Tag Archives: Paul Wells

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.

Of Canadian 2015 election science debates and science weeks

You’d think science and technology might rate a mention in a debate focused on the economy but according to all accounts, that wasn’t the case last night in a Sept. 17, 2015 Canadian federal election debate featuring three party leaders, Justin Trudeau of the Liberal Party, Thomas Mulcair of the New Democratic Party (NDP), and Stephen Harper, Prime Minister and leader of the Conservative Party. BTW, Elizabeth May, leader of the Green Party, was not invited but managed to participate by tweeting video responses to the debate questions. For one of the more amusing and, in its way, insightful commentaries on the debate, there’s a Sept. 17, 2015 blog posting on CBC [Canadian Broadcasting Corporation] News titled: ‘Old stock Canadians,’ egg timer, creepy set top debate’s odd moments; Moderator David Walmsley’s Irish accent and a ringing bell get reaction on social media.

As for science and the 2015 Canadian federal election, Science Borealis has compiled an informal resource list in a Sept. 18, 2015 posting and while I’ve excerpted the resources where you can find suggested questions for candidates, there’s much more to be found there,

 

 

Interestingly, the journal Nature has published a Sept. 17, 2015 article (h/t @CBC Quirks) by Nicola Jones featuring the Canadian election and science concerns and the impact science concerns have had on opposition party platforms (Note: Links have been removed),

Canadians will head to the polls on 19 October [2015], in a federal election that many scientists hope will mark a turning point after years of declining research budgets and allegations of government censorship.

In an unprecedented move, the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada — a union in Ottawa that represents more than 57,000 government scientists and other professionals — is campaigning in a federal race. “Here’s how we do things in the Harper government,” declares one of the union’s radio advertisements. “We muzzle scientists, we cut research and we ignore anyone who doesn’t tell us what we want to hear.”

Science advocates see little chance that their issues will be aired during a 17 September [2015] debate in Calgary that will pit Harper against NDP [New Democratic Party] leader Thomas Mulcair and Liberal leader Justin Trudeau. But concerns about the state of Canadian science have nevertheless influenced party platforms.

The middle-left Liberal Party has made scientific integrity part of its election campaign, proposing the creation of a central public portal to disseminate government-funded research. The party seeks to appoint a chief science officer to ensure the free flow of information.

Similarly, the NDP has called for a parliamentary science officer, a position that would be independent of the majority party or coalition leading the government.

Adding to the concern about the practice of science in Canada is the delayed release of a biennial report from the government’s Science, Technology and Innovation Council (STIC). Paul Wells in a June 26, 2015 article for Maclean’s Magazine discusses the situation (Note: Links have been removed),

It is distressing when organizations with no partisan role play the sort of games partisans want. The latest example is the advisory board that the Harper government created to tell it how Canada is doing in science.

I have written about the Science, Technology and Innovation Council every two years since it produced its first major report, in May 2009. STIC, as it’s known, is not some fringe group of pinko malcontents trying to stir up trouble and turn the people against their right and proper governing party. It was conceived by the Harper government (in 2007), appointed by the Harper government (in bits ever since), and it consists, in part, of senior officials who work with the Harper government every day. …

This group gives the feds the best advice they can get about how Canada is faring against other countries in its science, research and technology efforts. Its reports have been increasingly discouraging.

Perhaps you wonder: What’s the situation now? Keep wondering. Every previous STIC biennial report was released in the spring. This winter, I met a STIC member, who told me the next report would come out in May 2015 and that it would continue most of the declining trend lines established by the first three reports. I wrote to the STIC to ascertain the status of the latest report. Here’s the answer I received:

“Thank you for your interest. STIC’s next State of the Nation report will be released later in the Fall. We will be happy to inform you of the precise date and release details when they have been confirmed.”

There is no reason this year’s report was not released in the spring, as every previous report was. None except the approach of a federal election.

