had been designed to fill this role, however imperfectly, until it was eliminated in 2008 by the Conservative government. One potential new approach would be to create a Parliamentary Science Officer that provides independent advice and analysis to Parliament about the adequacy and effectiveness of the nation’s scientific policies, priorities, and funding. Bill C-558 would bring evidence back to Parliament.”

– Sylvain Schetagne, Associate Executive Director, Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT)

“Federal scientists and researchers who inspect the food we eat, monitor our environment, approve our medications, and contribute to Canada’s innovative capacity have repeatedly and increasingly expressed concern with the direction of science in Canada in recent years. Restrictive communication policies, cuts to science programs and personnel, political interference in research, and the misuse of evidence are systematically dismantling Canada’s scientific capacity and placing the health and safety of Canadians at risk. The Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada (PIPSC), which represents over 15,000 federal scientists and researchers, endorses Bill C-558 to establish a Parliamentary Science Officer. The need for unbiased and independent advice on science policy is essential in order to protect the health and safety of Canadians and the environment.”

–  Debi Daviau, President, Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada (PIPSC)

“Parliament routinely makes decisions with mighty consequences for millions of Canadians.  For MPs to cast informed votes, and make smart spending and legislative judgements they need to have a dependable, independent sounding board.  The breadth of scientific research methodologies and sheer volume of accumulated knowledge about social, health, and physical sciences alone would be daunting even if food, drug, alcohol, and other vested interests weren’t also trying to bend the ears and steer the actions of MPs.  I urge all MPs to support the speedy passage of Bill C-558 – The Parliamentary Science Officer Act – in the short time remaining in the current session of Parliament.”

– Bill Jeffery, National Coordinator, Centre for Science in the Public Interest

“The state of Canada’s finances is important — but so is the state of Canada’s public interest science. Perhaps the time has come to create a well-resourced Parliamentary Science Officer (PSO), charged with providing independent analysis to Parliament on the state of Canada’s public interest science. Such an office would also provide an objective analysis of the current state of scientific understanding on a range of policy and legislative issues and, perhaps most importantly, synthesize and evaluate the scientific evidence relevant to policy or management alternatives. This oversight function would serve to expose instances where scientific evidence has been misrepresented or ignored, and highlight where there is simply little scientific evidence on which to draw. Does Canada need such an institution? Yes, desperately.”

– Paul Dufour, former Executive Director of the Office of the National Science Advisor; Fellow and Adjunct Professor with the Institute for Science, Society and Policy at the University of Ottawa.

While many sectors of the Canadian scientific community are distressed at the government’s approach to science, in particular, environmental science, there are some sectors that are content. I’d suggest the Canadian physics community, for one,  is quite happy.

Finally getting to the the second item noted in the headline, David Bruggeman’s Nov. 28, 2014 post concerns a change for a parliamentary officer position already in place, the Chief Public Health Officer (CPHO), Note: Links have been removed,

This commentary in The Toronto Star notes a plan by the Canadian government to change the status of the country’s Chief Public Health Officer (CPHO).  Part of the current omnibus budget legislation before the Canadian Parliament, the Officer would no longer be the chief executive of the Public Health Agency (PHA), but simply an officer.  A President would be appointed to run the PHA.  Presumably this would mean that the President would become the public health face of the agency and the government, with the CPHO holding a strictly advisory role.

A Nov. 12, 2014 article by Kelly Grant in the Globe and Mail describes the proposed new roles for the CPHO and the PHA president,

The proposed changes, which are tucked into Ottawa’s most recent omnibus budget bill, would make the top doctor an “officer” who would keep providing scientific advice to the health minister but who would no longer be deputy head of the agency.

That role would now be carried out by a president, a new post that Prime Minister Stephen Harper has already recommended be filled by Krista Outhwaite, the civil servant who led the agency while the government left the chief public health officer job vacant for 16 months.

Health Minister Rona Ambrose says the idea for the new structure came from the agency itself and that it “makes a lot of common sense” to permanently relieve the busy top doctor, Gregory Taylor, of the burden of overseeing 2,500 employees and a $615-million budget.

The change would leave him to concentrate on the rest of the job’s original mandate, namely providing public-health advice to the government, delivering health messages to Canadians and co-ordinating with provinces and international health bodies, as he has done recently in preparing the country for potential cases of Ebola.

“He will focus primarily on communicating and engaging in public-health issues,” Ms. Ambrose said.

