Tag Archives: science culture

Late to the Stand Up for Science party/protest of Sept. 16, 2013

It’s not the first time I’ve missed a party and I have to say thank you to my US colleagues (David Bruggeman’s Oct. 3, 2013 posting on his Pasco Phronesis blog and Glyn Moody’s Oct. 3, 2013 Techdirt posting) for insuring I found out about the Sept. 16, 2013 series of cross Canada protest rallies, Stand Up for Science, regarding the ‘muzzling’ of science communication in Canada.

Suzanne Goldenberg’s Sept. 16, 2013 article for the Guardian provides a good overview of the situation. I have excerpted the bits that are new to me (Note: Links have been removed),

Researchers in 16 Canadian cities have called protests on Monday against science policies introduced under the government of Stephen Harper, which include rules barring government researchers from talking about their own work with journalists and, in some cases, even fellow researchers.

“There a lot of concern in Canada right now about government scientists not being allowed to speak about their research to the public because of the new communications policies being put into place,” said Katie Gibbs, director of a new group, Evidence for Democracy, which is organising the protests.

This year, [2013] Canada’s department of fisheries and oceans released a new set of rules barring scientists from discussing their findings with the public or publishing in academic journals.[emphasis mine]

The new guidelines required all scientists to submit papers to a departmental manager for review – even after they had been accepted for publication by an academic journal.

The proposed rules became public earlier this year after American scientists on a joint US-Canadian project in the eastern Arctic took exception at the new conditions.

The government was accused this month [Sept. 2013] of delaying its annual report on greenhouse gas emissions – usually released in mid-summer – because it was universally expected to show a double-digit rise in carbon pollution.

The government is actually trying to bar people from having their work published in academic journals? Well, brava to Katie Gibbs and Evidence for Democracy for organizing the Sept. 16, 2013 rallies and their predecessor, the Death of Evidence Rally (for more info. about that previous event there’s my July 10, 2012 posting announcing and discussing the ‘Death of Evidence’ and my July 13, 2013 posting which featured a roundup of comments regarding the 2012 rally).

Interestingly the Evidence for Democracy’s (E4D) Board of Directors seems to be largely comprised of biologists (from the Who We Are webpage),

E4D’s Board of Directors

Katie Gibbs

Dr. Gibbs recently completed a PhD in Biology from the University of Ottawa and has a diverse background organizing and managing various causes and campaigns.

Scott Findlay

Dr.Findlay is an Associate Professor of Biology at the University of Ottawa and former Director of the University of Ottawa’s Institute of the Environment.

Kathryn O’Hara

Ms. O’Hara is an Associate Professor of Journalism at Carleton University and holds the CTV Chair in Science Broadcast Journalism.

Susan Pinkus

Ms. Pinkus has a M.Sc. in conservation biology and community ecology and is a senior staff scientist at Ecojustice.

By pointing out the concentration of biologists within the E4D board, I’m trying to hint at the difficulty of communicating across disciplinary boundaries (biologists network with other biologists partly because it’s easier to find people who belong to the same organizations and attend the same conferences). When Canada’s geography is also taken into account, the fact that the group managed to organize events in 17 cities (also listed on the E4D Stand Up for Science webpage; scroll down about 40% of the page) across the country), according to Ivan Semeniuk’s Sept. 16, 2013, article about the rallies for the Globe and Mail newspaper, becomes quite laudable.

Matthew Robinson’s Sept. 17, 2013 article for the Vancouver Sun gives a BC (the city of Vancouver is located in the province of British Columbia,Canada) flavour to the proceedings,

David Suzuki [biologist], Alexandra Morton [biologist] and other prominent B.C.-based scientists rallied on the steps of the Vancouver Art Gallery Monday to decry what they called the continued muzzling of federal scientists and to reason for broadened science funding. ….

Separate from the protests, NDP science and technology critic Kennedy Stewart [Member of Parliament from BC] tabled Monday [Sept. 16, 2013] a motion for federal departments to permit scientists to speak freely to the media and the public.

The motion would, among other things, allow federal scientists to present personal viewpoints and prohibit elected officials, ministerial staff and communications officers from directing scientists to suppress or alter their findings.

Gibbs said the timing of the NDP motion was not co-ordinated.

