Tag Archives: social sciences

Scientists, outreach and Twitter research plus some tips from a tweeting scientist

I have two bits today and both concern science and Twitter.

Twitter science research

A doodle by Isabelle Côté to illustrate her recent study on the effectiveness of scientists using Twitter to share their research with the public. Credit: Isabelle Côté

I was quite curious about this research on scientists and their Twitter audiences coming from Simon Fraser University (SFU; Vancouver, Canada). From a July 11, 2018 SFU news release (also on EurekAlert),

Isabelle Côté is an SFU professor of marine ecology and conservation and an active science communicator whose prime social media platform is Twitter.

Côté, who has cultivated more than 5,800 followers since she began tweeting in 2012, recently became curious about who her followers are.

“I wanted to know if my followers are mainly scientists or non-scientists – in other words was I preaching to the choir or singing from the rooftops?” she says.

Côté and collaborator Emily Darling set out to find the answer by analyzing the active Twitter accounts of more than 100 ecology and evolutionary biology faculty members at 85 institutions across 11 countries.

Their methodology included categorizing followers as either “inreach” if they were academics, scientists and conservation agencies and donors; or “outreach” if they were science educators, journalists, the general public, politicians and government agencies.

Côté found that scientists with fewer than 1,000 followers primarily reach other scientists. However, scientists with more than 1,000 followers have more types of followers, including those in the “outreach” category.

Twitter and other forms of social media provide scientists with a potential way to share their research with the general public and, importantly, decision- and policy-makers. Côté says public pressure can be a pathway to drive change at a higher level. However, she notes that while social media is an asset, it is “not likely an effective replacement for the more direct science-to-policy outreach that many scientists are now engaging in, such as testifying in front of special governmental committees, directly contacting decision-makers, etc.”

Further, even with greater diversity and reach of followers, the authors concede there are still no guarantees that Twitter messages will be read or understood. Côté cites evidence that people selectively read what fits with their perception of the world, that changing followers’ minds about deeply held beliefs is challenging.

“While Twitter is emerging as a medium of choice for scientists, studies have shown that less than 40 per cent of academic scientists use the platform,” says Côté.

“There’s clearly a lot of room for scientists to build a social media presence and increase their scientific outreach. Our results provide scientists with clear evidence that social media can be used as a first step to disseminate scientific messages well beyond the ivory tower.”

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper (my thoughts on the matter are after),

Scientists on Twitter: Preaching to the choir or singing from the rooftops? by Isabelle M. Côté and Emily S. Darling. Facets DOI: https://doi.org/10.1139/facets-2018-0002 Published Online 28 June 2018

This paper is in an open access journal.

Thoughts on the research

Neither of the researchers, Côté and Darling, appears to have any social science training; so where I’d ordinarily laud the researchers for their good work, I have to include extra kudos for taking on a type of research outside their usual domain of expertise.

If this sort of thing interests you and you have the time, I definitely recommend reading the paper (from the paper‘s introduction), Note: Links have been removed)

Communication has always been an integral part of the scientific endeavour. In Victorian times, for example, prominent scientists such as Thomas H. Huxley and Louis Agassiz delivered public lectures that were printed, often verbatim, in newspapers and magazines (Weigold 2001), and Charles Darwin wrote his seminal book “On the origin of species” for a popular, non-specialist audience (Desmond and Moore 1991). In modern times, the pace of science communication has become immensely faster, information is conveyed in smaller units, and the modes of delivery are far more numerous. These three trends have culminated in the use of social media by scientists to share their research in accessible and relevant ways to potential audiences beyond their peers. The emphasis on accessibility and relevance aligns with calls for scientists to abandon jargon and to frame and share their science, especially in a “post-truth” world that can emphasize emotion over factual information (Nisbet and Mooney 2007; Bubela et al. 2009; Wilcox 2012; Lubchenco 2017).

The microblogging platform Twitter is emerging as a medium of choice for scientists (Collins et al. 2016), although it is still used by a minority (<40%) of academic faculty (Bart 2009; Noorden 2014). Twitter allows users to post short messages (originally up to 140 characters, increased to 280 characters since November 2017) that can be read by any other user. Users can elect to follow other users whose posts they are interested in, in which case they automatically see their followees’ tweets; conversely, users can be followed by other users, in which case their tweets can be seen by their followers. No permission is needed to follow a user, and reciprocation of following is not mandatory. Tweets can be categorized (with hashtags), repeated (retweeted), and shared via other social media platforms, which can exponentially amplify their spread and can offer links to websites, blogs, or scientific papers (Shiffman 2012).