Interestingly, Dr. Taylor, the current CPHO incumbent, did not offer any quotes for this article and was not able to be interviewed on the matter although he does seem amenable to this new structure. It would appear the change has already occurred in practice; the proposed legislation will merely legitimize it (from Grant’s article),

He [Taylor] became the acting chief public health officer after David Butler-Jones, the first person to hold the job, suffered a stroke in May, 2012 and formally stepped down in June of 2013. Ms. Outhwaite, who is not a medical doctor, was temporarily made deputy head of the agency in May 2012, a post she has held since.

Dr. Taylor, meanwhile, was officially elevated to the role of chief public health officer on Sept. 24 [2014]. Under the existing legislation, that job is still designated as the agency deputy head. In an interview with The Globe and Mail that day [Sept. 24, 2014], he said the stopgap approach of running the agency in co-operation with Ms. Outhwaite had been working very well.

According to Grant’s article, Taylor has acquitted himself well as a national spokesperson on public health issues concerning Canadians. However, this is a rather disturbing omission with regard to Ebola and the processing of visa applications from three countries hard hit by the disease in West Africa,

… Since his [Dr. Gregory Taylor’s] appointment, he has appeared alongside Ms. Ambrose [Health Minister Rona Ambrose] at several news conferences on Ebola, taking questions and offering calm and common-sense advice about the virus.

The exception to that has been the government’s controversial decision to stop processing visa applications from the three West African countries hardest hit by Ebola, a move that the World Health Organization says is not supported by the science and runs afoul of International Health Regulations.

Dr. Taylor has not spoken publicly on the matter and the Public Health Agency of Canada has referred all questions about the policy to Citizenship and Immigration Canada, which oversees visa rules.

Questions as to whether Dr. Taylor had privately provided advice to the government on this matter were left unanswered.

It seems odd that Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer has no comment about visa applications from three West African countries not being processed due to the Ebola outbreak when this decision is contrary to scientific evidence and international regulations. What is a CPHO for if not to offer advice and commentary based on scientific evidence?

Older, Tom McFadden, and a chance to crowdsource a science rap video

My source for almost all things science and music (and, often, pop culture), David Bruggeman announced this in a May 29, 2014 post on his Pasco Phronesis blog (Note: A link has been removed),

Tom [McFadden] would like your help, because he wants to remake the video with contributions from the ‘crowd.’  Between now and June 30 [2014], you can submit a visual for a minimum of one line of the song.

I’ll describe more about McFadden’s work in a moment but first, here’s the video of his ‘Older’ science rap,

Here’s a little more information about this latest McFadden project, from a May 27, 2014 post on his Science with Tom [McFadden] blog,

Introducing “Older”, a parody of Drake’s “Over”, about science as a process rather than as a body of facts.

If you are a science student of any age, a teacher, a scientist, or a science lover, I want you to submit your visuals for some part of this video. (And if you’re a science teacher, this is a fun end of the year activity for your students).

Please share the song/competition with anyone who may be interested, and tweet about it using #ScienceFolder.

The contest deadline is June 30, 2014. The Grand Prize is a performance of a full science rap show by Tom McFadden. I’m unclear as to whether or not he will travel outside the US, regardless, it looks like a fun project. From McFadden’s May 27, 2014 post,

VISUALS: You have lots of creative freedom here. Your visuals can be drawings, animations, stop-motion, shots of you rapping with props, or anything you can dream up. If you’re short on time, you can even just submit a photo of you with your science folder or lab notebook.

LENGTH OF SUBMISSION: If you want to be considered for the grand prize, you need to submit at least one line of the song (for example, you could choose “Teacher talking. Tympanic membrane swayin’” and come up with a visual for that line). You are welcome to submit visuals for multiple lines, for a full verse, a chorus, or for the whole song. If you are working as a class, you can have different students in charge of different lines.

There’ are additional details in the post.

I have more information about McFadden in a March 28, 2013 posting in the context of his Brahe’s Battles Kickstarter project,

I can’t resist the science rap stories David Bruggeman has been highlighting on his Pascro Phronesis blog. In his Mar. 26, 2013 posting, David provides some scoop about Tom McFadden’s Kickstarter project, Battle Rap Histories of Epic Science (Brahe’s Battles),

After Fulbright work in New Zealand and similar efforts in other countries, McFadden is back in the San Francisco area helping middle school students develop raps for science debates.  The project is called “Battle Rap Histories of Epic Science” (BRAHE’S Battles) and if fully funded, it would support video production for battle raps on various scientific debates in five schools.

