Tag Archives: social sciences

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

This sucker (INVESTING IN CANADA’S FUTURE; Strengthening the Foundations of Canadian Research, also known as, Canada’s Fundamental Science Review 2017 or the Naylor report) is a 280 pp. (PDF) and was released on Monday, April 10, 2017. I didn’t intend that this commentary should stretch out into three parts (sigh). Them’s the breaks. This first part provides an introduction to the panel and the report as well as some ‘first thoughts’. Part 2 offers more detailed thoughts and Part 3 offers ‘special cases’ and sums up some of the ideas first introduced in part 1.

I first wrote about this review in a June 15, 2017 posting where amongst other comments I made this one,

Getting back to the review and more specifically, the panel, it’s good to see that four of the nine participants are women but other than that there doesn’t seem to be much diversity, i.e.,the majority (five) spring from the Ontario/Québec nexus of power and all the Canadians are from the southern part of country. Back to diversity, there is one business man, Mike Laziridis known primarily as the founder of Research in Motion (RIM or more popularly as the Blackberry company) making the panel not a wholly ivory tower affair. Still, I hope one day these panels will have members from the Canadian North and international members who come from somewhere other than the US, Great Britain, and/or if they’re having a particularly wild day, Germany. Here are some candidate countries for other places to look for panel members: Japan, Israel, China, South Korea, and India. Other possibilities include one of the South American countries, African countries, and/or the Middle Eastern countries.

Take the continent of Africa for example, where many countries seem to have successfully tackled one of the issues as we face. Specifically, the problem of encouraging young researchers. …

Here’s a quick summary about the newly released report from the April 10, 2017 federal government news release on Canada’s Public Policy Forum,

Today [April 10, 2017], the Government of Canada published the final report of the expert panel on Canada’s Fundamental Science Review. Commissioned by the Honourable Kirsty Duncan, Minister of Science, the report by the blue-ribbon panel offers a comprehensive review of the mechanisms for federal funding that supports research undertaken at academic institutions and research institutes across Canada, as well as the levels of that funding. It provides a multi-year blueprint for improving the oversight and governance of what the panelists call the “research ecosystem.” The report also recommends making major new investments to restore support for front-line research and strengthen the foundations of Canadian science and research at this pivotal point in global history.

The review is the first of its type in more than 40 years. While it focused most closely on the four major federal agencies that support science and scholarly inquiry across all disciplines, the report also takes a wide-angle view of governance mechanisms ranging from smaller agencies to big science facilities. Another issue closely examined by the panel was the effect of the current configuration of funding on the prospects of early career researchers—a group that includes a higher proportion of women and is more diverse than previous generations of scientists and scholars.

The panel’s deliberations were informed by a broad consultative process. The panel received 1,275 written submissions [emphasis mine] from individuals, associations and organizations. It also held a dozen round tables in five cities, engaging some 230 researchers [emphasis mine] at different career stages.

Among the findings:

  • Basic research worldwide has led to most of the technological, medical and social advances that make our quality of life today so much better than a century ago. Canadian scientists and scholars have contributed meaningfully to these advances through the decades; however, by various measures, Canada’s research competitiveness has eroded in recent years.
  • This trend emerged during a period when there was a drop of more than 30 percent in real per capita funding for independent or investigator-led research by front-line scientists and scholars in universities, colleges, institutes and research hospitals. This drop occurred as a result of caps on federal funding to the granting councils and a dramatic change in the balance of funding toward priority-driven and partnership-oriented research.
  • Canada is an international outlier in that funding from federal government sources accounts for less than 25 percent of total spending on research and development in the higher education sector. While governments sometimes highlight that, relative to GDP, Canada leads the G7 in total spending by this sector, institutions themselves now underwrite 50 percent of these costs—with adverse effects on both research and education.
  • Coordination and collaboration among the four key federal research agencies [Canada Foundation for Innovation {CFI}; Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council {SSHRC}; Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council {NSERC}; Canadian Institutes of Health Research {CIHR}] is suboptimal, with poor alignment of supports for different aspects of research such as infrastructure, operating costs and personnel awards. Governance and administrative practices vary inexplicably, and support for areas such as international partnerships or multidisciplinary research is uneven.
  • Early career researchers are struggling in some disciplines, and Canada lacks a career-spanning strategy for supporting both research operations and staff.
  • Flagship personnel programs such as the Canada Research Chairs have had the same value since 2000. Levels of funding and numbers of awards for students and post-doctoral fellows have not kept pace with inflation, peer nations or the size of applicant pools.