There are scientific advantages to using digital communication technologies such as Twitter. Scientific users describe it as a means to stay abreast of new scientific literature, grant opportunities, and science policy, to promote their own published papers and exchange ideas, and to participate in conferences they cannot attend in person as “virtual delegates” (Bonetta 2009; Bik and Goldstein 2013; Parsons et al. 2014; Bombaci et al. 2016). Twitter can play a role in most parts of the life cycle of a scientific publication, from making connections with potential collaborators, to collecting data or finding data sources, to dissemination of the finished product (Darling et al. 2013; Choo et al. 2015). There are also some quantifiable benefits for scientists using social media. For example, papers that are tweeted about more often also accumulate more citations (Eysenbach 2011; Thelwall et al. 2013; Peoples et al. 2016), and the volume of tweets in the first week following publication correlates with the likelihood of a paper becoming highly cited (Eysenbach 2011), although such relationships are not always present (e.g., Haustein et al. 2014).

In addition to any academic benefits, scientists might adopt social media, and Twitter in particular, because of the potential to increase the reach of scientific messages and direct engagement with non-scientific audiences (Choo et al. 2015). This potential comes from the fact that Twitter leverages the power of weak ties, defined as low-investment social interactions that are not based on personal relationships (Granovetter 1973). On Twitter, follower–followee relationships are weak: users generally do not personally know the people they follow or the people who follow them, as their interactions are based mainly on message content. Nevertheless, by retweeting and sharing messages, weak ties can act as bridges across social, geographic, or cultural groups and contribute to a wide and rapid spread of information (Zhao et al. 2010; Ugander et al. 2012). The extent to which the messages of tweeting scientists benefit from the power of weak ties is unknown. Does Twitter provide a platform that allows scientists to simply promote their findings to other scientists within the ivory tower (i.e., “inreach”), or are tweeting scientists truly exploiting social media to potentially reach new audiences (“outreach”) (Bik et al. 2015; McClain and Neeley 2015; Fig. 1)?

Fig. 1. Conceptual depiction of inreach and outreach for Twitter communication by academic faculty. Left: If Twitter functions as an inreach tool, tweeting scientists might primarily reach only other scientists and perhaps, over time (arrow), some applied conservation and management science organizations. Right: If Twitter functions as an outreach tool, tweeting scientists might first reach other scientists, but over time (arrow) they will eventually attract members of the media, members of the public who are not scientists, and decision-makers (not necessarily in that order) as followers.

I’m glad to see this work but it’s use of language is not as precise in some places as it could be. They use the term ‘scientists’ throughout but their sample is made up of scientists identified as ecology and/or evolutionary biology (EEMB) researchers, as they briefly note in their Abstract and in the Methods section. With the constant use of the generic term, scientist, throughout most of the paper and taken in tandem with its use in the title, it’s easy to forget that this was a sample of a very specific population..

That the researchers’ sample of EEMB scientists is made up of those working at universities (academic scientists) is clear and it presents an interesting problem. How much does it matter that these are academic scientists? Both in regard to the research itself and with regard to perceptions about scientists. A sentence stating the question is beyond the scope of their research might have been a good idea.

Impressively, Darling and Côté have reached past the English language community to include other language groups, “We considered as many non-English Twitter profiles as possible by including common translations of languages we were familiar with (i.e., French and Spanish: biologista, professeur, profesora, etc.) in our search strings; …”

I cannot emphasize how rare it is to see this attempt to reach out beyond the English language community. Yes!

Getting back to my concern about language,  I would have used ‘suspect’ rather than ‘assume’ in this sentence from the paper’s Discussion, “We assume [emphasis mine] that the patterns we have uncovered for a sample of ecologists and evolutionary biologists in faculty positions can apply broadly across other academic disciplines.” I agree it’s quite likely but it’s an hypothesis/supposition and  needs to be tested. For example, will this hold true if you examine social scientists (such as economists, linguists, political scientists, psychologists, …) or physicists or mathematicians or …?