This was a successful Kickstarter project as noted in my Aug. 19, 2013 post,

Now on to Tom McFadden and his successful crowdfunding campaign Battle Rap Histories of Epic Science (Brahe’s Battles); which was featured  in my Mar. 28, 2013 posting. Now, David Bruggeman provides an update in his Aug. 16, 2013 posting on the Pasco Phronesis blog,

Tom McFadden’s Brahe’s B.A.T.T.L.E.S. project has dropped two nuggets of video goodness of late, one of which is racing through the interwebs.  A conceptual cousin of the New York City-based Science Genius project, McFadden’s project centers around scientific matters of debate, if not controversy. First one out of the chute involves the matter of Rosalind Franklin and her under-credited role in developing the model of DNA.

I really meant it when I said David Bruggeman is my source.

Good luck to all the contest entrants!


Gray Matters: Integrative Approaches for Neuroscience, Ethics, and Society issued May 2014 by US Presidential Bioethics Commission (part three of five)

The Brain research, ethics, and nanotechnology (part one of five) May 19, 2014 post kicked off a series titled ‘Brains, prostheses, nanotechnology, and human enhancement’ which brings together a number of developments in the worlds of neuroscience, prosthetics, and, incidentally, nanotechnology in the field of interest called human enhancement. Parts one through four are an attempt to draw together a number of new developments, mostly in the US and in Europe. Due to my language skills which extend to English and, more tenuously, French, I can’t provide a more ‘global perspective’. Part five features a summary.

A May 14, 2014 news release on EurekAlert announced the release of volume 1 (in a projected 2-volume series) from the US Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues in response to a request from President Barack Obama regarding the BRAIN (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies) initiative,

Bioethics commission plays early role in BRAIN Initiative
Calls for integrating ethics explicitly throughout neuroscience research ‘Everyone benefits when the emphasis is on integration, not intervention’

Washington, DC— Calling for the integration of ethics across the life of neuroscientific research endeavors, the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues (Bioethics Commission) released volume one of its two-part response to President Obama’s request related to the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative. The report, Gray Matters: Integrative Approaches for Neuroscience, Ethics, and Society, includes four recommendations for institutions and individuals engaged in neuroscience research including government agencies and other funders.

You can find volume one: Gray Matters: Integrative Approaches for Neuroscience, Ethics, and Society here. For those who prefer the short story, here’s more from the news release,

“Neurological conditions—which include addiction, chronic pain, dementia, depression, epilepsy, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, schizophrenia, stroke, and traumatic brain injury, among other conditions—affect more than one billion people globally. Neuroscience has begun to make important breakthroughs, but given the complexity of the brain, we must better understand it in order to make desired progress,” said Amy Gutmann, Ph.D., Bioethics Commission Chair. “But because research on our brains strikes at the very core of who we are, the ethical stakes of neuroscience research could not be higher. Ethicists and scientists should be together at the table in the earliest stages of research planning fostering a fluent two-way conversation. Too often in our nation’s past, ethical lapses in research have had tragic consequences and derailed scientific progress.”

President Obama asked the Bioethics Commission to play a critical role in ensuring that neuroscientific investigational methods and protocols are consistent with sound ethical principles and practices. Specifically the President asked the Bioethics Commission to “identify proactively a set of core ethical standards – both to guide neuroscience research and to address some of the ethical dilemmas that may be raised by the application of neuroscience research findings.”

“Our rapidly advancing knowledge of the nervous system – and ability to detect disease sometimes even before symptoms begin – has not yet led to much needed breakthroughs in treatment, repair, and prevention; the BRAIN initiative will hopefully accelerate the trajectory of discoveries against terrible neurologic maladies,” Commission Member and neuroimmunologist Stephen Hauser, M.D., said.

In its report the Bioethics Commission noted that when facing the promise of neuroscience, we are compelled to consider carefully scientific advances that have the potential to alter our conception of the very private and autonomous nature of self. Our understanding of the mind, our private thoughts, and our volition necessitates careful reflection about the scientific, societal, and ethical aspects of neuroscience endeavors. Integrating ethics explicitly and systematically into the relatively new field of contemporary neuroscience allows us to incorporate ethical insights into the scientific process and to consider societal implications of neuroscience research from the start. Early ethics integration can prevent the need for corrective interventions resulting from ethical mishaps that erode public trust in science.

“In short, everyone benefits when the emphasis is on integration, not intervention,” Gutmann said. “Ethics in science must not come to the fore for the first time after something has gone wrong. An essential step is to include expert ethicists in the BRAIN Initiative advisory and review bodies.”


