Tag Archives: Rob Annan

What kind of science do we want? A few thoughts on the National Research Council of Canada and its new dedication to business

Last week in its May 7, 2013 news release, the National Research Council of Canada flung open the doors of its closet and declared itself ‘open for business’,

The National Research Council of Canada (NRC) has transformed into an industry-focused research and technology organization. The refocused NRC will work with Canadian industries to bridge technology gaps, helping build a more innovative Canadian economy.

“NRC plays a pivotal role at the heart of Canada’s innovation system,” said the Honourable Gary Goodyear, Minister of State (Science and Technology). “The refocused NRC will provide Canadian industries with access to strategic research and development, technical services and specialized scientific infrastructure they need to succeed.”

“The Government’s top priority is jobs, growth and long-term prosperity for all Canadians,” said the Honourable Claude Carignan, Deputy Leader of the Government at the Senate. “By refocusing the NRC into a research and technology organization, our Government is ensuring that Canadian firms have the instruments and tools they need to become even more successful on the global stage.”

The refocused NRC will support Canadian industries by investing in large-scale research projects that are directed by and for Canadian business. It will also develop international networks to ensure timely access to primary research and will open the doors to world class scientific infrastructure, technical expertise and people.

“We are very excited about this change. Our organization is now easier for business to understand and access,” said John R. McDougall, President of the National Research Council. “We are committed to being a strong partner for innovation, and focused on achieving the concrete outcomes that will contribute to a stronger and more prosperous Canada. We will measure our success by the success of our clients.”

Research and technology organizations are mission-oriented providers of innovation services to firms and governments, dedicated to building economic competitiveness and, in doing so, improving quality of life. The refocused NRC will strengthen Canadian industry by encouraging more business investment to develop innovative products and services.

Response has ranged from mild interest to apoplexy and heartbreak.

Phil Plait, a US astronomer and creator of the Bad Astronomy blog/book/website, has opined in a May 13, 2013 posting at Slate.com (Note: A link has been removed),

This is not a joke. I wish it were.

John MacDougal [sic], President of the NRC, literally said, “Scientific discovery is not valuable unless it has commercial value”. Gary Goodyear, the Canadian Minister of State for Science and Technology, also stated “There is [sic] only two reasons why we do science and technology. First is to create knowledge … second is to use that knowledge for social and economic benefit. Unfortunately, all too often the knowledge gained is opportunity lost.”

This is monumentally backwards thinking. That is not the reason we do science. Economic benefits are results of doing research, but should not be the reason we do it. Basic scientific research is a vast endeavor, and some of it will pay off economically, and some won’t. In almost every case, you cannot know in advance which will do which.

… If proposed and immediate economic benefits are the prime factors in choosing what science to fund, then the freedom of this human endeavor will be critically curtailed. It’s draining the passion and heart out of one of the best things we humans do.

This intensity suggests that Plait is unaware that the changeover has been taking place over a number of years. Hannah Hoag in an April 19, 2011 piece for Nature magazine noted this about the changeover which was even then taking place,

Canada’s largest research entity has a new focus — and some disaffected scientists. On 1 April [2011], the National Research Council (NRC), made up of more than 20 institutes and programmes with a total annual budget larger than Can$1 billion (US$1 billion), switched to a funding strategy that downplays basic research in favour of programmes designed to attract industry partners and generate revenue. [emphasis mine] Some researchers suggest that the shift is politically driven, because it brings the agency into philosophical alignment with the governing Conservative Party of Canada, which is in the middle of an election campaign.

The change was announced in a memo from NRC president John McDougall on 2 March [2011], and involves the transfer of authority over 20% of the agency’s research funds and the entire Can$60-million budget for large equipment and building costs to the NRC’s senior executive committee, which will direct it towards research with a focus on economic development, rather than pure science. Until now, individual institutes have had authority over research spending. McDougall wrote that in future, 80% of the research budget will be centralized, with “curiosity and exploratory activities” to be funded by the remaining 20%.

In Canada, most funding for academic researchers flows through agencies other than the NRC. [emphasis mine] However, with 4,700 scientists, guest researchers, technologists and support staff pursuing specialities from astrophysics to plant biotechnology at its institutes, the NRC plays a vital part in the nation’s scientific community, as a generator of original research and a service provider to government and industry.

While I’m no friend of the current Canadian government or John McDougall for that matter, this is an attempt to dealt with a longstanding issue, Canada’s failure with industrial research. From the Feb. 27, 2013 article, which prefigures the current discussion by a little over two months, by Tom Spears  in the Ottawa Citizen,

In October [2012], members of the House of Commons Industry Committee challenged McDougall to justify the changes.

Now McDougall has responded that Canada’s economy can’t wait for slow advances.

As science investment has grown in Canada, “our productivity and competitiveness, as measured by various organizations in the world, has been going in exactly the opposite direction,” he said in an interview.

“The primary reason for that is entirely speculative … But it would appear that Canada’s balance is quite different from other countries.”

That means we’re good at academic research, he says. We’re not so good at putting new knowledge to work.

“We’re not doing the things that take technology and ‘productize’ it.” (He makes exceptions to that: We’re strong in informational technology and in space-related industries such as robotics and building satellites.)

And he argues the answer lies in involving industry with the research from the start “rather than shoving it down their throat and hoping they’ll take it.”

For example, one new “flagship program” at NRC is to develop wheat that will resist cold and drought better than today’s, require less fertilizer, and produce greater yields.

“The timeline for this kind of thing is in the order of seven or eight years, which left to normal — I’ll call it traditional approaches — would typically be 20,” he said.

A similar ‘Canada is poor at commercializing research’ theme is mentioned in a May 7, 2013 article by Barrie McKenna and Ivan Semeniuk for the Globe and Mail,

The National Research Council, which gave the country canola and the atomic clock, will now be taking its scientific cues from Canadian industry as part of a makeover of the country’s flagship research labs.

The overhaul, quietly begun two years ago and formally unveiled Tuesday, means the 97-year-old NRC will focus on a clutch of large-scale, business-driven research projects at the expense of the basic science that was once at its core. The Conservative government says it wants to leverage the NRC’s world-class resources – everything from wind tunnels and ice tanks to high-powered microscopes – to help reverse the country’s chronically lagging innovation performance.

“Our businesses are not doing the research that they need to do,” Gary Goodyear, the minister of state for science and technology, told reporters in Ottawa. “So something had to be done.”

The move is in keeping with the Conservative government’s emphasis on a business model for public policy, such as tying foreign aid to economic development. It is also another significant foray into the science file, with critics saying the new approach is shortsighted and may shut the door on vast areas of promising fundamental research.

Mr. Goodyear insisted the government isn’t abandoning basic science, just shifting its focus to commercializing discoveries. “The day is past when a researcher could hit a home run simply by publishing a paper on some new discovery,” he said. “The home run is when somebody utilizes the knowledge that was discovered for social or economic gain.”

As part of the overhaul, the NRC is consolidating its disparate operations into a dozen business units and will focus on just five core areas of research: health costs, manufacturing, community infrastructure, security, and natural resources and the environment. Companies, or industries, will be able to tap the NRC’s expertise and labs, while sharing the cost of projects – as well as the intellectual property that results.

“Our job is to change innovation performance,” NRC president John McDougall explained in an interview. “So we have to do the things that will make that happen. Discovery science is necessary, but it’s not sufficient.”

Kennedy Stewart, the NDP (New Democratic Party; the official opposition) Member of Parliament expresses his opinion in his May 7, 2013 news release,

“Conservative incompetence meets Conservative narrow-mindedness,” said NDP Science and Technology critic Kennedy Stewart (Burnaby–Douglas). “They don’t want research driven by researchers themselves or public funding for science going towards actual scientific advancement. Their short-sighted approach will in fact hurt economic growth in the long run because it shuts the door on the long-view fundamental research that truly leads to scientific breakthroughs.”

Widespread dissatisfaction among the over 4,000 NRC employees and the change of focus away from basic research, patents and publications will increase the drain of Canada’s best and brightest minds to other OECD countries that are investing in scientific research heavily. Under the Conservatives, Canada just can’t compete.

“The government has been handing pink slips to scores of NRC scientists and researchers, lowering the organization’s research capacity and devastating internal morale,” said Stewart.  “It is hard to see how business will get scientific advice from the NRC if they fire all the scientists. Who they keep will spend their time trying to get off this runaway train.”

As best as I can unravel, there are several issues in the material I have excerpted:

  • what is the right mix of science, basic to applied/industrial?
  • it’s widely acknowledged that Canadians have done more poorly in the area of industrial science than colleagues in other OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) countries
  • how do we address the issue?

The solution that the current Canadian government has arrived *at is impossible to assess at this point (although I have a guess as to the outcome) and something needed to be done with the National Research Council of Canada as noted in an April 7, 2010 posting on the Don’t leave Canada behind; Researcher Forum blog (I believe the writer was Rob Annan),

The NRC is a mess.

And the mess of the NRC neatly encapsulates much that’s wrong with Canadian science policy. No direction, no cohesion, multiple conflicting purposes.

Rob goes on to discuss the NRC’s mandate (Note: A link has been removed),

Well, the NRC is mandated, by the original NRC Act of 1916, “to undertaking, assisting or promoting scientific and industrial research in different fields of importance to Canada”. It did this very successfully into the 1960s, at which point, its greatest successes were carved out and handed to new organizations.