Is this evidence of unconscious bias regarding wheat the researchers term as ‘non-scientists’?  From the paper’s Discussion (Note: Links have been removed),

Of course, high numbers, diversity, and reach of followers offer no guarantee that messages will be read or understood. There is evidence that people selectively read what fits with their perception of the world (e.g., Sears and Freedman 1967; McPherson et al. 2001; Sunstein 2001; Himelboim et al. 2013). Thus, non-scientists [emphases mine] who follow scientists on Twitter might already be positively inclined to consume scientific information. If this is true, then one could argue that Twitter therefore remains an echo chamber, but it is a much larger one than the usual readership of scientific publications. Moreover, it is difficult to gauge the level of understanding of scientific tweets. The brevity and fragmented nature of science tweets can lead to shallow processing and comprehension of the message (Jiang et al. 2016). One metric of the influence of tweets is the extent to which they are shared (i.e., retweeted). Twitter users retweet posts when they find them interesting (hence the posts were at least read, if not understood) and when they deem the source credible (Metaxas et al. 2015). To our knowledge, there are no data on how often tweets by scientists are reposted by different types of followers. Such information would provide further evidence for an outreach function of Twitter in science communication.

Yes, it’s true that high numbers, etc. do not guarantee your messages will be read or understood and that people do selectively choose what fits their perception of the world. However, that applies equally to scientists and non-scientists despite what the authors appear to be claiming. Also, their use of the term non-scientist is not clear to me. Is this a synonym for ‘general public’ or is it being applied to anyone who may not have an educational background in science but is designated in another category such as policy makers, science communicators, etc. in the research paper?

In any event, ‘policy makers’ absorb a great deal of the researchers’ attention, from the paper’s Discussion (Note: Links have been removed),

Under most theories of change that describe how science ultimately affects evidence-based policies, decision-makers are a crucial group that should be engaged by scientists (Smith et al. 2013). Policy changes can be effected either through direct application of research to policy or, more often, via pressure from public awareness, which can drive or be driven by research (Baron 2010; Phillis et al. 2013). Either pathway requires active engagement by scientists with society (Lubchenco 2017). It is arguably easier than ever for scientists to have access to decision- and policy-makers, as officials at all levels of government are increasingly using social media to connect with the public (e.g., Grant et al. 2010; Kapp et al. 2015). However, we found that decision-makers accounted for only ∼0.3% (n = 191 out of 64 666) of the followers of academic scientists (see also Bombaci et al. 2016 in relation to the audiences of conference tweeting). Moreover, decision-makers begin to follow scientists in greater numbers only once the latter have reached a certain level of “popularity” (i.e., ∼2200 followers; Table 2). The general concern about whether scientific tweets are actually read by followers applies even more strongly to decision-makers, as they are known to use Twitter largely as a broadcasting tool rather than for dialogue (Grant et al. 2010). Thus, social media is not likely an effective replacement for more direct science-to-policy outreach that many scientists are now engaging in, such as testifying in front of special governmental committees, directly contacting decision-makers, etc. However, by actively engaging a large Twitter following of non-scientists, scientists increase the odds of being followed by a decision-maker who might see their messages, as well as the odds of being identified as a potential expert for further contributions.

It may due to the types of materials I tend to stumble across but science outreach has usually been presented as largely an educational effort with the long term goal of assuring the public will continue to support science funding. This passage in the research paper suggests more immediate political and career interests.

Should scientists be on Twitter?

This paper might discourage someone whose primary goal is to reach policy makers via this social media platform but the researchers seem to feel there is value in reaching out to a larger audience. While I’m not comfortable with how the researchers have generalized their results to the entire population of scientists, those results are intriguing..

This next bit features a scientist who as it turns out could be described as an EEMB (evolutionary biology and/or ecology) researcher.

How to tweet science

Stephen Heard wrote a July 31, 2018 posting on his Scientist Sees Squirrel blog about his Twitter feed,

At the 2018 conference of the Canadian Society for Ecology and Evolution, I was part of a lunchtime workshop, “The How and Why of Tweeting Science” – along with 5 friends.  Here I’ll share my slides and commentary.  I hope the other presenters will do the same, and I’ll link to them here as they become available.