In its report the Bioethics Commission noted that although ethics is already integrated into science in various ways, more explicit and systematic integration serves to elucidate implicit ethical judgments and allows their merits to be assessed more thoughtfully. The Commission offered four recommendations.

  1. Integrate ethics early and explicitly throughout research: Institutions and individuals engaged in neuroscience research should integrate ethics across the life of a research endeavor, identifying the key ethical questions associated with their research and taking immediate steps to make explicit their systems for addressing those questions. Sufficient resources should be dedicated to support ethics integration. Approaches to ethics integration discussed by the Bioethics Commission include:a. Implementing ethics education at all levels
    b. Developing institutional infrastructure to facilitate integration
    c. Researching the ethical, legal, and social implications of scientific research
    d. Providing research ethics consultation services
    e. Engaging with stakeholders
    f. Including an ethics perspective on the research team
  2. Evaluate existing and innovative approaches to ethics integration: Government agencies and other research funders should initiate and support research that evaluates existing as well as innovative approaches to ethics integration. Institutions and individuals engaged in neuroscience research should take into account the best available evidence for what works when implementing, modifying, or improving systems for ethics integration.
  3. Integrate ethics and science through education at all levels: Government agencies and other research funders should initiate and support research that develops innovative models and evaluates existing and new models for integrating ethics and science through education at all levels.
  4. Explicitly include ethical perspectives on advisory and review bodies: BRAIN Initiative-related scientific advisory and funding review bodies should include substantive participation by persons with relevant expertise in the ethical and societal implications of the neuroscience research under consideration.

Next the Bioethics Commission will consider the ethical and societal implications of neuroscience research and its applications more broadly – ethical implications that a strongly integrated research and ethics infrastructure will be well equipped to address, and that myriad stakeholders, including scientists, ethicists, educators, public and private funders, advocacy organizations, and the public should be prepared to handle.

Gray Matters: Integrative Approaches for Neuroscience, Ethics, and Society is the Bioethics Commission’s seventh report. The Commission seeks to identify and promote policies and practices that ensure that scientific research, health care delivery, and technological innovation are conducted by the United States in a socially and ethically responsible manner. The Commission is an independent, deliberative panel of thoughtful experts that advises the President and the Administration, and, in so doing, educates the nation on bioethical issues. To date the Commission has:

  • Advised the White House on the benefits and risks of synthetic biology;
  • Completed an independent historical overview and ethical analysis of the U.S. Public Health Service STD experiments in Guatemala in the 1940s;
  • Assessed the rules that currently protect human participants in research;
  • Examined the pressing privacy concerns raised by the emergence and increasing use of whole genome sequencing;
  • Conducted a thorough review of the ethical considerations of conducting clinical trials of medical countermeasures with children, including the ethical considerations involved in conducting a pre-and post-event study of anthrax vaccine adsorbed for post-exposure prophylaxis with children; and
  • Offered ethical analysis and recommendations for clinicians, researchers, and direct-to-consumer testing companies on how to manage the increasingly common issue of incidental and secondary findings.

David Bruggeman offers a few thoughts on this volume of the series in a May 14, 2014 posting on his Pasco Phronesis blog,

Of specific application to the BRAIN Initiative is the need to include professionals with expertise in ethics in advisory boards and similar entities conducting research in this area.

Volume Two will focus more on the social and ethical implications of neuroscience research,  …

While it’s not mentioned in the news release, human enhancement is part of the discussion as per the hearing in February 2014. Perhaps it will be mentioned in volume two? Here’s an early post (July 27, 2009) I wrote in 2009 on human enhancement which provides some information about a then recent European Parliament report on the subject. The post was part of a series.

Links to other posts in the Brains, prostheses, nanotechnology, and human enhancement five-part series

Part one: Brain research, ethics, and nanotechnology (May 19, 2014 post)

Part two: BRAIN and ethics in the US with some Canucks (not the hockey team) participating (May 19, 2014)

Part four: Brazil, the 2014 World Cup kickoff, and a mind-controlled exoskeleton (May 20, 2014)

Part five: Brains, prostheses, nanotechnology, and human enhancement: summary (May 20, 2014)

2013: review and plans for 2014 vis à vis FrogHeart

There’ve been some ups and downs in terms of the FrogHeart”s statistics but nothing like 2012 when I thought, for several months, this blog might be dying. Before getting to the numbers, I’ll focus on some of the topics that caught my readers’ interest as per the information I get from the AW stats package.