So what’s left? Well the NRC Act has a few specific mandates that the NRC fulfills: standards of measurement, manage observatories, investigate and standardize industrial materials, perform agricultural research, and maintain a national science library (which is under major financial stress, but let’s save that for another time). But the general mandate to “undertake, assist, or promote” scientific and industrial research is open to interpretation, and is a source of conflict.

I’m not sure if the NRC Act has been amended since 2010 to allow for these latest changes but Rob goes on to make, what is for me, a more interesting point (Note: A link has been removed),

But since the 1980s, the NRC has been without a strong sense of self. Is it a basic research organization or an applied research organization? Does it exist to perform independent, government-sponsored research, or does it provide research services in support of the private sector? Does it perform early-stage research and then partner with industry, or is it a fee-for-service research organization? The answer is yes.

The NRC is being pulled in too many directions.

What does our Minister of Industry [at the time, Tony Clement] have to say about the NRC?

NRC‘s aim is to bring timely solutions to market in areas of national importance: clean energy, health and wellness, and the environment. NRC will continue to partner with Canadian firms to deliver tangible, market-oriented results in high-impact and emerging industry sectors, such as the automotive sector.

But the NRC isn’t designed to do this – this is a different mandate than what is laid out in the Act. Which would be fine – maybe it’s time for a change – except that the NRC institutes have been, not surprisingly, built according to the mandate outlined in the NRC Act – as research laboratories, not product development laboratories or partnership incubators. And the people recruited to run these labs are scientists, not business-people. They want to do science, not chase down industrial partnerships in the automotive sector or take their clean energy products to market. They’ve been recruited for their scientific abilities; it’s a bit of a stretch to expect them also to be market innovators.

Furthermore, because the government does not fund the full cost of research at the institutes, these labs are dependent on research funding from external sources. If the funding was coming from Canadian business, then the vision of our Industry minister would be fulfilled. Unfortunately, Canadian business is notoriously averse to investing in academic or government research. So these labs are dependent on CIHR, NSERC, or private funding – mostly basic science funding. So, the government builds a system of research laboratories, forces them into dependence on basic science funding, and then complains that there isn’t enough market-driven research going on? [all emphases mine]

I realize that CIHR and NSERC funding programs have changed but the issue with Canadian business paying for research has not. It is, as I have noted in other pieces, a cultural issue with the key question being, How do you inculcate a business culture that innovates? What we have now is a ‘start-up’ culture where people found businesses based on exciting research and plan on growing those businesses to a point where they can be sold to larger companies from the US or Britain or elsewhere. Based on these comments, my guess is that the current changes to the NRC will not result in the ‘innovation’ the government has repeatedly stated is its primary goal since our basic business culture will remain untouched. One last thing, I think people are going to figure out how to game this new NRC.

*at added on May 22, 2013

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

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

As I did last year, I will start with

Goodbyes

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

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

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

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

Goodbye ish

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Returning to the roundup:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

After posting the 2011 roundup,

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

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

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

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

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

Online Projects

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blogue ta science : les billets dédiés aux jeunes.

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

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

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

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

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

These next ones were added later in the year:

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

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

They are: Commercial Space and Space Conference News.

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

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

New to the roundup in 2012:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FrogHeart (part 1) at the 2012 Canadian Science Policy Conference (& Thinking big panel)

Unfortunately, I was only present for one day (Nov. 6, 2012) at the Fourth Canadian Science Policy Conference in Calgary, Alberta. In fact, my one day was more like a 1/2 day due to delays at the airport. It broke my heart to miss most of Panel 13: Dissecting Canada’s Science & Technology Landscape, which featured a discussion of the Council of Canadian Academies’ latest assessment, “The State of Science and Technology in Canada, 2012.” I have my fingers crossed that a video of the presentation will be posted in the not too distant future.

Jeffrey Simpson, Ph.D and National Affairs Columnist at The Globe and Mail moderated the panel discussion about this latest assessment (the last one was in 2006) which was requested by Industry Canada. The panel included: Dr. Eliot Phillipson, Ph.D, Sir John and Lady Eaton Professor of Medicine Emeritus at the University of Toronto (he led the expert panel which presided over the assessment); Lorraine Whale, Ph.D and Manager of Unconventional Resource Research at Shell Global Solutions (Canada); and R. Peter MacKinnon, former President of the University of Saskatchewan.

I did manage to attend Panel 16: The Second Mouse Gets the Cheese: Turning Talk of Creativity Into a Sustainable Creative Economy which featured a slew of creative types such as Mary Anne Moser, Ph.D and Co-Founder of Beakerhead; Jay Ingram, Co-Founder of Beakerhead; Jasmine Palardy, Program Manager of Beakerhead;  Patrick Finn, Ph.D and Performance Expert, University of Calgary; and Haley Simons, Ph.D, Executive Director of Creative Alberta.

Creativity workshops are to hard to pull off, especially when you pepper them with leadership information, an argument for the importance of creativity in examinations of the economy, descriptions of the creative process, etc. while leading the group through the process of designing a better mouse trap. It was an odd choice for a creativity exercise, notwithstanding the metaphor in the group’s panel title. I liked some of the ideas they were trying to discuss and demonstrate but I associate creativity with an element of play and letting loose. Devising a better mouse trap didn’t activate my sense of play nor was there time to let loose any creative/chaotic impulses as we were either listening to someone giving us information or trying to complete the exercises we were given.

For anyone who’s noticed the incidence of the institution, Beakerhead, amongst the panelists, it’s a new  art/engineering event which will be taking place in Calgary during the Calgary Stampede, I believe (from the About page),

Beakerhead is an annual movement that culminates in a five-day citywide spectacle that brings together the arts and engineering sectors to build, engage, compete and exhibit interactive works of art, engineered creativity and entertainment.

Starting annually in 2013, Beakerhead will take place in Calgary’s major educational institutions, arts and culture venues, on the streets and, most importantly, in communities.
From performances and installations to workshops and concerts, Beakerhead is made possible by a continuously growing list of partners who share the desire of staging a collaborative event of epic proportions.

I wish them well with Beakerhead while I’m somewhat unclear as to what the workshop was supposed to achieve. Personally, I would have preferred working on a Beakerhead event for 2013. Imagine if those of us at the 2012 CSPC “Second mouse” presentation had developed something that might actually take place. That’s creativity in action and I think they could have drawn together all that other stuff they were trying to communicate to us by inviting us to participate in something meaningful.

Next up was Panel 19: Thinking big: science culture and policy in Canada, which I was moderating. From my Oct. 1, 2012 posting,

… here’s the description,

Science culture is more than encouraging kids to become scientists to insure our economic future; more than having people visit a science museum or centre and having fun; more than reading an interesting article in a newspaper or magazine about the latest whizbang breakthrough; more than educating people so they become scientifically literate and encourage ‘good’ science policies; it is a comprehensive approach to community- and society-building.

We live in a grand (in English, magnificent and en francais, big) country, the 2nd largest in the world and it behooves us all to be engaged in developing a vibrant science culture which includes

  • artists (performing and visual),
  • writers,
  • scientists,
  • children,
  • seniors,
  • games developers,
  • doctors,
  • business people,
  • elected officials,
  • philosophers,
  • government bureaucrats,
  • educators,
  • social scientists,
  • and others

as we grapple with 21st century scientific and technical developments.

As scientists work on prosthetic neurons for repair in people with Parkinsons and other neurological diseases, techniques for tissue engineering, self-cleaning windows, exponentially increased tracking capabilities for devices and goods tagged with RFID devices, engineered bacteria that produce petroleum and other products (US Defense Advanced Research Projects Living Foundries project), and more, Canadians will be challenged to understand and adapt to a future that can be only dimly imagined.

Composed of provocative thinkers from the worlds of science writing, science education, art/science work, and scientific endeavour, during this panel discussion they will offer their ideas and visions for a Canadian science culture and invite you to share yours. In addition to answering questions, each panelist will prepare their own question for audience members to answer.

The panelists are:

Marie-Claire Shanahan

Marie-Claire Shanahan is a professor of science education and science communication at the University of Alberta. She is interested in how and why students make decisions to pursue their interests science, in high schools, post-secondary education and informal science education. She also conducts research on interactions between readers and writers in online science communications.

Stephen Strauss

Stephen Strauss, Canadian Science Writers’ Association president, has been writing about science for 30 years. After receiving a B.A. (history) from the University of Colorado, he worked as an English teacher, a social worker, an editor before joining the Globe and Mail in 1979. He began writing about science there.

Since leaving the newspaper in 2004 he has written for the CBC.ca, Nature, New Scientist, The Canadian Medical Association Journal as well as authored books and book chapters. He has written for organizations such as the Canada Foundation for Innovation and the Government of Ontario and has won numerous awards.

Amber Didow

Amber Didow is the Executive Director for the Canadian Association of Science Centres. She has over 20 years experience in the non-profit sector and advancing informal education. She has worked within the Science Centre field for many years including the Saskatchewan Science Centre and Science World British Columbia.  Amber’s background includes new business development; educational outreach; programming with at-risk youth; creating community based science events; melding science with art and overseeing the creation and development of both permanent and travelling exhibitions. Amber has a strong passion for community development within the sector.