 

I’ve been active on Twitter for about 4 years, but I’m very far from an expert, so my contribution to #CSEETweetShop was more to raise questions than to answer them.  What does it mean to “tweet to the science community”?  Here I’ll share some thoughts about Twitter audience, content, and voice.  These are, of course, my own (roughly formed) opinions, not some kind of wisdom on stone tablets, so take them with the requisite grain of salt!

Audience

 

Just as we do with blogging, we can draw a distinction between two audiences we might intend to reach via Twitter.  We might use Twitter for outreach, to talk to the general public – we could call this “science-communication tweeting”.  Or we could use Twitter for “inreach”, to talk to other scientists – which is what I’d call “science-community tweeting”.  But: for a couple of reasons, this distinction is not as clear as you might thing.  Or at least, your intent to reach one audience or the other may not match the outcome.

There are some data on the topic of scientists’ Twitter audiences.  The data in the slide above come from a recent paper by Isabelle Coté and Emily Darling.  They’re for a sample of 110 faculty members in ecology and evolution, for whom audiences are broken down by their relationship (if any) to science.  The key result: most ecology and evolution faculty on Twitter have audiences dominated by other scientists (light blue), with the general public (dark blue) a significant but more modest chunk. There’s variation, some of which may well relate to the tweeters’ intended audiences – but we can draw two fairly clear conclusions:

  • Nearly all of us tweet mostly to the science community; but
  • Almost none of us tweets only to the science community (or for that matter only to the general public).

The same paper analyzes follower composition as a function of audience size, and these data suggest that one’s audience is likely to change it builds.  Notice how the dark-blue “general public” line lags behind, then catches, the light-blue “other scientists” line*.  Earlier in your Twitter career, it’s likely that your audience will be even more strongly dominated by the science community – whether or not that’s what you intend.

In short: you probably can’t pick the audience you’re talking to; but you can pick the audience you’re talking for.  Given that, how might you use Twitter to talk for the science community?

I particularly like his constant questions about audience. He discusses other issues, such as content, but he always returns to the audience. Having worked in communication(s) and marketing, I have to applaud his focus on the audience. I can’t tell you how many times, we’d answer the question as to whom our audience was and we’d never revisit it. (mea culpa) Heard’s insistence on constantly checking in and questioning your assumptions is excellent.

Seeing  Coté’s and Darling’s paper cited in his presentation, gives some idea of how closely he follows the thinking about science outreach in his field.

Both Coté’s and Darling’s academic paper and Heard’s posting make for accessible reading while offering valuable information.

Know any Canadian scientists (Tier 2 Canada Research Chairs) who’d like to meet with Members of Parliament and Senators?

The folks at the Canadian Science Policy Centre (CSPC) have just announced a pilot project heavily influenced by a successful Australian initiative matching scientists and lawmakers for a day. This is going to cost the participant money and the application deadline is August 31, 2018.

If you’re still interested, from a July 10, 2018 CSPC announcement (received via email),

The Canadian Science Policy Centre (CSPC), in partnership with the Chief Science Advisor of Canada [Mona Nember], is launching a new and exciting pilot program: Science Meets Parliament. This is a unique opportunity that invites scientists and engineers of various disciplines to spend one day on the Hill, shadow an MP or senator, explore their role in modern political decision making, and develop an understanding of the parliamentary process.

For more information about the program, eligibility and the application process, please visit the page on the CSPC website.

CSPC is looking for sponsors for this unique and exciting program. We invite all academic institutions to partner with CSPC to support this program. Please check out the sponsorship page.

I found this on the CSPC’s Science Meets Parliament webpage,

Background

This program is modeled on the acclaimed program run by Science and Technology Australia, now in its 19th year. You can find more information about the Science and Technology Australia’s Science Meets Parliament event by clicking here. We are grateful to our Australian colleagues for allowing us to adopt the name and model.

Objectives

Scientists and politicians desire a mechanism to build close and resilient connections. Strengthening evidence-informed decision-making requires systematic connectivity between the scientific and legislative communities. This program will help to create an open and ongoing channel between the two communities.

This program aims to facilitate a crucial dialogue between scientists and political leaders. Selected scientists from across the country will have the rare opportunity to spend a full day on Parliament Hill shadowing an MP or Senator, attending House committee meetings and Question Period, and sharing your passion for science with Parliamentarians.