Top keyterm searches

The Clipperton Island art/science story continued to dominate interest through the year. It popped up in my top ten keyterm searches for January- August to disappear September  – November and reappear in December. (original Clipperton posting, March 2, 2012)

Nanocrystalline cellulose (NCC; it is also known as CNC or cellulose nanocrystals and I believe this will sooon be considered the correct name for this material)), which was for many years a top draw here, faltered and appeared only in January, June – August, and November in my top 10 keyterm searches. (I have many posting on this topic with the most recent being this Dec. 17, 2013 posting on the CNC’s fundamental mechanical behaviour.)

The Urbee was attractive enough to have made the list for January – August, and, again, in November. (I have this August 28, 2012 posting as the most recent about the Urbee car being developed in Winnipeg, Manitoba.)

The Lycurgus Cup appeared on the list for February, June – August, and November. (I do write about this extraordinary piece of glass and gold work from Ancient Rome from time to time. The most recent piece was this Nov. 22, 2013 posting about how Australian researchers were inspired by the cup.)

The memristor (one of my favourite topics) was one of the two 25 keyterm search terms for April, June, and July. (Here’s the most recent memristor story which I featured in a June 14, 2013 posting, which highlights some research being done in India.)

Pousse Café (I’m starting to suspect this might be due to porn searches) was on the list from June – November. (In context of an April 26, 2013 posting about nanowires and some unusual layering properties I mentioned a cocktail, a pousse-café, which has attracted more attention that I would have expected had I considered the possibility.)

Two people made their way into the list of top 35 keyterm searches for more than one month:

Bertolt Meyer for February – April (This Jan. 30, 2013 posting about robots, androids, etc. also mentioned Bertolt Meyer, a Swiss scientist and an individual who has integrated some sophisticated prosthetics into his body.)

Nils Petersen for June, August,, and September (At one point, Petersen led Canada’s National Institute of Nanotechnology and, unfortunately, I never did receive a reply to any of my requests for an interview. I’m not sure what has occasioned the interest now that he has left his position in 2012, I believe. The most recent posting here, which features Petersen’s name is this March 11, 2013 posting about a nanotechnology public engagement project in Edmonton, Alberta.)

Countries new to my list of top 25 sources of traffic

Quatar (March)

Seychelles ((October)

Guatemala (April)

Venezuela (June)

Moldova (November)

Macedonia (November)

There is one omission that puzzles and that’s South Africa. I know they have a nanotechnology community and they are the S in the BRICS with Brazil, Russia, India, and China all being represented on my list of top 25 countries for traffic.


Sue Thomas (The UK’s Futurefest and an interview with Sue Thomas (The UK’s Futurefest and an interview with Sue Thomas in a September 20, 2013 posting,.)

Kate Pullinger ([The Picture of] Dorian Gray opera premiered as part of World New Music Days festival held in Slovakia & Austria: *Kate Pullinger interview in a December 18, 2013 posting.)

Baba Brinkman (Interview with Baba Brinkman on the occasion of his Rap Guide to Evolution performance in Vancouver, November 2013 edition in a November 1, 2013 posting.)

Carla Alvial Palavicino (Graphene hype; the emerging story in an interview with Carla Alvial Palavicino (University of Twente, Netherlands) in a December 24, 2012 posting)

Top five sources for traffic (countries)



Great Britain



Statistics (AW stats)

Month with the top number for for visits: December 2013 with 131,422

Month with the lowest number for visits: July 2013 with 79,168

Month with the highest number of unique visitors: December 2013 with 32,739

Month with the lowest number of unique visitors: July 2013 with 21, 977

Annual totals:

Unique visitors: 310,390 Visits: 1,149,456 Pages: 5,653,192 Hits: 7,553,481

*Completed and updated on Jan. 2, 2014.

Statistics (Webalizer)

Month with the top number for visits: December 2013 with 235,137

Month with the lowest number for visits: February 2013 with 119.973

Annual totals:

Visits: 1,784,637 Pages: 10,140,239 Files: 1,193,817 Hits: 18,805,248

*Completed and updated on Jan. 2, 2014.

Big thank yous

First and foremost thank you to the folks who read this blog. It’s what keep my going.

Thank you to everyone who took the time to contact me about the blog either by leaving a comment here or sending me an email.

I also want to acknowledge both David Bruggeman (Pasco Phronesis blog) and Dexter Johnson (Nanoclast blog on the IEEE [Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers’ website). You have both inspired my efforts.