The report also outlines a comprehensive agenda to strengthen the foundations of Canadian extramural research. Recommended improvements in oversight include:

  • legislation to create an independent National Advisory Council on Research and Innovation (NACRI) that would work closely with Canada’s new Chief Science Advisor (CSA) to raise the bar in terms of ongoing evaluations of all research programming;
  • wide-ranging improvements to oversight and governance of the four agencies, including the appointment of a coordinating board chaired by the CSA; and
  • lifecycle governance of national-scale research facilities as well as improved methods for overseeing and containing the growth in ad-hoc funding of smaller non-profit research entities.

With regard to funding, the panel recommends a major multi-year reinvestment in front-line research, targeting several areas of identified need. Each recommendation is benchmarked and is focused on making long-term improvements in Canada’s research capacity. The panel’s recommendations, to be phased in over four years, would raise annual spending across the four major federal agencies and other key entities from approximately $3.5 billion today to $4.8 billion in 2022. The goal is to ensure that Canada benefits from an outsized concentration of world-leading scientists and scholars who can make exciting discoveries and generate novel insights while educating and inspiring the next generation of researchers, innovators and leaders.

Given global competition, the current conditions in the ecosystem, the role of research in underpinning innovation and educating innovators, and the need for research to inform evidence-based policy-making, the panel concludes that this is among the highest-yield investments in Canada’s future that any government could make.

The full report is posted on www.sciencereview.ca.

Quotes

“In response to the request from Prime Minister Trudeau and Minister Duncan, the Science Review panel has put together a comprehensive roadmap for Canadian pre-eminence in science and innovation far into the future. The report provides creative pathways for optimizing Canada’s investments in fundamental research in the physical, life and social sciences as well as the humanities in a cost effective way. Implementation of the panel’s recommendations will make Canada the destination of choice for the world’s best talent. It will also guarantee that young Canadian researchers can fulfill their dreams in their own country, bringing both Nobel Prizes and a thriving economy to Canada. American scientists will look north with envy.”

– Robert J. Birgeneau, Silverman Professor of Physics and Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley

“We have paid close attention not only to hard data on performance and funding but also to the many issues raised by the science community in our consultations. I sincerely hope the report will serve as a useful guide to policy-makers for years to come.”

– Martha Crago, Vice-President, Research and Professor of Human Communication Disorders, Dalhousie University

“Science is the bedrock of modern civilization. Our report’s recommendations to increase and optimize government investments in fundamental scientific research will help ensure that Canada’s world-class researchers can continue to make their critically important contributions to science, industry and society in Canada while educating and inspiring future generations. At the same time, such investments will enable Canada to attract top researchers from around the world. Canada must strategically build critical density in our researcher communities to elevate its global competitiveness. This is the path to new technologies, new businesses, new jobs and new value creation for Canada.”

– Mike Lazaridis, Founder and Managing Partner, Quantum Valley Investments

“This was a very comprehensive review. We heard from a wide range of researchers—from the newest to those with ambitious, established and far-reaching research careers. At all these levels, researchers spoke of their gratitude for federal funding, but they also described enormous barriers to their success. These ranged from personal career issues like gaps in parental leave to a failure to take gender, age, geographic location and ethnicity into account. They also included mechanical and economic issues like gaps between provincial and federal granting timelines and priorities, as well as a lack of money for operating and maintaining critical equipment.”

– Claudia Malacrida, Associate Vice-President, Research and Professor of Sociology, University of Lethbridge

“We would like to thank the community for its extensive participation in this review. We reflect that community perspective in recommending improvements to funding and governance for fundamental science programs to restore the balance with recent industry-oriented programs and improve both science and innovation in Canada.”