Maryse de la Giroday (moderator)

Maryse de la Giroday currently runs one of the largest and longest running Canadian science blogs (frogheart.ca) where she writes commentary on  nanotechnology, science policy, science communication, society, and the arts. With a BA in Communication (Simon Fraser University, Canada) and an MA in Creative Writing and New Media (De Montfort University, UK), she combines education and training in the social sciences and humanities with her commitment as an informed member of the science public. An independent scholar, she has presented at international conferences on topics of nanotechnology, storytelling, and memristors.

Dr. Moira Stilwell, MLA

Dr. Moira Stilwell was appointed Minister of Social Development  for the province of British Columbia in September 2012. Elected MLA for Vancouver-Langara in the 2009 provincial general election. She previously served as Parliamentary Secretary for Industry, Research and Innovation to the Minister of Jobs, Tourism and Innovation and Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Health with a focus on Health Innovation. She also served as Vice Chair of the Cabinet Committee on Jobs and Economic Growth. In her first cabinet appointment, she served as Minister of Advanced Education and Labour Market Development from June 2009 to October 2010.

Prior to her political career, Stilwell graduated from the University of Calgary Medical School. She received further training in nuclear medicine at the University of British Columbia and in radiology at the University of Toronto after that. She served for several years as the Head of Nuclear Medicine at St. Paul’s Hospital, Vancouver, Surrey Memorial Hospital, and Abbotsford Regional Hospital and Cancer Clinic but left all those positions in 2009 to run for public office.

The driving force behind the province’s Year of Science in BC (2010-11) initiative for schools, Stilwell has a passionate interest and commitment to integrating science awareness and culture in government, education, and society.

Rob Annan

Rob is the Director of Policy, Research and Evaluation at Mitacs, a leading Canadian not-for-profit that supports innovation through skills development, research, and collaboration between students, researchers, and industry. Mitacs supports research across sciences, humanities and social sciences and understands that innovation often occurs at the intersection of science and culture. Mitacs’ approach to innovation is reflected in our outreach activities, most notably Math Out Loud – a theatre musical designed to inspire Canadian students to understand and appreciate the mathematics that surround them. Inspired by Laval University’s renowned Professor of Mathematics Jean-Marie De Koninck and produced by Academy Award winner Dale Hartleben, Math Out Loud explores the relationships between math and culture as an effective outreach tool.

Prior to joining Mitacs, Rob worked as a consultant to universities, researchers and non-profit agencies for strategic planning and policy, and was active as a blogger on science policy issues in Canada. Rob embodies the intersection of arts and science, with a PhD in Biochemistry from McGill University, a BSc in Biology from UVic and a BA in English from Queen’s University.

We started late and I think it went relatively well although next time (assuming there is one) I’ll practice cutting people off in a timely fashion and giving more direction. In other words, any criticisms of the session should be directed at me. The panelists were great.

Marie-Claire Shanahan, professor of science education at the University of Alberta, introduced a provocative question in the context of acknowledging Canada’s excellent science education programmes, Why isn’t there an active science discourse in Canada? Audience members tried to answer that question and came to no general agreement.

Stephen Strauss, president of the Canadian Science Writers Association (CSWA), introduced what I thought was a very exciting idea, a science entrepot supported by the CSWA. The entrepot would be a storage webspace for all Canadian science news releases and a place where the people producing the news releases would get feedback on their efforts. The feedback idea is an acknowledgement that, increasingly,  scientists in Canada are writing their own news releases. There wasn’t much uptake from the audience on this idea but perhaps people need more time think about something that changes their relationship to the media.

The Honourable Dr. Moira Stilwell discussed her experiences trying to introduce science into government, that is, trying to use more scientific approaches in the various BC ministries. The former head of Nuclear Medicine at St. Paul’s Hospital, Surrey Memorial Hospital, and Abbotsford Regional Hospital and Cancer Clinic described the process by which her big idea became part of a government initiative and changed mightily in the process.

Rob Annan, director of policy, research, and evaluation at Mitacs, talked about different approaches Mitacs has taken to embedding science culture in Canada and he challenged the audience about the notion of expertise with regard to science as one of the audience members expressed great distress (sadness mixed with anger/indignation) over the ‘declining’ trust in science experts. I hope Rob will correct me if I get this wrong, I believe his point was that experts need to stop assuming that they are right and the public just has to listen and do as they are told. The audience member did not couch his comments that way but the assumption that we, the unwashed must do as we are told and our concerns are not relevant or wrong, is often at the heart of the ‘expertise’ claim. (Also I’m going to interject, I think the audience member had flipped the issue around. The question I’d be asking is why expertise in science is accepted unthinkingly in some areas and distrusted in others.)

Amber Didow, executive director of the Canadian Association of Science Centres, spoke about the importance of these centres with regard to science culture, the extensive programming they provide, and their relationship to their communities both locally and further afield. The fact that we were in Calgary’s new ‘science world’ (in Calgary, it’s Telus Spark) added greatly to the experience.

I did attend one more session, Kennedy Stewart’s NDP (New Democratic Party) Science Policy session but that’s for part 2.

ETA Nov. 14, 2012: I’ve forgotten my manners and I apologize for not doing this sooner. Thank you to the organizers for an exciting and well paced conference. Special thanks to Marissa Bender who eased my way before, during, and after; Dustin Rivers for making sure that I didn’t fall over from hunger once I finally arrived and  his impeccable graciousness, Mehrdad Hariri for his understanding and for extending a helping hand in the midst of what must have been one of heaviest organizational periods for the 2012 conference (I am impressed), Sean for his invaluable advice regarding rush hour traffic in Calgary, and the two heroic women who managed the portable mikes for my session.

2012 Canadian Science Policy Conference and thinking big about Canadian science culture and policy

The 2012 Canadian Science Policy Conference is coming up in Calgary, Alberta on Nov. 5-7, 2012. and FrogHeart will be there moderating the Thinking Big: Science Culture and Policy in Canada panel. More about that in a minute but first, here’s the announcement, which I received at about  12:30 pm PDT, Oct. 1, 2012 (so this is pretty fresh off the email) :

Minister of State for Science and Technology, the Hon. Gary Goodyear, and Alberta Minister of Enterprise and Advanced Education, the Hon. Stephen Khan, will be speaking at the CSPC 2012

Calgary, Alberta November 5th – 7th

TORONTO, ONTARIO–(Marketwire – Sept. 28, 2012) - CSPC 2012 is pleased to announce that the Hon. Gary Goodyear, Minister of State for Science and Technology will provide the opening keynote address on Monday, November 5th at 8:45 AM.

Also, the Hon. Stephen Khan, Alberta Minister of Enterprise and Advanced Education will provide a luncheon keynote speech on Tuesday, November 6th.

CSPC 2012 will feature an impressive program with more than 90 speakers – leaders of science and innovation – from industry, academia, the media and government. These include:

  • Hon. Moira Stilwell,  MLA, Minister of Social Development, BC
  • Bob Fessenden, Premier’s Council for Economic Strategy, Government of Alberta
  • Dan Wicklum, CEO, Canada Oil Sands Innovation Alliance, (COSIA)
  • Antonia Maioni, Incoming President, Canadian Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences
  • Jeffrey Simpson, National Affairs Columnist, The Globe and Mail
  • Jay Ingram, Founder, Beakerhead, Science Journalist
  • Rory McAlpine, Vice President, Maple Leaf Foods
  • Mike Herrington, Executive Director, Global Entrepreneurship Monitor (GEM)
  • Richard Hawkins, Canada Research Chair, Science, Technology and Innovation Policy, University of Calgary

Keynote session: Pulling Together: “What is the appropriate division of labour between business, government, and the academy in advancing science-based innovation in Canada?” a dialogue with the three Honourary Co-Chairs:

  • The Hon. Preston Manning C.C., President & CEO, Manning Centre for Building Democracy
  • Dr. Eric Newell, Chancellor Emeritus, University of Alberta, Former Chair and CEO, Syncrude Canada Ltd.
  • M. Elizabeth Cannon, PhD, FCAE, FRSC, President and Vice-Chancellor, University of Calgary

Twenty-one panel sessions, reflecting the four conference themes, submitted from across the country and internationally, including:

  • Innovation, R&D, and Productivity in the Oil and Gas Sector
  • Dissecting Canada’s Science & Technology Landscape
  • Innovation and Agriculture and the Role of Policy
  • Next Generation e-Health: Integrating Research, Policy, Industry
  • Entrepreneurship as a vehicle for innovation
  • “Science Policy 101″ workshop

For the complete agenda please go to http://www.cspc2012.ca/glance.php and for descriptions of all the panel discussions see http://www.cspc2012.ca/paneldescriptions.php.

Don’t miss Canada’s premiere science policy conference as it brings a spotlight to Western Canada!

Follow us on Twitter @sciencepolicy, Facebook, and LinkedIn for the latest in science policy news and conference updates.

Register Now!

Register today at https://www.verney.ca/cspc2012/registration/index.php to benefit from the Early Bird rate (ends October 1, 2012).

The Canadian conference has a major fan in David Bruggeman of the Pasco Phronesis blog as per his Aug. 28, 2012 posting titled ‘Where Canada Might Lead The World – The Fourth Canadian Science Policy Conference‘,

Later this year the fourth Canadian Science Policy Conference (CSPC) will take place in Alberta, Calgary.  I attended the first conference in 2009, when it was held in Toronto.  I found it quite valuable, and not being Canadian, I think that says something.  In the three years since the first conference, the number of presenters and panels has grown consistently, and I think the conference provides an important convening function for the nation’s researchers and practitioners interested in science policy.