Meanwhile, another group, Scientists for the Right to Know, has been emerging. From the About us page,

In 2012, a Working Group of Science for Peace started to look into the muzzling of science and scientists in Canada. Muzzling is a broad process that may be carried out by governments, industry, universities, and others. However, we quickly realized that the current federal government is actually waging a war on basic science. While other Canadian governments have engaged in muzzling as well, we have never witnessed the type of systematic attack on basic science that is happening right now in Canada.

We therefore decided to focus at present on the muzzling of science on the part of the federal government. We also decided that we needed to find a means to engage the public at large. The focus of our work shifted, then, from researching the issue to advocating for unmuzzled science. It became clear that the work the group was envisaging would exceed the mandate of Science for Peace -  education. We decided to form a new organization frankly devoted to advocacy.

The inaugural meeting of Scientists for the Right to Know took place in April 2013. We are currently in the process of incorporating as a non-profit organization. …

 

The organization has an executive comprised of three people (from the About us page),

 

President – Margrit Eichler

 

Treasurer – Phyllis Creighton

 

Secretary – Sue Kralik

 

Margrit Eichler is Professor Emerita of OISE/UT. She received her PhD in Sociology from Duke University.  She was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada and of the European Academy of Sciences, and  she received an honorary doctorate from Brock University. She has remained an activist during her entire  academic career.

 

Phyllis Creighton is a translations editor with the renowned Dictionary of Canadian Biography/Dictionnaire biographique du Canada. She holds an MA in history from the University of Toronto. An ethicist and author — and Raging Granny–, she has long worked for peace, nuclear disarmament, human rights, social justice, conservation, and environmental protection. She holds the Anglican Award of Merit, the Order of Ontario, and the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Medal.

 

Sue Kralik is a graduate of the University of Western Ontario and earned a Master of Education degree at the University of Toronto. Sue recently retired as a school Principal. While working as a Principal, Sue led school based anti-war and social justice initiatives and remains committed to working for peace, social justice, and respect for the environment.

Interestingly, Scientists for the Right to Know has sprung forth from the Humanities and Social Sciences communities.

It’s  an exciting time for Canadian science culture;, I just wish the communication between these groups and other interested groups and individuals was better. That way, I (and, I suspect, other Canadian science bloggers) wouldn’t be left wondering how they managed to miss significant events such as the inception of the Evidence for Science group,and of the  Scientists for the Right to Know group, and the Stand Up for Science cross Canada rally.

Forbes magazine and US science culture

Forbes magazine, which is based in the US but now has editions produced in many countries, describes its focus as business and finance. So, it might seem a little unexpected to find a list of rising stars in the fields of science and health until one remembers the current fascination, worldwide, with innovation which often seems to mean science research which can be commercialized.

Forbes has just published its list of ’30 under 30′ rising stars in the fields of Science and Health Care. Pedro Valencia, who studied with and worked in Robert Langer’s lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), was one of the 30 cited in the 2012 list. From the Dec. 27, 2012 news item on Azonano,

Valencia was cited for figuring out “how to more quickly synthesize nanoparticles that can be used to make drugs more effective and less toxic and to put multiple drugs inside the same nanotech medicine. This has resulted in many top-notch scientific publications and the formation of a start-up, Blend Therapeutics.”

Valencia was the recipient of the NSF Graduate Fellowship. He was co-advised by Professor Langer and Dr. Omid Farokhzad of the Brigham Women’s Hospital – Harvard Medical School.

Langer and Farokhzad were mentioned in my Oct. 28, 2011 posting about nanotechnology commercialization efforts,

… BIND Biosciences and Selecta Biosciences, two leading nanomedicine companies, announced today that they have entered into investment agreements with RUSNANO, a $10-billion Russian Federation fund that supports high-tech and nanotechnology advances.

RUSNANO is co-investing $25 million in BIND and $25 million in Selecta, for a total RUSNANO investment of $50 million within the total financing rounds of $94.5 million in the two companies combined. …

The proprietary technology platforms of BIND and Selecta originated in laboratories at Harvard Medical School directed by Professor Omid Farokhzad, MD, and in laboratories at MIT directed by Professor Robert Langer, ScD, a renowned scientist who is a recipient of the US National Medal of Science, the highest US honor for scientists, and is an inventor of approximately 850 patents issued or pending worldwide. Drs. Langer and Farokhzad are founders of both companies. [Farokhzad was featured in a recent Canadian Broadcasting Corporation {CBC}, Nature of Things, television episode about nanomedicine, titled More than human.] Professor Ulrich von Andrian, MD, PhD, head of the immunopathology laboratory at Harvard Medical School, is a founder of Selecta.