– Arthur B. McDonald, Professor Emeritus, Queen’s University

“This report sets out a multi-year agenda that, if implemented, could transform Canadian research capacity and have enormous long-term impacts across the nation. It proffers a legacy-building opportunity for a new government that has boldly nailed its colours to the mast of science and evidence-informed policy-making. I urge the Prime Minister to act decisively on our recommendations.”

– C. David Naylor, Professor of Medicine, University of Toronto (Chair)

“This report outlines all the necessary ingredients to advance basic research, thereby positioning Canada as a leading ‘knowledge’ nation. Rarely does a country have such a unique opportunity to transform the research landscape and lay the foundation for a future of innovation, prosperity and well-being.”

– Martha C. Piper, President Emeritus, University of British Columbia

“Our report shows a clear path forward. Now it is up to the government to make sure that Canada truly becomes a world leader in how it both organizes and financially supports fundamental research.”

– Rémi Quirion, Le scientifique en chef du Québec

“The government’s decision to initiate this review reflected a welcome commitment to fundamental research. I am hopeful that the release of our report will energize the government and research community to take the next steps needed to strengthen Canada’s capacity for discovery and research excellence. A research ecosystem that supports a diversity of scholars at every career stage conducting research in every discipline will best serve Canada and the next generation of students and citizens as we move forward to meet social, technological, economic and ecological challenges.”

– Anne Wilson, Professor of Psychology, Wilfrid Laurier University

Quick facts

  • The Fundamental Science Review Advisory Panel is an independent and non-partisan body whose mandate was to provide advice and recommendations to the Minister of Science on how to improve federal science programs and initiatives.
  • The panel was asked to consider whether there are gaps in the federal system of support for fundamental research and recommend how to address them.
  • The scope of the review included the federal granting councils along with some federally funded organizations such as the Canada Foundation for Innovation.

First thoughts

Getting to the report itself, I have quickly skimmed through it  but before getting to that and for full disclosure purposes, please note, I made a submission to the panel. That said, I’m a little disappointed. I would have liked to have seen a little more imagination in the recommendations which set forth future directions. Albeit the questions themselves would not seem to encourage any creativity,

Our mandate was summarized in two broad questions:

1. Are there any overall program gaps in Canada’s fundamental research funding ecosystem that need to be addressed?

2. Are there elements or programming features in other countries that could provide a useful example for the Government of Canada in addressing these gaps? (p. 1 print; p. 35 PDF)

A new agency to replace the STIC (Science, Technology and Innovation Council)

There are no big surprises. Of course they’ve recommended another organization, NACRI [National Advisory Council on Research and Innovation], most likely to replace the Conservative government’s advisory group, the Science, Technology and Innovation Council (STIC) which seems to have died as of Nov. 2015, one month after the Liberals won. There was no Chief Science Advisor under the Conservatives. As I recall, the STIC replaced a previous Liberal government’s advisory group and Chief Science Advisor (Arthur Carty, now the executive director of the Waterloo [as in University of Waterloo] Institute of Nanotechnology).

Describing the NACRI as peopled by volunteers doesn’t exactly describe the situation. This is the sort of ‘volunteer opportunity’ a dedicated careerist salivates over because it’s a career builder where you rub shoulders with movers and shakers in other academic institutions, in government, and in business. BTW, flights to meetings will be paid for along with per diems (accommodations and meals). These volunteers will also have a staff. Admittedly, it will be unpaid extra time for the ‘volunteer’ but the payoff promises to be considerable.

Canada’s eroding science position

There is considerable concern evinced over Canada’s eroding position although we still have bragging rights in some areas (regenerative medicine, artificial intelligence for two areas). As for erosion, the OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) dates the erosion back to 2001 (from my June 2, 2014 posting),

Interestingly, the OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) Science, Technology and Industry Scoreboard 2013 dates the decline to 2001. From my Oct. 30, 2013 posting (excerpted from the scorecard),

Canada is among the few OECD countries where R&D expenditure declined between 2000 and 2011 (Figure 1). This decline was mainly due to reduced business spending on R&D. It occurred despite relatively generous public support for business R&D, primarily through tax incentives. In 2011, Canada was amongst the OECD countries with the most generous tax support for R&D and the country with the largest share of government funding for business R&D being accounted for by tax credits (Figure 2). …

It should be noted, the Liberals have introduced another budget with flat funding for science (if you want to see a scathing review see Nassif Ghoussoub’s (professor of mathematics at the University of British Columbia April 10, 2017 posting) on his Piece of Mind blog). Although the funding isn’t quite so flat as it might seem at first glance (see my March 24, 2017 posting about the 2017 budget). The government explained that the science funding agencies didn’t receive increased funding as the government was waiting on this report which was released only weeks later (couldn’t they have a sneak preview?). In any event, it seems it will be at least a year before the funding issues described in the report can be addressed through another budget unless there’s some ‘surprise’ funding ahead.