I wish we had something like it in the United States. …

As for the Thinking big panel, here’s the description,

Science culture is more than encouraging kids to become scientists to insure our economic future; more than having people visit a science museum or centre and having fun; more than reading an interesting article in a newspaper or magazine about the latest whizbang breakthrough; more than educating people so they become scientifically literate and encourage ‘good’ science policies; it is a comprehensive approach to community- and society-building.

We live in a grand (in English, magnificent and en francais, big) country, the 2nd largest in the world and it behooves us all to be engaged in developing a vibrant science culture which includes

  • artists (performing and visual),
  • writers,
  • scientists,
  • children,
  • seniors,
  • games developers,
  • doctors,
  • business people,
  • elected officials,
  • philosophers,
  • government bureaucrats,
  • educators,
  • social scientists,
  • and others

as we grapple with 21st century scientific and technical developments.

As scientists work on prosthetic neurons for repair in people with Parkinsons and other neurological diseases, techniques for tissue engineering, self-cleaning windows, exponentially increased tracking capabilities for devices and goods tagged with RFID devices, engineered bacteria that produce petroleum and other products (US Defense Advanced Research Projects Living Foundries project), and more, Canadians will be challenged to understand and adapt to a future that can be only dimly imagined.

Composed of provocative thinkers from the worlds of science writing, science education, art/science work, and scientific endeavour, during this panel discussion they will offer their ideas and visions for a Canadian science culture and invite you to share yours. In addition to answering questions, each panelist will prepare their own question for audience members to answer.

The panelists are:

Marie-Claire Shanahan

Marie-Claire Shanahan is a professor of science education and science communication at the University of Alberta. She is interested in how and why students make decisions to pursue their interests science, in high schools, post-secondary education and informal science education. She also conducts research on interactions between readers and writers in online science communications.

Stephen Strauss

Stephen Strauss, Canadian Science Writers’ Association president, has been writing about science for 30 years. After receiving a B.A. (history) from the University of Colorado, he worked as an English teacher, a social worker, an editor before joining the Globe and Mail in 1979. He began writing about science there.

Since leaving the newspaper in 2004 he has written for the CBC.ca, Nature, New Scientist, The Canadian Medical Association Journal as well as authored books and book chapters. He has written for organizations such as the Canada Foundation for Innovation and the Government of Ontario and has won numerous awards.

Amber Didow

Amber Didow is the Executive Director for the Canadian Association of Science Centres. She has over 20 years experience in the non-profit sector and advancing informal education. She has worked within the Science Centre field for many years including the Saskatchewan Science Centre and Science World British Columbia.  Amber’s background includes new business development; educational outreach; programming with at-risk youth; creating community based science events; melding science with art and overseeing the creation and development of both permanent and travelling exhibitions. Amber has a strong passion for community development within the sector.

Maryse de la Giroday (moderator)

Maryse de la Giroday currently runs one of the largest and longest running Canadian science blogs (frogheart.ca) where she writes commentary on  nanotechnology, science policy, science communication, society, and the arts. With a BA in Communication (Simon Fraser University, Canada) and an MA in Creative Writing and New Media (De Montfort University, UK), she combines education and training in the social sciences and humanities with her commitment as an informed member of the science public. An independent scholar, she has presented at international conferences on topics of nanotechnology, storytelling, and memristors.

Dr. Moira Stilwell, MLA

Dr. Moira Stilwell was appointed Minister of Social Development  for the province of British Columbia in September 2012. Elected MLA for Vancouver-Langara in the 2009 provincial general election. She previously served as Parliamentary Secretary for Industry, Research and Innovation to the Minister of Jobs, Tourism and Innovation and Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Health with a focus on Health Innovation. She also served as Vice Chair of the Cabinet Committee on Jobs and Economic Growth. In her first cabinet appointment, she served as Minister of Advanced Education and Labour Market Development from June 2009 to October 2010.

Prior to her political career, Stilwell graduated from the University of Calgary Medical School. She received further training in nuclear medicine at the University of British Columbia and in radiology at the University of Toronto after that. She served for several years as the Head of Nuclear Medicine at St. Paul’s Hospital, Vancouver, Surrey Memorial Hospital, and Abbotsford Regional Hospital and Cancer Clinic but left all those positions in 2009 to run for public office.

The driving force behind the province’s Year of Science in BC (2010-11) initiative for schools, Stilwell has a passionate interest and commitment to integrating science awareness and culture in government, education, and society.

Rob Annan

Rob is the Director of Policy, Research and Evaluation at Mitacs, a leading Canadian not-for-profit that supports innovation through skills development, research, and collaboration between students, researchers, and industry. Mitacs supports research across sciences, humanities and social sciences and understands that innovation often occurs at the intersection of science and culture. Mitacs’ approach to innovation is reflected in our outreach activities, most notably Math Out Loud – a theatre musical designed to inspire Canadian students to understand and appreciate the mathematics that surround them. Inspired by Laval University’s renowned Professor of Mathematics Jean-Marie De Koninck and produced by Academy Award winner Dale Hartleben, Math Out Loud explores the relationships between math and culture as an effective outreach tool.

Prior to joining Mitacs, Rob worked as a consultant to universities, researchers and non-profit agencies for strategic planning and policy, and was active as a blogger on science policy issues in Canada. Rob embodies the intersection of arts and science, with a PhD in Biochemistry from McGill University, a BSc in Biology from UVic and a BA in English from Queen’s University.

Hope to see you at the conference!

2011 roundup and thoughts on the Canadian science blogging scene

Last year I found about a dozen of us, Canadians blogging about science, and this year (2011) I count approximately 20 of us. Sadly, one blog has disappeared; Elizabeth Howell has removed her PARS3C blog from her website. Others appear to be in pause mode, Rob Annan at the Researcher Forum: Don’t leave Canada behind (no posts since May 4, 2011), The Bubble Chamber at the University of Toronto (no posts since Aug. 12, 2011), Gregor Wolbring’s  Nano and Nano- Bio, Info, Cogno, Neuro, Synbio, Geo, Chem…  (no new posts since Oct. 2010; I’m about ready to give up on this one) and Je vote pour la science (no posts since May 2011).

I’ve been fairly catholic in my approach to including blogs on this list although I do have a preference for blogs with an individual voice that focuses primarily on science (for example, explaining the science you’re writing about rather than complaining about a professor’s marking of your science paper).

Piece of Mind is Nassif Ghoussoub’s (professor of mathematics at the University of British Columbia) blog which is largely about academe, science, and grants. Nassif does go much further afield in some of his posts, as do we all from time to time. He’s quite outspoken and always interesting.

Cool Science is John McKay’s blog which he describes this way ” This site is about raising a creative rationalist in an age of nonsense. It is about parents getting excited about science, learning and critical thinking. It is about smart parents raising smart kids who can think for themselves, make good decisions and discern the credible from the incredible. ” His posts cover a wide range of topics from the paleontology museum in Alberta to a space shuttle launch to the science of good decisions and more.

Dave Ng makes me dizzy. A professor with the Michael Smith Laboratories at the University of British Columbia, he’s a very active science communicator who has started blogging again on the Popperfont blog. This looks like a compilation of bits from Twitter, some very brief postings, and bits from other sources. I’m seeing this style of blogging more frequently these days.

The queen of Canadian science blogging, Rosie Redfield, was just acknowledged as a ‘newsmaker of the year’ by Nature magazine. The Dec. 22, 20111 Vancouver Sun article by Margaret Munro had this to say,

A critical thinker in Vancouver has been named one of the top science newsmakers of the year.

“She appeared like a shot out of the blogosphere: a wild-haired Canadian microbiologist with a propensity to say what was on her mind,” the leading research journal Nature says of Rosie Redfield, a professor at the University of B.C.

The journal editors say Redfield is one of 10 individuals who “had an impact, good or bad, on the world of science” in 2011. She was chosen for her “critical” inquiry and “remarkable experiment in open science” that challenged a now-infamous “arsenic life” study funded by NASA.

Rosie has two blogs, RRResearch and RRTeaching. She used to say she wasn’t a blogger but I rather think she’s changed her tune.

Jeff Sharom’s Science Canada blog isn’t, strictly speaking, a blog so much as it is an aggregator of Canadian science policy news and a good one at that. There are also some very useful resources on the site. (I shamelessly plundered Jeff’s list to add more blogs to this posting).

The Black Hole is owned by Beth Swan and David Kent (although they often have guest posters too). Here’s a description from the About page,

I have entered the Post Doctoral Fellow Black Hole… I’ve witnessed a lot and heard about much more and, while this is the time in academic life when you’re meant to be the busiest, I have begun this blog. Just as a black hole is difficult to define, the label Post Doc is bandied about with recklessness by university administrators, professors, and even PDFs themselves. One thing is certain though… once you get sucked in, it appears to be near impossible to get back out.

David, Beth, and their contributors offer extensive discussions about the opportunities and the failings of the post graduate science experience.

Nicole Arbour, a Science and Innovation Officer at the British High Commission Office in Ottawa, Canada, blogs regularly about Canadian science policy and more on the Foreign and Commonwealth Office blogs.