It is fascinating to observe not only the linkages between business and science/health but also the way in which those linkages contribute to a larger ‘science culture’, which includes science festivals, science-oriented popular culture, science talks for just a few examples.

Council of Canadian Academies tries to answer question: What is the state of Canada’s science culture?

The Council of Canadian Academies is an organization designed to answer questions about science in Canada. From the Council’s About Us webpage on their website,

The Council is an independent, not-for-profit corporation that supports science-based, expert assessments (studies) to inform public policy development in Canada. The Council began operation in 2005 and consists of a Board of Governers, a Scientific Advisory Committee and Secretariat. The Council draws upon the intellectual capital that lies within its three Member Academies the Royal Society of Canada (RSC); the Canadian Academy of Engineering;  and the Canadian Academy of Health Sciences.

Our mission is to contribute to the shaping of evidence-based public policy that is in the public interest. This is achieved by appointing independent, multidisciplinary panels of expert volunteers. The Council’s work encompasses a broad definition of science, incorporating the natural, social and health sciences as well as engineering and the humanities.

Expert Panels directly address the question and sub-questions referred to them. Panel assessments may also identify: emerging issues, gaps in knowledge, Canadian strengths, and international trends and practices. Upon completion, assessments provide government decision-makers, academia and stakeholders with high-quality information required to develop informed and innovative public policy.

Several months ago, Gary Goodyear, Canada’s Minister of State (Science and Technology), requested on behalf of the Canada Science and Technology Museums Corporation (CSTMC), Natural Resources Canada, and Industry Canada an assessment of science culture in Canada. From the State of Canada’s Science Culture webpage on the Council of Canadian Academies website,

Over the past 30 years, public interest and debate has been steadily growing in Canada and abroad over the need to foster a science culture as part of the national science and technology agenda. In this period, significant government and private investments have contributed to the development of hundreds of individual science culture programs and institutions.

Now more than ever the volume of programs and data support the need for a national examination of issues, such as the performance indicators that best reflect the vitality of Canada’s science culture, and a need to understand where Canada ranks internationally. The expert panel will be asked to consider these and other questions such as what factors influence an interest in science among youth; what are the key components of the informal system that supports science culture; and what strengths and weaknesses exist in the Canadian system.

Assessments of science culture can focus either on science in the general culture, or the culture among scientists. This assessment will focus principally on the former, with additional interest in understanding the underlying connections among entrepreneurship, innovation and science. …

The full assessment process includes a rigorous peer review exercise to ensure the report is objective, balanced and evidence-based. Following the review and approval by the Council’s Board of Governors, the complete report will be made available on the Council’s website in both official languages. …

Question

What is the state of Canada’s science culture?

Sub-questions:

  1. What is the state of knowledge regarding the impacts of having a strong science culture?
  2. What are the indicators of a strong science culture? How does Canada compare with other countries against these indicators? What is the relationship between output measures and major outcome measures?
  3. What factors (e.g., cultural, economic, age, gender) influence interest in science, particularly among youth?
  4. What are the critical components of the informal system that supports science culture (roles of players, activities, tools and programs run by science museums, science centres, academic and not-for-profit organizations and the private sector)? What strengths and weaknesses exist in Canada’s system?
  5. What are the effective practices that support science culture in Canada and in key competitor countries?

Hopefully, the expert panel will have a definition of some kind for “science culture.”

After waiting what seems to be an unusually long period, the Council announced the chair for the  “science culture” expert panel (from the CCA Dec. 19, 2012 news release),

Arthur Carty to Serve as Expert Panel Chair on the State of Canada’s Science Culture

The Council is pleased to announce the appointment of Dr. Arthur Carty, O.C., as Chair of the Expert Panel on the State of Canada’s Science Culture. In 2011, the Minister of State (Science and Technology) on behalf of the Canada Science and Technology Museums Corporation (CSTMC), Natural Resources Canada, and Industry Canada requested the Council conduct an in-depth, evidence-based assessment on the state of Canada’s science culture.