The program includes exercises and teleconference workshops leading up to the event as well as an orientation and training session on the day before, hosted by the Institute on Governance in Ottawa’s Byward Market.

Benefits

For Parliamentarians and Senators:

  • Interact with researchers driving science and innovation in Canada
  • Build lasting connections with scientists from diverse regions and specialties
  • Discuss the intersection of science and decision-making on the Hill

For Scientists:

  • Meet with MPs, Senators, their staff, and the Federal political community.
  • Showcase their research and discuss the impact of research outcomes for Canadians
  • Learn about the organization, rationale, and motivations of decision-making in Parliamentary procedures.

Eligibility

For this pilot year, the program is open to researchers who currently hold a Tier II Canada Research Chair and are affiliated with a Canadian post-secondary institution. [emphases mine]

The researchers should come from diverse range of science and engineering disciplines  including all social, medical, and natural Sciences.We expect that 15-20 candidates will be selected. We hope to open the application process to researchers from all career stages in future years.

CSPC will oversee the application process and will base final selection of the Delegates on applicant diversity in terms of geography, language, gender, discipline, and visible minority.

Program

The one day event will include:

  • An informative orientation session that includes information about the business of Parliament and exercises that prepare Delegates to speak with politicians
  • Meetings with Members of Parliament and Senators, the Chief Science Advisor of Canada, and possibly the Minister of Science (subject to her availability)
  • Shadowing a Member of Parliament or Senator during the day
  • Networking reception with MPs, Senators, and staff that will include a closing speech by a guest of honour.

The program will be held on the hill on November 6th [2018]. [emphasis mine] The mandatory orientation session will be in the late afternoon of Monday Nov. 5th. Delegates are highly encouraged to stay in Ottawa for the 10th Canadian Science Policy Conference, CSPC 2018, held from Nov. 7-9. In this unique forum, delegates will have the opportunity to discuss the most pressing issues of science and innovation policy in Canada. For more information about the CSPC 2018, please visit the website: www.cspc2018.ca

The detailed event agenda will be made available in the upcoming weeks.

Mandatory requirements

  1. Registration fee: Accepted delegates will be required to pay $250.00 , which will include breakfast, lunch, the evening networking reception, and admission to the program. All delegates will be responsible for their own travel and accommodation costs. [emphases mine]
  2. Scientists who attend this session are required to either present a lecture at their host institution, and/or write an editorial for the CSPC’s editorial page about their experience, interactions with Parliamentarians, and insights they gained during this experience.

For more information on any of the above please contact info@sciencepolicy.ca

If you are a current Tier 2 Canada Research Chair affiliated with a Canadian institution and would like to apply for this program please click here.

Deadline to apply: Friday, August 31, 2018 at 11:59 PM (PST).

For the curious, here’s a definition of a Tier 2 Canada Research Chair (from the Canada Research Chair Wikipedia entry),

  • Tier 2 Chairs – tenable for five years and renewable once, are for exceptional emerging researchers, acknowledged by their peers as having the potential to lead in their field. Nominees for Tier 2 positions are assistant or associate professors (or they possess the necessary qualifications to be appointed at these levels by the nominating university). For each Tier 2 Chair, the university receives $100,000 annually for five years.

Good luck! And, CSPC folks, thank you for giving those of us on the West Coast a midnight deadline!

The Hedy Lamarr of international research: Canada’s Third assessment of The State of Science and Technology and Industrial Research and Development in Canada (1 of 2)

Before launching into the assessment, a brief explanation of my theme: Hedy Lamarr was considered to be one of the great beauties of her day,

“Ziegfeld Girl” Hedy Lamarr 1941 MGM *M.V.
Titles: Ziegfeld Girl
People: Hedy Lamarr
Image courtesy mptvimages.com [downloaded from https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0034415/mediaviewer/rm1566611456]

Aside from starring in Hollywood movies and, before that, movies in Europe, she was also an inventor and not just any inventor (from a Dec. 4, 2017 article by Laura Barnett for The Guardian), Note: Links have been removed,

Let’s take a moment to reflect on the mercurial brilliance of Hedy Lamarr. Not only did the Vienna-born actor flee a loveless marriage to a Nazi arms dealer to secure a seven-year, $3,000-a-week contract with MGM, and become (probably) the first Hollywood star to simulate a female orgasm on screen – she also took time out to invent a device that would eventually revolutionise mobile communications.