Colin Schultz, a freelance science journalist, blogs at his website CMBR. He focuses largely on climate change, environmental research, space, and science communication.

exposure/effect is a blog about toxicology, chemical exposures, health and more, which is written by a scientist who chooses to use a pseudonym, ashartus.

Mario’s Entangled Bank is written by theoretical biologist, Mario Pineda-Krch at the University of Alberta. One of Pineda-Krch’s most recent postings was about a special section of a recent Science Magazine issue on Reproducible Research.

Boundary Vision is written by Marie-Claire Shanahan, a professor of science education at the University of Alberta. She not only writes a science blog, she also researches the language and the social spaces of science blogs.

Eric Michael Johnson writes The Primate Diaries blog which is now part of the Scientific American blog network. With a master’s degree in evolutionary anthropology, Johnson examines the interplay between evolutionary biology and politics both on his blog and as part of his PhD work (he’s a student at the University of British Columbia).

The Atoms and Numbers blog is written by Marc Leger. From the About Marc page,

I am a scientist who has always been curious and fascinated by how our universe works.  I love discovering the mysteries and surprises of our World.  I want to share this passion with others, and make science accessible to anyone willing to open their minds.

Many people have appreciated my ability to explain complex scientific ideas in simple terms, and this is one motivation behind my website, Atoms and Numbers.  I taught chemistry in universities for several years, and I participated in the Scientists in the Schools program as a graduate student at Dalhousie University, presenting chemistry magic shows to children and teenagers from kindergarten to grade 12.  I’ve also given presentations on chemistry and forensics to high school students.  I’m even acknowledged in a cookbook for providing a few morsels of information about food chemistry.

Massimo Boninsegni writes about science-related topics (some are about the academic side of science; some physics; some personal items) on his Exponential Book blog.

The Last Word on Nothing is a group blog that features Heather Pringle, a well-known Canadian science writer, on some posts. Pringle’s latest posting is, Absinthe and the Corpse Reviver, all about a legendary cure for hangovers. While this isn’t strictly speaking a Canadian science blog, there is a Canadian science blogger in the group and the topics are quite engaging.

Daniel Lemire’s blog is known simply as Daniel Lemire. He’s a computer scientist in Montréal who writes one of the more technical blogs I’ve come across and his focus seems to be databases. He does cover other topics too, notably in this post titled, Where do debt, credit and currencies come from?

Confessions of a Science Librarian by John Dupuis (head of the Steacie Science & Engineering Library at York University) is a blog I missed mentioning last year and I’m very glad I remembered it this year. As you might expect from a librarian, the last few postings have consisted of lists of the best science books of 2011.

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

I have mixed feelings about including this blog, the Dark Matter science blog by Tom Spears, as it is a ‘newspaper blog’ from the Ottawa Citizen.

Similarly, the MaRS blog is a corporate initiative from the Toronto area science and technology business incubator, MaRS Discovery District.

The last three blogs I’m mentioning are from medical and health science writers.

Susan Baxter’s blog Curmudgeon’s Corner features her insights into various medical matters, for example there’s her Dec. 5, 2011 posting on mammograms, along with her opinions on spandex, travel, and politics.

Peter Janiszewski and Travis Saunders co-own two different blogs, Obesity Panacea, which is part of the PLoS (Public Library of Science) blogs network, and Science of Blogging (nothing posted since July 2011 but it’s well worth a look).

I don’t have anything particularly profound to say about the state of Canadian science blogging this year. It does look to be getting more populous online and I hope that trend continues. I do have a wish for the New Year; I think it should be easier to find Canadian science blogs and would like  to see some sort of network or aggregated list.

More thoughts on science policy and the Canada 2011 federal election and Peer Review Radio end-of-season broadcast

Working on the Peer Review Radio end-of-season broadcast (April 26, 2011 at 12 noon EST or 9 am PST, listen live here on CHUO, fm 89.1) with Adrian J. Ebsary has been great and given me an opportunity to examine the science policy aspect of the current election campaign a little more closely since I first wrote my post (April 18, 2011) on the subject.

I found another commentary on science policy and election 2011 platforms at exposure/effect blog. (The writer, a scientist, chooses to remain anonymous.) I found this passage from the posting a little curious,

There isn’t a whole lot relating to science or science education in the party platforms, which is perhaps not surprising given the focus on the economy at the moment. The NDP probably have the strongest and most specific plans in this area, while the Green Party appear to have almost nothing; the Conservatives and Liberals fall somewhere in between.

I found the NDP platform to be the least detailed or informative both generally and about science. By the way, the PDF is 28 pages and a surprising number of those pages are filled with images. The Green platform lists 130 pages in its PDF with the Conservative platform at 67 pages and the Liberal platform at 98 pages. ETA April 27, 2011: I stand corrected. Ashartus (pseudonym for blogger at exposure/effect) points out (in the comments) that the Green Party platform is 12 pages and the document I was referencing is their Vision Green document. Within that 12 pages, the Green Party does, as Ashartus notes, offer the least detail about science policy of any party in the 2011 federal election.

Pascal Lapointe of Agence Science Presses/Je vote pour la science has been working to bring science policy into the political discourse for years. For this election campaign, the latest podcast he has prepared is titled, Est-ce que quelqu’un a prononcé le mot « science »? He will also be publishing answers to nine science policy questions that he and various science organizations prepared and asked of the candidates from various political parties. (Pascal has been tireless, he’s also published an April 15, 2011 article, La science des partis, co-written with Rob Annan of the Don’t leave Canada Behind blog (see my blog roll for the link). For more about the issues from Pascal please check the links as you’ll definitely find more about the 2011 election and science policy.)

Now for a very different way of looking at the party platforms, a visual representation of them using wordle. Thanks to Michael Gerskup at Skeptic North for taking the time to create these visualizations of the Conservative, Liberal, NDP, Green, and Bloc Québécois platforms by feeding the text into Wordle. Here’s the 2011 platform visualization for the Conservative party,

Conservative Party Platform for Canada 2011 election (Michael Gerskup/Skeptic North, April 11, 2011 posting)

I don’t see any science in this one or in the others, for that matter. You can find the rest of the visualizations here.

As for what I discovered while working with Adrian on the broadcast, there’s an absence in all of the platforms: emerging technologies. (It seems strange that I missed it initially given my area of interest but I did.) Do any of the candidates (and, for some, future members of parliament) in these political parties have any sense of changes that may be needed in policies and regulations as products of emerging technologies hit the marketplace? What will the social impact be? Will these changes affect education? etc., etc., etc.

I’m not suggesting that any of parties should have a full plan just that there be awareness of emerging technologies. There is awareness in other countries.

Science policy an issue in the Canada 2011 election?

It’s only in my dreams or, perhaps, my nightmares that science policy is considered an important issue in a Canadian federal election. Being an election issue can be a two-edged sword, you get more attention but that can work for you and/or against you. On balance, I think it’s better to be considered an election issue than to be ignored and it seems to me that there’s a lot more effort (not from the political parties) this election to put science policy in the limelight.

For anyone interested in asking candidates about their position on science and science policies, Peer Review Radio; Bringing Science Back to the People, will be webcasting interviews with four candidates from difference parties and constituencies (in the Ottawa region) and they are inviting questions both from Canadians and ‘informed World Citizens’ to be submitted by Weds., April 20, 2011. The interviews will be broadcast April 21 – 25, 2011. Here’s some more information about Peer Review Radio,

Science plays an increasing role in our daily lives, yet the average North American receives less than a minute of science news for every five hours of cable TV.

Peer Review Radio was established by a group of motivated graduate students with a desire to spread their love of science. By breaking down complicated concepts into bite-sized morcels, the ‘Peers’ hope to spark the curiosity of their listeners with relevant, reliable information. The end goal of this programme is to provide an outlet where anyone and everyone can understand current scientific issues and generate their own informed opinions. In addition, Peer Review Radio promotes careers in research and science and serves as a training ground for future scientists to acquire invaluable communication skills.

If you feel you need more information or a refresher, I’ve got some summaries and portions of commentaries culled from other blogs about the science policy and party platforms for the Canadian 2011 election.

For an overall analysis of what the various political parties are offering, you can check out Rob Annan’s April 11, 2011 posting where he offers an overview and specifics of the various parties’ research policy as described in their election platforms. The overviews have been excerpted, if you’re interested in reading the specifics, please see Rob’s posting,

The Conservative plan (pdf here) is slightly more detailed than the others, as they’ve rolled their recently tabled budget into their platform. The platform document includes a subsection devoted to R&D, in which they trumpet their track record (e.g. “made substantial new investments in R&D through Canada’s granting councils”, which I guess is technically true if you ignore the funding cuts that preceded – and exceeded – said “investments”).

The Liberals (pdf here) are pretty ambiguous about research policy, though they do have one idea that may be innovative (though probably isn’t).

The NDP (platform pdf here) doesn’t seem to have much of a plan for research, with nary a mention in the platform. Weird.

The Greens’ platform (pdf here) is described in detail in their Vision Green document, which includes their goals up to 2020. Of all platforms, it contains the most research-related content, and it is the most descriptive. Unlike the others, it also describes something akin to a “vision” for research in this country, which is predictably aligned with environmental and social justice politics. Oddly, this means that health research, a multi-billion dollar undertaking in this country and our largest research sector, is barely mentioned.