Again, here’s a link to the other parts:

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

Part 2

Part 3

Evolution of literature as seen by a classicist, a biologist and a computer scientist

Studying intertextuality shows how books are related in various ways and are reorganized and recombined over time. Image courtesy of Elena Poiata.

I find the image more instructive when I read it from the bottom up. For those who prefer to prefer to read from the top down, there’s this April 5, 2017 University of Texas at Austin news release (also on EurekAlert),

A classicist, biologist and computer scientist all walk into a room — what comes next isn’t the punchline but a new method to analyze relationships among ancient Latin and Greek texts, developed in part by researchers from The University of Texas at Austin.

Their work, referred to as quantitative criticism, is highlighted in a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The paper identifies subtle literary patterns in order to map relationships between texts and more broadly to trace the cultural evolution of literature.

“As scholars of the humanities well know, literature is a system within which texts bear a multitude of relationships to one another. Understanding what is distinctive about one text entails knowing how it fits within that system,” said Pramit Chaudhuri, associate professor in the Department of Classics at UT Austin. “Our work seeks to harness the power of quantification and computation to describe those relationships at macro and micro levels not easily achieved by conventional reading alone.”

In the study, the researchers create literary profiles based on stylometric features, such as word usage, punctuation and sentence structure, and use techniques from machine learning to understand these complex datasets. Taking a computational approach enables the discovery of small but important characteristics that distinguish one work from another — a process that could require years using manual counting methods.

“One aspect of the technical novelty of our work lies in the unusual types of literary features studied,” Chaudhuri said. “Much computational text analysis focuses on words, but there are many other important hallmarks of style, such as sound, rhythm and syntax.”

Another component of their work builds on Matthew Jockers’ literary “macroanalysis,” which uses machine learning to identify stylistic signatures of particular genres within a large body of English literature. Implementing related approaches, Chaudhuri and his colleagues have begun to trace the evolution of Latin prose style, providing new, quantitative evidence for the sweeping impact of writers such as Caesar and Livy on the subsequent development of Roman prose literature.

“There is a growing appreciation that culture evolves and that language can be studied as a cultural artifact, but there has been less research focused specifically on the cultural evolution of literature,” said the study’s lead author Joseph Dexter, a Ph.D. candidate in systems biology at Harvard University. “Working in the area of classics offers two advantages: the literary tradition is a long and influential one well served by digital resources, and classical scholarship maintains a strong interest in close linguistic study of literature.”

Unusually for a publication in a science journal, the paper contains several examples of the types of more speculative literary reading enabled by the quantitative methods introduced. The authors discuss the poetic use of rhyming sounds for emphasis and of particular vocabulary to evoke mood, among other literary features.

“Computation has long been employed for attribution and dating of literary works, problems that are unambiguous in scope and invite binary or numerical answers,” Dexter said. “The recent explosion of interest in the digital humanities, however, has led to the key insight that similar computational methods can be repurposed to address questions of literary significance and style, which are often more ambiguous and open ended. For our group, this humanist work of criticism is just as important as quantitative methods and data.”

The paper is the work of the Quantitative Criticism Lab (www.qcrit.org), co-directed by Chaudhuri and Dexter in collaboration with researchers from several other institutions. It is funded in part by a 2016 National Endowment for the Humanities grant and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation New Directions Fellowship, awarded in 2016 to Chaudhuri to further his education in statistics and biology. Chaudhuri was one of 12 scholars selected for the award, which provides humanities researchers the opportunity to train outside of their own area of special interest with a larger goal of bridging the humanities and social sciences.