As Chair of the Council’s Expert Panel, Dr. Carty will work with a multidisciplinary group of experts, to be appointed by the Council, to address the following question: What is the state of Canada’s science culture?

Dr. Carty is currently the Executive Director of the Waterloo Institute for Nanotechnology at the University of Waterloo. Dr. Carty also serves as Special Advisor to the President on international science and technology collaboration, and as Research Professor in the Department of Chemistry. Prior to this, Dr. Carty served as Canada’s first National Science Advisor to the Prime Minister and to the Government of Canada from 2004-2007 and as President of the National Research Council Canada from 1994-2004.

You can find out more on Carty’s biography webpage, on the CCA website,

Arthur Carty is the Executive Director of the Waterloo Institute for Nanotechnology at the University of Waterloo, Special Advisor to the President on international science and technology collaboration, and Research Professor in the Department of Chemistry

From 2004-2008, Dr. Carty served as Canada’s first National Science Advisor to the Prime Minister and to the Government of Canada. Prior to this appointment, he was President of the National Research Council Canada for 10 years. Before this, he spent 2 years at Memorial University and then 27 years at the University of Waterloo, where he was successively Professor of Chemistry, Director of the Guelph-Waterloo Centre for Graduate Work in Chemistry and Biochemistry, Chair of the Department of Chemistry, and Dean of Research.

….

Carty’s profile page on the Waterloo Institute of Nanotechnology (WIN) website offers the same information but in more detail.

It’s difficult to divine much from the biographical information about Carty as it is very purpose-oriented to impress the reader with Carty’s international and national involvements in the field of science advice and collaboration. Carty may have extensive experience with multi-disciplinary teams and an avid interest in a science culture that includes informal science education and the arts and humanities, unfortunately, it’s not visible on either the CCA or WIN website biographies.

Hopefully,  Carty and the CCA will assemble a diverse expert panel. (Warning: blatant self-promotion ahead) If they are looking for a person of diverse personal and professional interests

  • who has an MA in Creative Writing (nonfiction and fiction) and New Media from De Montfort University in Leicester, UK and
  • a BA (Communication – Honors) from Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, Canada and
  • who has built up one of the largest and longest-running independent science blogs in the country thereby contributing to science culture in Canada,
  • neatly combining the social sciences, the humanities, and an informed perspective on science and science culture in Canada in one person,

they may want to contact me at [email protected] I have more details in the CV and can supply references.

Science culture panel and Denise Amyot at the 2011 Canadian Science Policy Conference

The 2011 Canadian Science Policy Conference (CSPC) starts tomorrow, Nov. 16, 2011 and runs until Nov. 18, 2011. Denise Amyot, speaker on the 2011 CSPC Science Culture, Organized and Prioritized: Three National and International Initiatives panel and President and Chief Executive Officer of the Canada Science and Technology Museums Corporation, has very kindly given me an interview.

Here’s a little bit about Denise Amyot first (from the bio on the 2011 CSPC conference website),

Denise Amyot is currently, President and CEO of the Canada Science and Technology Museums Corporation whose mandate is to foster scientific and technological literacy throughout the country. The Corporation and its three museums – the Canada Agriculture Museum, the Canada Aviation and Space Museum, and the Canada Science and Technology Museum – tell the stories of Canadian ingenuity and achievement in science and technology.

She has worked both in National Headquarters and in regions in several federal departments including central agencies, Human Resources and Skills Development Canada, National Defense, Natural Resources Canada, and Canadian Heritage. In her former three roles as Assistant Deputy Minister, she was respectively responsible for leading and managing leadership development programs and developing policies for employees and executives throughout the public Service of Canada, the corporate management services, as well as public affairs and ministerial services. She has worked extensively in policy and line operations in the context of programs and service delivery, in social, economic, and cultural areas. She also worked for few years with the Government of the Northwest Territories.

Ms Amyot is the former President of the Institute of Public Administration of Canada, Vice-President of the Head of Federal Agencies Steering Committee, and member of the Board of Governors at the Ottawa University and at the Algonquin College. She is the former President of the Association of Professional Executives of the Public Service of Canada and former President of the Communications Community Office.

Ms Amyot has obtained a Master’s degree in Education and three Bachelor degrees in Biology, in Arts and in Education.