As described in unprecedented detail by the American journalist and historian Richard Rhodes in his new book, Hedy’s Folly, Lamarr and her business partner, the composer George Antheil, were awarded a patent in 1942 for a “secret communication system”. It was meant for radio-guided torpedoes, and the pair gave to the US Navy. It languished in their files for decades before eventually becoming a constituent part of GPS, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth technology.

(The article goes on to mention other celebrities [Marlon Brando, Barbara Cartland, Mark Twain, etc] and their inventions.)

Lamarr’s work as an inventor was largely overlooked until the 1990’s when the technology community turned her into a ‘cultish’ favourite and from there her reputation grew and acknowledgement increased culminating in Rhodes’ book and the documentary by Alexandra Dean, ‘Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story (to be broadcast as part of PBS’s American Masters series on May 18, 2018).

Canada as Hedy Lamarr

There are some parallels to be drawn between Canada’s S&T and R&D (science and technology; research and development) and Ms. Lamarr. Chief amongst them, we’re not always appreciated for our brains. Not even by people who are supposed to know better such as the experts on the panel for the ‘Third assessment of The State of Science and Technology and Industrial Research and Development in Canada’ (proper title: Competing in a Global Innovation Economy: The Current State of R&D in Canada) from the Expert Panel on the State of Science and Technology and Industrial Research and Development in Canada.

A little history

Before exploring the comparison to Hedy Lamarr further, here’s a bit more about the history of this latest assessment from the Council of Canadian Academies (CCA), from the report released April 10, 2018,

This assessment of Canada’s performance indicators in science, technology, research, and innovation comes at an opportune time. The Government of Canada has expressed a renewed commitment in several tangible ways to this broad domain of activity including its Innovation and Skills Plan, the announcement of five superclusters, its appointment of a new Chief Science Advisor, and its request for the Fundamental Science Review. More specifically, the 2018 Federal Budget demonstrated the government’s strong commitment to research and innovation with historic investments in science.

The CCA has a decade-long history of conducting evidence-based assessments about Canada’s research and development activities, producing seven assessments of relevance:

The State of Science and Technology in Canada (2006) [emphasis mine]
•Innovation and Business Strategy: Why Canada Falls Short (2009)
•Catalyzing Canada’s Digital Economy (2010)
•Informing Research Choices: Indicators and Judgment (2012)
The State of Science and Technology in Canada (2012) [emphasis mine]
The State of Industrial R&D in Canada (2013) [emphasis mine]
•Paradox Lost: Explaining Canada’s Research Strength and Innovation Weakness (2013)

Using similar methods and metrics to those in The State of Science and Technology in Canada (2012) and The State of Industrial R&D in Canada (2013), this assessment tells a similar and familiar story: Canada has much to be proud of, with world-class researchers in many domains of knowledge, but the rest of the world is not standing still. Our peers are also producing high quality results, and many countries are making significant commitments to supporting research and development that will position them to better leverage their strengths to compete globally. Canada will need to take notice as it determines how best to take action. This assessment provides valuable material for that conversation to occur, whether it takes place in the lab or the legislature, the bench or the boardroom. We also hope it will be used to inform public discussion. [p. ix Print, p. 11 PDF]

This latest assessment succeeds the general 2006 and 2012 reports, which were mostly focused on academic research, and combines it with an assessment of industrial research, which was previously separate. Also, this third assessment’s title (Competing in a Global Innovation Economy: The Current State of R&D in Canada) makes what was previously quietly declared in the text, explicit from the cover onwards. It’s all about competition, despite noises such as the 2017 Naylor report (Review of fundamental research) about the importance of fundamental research.

One other quick comment, I did wonder in my July 1, 2016 posting (featuring the announcement of the third assessment) how combining two assessments would impact the size of the expert panel and the size of the final report,

Given the size of the 2012 assessment of science and technology at 232 pp. (PDF) and the 2013 assessment of industrial research and development at 220 pp. (PDF) with two expert panels, the imagination boggles at the potential size of the 2016 expert panel and of the 2016 assessment combining the two areas.