Here’s another link to the paper along with a citation,

Quantitative criticism of literary relationships by Joseph P. Dexter, Theodore Katz, Nilesh Tripuraneni, Tathagata Dasgupta, Ajay Kannan, James A. Brofos, Jorge A. Bonilla Lopez, Lea A. Schroeder, Adriana Casarez, Maxim Rabinovich, Ayelet Haimson Lushkov, and Pramit Chaudhuri. PNAS Published online before print April 3, 2017, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1611910114

This paper appears to be open access.

Regulating nanomaterials according to the US GAO and EPA

It’s been a banner week for information about nanomaterials regulation. As I noted yesterday, the US General Accountability Office has just released its  report titled Nanotechnology: Nanomaterials Are Widely Used in Commerce, but EPA Faces Challenges in Regulating Risk. Hats off to the authors: Anu Mittal, lead author, and Elizabeth Erdmann, David Bennett, Antoinette Capaccio, Nancy Crothers, Cindy Gilbert, Gary Guggolz, Nicole Harkin, Kim Raheb, and Hai Tran.

In discussing some of the oversight and regulatory issues associated with nanotechnology and other emerging technologies they had this to say (from the report),

Nanotechnology is an example of a fast-paced technology that poses challenges to agencies’ policy development and foresight efforts. We have conducted past work looking at the challenges of exercising foresight when addressing potentially significant but somewhat uncertain trends,5 including technology-based trends that proceed at a high “clockspeed,” that is, a (1) faster pace than trends an agency has dealt with previously or (2) quantitative rate of change that is either exponential or exhibits a pattern of doubling or tripling within 3 or 4 years, possibly on a repeated basis.6 As our prior work has noted, when an agency responsible for ensuring safety faces a set of potentially significant high-clockspeed technology-based trends, it may successfully exercise foresight by carrying out activities such as

• considering what is known about the safety impact of the trend and deciding how to respond to it;

• reducing uncertainty as needed by developing additional evidence about the safety of the trend; and

• communicating with Congress and others about the trends, agency responses, and policy implications.

Similarly, our 21st Century Challenges report raised concern about whether federal agencies are poised to address fast-paced technology-based challenges. [GAO, 21st Century Challenges: Reexamining the Base of the Federal Government, GAO-05-325SP (Washington, D.C.: February 2005)] Other foresight literature illustrates the potential future consequences of falling behind a damaging trend that could be countered by early action. These analyses suggest that unless agencies and Congress can stay abreast of technological changes, such as nanotechnology, they may find themselves “in a constant catch-up position and lose the capacity to shape outcomes.” (p.7/8 print version, p. 11/2 PDF)

(Seems to me the Canadian government could also do with some thoughtful consideration of fast-changing technologies and the challenges they pose to the institutional oversight mechanisms currently in place.)

The report goes on to describe various nano-enabled product categories in various industry sectors. It’s an overview that includes products (e.g. nano-enabled cell phones) currently or soon-to-be on the market. I was particularly taken with an image of a cell phone  that tagged parts  already nano-enabled (on some models) along with parts that may, in the future, become nano-enabled (p. 14 print version or p. 18 PDF).

The toxicity roundup is one of the best presentations I’ve seen. For example,

  • Size. Research assessing the role of particle size on toxicity has generally found that some nanoscale (<100 nanometers) particles are more toxic and can cause more inflammation than conventionally scaled particles of the same composition. Specifically, some research indicates that the toxicity of certain nanomaterials, such as some forms of carbon nanotubes and nanoscale titanium dioxide, may pose a risk to human health because these materials, as a result of their small size, may be able to penetrate cell walls, causing cell inflammation and potentially leading to certain diseases. For example, the small size of these nanomaterials may allow them to penetrate deeper into lung tissue, potentially causing more damage, according to some of the studies we reviewed. In addition, some nanomaterials may disperse differently into the environment than conventionally scaled materials of the same composition because of their size. However, according to EPA, the small particle size may also cause the nanomaterials to agglomerate, which may make it more difficult for them to penetrate deep lung tissue. (pp. 23/4 print version, pp. 27/8 PDF)

This a much more measured but still cautious approach to the toxicology issues as they relate to size and this approach is maintained throughout.