Bloc Québecois edit: an earlier edition based the Bloc positions on an executive summary of their platform.

I’m not sure why he removed the executive summary but for anyone interested in a summary of the Bloc Québécois science policy, it can be found at Agence Science Presses on the Élections Canada: La science des partis webpage written up in French (my stumbling translation follows) by Rob Annan and Pascal Lapointe,

Le Bloc Québécois considère que les politiques énergétiques et environnementales doivent s’appuyer sur des faits solidement démontrés par la science plutôt que sur des idéologies à courte vue. il mettra tout en œuvre pour que les scientifiques puissent communiquer directement avec les médias sans être censurés et sans risque de représailles.

Here goes the translation: The Bloc Québécois believes that energy and environmental policies should be based on scientific evidence rather than short-term political ideologies. As well, the party will free scientists to communicate directly to media without fear of censure or reprisal.

Nassif Ghoussoub on his Piece of Mind blog offers more analysis of the Liberal and Conservative party platforms re: science policy during this 2011 election season. From his April 15, 2011 posting about the Liberals and their science policy,

You expect that a Harvard Professor and a former Astronaut would cherish an opportunity to step up for a more serious, more vigorous, more rigorous, more scientifically driven, and less politically motivated research policy for the Government of Canada. Wrong! Ignatieff has been back in Canada long enough, and Garneau has been in politics long enough to know that a major discourse on research policy does not move votes. Remember the debates?

He goes on in more detail about a policy statement that he describes as ‘wishy-washy’.

In his April 18, 2011 posting, Nassif focuses on the Conservatives,

Unlike the other parties, the Conservatives have now a 5-year track record on research policy. Their proposed 2001 budget may also be considered as their platform, at least for the short term. Their research policies are de-facto more detailed, hence more open to scrutiny. The Tories’ record is mixed: Continuation of successful federal programs, more government interference in research prioritization and targeted funding, less emphasis on peer-review and the Tri-council, resistance to basic research, new elitist programs, yet major support for colleges.

He goes on to detail what he terms: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly elements of their science policy.

As for my take on things, I’m not a policy wonk. That said, I have looked at the various policies (can’t find the Bloc Québécois electoral platform [plateforme électorale] in either English or French) and don’t find that any of the parties view science as being important. A couple of paragraphs are devoted to it in the Liberal platform and there’s some mention in the Conservative platform too but the NDP and the Greens have folded science policy into other platform issues. As Nassif points out, science is not a vote-getter. For some anecdotal support of that comment, as I have mentioned elsewhere, I had one NDP constituency assistant describe science policy to me as a ’boutique’ issue.

I notice there’s no mention of reinstituting a science advisor (there was a position until the Conservatives cut it in their first term) or educating MP’s about science (they offer workshops in the UK) or even (other than the Bloc Québécois summary on the Agence Science Presses website) what role science advice or evidence may have in policy decisions where scientific information should play a key role e.g. regulating nanotechnology. Nor is there any discussion (again, other than from the Bloc Québécois) about federal scientists being allowed to freely discuss their work with the media. ETA April 18, 2011: One more question: What role do you see for science in Canadian society? (Aside: I may have just given myself the question I want for Peer Review Radio. Better take another look at the rules!)

If you too have questions for Peer Review Radio’s last webcast of the season, ETA April 18, 2011: I’ve added more information about how to post questions and comments. First some rules from the Peer Review Radio website,

Rules for #SciLxn41 Question Submissions
1. Must relate vaguely to funding and/or plans of action regarding to science, science education, science communication, research, health and innovation. 2. Must not be targeted questions at single candidates or parties, but must ask questions that can be posed to all four candidates equally. Deadline: April 20th we will openly publish the list of questions submitted to the candidates. That’s it! So please, post your comments with the #SciLxn41 hashtag on Twitter, share them on our Facebook Page, Reblog them at the Ottawa Orbital Tumblr, or drop a comment right here!

Canada’s innovation consultation

The official title for the Canadian government public consultation which ended Feb. 18, 2011 is Review of Federal Support to Research and Development. I had some issues with this consultation as I noted at length in my Feb. 18, 2011 posting and contrary to what I stated at the time (I reasoned that no one would pay much attention to what I had to say as it didn’t fit the terms of reference) but on reflection I decided to make the submission anyway, which is now posted on the government’s website here. My largest bone of contention with this process is the way the discussion is framed, i.e., the terms of reference for the consultation and that’s basically what I tried to say in the submission.

Meanwhile, some 250 others also made submissions and according to Rob Annan at the Researcher Forum; Don’t leave Canada behind blog (excerpted from his March 9, 2011 posting),

Just… wow.

Earlier this year, the R&D Review Panel issued a call for submissions from interested parties regarding government support for business- and industry-related R&D. Today the submission papers have been made public.

What a treasure trove of special pleading. [emphasis mine]

There are more than 250 submissions from industry, academia and government. I sympathize with Tom Jenkins and his fellow panelists who will have to sift through these not-even-thinly-veiled self-interested calls for support.

Major industry players have made submissions, including JD Irving, Pratt & Whitney, and Bombardier. These international industry leaders will no doubt be able to provide a global sense of how to nurture innovation and strengthen our economy. What are their suggestions? Well, Irving would like rules to be changed so it can get IRAP funding and access collaborative R&D grants without university collaboration. [emphasis mine]

I left a few juicy bits behind but I think you get the idea. At least some of this was suggested/predicted by Nassif Ghoussoub on his Piece of Mind blog in a Jan. 14, 2011 posting,

Do you really think that anyone of the heads/directors/presidents (the shopkeepers!) of these programs (the shops!) are going to testify that their programs are deficient and need less funding? What about those individuals that are getting serious funding from these programs (the clients!)?

No, a lot of these people asked for more. (I’m hoping at least a few people tried to address the spirit of the consultation which is why I said “a lot of these people” instead of the all encompassing “these people.)

As far as I’m concerned changing the rules of the game so the players stop gaming the system will last about as long as it takes for the players to figure how to game the new system. We need to look at the game and ask ourselves if we need to change it.

Bravo to the team who posted these submissions online and opened access to the rest of us.

Innovation discussion in Canada lacks imagination

Today, Feb. 18, 2011, is the last day you have to make a submission to the federal government of Canada’s Review of Federal Support to Research and Development.

By the way, the  expert panel appointed and tasked with carrying out this consultation consists of:

Mr. Thomas Jenkins – Chair
Dr. Bev Dahlby
Dr. Arvind Gupta
Ms. Monique F. Leroux
Dr. David Naylor
Mrs. Nobina Robinson

They represent a mix of industry and academic representatives; you can read more about them here. You will have to click for each biography. Unfortunately, neither the website nor the consultation paper offer a list of members of the panel withbiographies that are grouped together for easy scanning.

One sidenote, big kudos to whomever decided this was a good idea (from the Review web page),

Important note: Submissions received by the panel will be made publicly available on this site as early as March 4, 2011.[emphases mine] * The name and organizational affiliation of the individual making the submission will be posted on the site; however, contact information (i.e., email addresses, phone numbers and postal addresses) will not be posted, unless that information is embedded in the submission itself.

This initiative can be viewed in two ways: (a) necessary housecleaning of funding programmes for research and development (R&D) that are not effective and (b) an attempt to kickstart more innovation, i.e. better ties between government R&D efforts and industry to achieve more productivity, in Canada. From the consultation paper‘s introduction,

WHY A REVIEW?

Innovation by business is a vital part of maintaining a high standard of living in Canada and building Canadian sources of global advantage. The Government of Canada plays an important role in fostering an economic climate that encourages business innovation, including by providing substantial funding through tax incentives and direct program support to enhance business research and development (R&D). Despite the high level of federal support, Canada continues to lag behind other countries in business R&D expenditures (see Figure 1), and this is believed to be a significant factor in contributing to the country’s weak productivity growth. Recognizing this, Budget 2010 announced a comprehensive review of federal support to R&D in order to maximize its contribution to innovation and to economic opportunities for business. (p. 1 print;  p. 3 PDF)

I’d like to offer a submission but I can’t for two reasons. (a)  I really don’t know much about the ‘housecleaning’ aspects. (b) The panel’s terms of reference vis à vis innovation are so constrained that any comments I could offer fall far outside it’s purview.

Here’s what I mean by ‘constrained terms of reference’ (from the consultation paper),

The Panel has been asked to provide advice related to the following questions:

§ What federal initiatives are most effective in increasing business R&D and facilitating commercially relevant R&D partnerships?

§ Is the current mix and design of tax incentives and direct support for business R&D and businessfocused R&D appropriate?

§ What, if any, gaps are evident in the current suite of programming, and what might be done to fill these gaps?

In addition, the Panel’s mandate specifies that its recommendations not result in an increase or decrease to the overall level of funding required for federal R&D initiatives. (p. 3 print; p. 5 PDF)

The ‘housecleaning’ effort is long overdue. Even good government programmes can outlive their usefulness while ineffective and/or bad programmes don’t get jettisoned soon enough or often enough. If you want a sense of just how complicated our current R & D funding system is, just check this out from Nassif Ghoussoub’s (Piece of Mind blog) Jan. 14, 2011 posting,

Now the number of programs that the government supports, and which are under review is simply mind boggling.