I got my answer with regard to the panel as noted in my Oct. 20, 2016 update (which featured a list of the members),

A few observations, given the size of the task, this panel is lean. As well, there are three women in a group of 13 (less than 25% representation) in 2016? It’s Ontario and Québec-dominant; only BC and Alberta rate a representative on the panel. I hope they will find ways to better balance this panel and communicate that ‘balanced story’ to the rest of us. On the plus side, the panel has representatives from the humanities, arts, and industry in addition to the expected representatives from the sciences.

The imbalance I noted then was addressed, somewhat, with the selection of the reviewers (from the report released April 10, 2018),

The CCA wishes to thank the following individuals for their review of this report:

Ronald Burnett, C.M., O.B.C., RCA, Chevalier de l’ordre des arts et des
lettres, President and Vice-Chancellor, Emily Carr University of Art and Design
(Vancouver, BC)

Michelle N. Chretien, Director, Centre for Advanced Manufacturing and Design
Technologies, Sheridan College; Former Program and Business Development
Manager, Electronic Materials, Xerox Research Centre of Canada (Brampton,
ON)

Lisa Crossley, CEO, Reliq Health Technologies, Inc. (Ancaster, ON)
Natalie Dakers, Founding President and CEO, Accel-Rx Health Sciences
Accelerator (Vancouver, BC)

Fred Gault, Professorial Fellow, United Nations University-MERIT (Maastricht,
Netherlands)

Patrick D. Germain, Principal Engineering Specialist, Advanced Aerodynamics,
Bombardier Aerospace (Montréal, QC)

Robert Brian Haynes, O.C., FRSC, FCAHS, Professor Emeritus, DeGroote
School of Medicine, McMaster University (Hamilton, ON)

Susan Holt, Chief, Innovation and Business Relationships, Government of
New Brunswick (Fredericton, NB)

Pierre A. Mohnen, Professor, United Nations University-MERIT and Maastricht
University (Maastricht, Netherlands)

Peter J. M. Nicholson, C.M., Retired; Former and Founding President and
CEO, Council of Canadian Academies (Annapolis Royal, NS)

Raymond G. Siemens, Distinguished Professor, English and Computer Science
and Former Canada Research Chair in Humanities Computing, University of
Victoria (Victoria, BC) [pp. xii- xiv Print; pp. 15-16 PDF]

The proportion of women to men as reviewers jumped up to about 36% (4 of 11 reviewers) and there are two reviewers from the Maritime provinces. As usual, reviewers external to Canada were from Europe. Although this time, they came from Dutch institutions rather than UK or German institutions. Interestingly and unusually, there was no one from a US institution. When will they start using reviewers from other parts of the world?

As for the report itself, it is 244 pp. (PDF). (For the really curious, I have a  December 15, 2016 post featuring my comments on the preliminary data for the third assessment.)

To sum up, they had a lean expert panel tasked with bringing together two inquiries and two reports. I imagine that was daunting. Good on them for finding a way to make it manageable.

Bibliometrics, patents, and a survey

I wish more attention had been paid to some of the issues around open science, open access, and open data, which are changing how science is being conducted. (I have more about this from an April 5, 2018 article by James Somers for The Atlantic but more about that later.) If I understand rightly, they may not have been possible due to the nature of the questions posed by the government when requested the assessment.

As was done for the second assessment, there is an acknowledgement that the standard measures/metrics (bibliometrics [no. of papers published, which journals published them; number of times papers were cited] and technometrics [no. of patent applications, etc.] of scientific accomplishment and progress are not the best and new approaches need to be developed and adopted (from the report released April 10, 2018),

It is also worth noting that the Panel itself recognized the limits that come from using traditional historic metrics. Additional approaches will be needed the next time this assessment is done. [p. ix Print; p. 11 PDF]

For the second assessment and as a means of addressing some of the problems with metrics, the panel decided to take a survey which the panel for the third assessment has also done (from the report released April 10, 2018),

The Panel relied on evidence from multiple sources to address its charge, including a literature review and data extracted from statistical agencies and organizations such as Statistics Canada and the OECD. For international comparisons, the Panel focused on OECD countries along with developing countries that are among the top 20 producers of peer-reviewed research publications (e.g., China, India, Brazil, Iran, Turkey). In addition to the literature review, two primary research approaches informed the Panel’s assessment:
•a comprehensive bibliometric and technometric analysis of Canadian research publications and patents; and,
•a survey of top-cited researchers around the world.