Now, here are the questions and answers:

The panel (Science Culture, Organized and Prioritized: Three National and International Initiatives) features you from the Canada Science and Technology Museums Corporation (CSTMC); Lesley Lewis, CEO of the Ontario Science Centre; Ian Chubb, Chief Scientist for Australia and is being moderated by Tracey Ross, ED for the Canadian Association of Science Centres. Could you describe the difference between a museum of science and technology and a science centre?

Science museums are distinctive from science centres as they are the steward of a collection that provides an historical perspective on a specific cross-section of society. Science museums use artifacts from their collection to interpret science and technology within society and help visitor acquire a deeper understanding on its developmental and evolutionary nature. Like science centres, science museums also engage visitors on various aspect of current science and offer experiential, hands on activities.

Could you give a little history of the CSTMC and explain why there are three museums?

The CSTMC was created 21 years ago to govern the Canada Science and Technology Museum and the Canada Aviation and Space Museum. The Canada Agriculture Museum joined the corporation in 1997. Previous to 1990 all national museums were managed through a single corporation which posed challenges considering the diversity of audience, needs and mandates of these institutions.

The three museums share a common vision of engaging all Canadians in appreciating their scientific and technological heritage, and awaken them to our country’s potential of creativity and innovation to solve today’s challenges and propel us in the 21st century.

How do you view science culture in Canada and how would you describe it in relation to the international scene?

There has never been a time in history when science and technology have had greater impact on the lives of our citizens or have been more important to our economic competitiveness, prosperity and societal well being. I understand science culture as the degree in which Canadians understand the basic of science, are able to make daily decisions informed by a basic understanding of science and use of scientific method (inquiry). Science culture is an important vector of economic prosperity. Science culture also informs the degree in which science is considered as a desirable field of study for youth (STEM) leading to fulfilling careers.

Sustaining a strong and vibrant science culture is essential to Canada’s long term economic, environmental and social success in a global world. The world is looking at Canada to develop an economic and societal model that will smartly develop new and innovative ways of sustaining the exploitation of its natural resources while creating an inclusive society that will harness the talent, creativity and potential of every citizen. In the last ten years, jobs in science and technology have seen the largest growth.

Last year an initiative from the CSTMC for an online science network/hub was announced. Can you talk a little about the initiative and what happened to it?

For financial reasons, we have taken a step back in this project and have decided to postpone activities for the time being. Inspiring Australia has put a similar idea forward earlier this year and with significantly more resources than those we had put forward. We are watching this closely, to see how they will go about this and what sort of engagement they will garner.

I see the need for a more active national dialogue on science beyond sharing information about research, or explaining how it will benefit us. We need an open and respectful two-way dialogue between the experts and the citizens, the converted and the agnostics, a dialogue that spans the nation and involves universities, schools, science centres and museums, governments, businesses, community groups, and individuals. To change our collective thinking about science, more efforts will need to be directed to this dialogue. But most importantly, it will require stronger collaborations and coordination between institutions nation-wide. Using emerging digital technologies and social media applications seem to be the way of the future and we remain committed to playing a role in this area.

I assume you’ll be talking about the initiative to benchmark science culture in order to measure future progress. Could you share a little bit about your talk (how do you go about benchmarking science culture; has anyone done it before; how long will it take; does it require government funding; and, if so, how much?) that could serve both as a preview and as some information for those of us who won’t be able to attend?

There is strong agreement that having a strong and vibrant science culture is fundamental to the future of our country. For years we have been in discussion, inconclusively, on how best to go about this. We have seen numerous initiatives. Many pilot projects. I believe that best policies are evidence-based and informed by compelling performance indicators. There is still a bit of work needed in the science community to identify broadly supported indicators that could best reflect the vitality of our science culture in Canada.

Canada’s science culture is shaped by the interplay of various public, private and non-profit players delivering a range of activities and tools designed to enhance understanding and interest, among Canadians of all ages, in science. There are hundreds of different formal and informal science education and awareness and awareness building programs in this country and we hardly can map out their contribution to the vitality of science culture in our country. We need to collect output and outcome indicators to start benchmarking our progress and devise an effective national strategy. For example we need to measure beyond literacy levels or number of graduates in STEM [science, technology, engineering, mathematics] to include such things as science coverage and audience in the media, public opinion on science and scientists and many other indicators used in other countries.