Getting back to a national science debate, I have written about a proposed debate to be held on the CBC Quirks and Quarks radio programme here in a Sept. 3, 2015 posting which also features a local upcoming (on Weds., Sept. 23, 2015) election science and technology debate amongst  federal candidates in Victoria, BC. I cannot find anything more current about the proposed national science debate other than the CBC radio producer’s claim that it would occur in early October. Earlier today (Sept. 18, 2015) I checked their Twitter feed (https://twitter.com/CBCQuirks) and their website (http://www.cbc.ca/radio/quirks). I wonder what’s taking so long for an announcement. In the space of a few hours, I managed to get Ted Hsu and Lynne Quarmby, science shadow ministers for the Liberal and Green parties, respectively, to express interest in participating.

Well, whether or not there is a 2015 national science debate, I find the level of interest, in contrast to the 2011 election, exciting and affirming.

In the midst of all this election and science discussion, there are some big Canadian science events on the horizon. First and technically speaking not on the horizon, there’s Beakerhead (a smashup of art, science, and engineering) in Calgary, Alberta which runs from Sept. 16 – 20, 2015. Here are a few of the exhibits and installations you can find should you get to Calgary in time (from a Sept. 16, 2015 Beakerhead news release),

The five days of Beakerhead officially get rolling today with the world’s largest pop-up gallery, called a String (Theory) of Incredible Encounters, with a circumference of five kilometres around downtown Calgary.

The series of public art installations is an exploration in creativity at the crossroads of art, science and engineering, and can be seen by touring Calgary’s neighbourhoods, from Inglewood to East Village to Victoria Park, 17th Ave and Kensington. The home base or hub for Beakerhead this year is at Station B (the Beakerhead moniker for installations at Fort Calgary).

Station B is home to two other massive firsts – a 30-foot high version of the arcade claw game, and a 6,400 square foot sandbox – all designed to inspire human ingenuity.

Beakerhead 2015 event will erupt on the streets and venues of Calgary from September 16 to 20, and includes more than 160 collaborators and 60 public events, ranging from theatre where the audience is dining as part of the show to installations where you walk through a human nose. More than 25,000 students will be engaged in Beakerhead through field trips, classroom visits and ingenuity challenges.

Just as Beakerhead ends, Canada’s 2015 Science Literacy Week opens Sept. 21 – 27, 2015. Here’s more about the week from a Sept. 18, 2015 article by Natalie Samson for University Affairs,

On Nov. 12 last year [2014], the European Space Agency landed a robot on a comet. It was a remarkable moment in the history of space exploration and scientific inquiry. The feat amounted to “trying to throw a dart and hit a fly 10 miles away,” said Jesse Hildebrand, a science educator and communicator. “The math and the physics behind that is mindboggling.”

Imagine Mr. Hildebrand’s disappointment then, as national news programs that night spent about half as much time reporting on the comet landing as they did covering Barack Obama’s gum-chewing faux pas in China. For Mr. Hildebrand, the incident perfectly illustrates why he founded Science Literacy Week, a Canada-wide public education campaign celebrating all things scientific.

From Sept. 21 to 27 [2015], several universities, libraries and museums will highlight the value of science in our contemporary world by hosting events and exhibits on topics ranging from the lifecycle of a honeybee to the science behind Hollywood films like Jurassic World and Contact.

Mr. Hildebrand began developing the campaign last year, shortly after graduating from the University of Toronto with a bachelor’s degree in ecology and evolutionary biology. He approached the U of T Libraries for support and “it really snowballed from there,” the 23-year-old said.

Though Mr. Hildebrand said Science Literacy Week wasn’t inspired by public criticism against the federal government’s approach to scientific research and communication, he admitted that it makes the campaign seem that much more important. “I’ve always wanted to shout from the rooftops how cool science is. This is my way of shouting from the rooftops,” he said.

In the lead-up to Science Literacy Week, museum scientists with the Alliance of Natural History Museums of Canada have been posting videos of what they do and why it’s important under the hashtag #canadalovesscience. The end of the campaign will coincide with a lunar eclipse and will see several universities and observatories hosting stargazing parties.