There’s more than one way to be exposed,

In addition to toxicity, the risk that nanomaterials pose to humans and the environment is also affected by the route and extent of exposure to such materials. Nanomaterials can enter the human body through three primary routes: inhalation, ingestion, and dermal penetration. (p. 25 print version, p. 29 PDF)

They also make the distinction between exposure as a consequence of consuming products and exposure due to occupation.

Moving on from toxicity, their section on the international scene wowed me because this is the only report I’ve seen which notes that Canada’s nanomaterials inventory has yet to occur.

One thing I hadn’t realized was how similar Environment Canada’s and the US Environmental Protection Agency’s approach to nanomaterials has been. From my April 2, 2010 posting,

Here’s what Environment Canada has to say about nanomaterials (the information on this page is dated from 2007 …) NOTE: The page originally cited is no longer available, go to this page,

The Domestic Substances List (DSL) is the sole basis for determining whether a substance is new. Any chemical or polymer not listed on the DSL is considered to be new to Canada and is subject to the notification requirements under the Regulations. Substances listed on the DSL do not require notification1 in advance of manufacture in or import into Canada.

The Act and the Regulations apply to new nanomaterials just as any other substance, whether a chemical or a polymer.

Substances listed on the DSL whose nanoscale forms do not have unique structures or molecular arrangements are considered existing. Existing nanomaterials are not subject to the Regulations and do not require notification. For example, titanium dioxide [emphasis mine] (CAS No. 13463-67-7) is listed on the DSL and since its nanoscale form does not have unique structures or molecular arrangements, it is not subject to the Regulations.

Compare,

In its 2008 document, EPA stated that a nanomaterial is a new chemical for purposes of regulation under TSCA only if it does not have the same “molecular identity” as a chemical already on the inventory. Under TSCA, a chemical is defined in terms of its particular molecular identity.

Thus, because titanium dioxide is already listed on the TSCA inventory, nanoscale versions of titanium dioxide, which have the same molecular formula, would not be considered a new chemical under TSCA, despite having a different size or shape, different physical and chemical properties, and potentially different risks. [emphasis mine] (p. 34 print version, p. 38 PDF)

I gather the EPA adopted the strategy one year after Environment Canada. Given how often the various jurisdictions copy each other’s approaches, I wonder which country (or possibly a jurisdiction such as the European Commission) actually set this strategy.

The report offers an excellent summary of Canada’s current regulatory approach and plans. I’ve reproduced the passage in full here,

Canadian officials have proposed but have not implemented a one-time requirement for companies to provide information on nanomaterials produced in or imported into Canada. Canadian importers and manufacturers would be required to report their use of nanomaterials produced or imported in excess of 1 kilogram. In 2009, Canadian officials reported to the OECD that information required would include chemical and trade name; molecular formula; and any available information on the shape, size range, structure, quantity imported or manufactured, and known or predicted uses. Also required would be any available information on the nanomaterial’s physical and chemical properties—such as solubility in water and toxicological data, among others. Under the proposal, companies could claim information as confidential, but regulators would publish a summary of information provided. Canada plans to use this information to help develop a regulatory framework for nanomaterials and to determine which information requirements would be useful for subsequent risk assessments. Canadian officials stated they originally hoped to issue this requirement in the spring of 2009 but could not predict when it would be implemented.

With regard to current law, a report prepared for the government of Canada in 2008 stated that Canada has no specific requirements for nanomaterials and is considering whether they are needed. However, Health Canada and Environment Canada—two agencies responsible for health and the environment—have taken the first steps in recognizing the potentially unique aspects of nanomaterials. These regulatory agencies are currently relying on existing authority delegated to them through legislation, such as the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, to address nanomaterials. Specifically, in June 2007, Environment Canada released a new substances program advisory announcing that nanomaterials will be regulated under the act’s new substances notification regulations. Per this advisory, any nanomaterial not listed on Canada’s chemical inventory—the Domestic Substances List—or with “unique structures or molecular arrangements” compared to their non-nano counterparts, requires a risk assessment. A review panel of the Canadian Academies found that, while it is not necessary to create new regulatory mechanisms to address the unique challenges presented by nanomaterials, the existing regulatory mechanisms could and should be strengthened in a variety of ways, such as by creating a specific classification for nanomaterials and by reviewing the regulatory triggers that prompt review of the health and environmental effects. (pp. 45/6 print version, pp. 49/50 PDF)

As far as I’m aware, there are no comparable summaries available in Canadian reports available to the public. No doubt there are nits to be picked but all I can say is thank you for giving me the most comprehensive and succinct overview I’ve seen yet of the emerging Canadian regulatory framework for nanomaterials.