I’ve noticed that most of the discussion about innovation is centered on the notion of business; do you think that culture has a place at that table?

YES! Actually the concept of science culture reflects the fact that part of our general culture there has to be a strong dose of science. And creativity, innovation, risk taking, entrepreneurship. The business sector fully understands the crucial nature of a strong science culture as a driver to our country’s competitiveness.

Is there anything you’d like to add?

As members of the science community, it is our responsibility to ensure that Canadians recognize not only the great achievements of our scientists, but that they see how science-based evidence inform our everyday lives.

I believe that the same curiosity and joy of discovery experienced by young Canadians visiting our science museums and science centres can be shared by all Canadians. I believe that this can then be turned into an active commitment to make Canada a country where scientific discovery and innovation shape our identity as Canadians, and contribute to the health of our economy and to the vibrancy of our nation. Creative thinking and a spirit of entrepreneurship are at the heart of innovation. Creative thinking does not require a lot of raw material but is underpinned by a strong science culture. We need to foster and support that value.

Thank you Mme. Amyot for sharing your insights and enthusiasm about science culture and offering this preview of the 2011 CSPC ‘Science Culture’ panel in the midst of your busy schedule.

I am very grateful to you and Mike Harcourt, Tim Meyer, and David Kent for taking the time to answer my questions about your work and about your talks for the 2011 CSPC panels where you will be appearing over the next few days.

Democracy, participation, and science culture

Should citizens have any input into how science research is funded? Dan Hind in his Dec. 14, 2010 article, Time to democratise science, for New Scientist argues yes persuasively (from the article),

THE natural and social sciences exert a huge influence on the ways our societies develop. At present most of the funding for scientific research is controlled by the state and the private economy. Perhaps it is time to look at their track record and consider an alternative.

Science is not, and can never be, disinterested insofar as its objectives are concerned. Decisions to fund this research instead of that research can never be purely technical. Assessments of what is likely to produce interesting or useful knowledge are inevitably alloyed with the desires of those who control the money to develop particular forms of knowledge and with them new resources of power.

Given the mixed track record of the patrons of science it is surely time to consider an alternative. If we are serious about science as a public good, we should give the public control over the ways in which some – and I stress “some” – of its money is spent.

At the end of the article there is this note about the author,

Dan Hind is author of The Return of the Public (Verso), which argues for a new kind of participatory politics

There does seem to be seem sort of trend towards more participatory science as per citizen science or crowdsourced science projects such as Foldit (my Aug. 6, 2010 posting) and Phylo (my Dec. 3, 2010 posting).I’m not sure how much traction participatory science research funding is going to find. That said, there was a UK project run by EPSRC (Engineering and Physical Sciences Research) where members of the public were allowed to ‘vote’ on particular projects. You can read more about the project in the May 25, 2009 news item on Nanowerk describing the grants that were chosen. From the news item,

Ten research grants to help solve some of the biggest health problems facing the UK have been awarded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC)

The projects focus on developing new techniques for screening and treating major public health issues such as cancer, stroke, AIDS, influenza, MRSA and dementia.

The grants, worth £16.5m, have been given by the EPSRC, acting as the lead Research Council in a cross Research Council Programme called “Nanoscience through Engineering to Application.”

Segue: As for participatory politics (as per Dan Hind), I’ve noticed a local (Vancouver, Canada) backlash response to the notion of public consultations (city government officials want to increase population densities). Oddly enough, when people take the time to participate in a ‘consultation’ they expect that at least some of their comments will have an impact on the decisions that are being made. I gather some experts find this irksome and a challenge to their professional authority.

Back to the main topic: My impression is that the UK enjoys a science culture that is not to be found in Canada—not yet, anyway. There is discussion about public dialogue and engagement in science not just in the UK but elsewhere too that simply doesn’t exist in Canada. Yes, there are a few fragile attempts at creating a science culture here. I’m thinking of the Café Scientifique groups, Canada’s National Science and Technology Week, and the open houses put on by the universities but there really isn’t much.

The Year of Science (a science culture project) was declared in the province of British Columbia (BC) in the fall of 2010. From my Oct. 14, 2010 posting,

To inspire young minds across the province and foster a culture of research and innovation Premier Gordon Campbell today proclaimed the 2010-2011 school year as the Year of Science in B.C.