You can find out more about this year’s events on the Science Literacy Week website. Here are a few of the BC events I found particularly intriguing,

UBC Botanical Garden – Jointly run as part of National Forest Week/Organic Week

September 20th, 10 a.m-12 p.m – A Walk in the Woods

Come discover the forest above, below and in between on our guided forest tour! Explore and connect with trees that hold up our 300-metre long canopy walkway. [emphasis mine] Meet with grand Firs, Douglas Firs and Western Red Cedars and learn about the importance of forests to biodiversity, climate change and our lives.

September 24th, 7:30-11 P.M – Food Garden Tour and Outdoor Movie Night

What better way to celebrate Organic Week than to hear about our exciting plans for the UBC Food Garden? Tour renewed garden beds to see what’s been growing. Learn about rootstocks, cultivars, training techniques and tree forms for fruit trees in this area.  Then make your way to out enchanting outdoor Ampitheatre and watch Symphony of the Soil, a film celebrated by the UN for 2015, the International Year of the Soil.

I highlighted the UBC Botanical Garden canopy walkway because you really do walk high up in the forest as you can see in this image of the walkway,

[downloaded from http://www.familyfuncanada.com/vancouver/canopy-walk-ubc-botanical-garden/]

[downloaded from http://www.familyfuncanada.com/vancouver/canopy-walk-ubc-botanical-garden/]

This image is from an undated article by Lindsay Follett for Family Fun Vancouver.

While it’s still a month away, there is Canada’s upcoming 2015 National Science and Technology Week, which will run from Oct. 16 – 25. To date, they do not have any events listed for this year’s week but they do invite you to submit your planned event for inclusion in their 2015 event map and list of events.

Science research spending and innovation in Europe and reflections on the Canadian situation

I thought I’d pull together some information about science funding and innovation for closer examination. First, in early July 2011 the European Union announced plans for a huge spending increase, approximately 45%, for science. Their current programme, the Seventh Framework Programme (US$79B budget) is coming to an end in 2013 and the next iteration will be called, Horizon 2020 (proposed US$114B budget).  Here’s more from Kit Eaton’s July 6, 2011 article on Fast Company,

The proposal still awaits approval by the E.U.’s parliament and member states, but just getting this far is a milestone. The next phase is to forge spending into the next generation of the E.U.’s Framework Programme, which is its main research spending entity, to produce a plan called Horizon 2020. The spending shift has been championed by E.U. research commissioner Márie Geoghan-Quinn, and means that the share of the E.U. budget portioned out for scientific research will eventually double from its 4.5% figure in 2007 to 9% in 2020.

How will Europe pay for it? This is actually the biggest trick being pulled off: More than €4.5 billion would be transferred from the E.U.’s farm subsidies program, the Common Agricultural Policy. This is the enormous pile of cash paid by E.U. authorities to farmers each year to keep them in business, to keep food products rolling off the production line, and to keep fields fallow–as well as to diversify their businesses.

Nature journal also covered the news in a July 5, 2011 article by Colin Macilwane,

Other research advocates say that the proposal — although falling short of the major realignment of funding priorities they had been hoping for — was as good as could be expected in the circumstances. “Given the times we’re in, we couldn’t realistically have hoped for much more,” says Dieter Imboden, president of Eurohorcs, the body representing Europe’s national research agencies.

Geoghegan-Quinn told Nature that the proposal was “a big vote of confidence in science” but also called on researchers to push to get the proposal implemented — especially in their home countries. “The farmers will be out there lobbying, and scientists and researchers need to do the same,” she says.

While the European Union wrangles over a budget that could double their investment in science research, Canadians evince, at best, a mild interest in science research.