2014 plans for FrogHeart

I want to keep blogging and writing about the things that matter to me. I also want to look at ways to monetize the blog as I need some support to keep this going. The consequence of all this is that you will be seeing some changes here. e.g. I’ve either already posted a Donate button or will be shortly and I anticipate there will be more changes ahead.

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

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

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

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

A wise next step: get rid of Gary Goodyear.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* A minor typo was corrected, laywer to lawyer.

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

*** An embarrassing mistake was corrected, Gary Rickford to Greg Rickford on Feb. 2, 2015.

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

Science rap: a Kickstarter project and a PBS (US Public Broadcasting Service) News Hour contest

I can’t resist the science rap stories David Bruggeman has been highlighting on his Pascro Phronesis blog. In his Mar. 26, 2013 posting, David provides some scoop about Tom McFadden’s Kickstarter project, Battle Rap Histories of Epic Science (Brahe’s Battles),

After Fulbright work in New Zealand and similar efforts in other countries, McFadden is back in the San Francisco area helping middle school students develop raps for science debates.  The project is called “Battle Rap Histories of Epic Science” (BRAHE’S Battles) and if fully funded, it would support video production for battle raps on various scientific debates in five schools.

McFadden was mentioned here previously in my Nov. 30, 2012 posting which in the context of a digital storytelling webcast (scroll down 1/2 way),

… a Fulbrighter and former Stanford University biology course instructor who became a Science Rapper.  Tom emerged from the California BioPop scene with hit singles such as, “Regulatin’ Genes” and “Oxidate it or Love it,” …

Here’s McFadden’s Kickstarter promotional video (I almost embedded another video here but the Rosalind Franklin reference in first rap won me over unequivocally),

McFadden needs approximately $11,900 total to reach his goal. There are 19 days left for the campaign and $4,783 has been raised. This looks like a great project especially given McFadden’s track record. For the curious, here are some of the incentives being offered,

Pledge $10 or more

MP3 DIGITAL DOWNLOAD. Get an audio download of the “Brahe’s Battle” song of your choice when audio production is completed.

Estimated delivery: May 2013

Pledge $35 or more

THE RYMEBOSOME MIXTAPE: Get a digital download of the “Rhymebosome mixtape”. This includes all 5 mp3s from the Brahe’s Battles project, and almost every science song Tom McFadden has ever created (including hits like “Fossil Rock Anthem”, “Regulatin’ Genes”).

Estimated delivery: May 2013

Pledge $150 or more

YOUR NAME “BEASTIE RAPPED”: Have your name (or the name of your choice) “beastie rapped” by the stars of ‘Brahe’s Battles. (This is rhyming game I play with all the kids where we finish each others rhymes. It was shown briefly in the intro video rhyming with the name “Crick”). We will email you the video as a keepsake! (Includes $50 reward)

Estimated delivery: June 2013

There are lots of choices left including an option for a 20 min. Google hang out with Tom McFadden, an option to commission a song on a topic of your choosing (audio only), or you can choose a Platinum package for $1500 which provides most of these options. If you want to check out McFadden further, there’s his own website, The Rhymebosome.

As for the second project (science rap contest), David sets the stage by noting some history, from his Mar. 27, 2013 posting,

While East Coast and West Coast rappers (in)famously had beef back in the 90s, East Coast and West Coast science rappers have nothing but love.

He then proceeds to detail a science rap project which has its roots on the US East Coast (Note: Links have been removed),

 Chris Emdin, you may recall, is the education professor at Teacher’s College at Columbia working with GZA on Science Genius, a rap education project formatted roughly similar to what Tom McFadden is working on in the Bay Area.

Science Genius, Emdin and GZA were featured in tonight’s edition of PBS Newshour.  GZA even drops a little taste of his upcoming science-influenced album.

David features a video of the PBS segment and more information about the project in his posting. You can also visit the PBS News Hour website here for details about the contest,

Create Your Own Science Rap

Enter your own science rap or hip-hop verse for a chance to win a PBS NewsHour mug signed by GZA of the Wu-Tang Clan along with a personal video shout-out from the rap legend himself. Our contest is modeled after the Science Genius competition, a partnership between GZA, Christopher Emdin and Rap Genius. Entries will be judged by Emdin and two of his Columbia University Teachers College graduate students.