First, you have the largest piece of the puzzle, the $4-billion “Scientific Research and Experimental Develoment tax credit program” (SR&ED), which seems to be the big elephant in the room. I hardly know anything about this program, besides the fact that it is a federal tax incentive program, administered by the Canada Revenue Agency, that encourages Canadian businesses of all sizes, and in all sectors to conduct research and development in Canada. Former VP of the NRC and former President of Alberta Ingenuity, Peter Hackett, has lots to say about this. Also on youtube.

But you don’t need to be an expert to imagine the line-up of CEOs waiting to testify as to how important these tax incentives are to the country? “Paris vaut bien une messe” and a billion or four are surely worth testifying for.

Next, just take a look (below) at this illustrative list of more directly funded federal programs. Why “illustrative”?, because there is at least one hundred more!

Do you really think that anyone of the heads/directors/presidents (the shopkeepers!) of these programs (the shops!) are going to testify that their programs are deficient and need less funding? What about those individuals that are getting serious funding from these programs (the clients!)?

Nassif’s list is 50 (!) programmes long and he suggests there are another 100 of them? Yes, housecleaning is long overdue but as Nassif points out. the people most likely to submit comment about these programmes  are likely to be beneficiaries uninclined to see their demise.

There is another problem with this ‘housecleaning’ process in that they seem to be interested in ‘tweaking’ rather than renovating or rethinking the system. Rob Annan at the Researcher Forum (Don’t leave Canada behind) blog, titled his Feb. 4, 2011 post, Innovation vs. Invention, as he questions what we mean by innovation (excerpt from his posting),

I wonder if we’ve got the whole thing wrong.

The fact is: universities don’t produce innovation. For that matter, neither does industrial R&D.

What university and industrial research produces is invention.

The Blackberry is not an innovation, it’s an invention. A new cancer-fighting drug is not an innovation, it’s an invention. A more durable prosthetic knee is not an innovation, it’s an invention.

Universities can – and do – produce inventions.

In fact, they produce inventions at an astonishing rate. University tech transfer offices (now usually branded as “centres for innovation and commercialization”) register more intellectual property than could ever be effectively commercialized.

But innovation is distinct from invention. Innovation is about process.

Innovation is about finding more efficient ways to do things. Innovation is about increasing productivity. Innovation is about creating new markets – sometimes through the commercialization of inventions.

Innovation is about the how not about the what.

Thought-provoking, yes? I think a much broader scope needs to be taken if we’re going really discuss innovation in Canada. I’m talking about culture and making a cultural shift. One of the things I’ve noticed is that everyone keeps saying Canadians aren’t innovative. Fair enough. So, how does adding another government programme change that? As far as I can tell, most of the incentives that were created have simply encouraged people to game the system, which is what you might expect from people who aren’t innovative.

I think one of the questions that should have been asked is, how do you encourage the behaviour, in this case a cultural shift towards innovation, you want when your programmes haven’t elicited that behaviour?

Something else I’d suggest, let’s not confine the question(s) to the usual players as they’ll be inclined to offer more of the same. (There’s an old saying, if you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail.)

Another aspect of making a cultural shift is modeling at least some of the behaviours. Here’s something what Dexter Johnson at the Nanoclast blog (IEEE Spectrum) noticed about US President Barack Obama’s January 2011 State of the Union address in his January 28, 2011 posting,

Earlier this week in the President’s State of the Union Address, a 16-year-old girl by the name Amy Chyao accompanied the First Lady at her seat.

No doubt Ms. Chyao’s presence was a bit of stage craft to underscore the future of America’s ingenuity and innovation because Ms. Chyao, who is still a high school junior, managed to synthesize a nanoparticle that when exposed to infrared light even when it is inside the body can be triggered like a bomb to kill cancer cells. [emphasis mine] Ms. Chyao performed her research and synthesis in the lab of Kenneth J. Balkus, Jr., a chemistry professor at the University of Texas at Dallas.

This is a remarkable achievement and even more so from someone still so young, so we would have to agree with Prof. Balkus’ assessment that “At some point in her future, she’ll be a star.”

However, Chyao was given to us as a shining example of the US potential for innovation, and, as a result, its competitiveness. So beyond stage craft, what is the assessment of innovation for the US in a time of emerging technologies such as nanotechnology? [emphasis mine]

As President Obama attempts to rally the nation with “This is our Sputnik moment”, Andrew Maynard over on his 20/20 blog tries to work out what innovation means in our current context as compared to what it meant 50 years ago at the dawn of the space race.

Notice the emphasis on innovation. Our US neighbours are as concerned as we are about this and what I find interesting is that there glimmers of a very different approach. Yes, Chyao’s presence was stagecraft but this kind of ‘symbolic communication’ can be incredibly important. I say ‘can’ because if it’s purely stagecraft then it will condemned as a cheap stunt but if they are able to mobilize ‘enough’ stories, programmes, education, etc. that support the notion of US ingenuity and innovation then you can see a cultural shift occur. [Perfection won’t be achieved; there will be failures. What you need are enough stories and successes.] Meanwhile, Canadians keep being told they’re not innovative and ‘we must do something’.

This US consultation may be more stagecraft but it shows that not all consultations have to be as thoroughly constrained as the Canadian one finishing today.  From Mike Masnick’s Feb. 9, 2011 posting (The White House Wants Advice On What’s Blocking American Innovation) on Techdirt,

The White House website kicked off a new feature this week, called Advise the Advisor, in which a senior staff member at the White House will post a YouTube video [there’s one in this posting on the Techdirt website] on a particular subject, asking the public to weigh in on that topic via a form. The very first such topic is one near and dear to our hearts: American Innovation. [emphasis mine] …

And here is the answer I provided:

Research on economic growth has shown time and time again the importance of basic innovation towards improving the standard of living of people around the world. Economist Paul Romer’s landmark research into innovation highlighted the key factor in economic growth is increasing the spread of ideas.

Traditionally, many people have considered the patent system to be a key driver for innovation, but, over the last few decades, research has repeatedly suggested that this is not the case. In fact, patents more frequently act as a hindrance to innovation rather than as a help to it. Recent research by James Bessen & Michael Meurer (reviewing dozens of patent studies) found that the costs of patents far outweigh the benefits.

This is a problem I see daily as the founder of a startup in Silicon Valley — often considered one of the most innovative places on earth. Patents are not seen as an incentive to innovation at all. Here, patents are simply feared. The fear is that anyone doing something innovative will be sued out of nowhere by someone with a broad patent. A single patent lawsuit can cost millions of dollars and can waste tons of resources that could have gone towards actual innovation. Firms in Silicon Valley tend to get patents solely for defensive purposes.

Getting back to Dexter, there is one other aspect of his comments that should be considered, the emphasis on ‘emerging technologies’. The circumstances in which we currently find ourselves are hugely different than they were during the Industrial revolution, the arrival of plastics and pesticides, etc. We understand our science and technology and their impacts quite differently than we did even a generation ago and that requires a different approach to innovation than the ones we’ve used in the past. From Andrew Maynard’s Jan. 25, 2011 posting (2020 Science blog),

… if technology innovation is as important as Obama (and many others besides) believes it is, how do we develop the twenty first century understanding, tools and institutions to take full advantage of it?

One thing that is clear is that in connecting innovation to action, we will need new insights and “intelligence” on how to make this connection work in today’s world. These will need to address not only the process of technology innovation, but also how we develop and use it within an increasingly connected society, where more people have greater influence over what works – and what doesn’t – than ever before. This was the crux of a proposal coming out of the World Economic Forum Global Redesign Agenda earlier this year, which outlined the need for a new Global Center for Emerging Technologies Intelligence.

But beyond the need for new institutions, there is also the need for far more integrated approaches to building a sustainable future through technology innovation – getting away from the concept of technology innovation as something that is somebody else’s business, and making it everybody’s business. This was a central theme in the World Economic Forum report that Tim Harper of CIENTIFICA Ltd. and I published last week.

There’s a lot more to be said about the topic. Masnick did get a response of sorts to his submission about US innovation (from his Feb. 17, 2011 posting on Techdirt),

Tony was the first of a bunch of you to send over the news that President Obama’s top advisor, David Plouffe, has put up a blog post providing a preliminary overview of what he “heard” via the Ask the Advisor question, which we wrote about last week, concerning “obstacles to innovation.” The only indication that responses like mine were read was a brief mention about how some people complained about how the government, and particularly patent policy, got in the way of innovation:

Many respondents felt that too much government regulation stifled businesses and innovators and that the patent process and intellectual property laws are broken.

Unfortunately, rather than listening to why today’s patent system is a real and significant problem, it appears that Plouffe is using this to score political points for his boss …

Masnick hasn’t lost hope as he goes on to note in his posting.

For yet another perspective, I found Europeans weighed in on the innovation topic at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) 2011 annual meeting this morning (Feb. 18, 2011). From a Government of Canada science blog (http://blogs.science.gc.ca/) posting, Mobilizing resources for research and innovation: the EU model, by Helen Murphy,

EU Commission Director-General of the Joint Research Centre Robert-Jan Smits spoke about what all countries agree on: that research and innovation are essential to prosperity — not just now, but even more so in the future.

He said European leaders are voicing the same message as President Obama, who in his recent State of the Union address linked innovation to “winning the future” — something he called the “Sputnik movement of our generation.”