The latest Science, Technology and Innovation Council report, State of the Nation 2010: Canada’s Science, Technology and Innovation System, was released in June 2011 and has, so far, occasioned little interest despite an article in the Globe & Mail and a Maclean’s blog posting by Paul Wells. Hopefully,  The Black Hole Blog, where Beth Swan and David Kent are writing a series about the report, will be able to stimulate some discussion.

From Beth’s July 12, 2011 posting,

The report – at least the section I’m talking about today – is based on data from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s (OECD) Programme for International Student Assessment and Statistics Canada. Some of the interesting points include:

  • 15-year-old Canadians rank in the top 10 of OECD countries for math and science in 20091.
  • 80% of 15-19 year-old Canadians are pursuing a formal education, which is lower than the OECD average
  • But Canada ranks 1st in OECD countries for adults (ages 25–64 years) in terms of the percentage of the population with a post-secondary education (49%)
  • The numbers of Canadian students in science and engineering at the undergraduate level increased (18% increase in the number of science undergraduate degrees, 9% increase in the number of engineering undergraduate degrees) in 2008 compared to 2005

This all begs the question, though, of what those science-based graduates do once they graduate. It’s something that we’ve talked about a fair bit here on the Black Hole and the STIC report gives us some unhappy data on it. Canada had higher unemployment rates for science-based PhDs (~3-4%) compared to other OECD countries (e.g., in the US, it’s about ~1-1.5%).  Specifically, in 2006 Canada had the highest rate of unemployment for the medical sciences -3%- and engineering -4%- and the third highest rate of unemployment for the natural sciences -3%- among the OECD countries: the data are from 2006.

David, in his July 16, 2011 posting, focuses on direct and indirect Canadian federal government Research & Development (R&D) spending,

It appears from a whole host of statistics, reports, etc – that Canada lags in innovation, but what is the government’s role in helping to nurture its advancement.  Is it simply to create fertile ground for “the market” to do its work?  or is it a more interventionist style of determining what sorts of projects the country needs and investing as such?  Perhaps it involves altering the way we train and inspire our young people?

Beth then comments on Canadian business R&D investment, which has always been a low priority according to the material I’ve read, in her July 25, 2011 posting on ,

Taken together, this shows a rather unfavourable trend in Canadian businesses not investing in research & development – i.e, not contributing to innovation. We know from Dave’s last posting that Canada is not very good at contributing direct funds to research and my first posting in this series illustrated that while Canada is pretty good at getting PhDs trained, we are not so good at having jobs for those PhDs once they are done their schooling.

The latest July 27, 2011 posting from David asks the age old question, Why does Canada lag in R&D spending?

Many reports have been written over the past 30 years about Canada and its R&D spending, and they clamour one after the other about Canada’s relative lack of investment into R&D.  We’ve been through periods of deep cutbacks and periods of very strong growth, yet one thing remains remarkably consistent – Canada underspends on R&D relative to other countries.

The waters around such questions are extremely murky and tangible outcomes are tough to identify and quantify when so many factors are at play.  What does seem reasonable though is to ask where this investment gap is filled from in other countries that currently outstrip Canada’s spending – is it public money, private money, foreign money, or domestic money?  Hopefully these questions are being asked and answered before we set forth on another 30 year path of poor relative investment.

As I stated in my submission to the federal government’s R&D review panel and noted in my March 15, 2011 posting about the ‘Innovation’ consultation, I think we need to approach the issues in more imaginative ways.

University of Alberta, research money, nanotechnology, and those recent Chairs of Excellence

While I’m well aware of their work in nanotechnology research, I did not realize that the University of Alberta was becoming “one of Canada’s powerhouse  research centres.” Here’s more from the Globe & Mail article by Josh Wingrove,

It started last week, with Industry Minister Tony Clement flying in, making a joke about football, announcing $500,000 in funding for nanotechnology research, and promptly leaving. [mentioned in my Aug. 17, 2010 posting]

A week later, a prestigious gathering of 50 delegates from leading Chinese and Canadian research institutions arrived, as well as an announcement Thursday of $200-million in federal research money.