It’s good to see these kinds of initiatives, unfortunately this particular one is undercut by news such as this (from the Dec. 2, 2010 article, Teacher blasts cuts to Vancouver school science budgets; School science budgets slashed by 56 per cent compared to last year, by Naiobh O’Connor for the Vancouver Courier),

School science budgets were slashed by 56 per cent compared to last year and the district now allots only $4.61 per student each year to cover expenses—far below what Mike Hengeveld, Templeton secondary’s science department head and teacher, argues is adequate.

Limited budgets mean it’s difficult to replace equipment like broken beakers or to buy new equipment. Hengeveld even worries about buying a dozen eggs for a relatively cheap egg drop experiment or what’s needed to grow crystals for chemistry class.

“If I went and bought iodized salt or de-iodized salt and [students] make a solution by heating stuff in a beaker—which I hope doesn’t break—if I spend 15 bucks on salt at the store, I’ve blown three or four students’ worth of budget for them to learn how to grow crystals. It’s neat, but I can’t do that in a science class every day. I would just completely and totally run out of money and that’s just on cheap stuff,” he said.

I’m not trying to fault the Year of Science initiative just pointing out that the initiative is problematic when the science education budget for schools cannot support even simple research projects.

This is a larger issue that I can adequately cover in this posting but I did want to draw attention to some of the fragilities of the Canadian situation (and our own situation in BC) vis à vis creating a science culture and/or democratizing science.

Meanwhile, I read with some envy a report titled, International Comparison of Public Dialogue on Science and Technology,  from a UK organization, Sciencewise-ERC – the UK’s national centre for public dialogue in policy making involving science and technology issues. Canada is not mentioned and I imagine that’s due to the fact that we don’t have any public dialogue to speak of.

ETA Mar.3.11: I made some minor changes for clarity (added Segue: and Back to the main topic: and removed an extra space.

UNESCO, science, and nanotechnology?

It’s funny how you can forget that acronyms are in fact abbreviations and that UNESCO, which I associate with children and culture [ETA Nov. 29, 2010: I appear to have briefly conflated this organization with UNICEF which focuses on children], stands for United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. [emphasis mine] I was reminded of the science part of their mandate with the recent news of a new award. From the Nov. 4, 2010 news item on Azonano,

The first UNESCO Medals “For contributions to the development of nanoscience and nanotechnologies” were awarded on 2 November at Paris headquarters to two laureates: Russian Academician Zhores Ivanovich Alferov, winner of the 2000 Nobel Prize in Physics; and Chunli Bai, Professor of Chemistry at the Laboratory of Molecular Nanostructure and Nanotechnology in Beijing and Executive Vice-President of the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

The information (accompanied by a photograph featuring Irina Bokova [UNESCO Director-General] and Zhores Alferov [recipient able to attend in person])  is also available as a news item on the Nanowerk website. The reason this new medal/award has been established isn’t entirely clearly to me despite this description (from the news items),

The Medal was established at the initiative of the International Commission responsible for developing the Nanoscience and Nanotechnologies theme for the Encyclopedia of Life Support Systems (EOLSS)* published by UNESCO and EOLSS Publishers. This initiative was supported by the Russian Federation’s Permanent Delegation to UNESCO. The EOLSS constitutes one of the world’s biggest web-based archives as a trans-disciplinary science base for sustainable development.

Yesterday (November 10, 2010), UNESCO released its UNESCO Science Report; The Current Status of Science Around the World for 2010. This is the fifth report in the series with the next most recent report in the series being released in 2005. From the UNESCO website page for the report,

Europe, Japan and the USA (the Triad) may still dominate research and development (R&D) but they are increasingly being challenged by the emerging economies and above all by China. This is just one of the findings of the UNESCO Science Report 2010, which is being launched at UNESCO headquarters in Paris today [Nov. 10, 2010].

Written by a team of independent experts who are each covering the country or region from which they hail, the UNESCO Science Report 2010 analyses the trends and developments that have shaped scientific research, innovation and higher education over the past five years, including the impact of the current global economic recession, which has hit the Triad harder than either Brazil, China or India. The report depicts an increasingly competitive environment, one in which the flow of information, knowledge, personnel and investment has become a two-way traffic. Both China and India, for instance, are using their newfound economic might to invest in high-tech companies in Europe and elsewhere to acquire technological expertise overnight. Other large emerging economies are also spending more on research and development than before, among them Brazil, Mexico, South Africa and Turkey.