For interested parties, there is some additional information about Health Canada’s public consultation on their interim definition of nanomaterials in my April 28, 2010 posting.

Poetry, molecular biophysics and innovation in Canada

There’s an interesting story by Karen Hopkin (Carpe Datum)  in the latest The Scientist newsletter about Gregory Petsko, a would-be student of epic poetry who changed his field of studies to molecular biophysics as he made his way to a Rhodes scholarship at Oxford. From Carpe Datum,

With his heart set on the study of epic poetry, Petsko arranged to work with Maurice Bowra, a preeminent classicist, and set sail for England. “Back then, all the Rhodes scholars traveled over on the Queen Elizabeth, which took 8 days,” he says. “And sometime while I was out over the Atlantic, Maurice Bowra died.” Not sure how to proceed, Petsko phoned Princeton and spoke to the head of the lab where he’d worked part-time to earn a few bucks. “He told me to go over to David Phillips’s lab and get a degree in molecular biophysics,” says Petsko. “And it was the best thing that ever happened to me.”

“For me, structure is just a means to an end. That end is function. I care about function,” he says. “I want to know how things work.”

“Greg never loses sight of the big picture. For him, it’s ultimately about the biology,” says former postdoc Ann Stock, an HHMI investigator at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey–Robert Wood Johnson Medical School. “In the field of structural biology, that hasn’t always been true. In the early years, many structural biologists focused mostly on the nuts-and-bolts technical aspects of solving three-dimensional structures.” Petsko is proficient when it comes to nuts and bolts, she says, “but he sees them as tools that allow him to explore the biology of proteins.”

I find it interesting that Petsko is well grounded in the humanities as there is a longstanding argument that an education in the humanities and/or liberal arts is a “big picture” education. Petsko’s discoveries include the TIM barrel,

“It’s like an alpha helix or a beta-pleated sheet: the TIM barrel is a protein fold that basically implies function,” says [Jan] Westpheling [geneticist at University of Georgia]. “And Greg discovered it. This was a profound contribution in the days when people were just beginning to understand the three-dimensional structure of proteins.”

If you’re interested in more about how scientists think and work, please do read Hopkin’s story as I’m now switching gears to Rob Annan’s (Don’t leave Canada behind blog) latest post, Innovation isn’t just about science funding.

Rob raises a number of points about innovation in Canada, along with this one (from the post),

Expecting researchers to produce innovative research and to translate it into the broader world is unrealistic. And giving more money to researchers isn’t going to change that.

Much of the discussion about Canada’s lack of innovation is focused on how money can be made from research. Scientists are quite innovative in their research; the problem, from the government’s perspective, lies in bringing the research to market. Back to Rob,

… Unlike scientific research, social and commercial innovation isn’t a relatively linear process you can lay out in five year funding applications. It doesn’t require a highly-specialized skill set. It requires a broad skill set that involves creative thinking, communication skills, problem-solving, critical thinking, and cultural and civic understanding – all of which need to be applied to the varied stages of innovation development.

These are the attributes of successful entrepreneurs. These are also the attributes of a liberal arts and science education.

You might say that Petsko embodies “the attributes of a liberal arts and science education,” although as far as I know he’s not an entrepreneur.  Rob expands on the notion of “big picture” education,

Even a who’s-who of Canadian high-tech CEOs have made an explicit case for the importance of liberal arts and science graduates in their industries.

Yes, we need to fund scientific research to ensure that we have a deep pool of innovation from which to draw. But translating this research into world-leading social or commercial innovation won’t happen if we leave it strictly to the scientists. Individuals trained in the social sciences and humanities bring an essential skill set to the process, and we neglect funding these areas at our competitive peril.