It would be a busy two weeks for any school. But the delegates didn’t attend McGill University, the University of Toronto or the University of British Columbia, typically regarded as Canada’s top-ranked institutions.

Instead, they came to Edmonton’s University of Alberta, which has quickly become one of Canada’s powerhouse research centres. The U of A ranks second in total research funding, behind only U of T and up from fifth in 2006. This year, the U of A will spend $514-million on research, more than double its total from a decade ago.

The university has decided to spend more on research at a time when other departments on campus are experiencing budget cutbacks.

“From a societal point of view of course, research is increasingly conducted as applied research. It’s meant to solve problems,” she [Britta Baron, vice-provost] said. “The more selfish answer from the point of view of the individual university is your prestige, your ranking, depends mostly on the quality of your research. If you want to push yourself up, you need to invest in your research.”

The U of A is home to four of the nation’s 19 Canada Excellence Chairs announced three months ago, more than any other university. [emphasis mine]

I did post about the Canada Excellence Chairs May 20, 2010 when they were first announced and was recently alerted (thanks to Joel Burford of Alberta Innovates Technology Futures) to a youtube interview with one of the new U of A Canada Excellence Chairs, Thomas Thundat. His area of interest is  oil sands molecular engineering,

I’m not really sure what to make of all this other than the fact that competition amongst the universities in Canada seems to be heating up. I recall there was some outcry after a 2009 article by Paul Wells for MacLean’s where representatives from the ‘big five’ Canadian universities claimed they should get the lion’s share of funding for science research and postgraduates while Canada’s other universities should focus on undergraduate education. About 10 days later the other universities replied in an article by Cathy Gulli for MacLean’s. (Rob Annan at Don’t leave Canada behind commented on the controversy here and here.)

I would imagine these latest developments are a matter of some satisfaction for the folks at the U of A. It’ll be interesting to see how this all shakes out especially if there should be a federal election. Let’s not forget that Canada’s Prime Minister, Stephen Harper is from Alberta.

Waldo and robot hands circa. 2009; innovation in Canada, John Manley, and the university community

Shades of Robert Heinlein’s 1943 short story, Waldo, and Richard Feynman’s 1959 talk, There’s plenty of room at the bottom, to the American Physical Society!  Both of these texts feature the development of ‘smaller and smaller robotic hands to manipulate matter at the atomic and molecular levels’ and both of these have been cited as the birth of nanotechnology. The NanoHand Project (funded by the European Union) has developed microrobots designed to handle carbon nanotubes, according to the media release on Nanowerk News.  From the media release,

The robots, about two centimetres in size, work inside a scanning electron microscope where their activities can be followed by an observer. “The whole set-up is integrated into the vacuum chamber of the microscope,” [Volkmar] Eichhorn [of the University of Oldenberg] explains. “There is a glass plate where these mobile microrobots can walk around.”

Each robot has a ‘microgripper’ that can make precise and delicate movements. It works on an electrothermal principle to open and close the jaws, much like a pair of tweezers. The jaws open to about 2 micrometres and can pick up objects less than 100 nanometres in size. “[It is] really able to grip micro or even nano objects,”

Eichhorn says. “We have handled objects down to tens of nanometres.”

If you go to Nanowerk News, you will be able to see a video of the microrobots in action or you can go to the NanoHand site here for more information.

“I don’t think you could say that innovation is deeply in the DNA of our Canadian business enterprises,” [John Manley] said, “We have built prosperity, up to and including this decade, on a fairly basic paradigm: we are rich in natural resources.” (from the article, Innovation isn’t in Canada’s DNA by Paul Wells in MacLean’s magazine here.) I agree more closely with Manley’s quote than I do with the article’s headline writer who seems to be implying that Canadians are not genetically disposed to innovation. Manley very specifically fingers business enterprises and not people. (I briefly mentioned the article in my July 31, 2009 posting in the context of a discussion[also in MacLean’s] by the big 5 Canadian universities about funding and innovation.)