Here are the competition guidelines,

Competition guidelines:

  • Entries must incorporate at least one scientific topic/concept into 16 bars of verse. (16 bars is the length of a traditional verse, and a bar is made up of beats of four.)
  • The main topic/concept of the rap must be referenced in different ways at least three times in the verse.
  • Be creative in your expression of the science (E.g.: envision yourself either as somebody involved in the scientific process or an object undergoing the scientific process. Draw connections between your real world experiences and the concepts themselves.)
  • Information must be scientifically accurate and verifiable.
  • Lyrics must rhyme, and incorporate metaphor/analogy
  • Entries are due by Friday, May 3. [emphasis mine]

There’s more information either in David’s posting or on the PBS News Hour website.

Good luck to McFadden and to the science rap competitors in the PBS News Hour contest.

FrogHeart’s 2012, a selective roundup of my international online colleagues, and other bits

This blog will be five years old in April 2013 and, sometime in January or February, the 2000th post will be published.

Statisticswise it’s been a tumultuous year for FrogHeart with ups and downs,  thankfully ending on an up note. According to my AW stats, I started with 54,920 visits in January (which was a bit of an increase over December 2011. The numbers rose right through to March 2012 when the blog registered 68,360 visits and then the numbers fell and continued to fall. At the low point, this blog registered 45, 972 visits in June 2012 and managed to rise and fall through to Oct. 2012 when the visits rose to 54,520 visits. November 2012 was better with 66,854 visits and in December 2012 the blog will have received over 75,000 visits. (ETA Ja.2.13: This blog registered 81,0036 in December 2012 and an annual total of 681,055 visits.) Since I have no idea why the numbers fell or why they rose again, I have absolutely no idea what 2013 will bring in terms of statistics (the webalizer numbers reflect similar trends).

Interestingly and for the first time since I’ve activated the AW statistics package in Feb. 2009, the US ceased to be the primary source for visitors. As of April 2012, the British surged ahead for several months until November 2012 when the US regained the top spot only to lose it to China in December 2012.

Favourite topics according to the top 10 key terms included: nanocrystalline cellulose for Jan. – Oct. 2012 when for the first time in almost three years the topic fell out of the top 10; Jackson Pollock and physics also popped up in the top 10 in various months throughout the year; Clipperton Island (a sci/art project) has made intermittent appearances; SPAUN (Semantic Pointer Arichitecture Unified Network; a project at the University of Waterloo) has made the top 10 in the two months since it was announced); weirdly, frogheart.ca has appeared in the top 10 these last few months; the Lycurgus Cup, nanosilver, and literary tattoos also made appearances in the top 10 in various months throughout the year, while the memristor and Québec nanotechnology made appearances in the fall.

Webalizer tells a similar but not identical story. The numbers started with 83, 133 visits in January 2012 rising to a dizzying height of 119, 217 in March.  These statistics fell too but July 2012 was another six figure month with 101,087 visits and then down again to five figures until Oct. 2012 with 108, 266 and 136,161 visits in November 2012. The December 2012 visits number appear to be dipping down slightly with 130,198 visits counted to 5:10 am PST, Dec. 31, 2012. (ETA Ja.2.13: In December 2012, 133,351 were tallied with an annual total of 1,660,771 visits.)

Thanks to my international colleagues who inspire and keep me apprised of the latest information on nanotechnology and other emerging technologies:

  • Pasco Phronesis, owned by David Bruggeman, focuses more on science policy and science communicati0n (via popular media) than on emerging technology per se but David provides excellent analysis and a keen eye for the international scene. He kindly dropped by frogheart.ca  some months ago to challenge my take on science and censorship in Canada and I have not finished my response. I’ve posted part 1 in the comments but have yet to get to part 2. His latest posting on Dec. 30, 2012 features this title, For Better Science And Technology Policing, Don’t Forget The Archiving.
  • Nanoclast is on the IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) website and features Dexter Johnson’s writing on nanotechnology government initiatives, technical breakthroughs, and, occasionally, important personalities within the field. I notice Dexter, who’s always thoughtful and thought-provoking, has cut back to a weekly posting. I encourage you to read his work as he fills in an important gap in a lot of nanotechnology reporting with his intimate understanding of the technology itself.  Dexter’s Dec. 20, 2012 posting (the latest) is titled, Nanoparticle Coated Lens Converts Light into Sound for Precise Non-invasive Surgery.
  • Insight (formerly TNTlog) is Tim Harper’s (CEO of Cientifica) blog features an international perspective (with a strong focus on the UK scene) on emerging technologies and the business of science. His writing style is quite lively (at times, trenchant) and it reflects his long experience with nanotechnology and other emerging technologies. I don’t know how he finds the time and here’s his latest, a Dec. 4, 2012 posting titled, Is Printable Graphene The Key To Widespread Applications?
  • 2020 Science is Dr. Andrew Maynard’s (director of University of Michigan’s Risk Science Center) more or less personal blog. An expert on nanotechnology (he was the Chief Science Adviser for the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies, located in Washington, DC), Andrew writes extensively about risk, uncertainty, nanotechnology, and the joys of science. Over time his blog has evolved to include the occasional homemade but science-oriented video, courtesy of one of his children. I usually check Andrew’s blog when there’s a online nanotechnology kerfuffle as he usually has the inside scoop. His latest posting on Dec. 23, 2012 features this title, On the benefits of wearing a hat while dancing naked, and other insights into the science of risk.
  • Andrew also produces and manages the Mind the Science Gap blog, which is a project encouraging MA students in the University of Michigan’s Public Health Program to write. Andrew has posted a summary of the last semester’s triumphs titled, Looking back at another semester of Mind The Science Gap.
  • NanoWiki is, strictly speaking, not a blog but the authors provide the best compilation of stories on nanotechnology issues and controversies that I have found yet. Here’s how they describe their work, “NanoWiki tracks the evolution of paradigms and discoveries in nanoscience and nanotechnology field, annotates and disseminates them, giving an overall view and feeds the essential public debate on nanotechnology and its practical applications.” There are also Spanish, Catalan, and mobile versions of NanoWiki. Their latest posting, dated  Dec. 29, 2012, Nanotechnology shows we can innovate without economic growth, features some nanotechnology books.
  • In April 2012, I was contacted by Dorothée Browaeys about a French blog, Le Meilleur Des Nanomondes. Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to have been much action there since Feb. 2010 but I’m delighted to hear from my European colleagues and hope to hear more from them.

Sadly, there was only one interview here this year but I think they call these things ‘a big get’ as the interview was with Vanessa Clive who manages the nanotechnology portfolio at Industry Canada. I did try to get an interview with Dr. Marie D’Iorio, the new Executive Director of Canada’s National Institute of Nanotechnology (NINT; BTW, the National Research Council has a brand new site consequently [since the NINT is a National Research Council agency, so does the NINT]), and experienced the same success I had with her predecessor, Dr. Nils Petersen.

I attended two conferences this year, S.NET (Society for the Study of Nanoscience and Emerging Technologies) 2012 meeting in Enschede, Holland where I presented on my work on memristors, artificial brains, and pop culture. The second conference I attended was in Calgary where I  moderated a panel I’d organized on the topic of Canada’s science culture and policy for the 2012 Canadian Science Policy Conference.

There are a few items of note which appeared on the Canadian science scene. ScienceOnlineVancouver emerged in April 2012. From the About page,

ScienceOnlineVancouver is a monthly discussion series exploring how online communication and social media impact current scientific research and how the general public learns about it. ScienceOnlineVancouver is an ongoing discussion about online science, including science communication and available research tools, not a lecture series where scientists talk about their work. Follow the conversation on Twitter at @ScioVan, hashtag is #SoVan.

The concept of these monthly meetings originated in New York with SoNYC @S_O_NYC, brought to life by Lou Woodley (@LouWoodley, Communities Specialist at Nature.com) and John Timmer (@j_timmer, Science Editor at Ars Technica). With the success of that discussion series, participation in Scio2012, and the 2012 annual meeting of the AAAS in Vancouver, Catherine Anderson, Sarah Chow, and Peter Newbury were inspired to bring it closer to home, leading to the beginning of ScienceOnlineVancouver.

ScienceOnlineVancouver is part of the ScienceOnlineNOW community that includes ScienceOnlineBayArea, @sciobayarea and ScienceOnlineSeattle, @scioSEA. Thanks to Brian Glanz of the Open Science Federation and SciFund Challenge and thanks to Science World for a great venue.

I have mentioned the arts/engineering festival coming up in Calgary, Beakerhead, a few times but haven’t had occasion to mention Science Rendezvous before. This festival started in Toronto in 2008 and became a national festival in 2012 (?). Their About page doesn’t describe the genesis of the ‘national’ aspect to this festival as clearly as I would like. They seem to be behind with their planning as there’s no mention of the 2013 festival,which should be coming up in May.

The twitter (@frogheart) feed continues to grow in both (followed and following) albeit slowly. I have to give special props to @carlacap, @cientifica, & @timharper for their mentions, retweets, and more.

As for 2013, there are likely to be some changes here; I haven’t yet decided what changes but I will keep you posted. Have a lovely new year and I wish you all the best in 2013.