Smits talked about the challenge of getting agreement among the EU’s 27 member countries on a growth strategy. But they have agreed; they’ve agreed to pursue growth that is smart (putting research and innovation at centre stage), sustainable (using resources efficiently and responsibly) and inclusive (leaving no one behind and creating new jobs).

The goal is ambitious: the EU aims to create nearly four million new jobs in Europe and increase the EU’s GDP by 700 billion Euros by 2025.

What I’m trying to say is that innovation is a big conversation and I hope that the expert panel for Canada’s current consultation on this matter will go beyond its terms reference to suggest that ‘housecleaning and tweaking’ should be part of a larger initiative that includes using a little imagination.

Canadian business triumphs again! US company acquires Cananano Technologies

As I have noted on more than one occasion, the ‘success’ model in Canadian technology-based businesses is predicated on a buy-out, i.e. develop and grow your business so you can sell it and retire. The news about Canadian Nano Technologies (Canano) fits very well into this model. From the Jan. 12, 2011 news item on Nanotechnology Now,

Arkansas-based NanoMech, Inc. announced today that it has acquired Canadian Nano Technologies, LLC (Canano).

Canano (www.CanadianNano.com) provides custom engineered nanopowders designed to solve unique problems, adding value to products that span multiple industries including electronics, agriculture, solar energy, and aerospace. The company was founded to develop and commercialize applications of pure metal nanopowders. Using a proprietary gas condensation process partially based on research carried out at Los Alamos National Laboratory, Canano produces a wide variety of high-quality nanoparticles. Their proprietary process is unique and offers significant improvements over other nanoparticle production/collection processes.

NanoMech is a leading designer and manufacturer of nanoparticle-based additives, coatings and coating deposition systems.

Richard Tacker, Founder and CEO of Canano said, “Our customers have seen the value that our custom-engineered nanopowders bring to their products, and as a result the demand for our materials is growing rapidly. By joining NanoMech we can take advantage of their excellent management team, nanomanufacturing expertise, and scale up our production capacity to serve existing and future customers.”

The Canadian technology certainly has some interesting applications,

The nanopowder technology applications include advance methods of improving: nutrient replacement fertilizers and environmentally safe pesticides and conductive inks for printed circuit boards, RFID’s, photovoltaic printed solar cells, solar connectors, surface coatings, new generation ballistics, RF shielding, self-cleaning surfaces, solar heaters, condensers , silicon wafers, solid rocket fuels, and primers. Other applications include textiles, nano fabrics for clothing and car seat covers, odor free materials, cosmetics, sunscreens, deodorants, lip balm, cleansing products, surface protectants, cleaning chemicals, antibacterial coatings, scratch resistant surfaces, thermal barriers, super hydrophobic, dielectrics, wound dressings, lighter, stronger sports equipment, smart materials, air purifiers, water filtration and bio-aerosols, safety, sun and high definition glasses, non-reflective and smart shielding, odor free refrigerators and washing machines, automotive parts, chip resistant paints, non-corrosives, cement, concrete, and fuel savers, and much more.

Meanwhile, the discussion about innovation in Canada continues as we try to figure out why we aren’t better at innovating as per a Jan. 12, 2011 article by John Lorinc for University Affairs. (Thanks to Rob Annan for the tip via Twitter.) Lorinc notes in his article,

In its ninth report on the state of Ontario’s competitiveness, the task force headed by Roger Martin, dean of the University of Toronto’s Joseph L. Rotman School of Management, argues that low productivity in the country’s manufacturing heartland has led to low prosperity, revealing an “innovation gap.” Professor Martin writes that public policy is more concerned with science-driven inventions that, while very important to society, won’t necessarily lead to products and services that consumers want – and thus products and services that could improve Ontario’s innovation capabilities. [emphasis mine]

I am not sure that a focus on ‘science-driven inventions’ is the big problem. Certainly our inventions seem attractive to large foreign companies and corporations as per the Canano experience and many others. The article even points out that Apple is currently pursuing RIM, which is, for now, the largest Canadian technology company.

The perspective from William Polushin from McGill  is closer to my own,

For many years, William Polushin has taught a core international business undergraduate course at McGill University’s Desautels Faculty of Management. Each year Mr. Polushin (who’s also founding director of the Desautels program for international competitiveness, trade and innovation) polls his students about their attitudes towards entrepreneurship and innovation by asking whether they see themselves as the next Bill Gates – in other words, as individuals who will come up with an innovation that could be a game-changer. Year after year, the response rate is consistent: only about 10 percent say they see themselves in this kind of role. By comparison, at a recent conference on North American competitiveness in Mexico City, he asked the students in the audience to raise their hands if they saw themselves running their own businesses in the future. “Well over half put up their hands,” he says.

The results of his straw polls tell a story. Canada has not been especially successful at fostering an innovation mindset among successive generations of business grads and entrepreneurs. Mr. Polushin says, “We don’t have a strong risk orientation in our own country.” [emphasis mine] Most of his students aspire to work in large companies, even though the supply of Canadian-based multinationals continues to shrink due to consolidation. The result, he says, is that much R&D and innovation activity occurs elsewhere.

For a bit of contrast,

Although he’s based at the epicentre of Ottawa’s policy machinery, veteran Statistics Canada economist John Baldwin has a message that runs sharply counter to much of the conventional wisdom that emanates from the capital’s think tanks. “There’s an awful lot of innovation taking place,” says Dr. Baldwin, director of StatsCan’s economic analysis division. The problem is that Canadian policy doesn’t recognize it as such.

I think that’s true too and illustrates the point that discussion about innovation in Canada is complex and nuanced. I recommend reading Lorinc’s entire article.

Todd Babiuk’s article for the Edmonton Journal, Canada failing to create culture of innovation, provides an insider’s perspective from Peter Hackett,

He was, for five years, the president and CEO of a now-shuttered endowment fund called Alberta Ingenuity. The mandate of Alberta Ingenuity, devised to be independent of the provincial government, was to encourage and support innovation in science, technology and engineering. This innovation would lead to spinoff companies that would create fabulous wealth and opportunity for Albertans, attract talented people, and diversify the economy.

Then, all of a sudden, he wasn’t the president and CEO of an independent organization. Alberta Ingenuity has been replaced by Alberta Innovates, and it is operated by the department of Advanced Education and Technology.

“What I take from it, in terms of lessons, is it’s thrilling to watch a group of people take a great product to the market,” said Hackett, in his current office at the University of Alberta’s National Institute for Nanotechnology, where he is a fellow. Before he arrived in Alberta, Hackett did similar work at the National Research Council in Ottawa, spinning Canadian research into businesses.

“But in 15 years of an innovation agenda, honestly,” he said, “governments have accomplished nothing.”

On a YouTube video shot at the Canadian Science Policy Centre in late 2010, Hackett criticizes the Canadian government’s unhelpful and backward interventions into business, through the tax system.

If you’re making a profit, we’re going to help you. But if you’re growing, we won’t. [emphasis mine] In the U.S., it’s completely the other way around. That’s why they have a lot of small companies that grow into big companies.”

In the same video he outlines, briefly and rather devastatingly, the problem with venture capital in Canada. “Government’s intervention into venture capital has ruined the ability for Canadian companies to grow,” he says.

… “We created a tax break for investing in venture capital,” he said, in his office. “So it was about the tax break, not this great company: Facebook, whatever you like. It’s absurd!”

Point well taken regarding the tax break for venture capital. As I recall, there were similar issues with film funding tax breaks. These were addressed and finally, real movies as opposed to ‘tax break’ movies got funded. Part of the problem with government tax programmes such as tax breaks for venture capital funding or film funding is the law of unintended (and counterproductive) consequences and the extraordinarily long time it takes to resolve them.

There was one other point in Hackett’s interview, “If you’re making a profit, we’re going to help you. But if you’re growing, we won’t,” which is well illustrated by Rob Annan’s Nov. 30, 2010 posting (on the Researcher Form blog) where he discusses this phenomenon in the context of Medicago,

Medicago is a Canadian company that produces vaccines in tobacco plants instead of using traditional egg-production techniques. This allows a much more rapid development and deployment of seasonal and pandemic vaccines. Their proprietary technology, currently in phase I and II clinical trials, was developed in Canada thanks in part to government funding …

They’ve been awarded numerous Canadian business and technology awards. They have translated these investments and successes into millions of dollars in private sector investment and a public listing on the TSX. Not bad for a company based out of Quebec City.

So what’s wrong with this obvious success story?

Medicago made the news this week because the US Department of Defense is investing $21-million to build a 90,000 sq ft state-of-the art production facility in North Carolina. The facility will be able to produce 120-million pandemic vaccine doses annually or 40-million seasonal vaccine doses annually. In a news release, the US government recognizes the company’s ability to bolster domestic vaccine supply, respond more rapidly than traditional methods, and bring “hundreds of good paying jobs” to the region.

The 90,000 sq ft facility in North Carolina will dwarf the current estimated 15,000 sq ft dedicated to production in Quebec City, and will inevitably shift the company’s focus south.

The Canadian government’s response?

According to CBC news, Health Canada remains committed to egg-based vaccines …

While it’s discouraging to read about, I like to find hope in the fact that innovation in Canada is being discussed and folks seem to be interested in finding ways to promote and nurture innovation in Canada.