Thank you, Rob. It’s always good when someone who’s a scientist makes these kinds of comments as someone with a liberal arts/social science/humanities background could be accused of being self-serving.

While the  Petsko story doesn’t perfectly illustrate Rob’s points, it does hint at the importance of broad-based thinking for breakthroughs and, ultimately, innovation. I’d add one item to Rob’s list of skills, risktaking.

I do have a few questions but I’m going to take those to Rob’s comments section.

Is science superior?

In yesterday’s posting (Oct. 29, 2009), I started to dissect a comment from Bruce Alberts’ (keynote speaker) speech at the Canadian Science Policy Conference that’s taking place this week in Toronto (find link to conference in yesterday’s posting). He suggested that more scientists should be double-trained, e.g. as scientist-journalists; scientist-lawyers; etc. He also pointed to China as a shining example of how scientists and engineers can be integrated into the government bureaucracy and their use of scientific methods to run their departments.

Speaking as someone who is fascinated by science, I am taken aback.  Science and scientists have done some wonderful things but they’ve also created some awful problems. The scientific method in and of itself is not perfect and it cannot be applied to all of life’s problems. Let’s take for example, economics. That’s considered a science and given the current state of the world economy, it would seem that this science has failed. The former head of the US Federal Reserve, Alan Greenspan, admitted that in all his figurings he failed to take into account human nature. That’s a problem in economics–all those beautiful algorithms don’t include behaviour as a factor.

Even sciences that study behaviour, social sciences, have a far from perfect understanding of human behaviour. Marketers who draw heavily from the social sciences have yet to find the perfect formula for selling products.

As for China appointing a world-renown molecular biologist (Chen Zhu) as their Minister of Health, I hope he does well but it won’t be because he has applied the techniques and managements skills he’s used successfully in laboratories. In medicine, any clinician will tell you that there’s a big difference between the results from research done in a laboratory (and in controlled human clinical trials) and the outcome when that research is applied to a general population. As for management skills, directing people who have similar training is a lot easier than directing people who have wildly dissimilar educational backgrounds and perspectives. (Professional vocabularies can provide some distinct challenges.)

I guess it’s the lack of humility in the parts of the speech Rob Annan (Don’t leave Canada behind blog) has posted that troubles me. (I’ve been to these types of conferences and have observed this lack on previous occasions and with different speakers.)

As for scientists becoming double-trained, that’s not unreasonable but I think it should go the other way as well. I think science and scientists have something to learn from society. What Alberts is describing is an unequal relationship, where one form of knowledge and thought process is privileged over another.

I’ll get started on Day 2 of this conference (Preston Manning was one of the keynote speakers) on Monday, Nov. 2, 2009.

Social science and nanotechnology (Canadian or otherwise)

They sure don’t make it easy to find but there is a way to search Canada’s Social Science and Humanities Research Council awards for research. I ran a search for nanotechnology projects spanning the 2005-6 and 2006-7 fiscal years and found four projects. Two at the University of Alberta and two at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia. Hmmm….here are the titles (and researchers and universitites):

  • Giorgio Agamben’s political ontologies: a study of biopower, biopolitics, and nanotechnology. (Charles A Barbour at the U of A)
  • A field perspective on nanotechnology path creation: an examination of carbon nanotubes. (Michael Lounsbury at the U of A)
  • Opportunity creation from the confluence of technologies. (Eliicia Maine, SFU)
  • Bionanotechnology in British Columbia: conceptualizations of social implications. (Karen M Woods, SFU)

Those were all awarded in 2006. For fun, I went back to the 2001-2 fiscal year and found one other researcher (she got two grants for the same project) in 2003-4

  • Weaving new technologies: social theory and ubiquitous computing. (Anne Galloway, Carleton University, Ontario)

It doesn’t seem like a lot especially when I see some of the work being done in the UK and in the US.

On other fronts, I stumbled across an old (2004?) Neal Stephenson interview with Slashdot (I think the writer is Adam Shand). They make no mention of Diamond Age, which is more or less Stephenson’s nano novel. Still, he provides an interesting take on being a science fiction writer and making money as a writer. In fact, if you’re interested in Neal Stephenson interviews, etc., you can go here for a listing.