If more countries are participating in science, we are also seeing a shift in global influence. China is a hair’s breadth away from counting more researchers than either the USA or the European Union, for instance, and now publishes more scientific articles than Japan.

Even countries with a lesser scientific capacity are finding that they can acquire, adopt and sometimes even transform existing technology and thereby ‘leapfrog’ over certain costly investments, such as infrastructure like land lines for telephones. Technological progress is allowing these countries to produce more knowledge and participate more actively than before in international networks and research partnerships with countries in both North and South. This trend is fostering a democratization of science worldwide. In turn, science diplomacy is becoming a key instrument of peace-building and sustainable development in international relations.

I found the report thanks to Jenara Nerenberg’s article, USA to Soon Trail Developing Countries in R&D, Asia on the Rise: UNESCO Report, on the Fast Company website,

The United States has decreased its research and development (R&D) prowess and is increasingly threatened by the scientific capabilities and innovations of developing countries like India and China, indicates a UNESCO report released today. The UNESCO Science Report reveals that Asia has increased its global share of R&D to 32%, up from 27% in 2002, and the global share of R&D out of the EU, Japan, and the U.S. combined has decreased from 83% to 76%, though they remain the leader in number of yearly patents initiated.

The news is in line with recent Fast Company reporting about the decline of America’s competitiveness and dwindling quality of math and science education, as well as emerging “South-South” collaborations between India and African nations, especially in infrastructure development and vaccine research.The changing trends point to the ever-increasing role of India and China and to some extent South Africa in providing the world with leading scientific and technological discoveries.

Canada is also covered in the report. The author, Paul Dufour, is a Canadian science policy expert as per this contributor biography on The Mark website,

Mr. Dufour was most recently based at Natural Resources Canada, on executive interchange from the Canadian-based International Development Research Centre. He was previously the interim Executive Director at the former Office of the National Science Advisor in the federal Government advising on international S&T matters and broad questions of R&D directions for the country. He has a rich experience in addressing the interaction between science and international relations, especially in the context of research capacity with the developing world.

He has travelled extensively; he lectures regularly on science policy; he has authored numerous articles on international S&T relations and Canadian innovation policy. He is series co-editor of the Cartermill Guides to World Science and past North American editor to Outlook on Science Policy.

I have glanced through the report and it notes that Canada provides excellent support and gets correspondingly good results for academic science and that the practice of science research in the industrial sector is poorly supported by Canadian business interests (sometimes termed as a lack of business innovation). Happily, he does discuss the poverty of ‘science culture’  in Canada, albeit briefly,

Developing a science culture

In addition to the pursuit of priority-setting and the examination of its appropriate place in shaping future public policy and investment in innovation and R&D, other debates are emerging. These are centred on improving the science culture and outreach in the country, including by augmenting the participation of women and the Aboriginal population in the knowledge society (Dufour, 2009). Women account for 47% of the labour force and 57% of university graduates but only 20% of doctoral degrees awarded in science and engineering. Some of the responsibility for Canada’s deteriorating appreciation of the value of knowledge centres on its lack of a science culture in its widest form, both in the political realm and among certain segments of the population and research community. There is an antagonism here between what some have termed a ‘politically clueless research community versus a scientifically illiterate political class’. A Science Media Centre has been proposed to improve science communication within the media. Efforts are also under way at various science centres and museums across the country to strengthen public understanding. Events include a National Science and Technology Week and a major physics festival organized by the Perimeter Institute. Some provinces, especially in Quebec, have long-standing traditions and tools in support of science outreach, given the promotion of science in the French language. Overall, however, the science culture gap remains. The scientific communities must share some of the responsibility for this. Often poorly organized, with limited means of outreach and inadequate communication tools, the research lobbies are increasingly faced with having to make a better case for why the future of the country lies with more, rather than less, research and technology – innovation in its broadest sense.

The private sector is also struggling to be more effective in articulating its own needs and concerns over the lack of necessary resources and strategic vision. (p. 74, print & PDF)

I have a few nits to pick but not the time to do it. If you are interested, this chapter on Canada’s science provides a good overview of the national situation and how that compares globally.