Despite best efforts to collect and analyze up-to-date information, one of the Panel’s findings is that data limitations continue to constrain the assessment of R&D activity and excellence in Canada. This is particularly the case with industrial R&D and in the social sciences, arts, and humanities. Data on industrial R&D activity continue to suffer from time lags for some measures, such as internationally comparable data on R&D intensity by sector and industry. These data also rely on industrial categories (i.e., NAICS and ISIC codes) that can obscure important trends, particularly in the services sector, though Statistics Canada’s recent revisions to how this data is reported have improved this situation. There is also a lack of internationally comparable metrics relating to R&D outcomes and impacts, aside from those based on patents.

For the social sciences, arts, and humanities, metrics based on journal articles and other indexed publications provide an incomplete and uneven picture of research contributions. The expansion of bibliometric databases and methodological improvements such as greater use of web-based metrics, including paper views/downloads and social media references, will support ongoing, incremental improvements in the availability and accuracy of data. However, future assessments of R&D in Canada may benefit from more substantive integration of expert review, capable of factoring in different types of research outputs (e.g., non-indexed books) and impacts (e.g., contributions to communities or impacts on public policy). The Panel has no doubt that contributions from the humanities, arts, and social sciences are of equal importance to national prosperity. It is vital that such contributions are better measured and assessed. [p. xvii Print; p. 19 PDF]

My reading: there’s a problem and we’re not going to try and fix it this time. Good luck to those who come after us. As for this line: “The Panel has no doubt that contributions from the humanities, arts, and social sciences are of equal importance to national prosperity.” Did no one explain that when you use ‘no doubt’, you are introducing doubt? It’s a cousin to ‘don’t take this the wrong way’ and ‘I don’t mean to be rude but …’ .

Good news

This is somewhat encouraging (from the report released April 10, 2018),

Canada’s international reputation for its capacity to participate in cutting-edge R&D is strong, with 60% of top-cited researchers surveyed internationally indicating that Canada hosts world-leading infrastructure or programs in their fields. This share increased by four percentage points between 2012 and 2017. Canada continues to benefit from a highly educated population and deep pools of research skills and talent. Its population has the highest level of educational attainment in the OECD in the proportion of the population with
a post-secondary education. However, among younger cohorts (aged 25 to 34), Canada has fallen behind Japan and South Korea. The number of researchers per capita in Canada is on a par with that of other developed countries, andincreased modestly between 2004 and 2012. Canada’s output of PhD graduates has also grown in recent years, though it remains low in per capita terms relative to many OECD countries. [pp. xvii-xviii; pp. 19-20]

Don’t let your head get too big

Most of the report observes that our international standing is slipping in various ways such as this (from the report released April 10, 2018),

In contrast, the number of R&D personnel employed in Canadian businesses
dropped by 20% between 2008 and 2013. This is likely related to sustained and
ongoing decline in business R&D investment across the country. R&D as a share
of gross domestic product (GDP) has steadily declined in Canada since 2001,
and now stands well below the OECD average (Figure 1). As one of few OECD
countries with virtually no growth in total national R&D expenditures between
2006 and 2015, Canada would now need to more than double expenditures to
achieve an R&D intensity comparable to that of leading countries.

Low and declining business R&D expenditures are the dominant driver of this
trend; however, R&D spending in all sectors is implicated. Government R&D
expenditures declined, in real terms, over the same period. Expenditures in the
higher education sector (an indicator on which Canada has traditionally ranked
highly) are also increasing more slowly than the OECD average. Significant
erosion of Canada’s international competitiveness and capacity to participate
in R&D and innovation is likely to occur if this decline and underinvestment
continue.

Between 2009 and 2014, Canada produced 3.8% of the world’s research
publications, ranking ninth in the world. This is down from seventh place for
the 2003–2008 period. India and Italy have overtaken Canada although the
difference between Italy and Canada is small. Publication output in Canada grew
by 26% between 2003 and 2014, a growth rate greater than many developed
countries (including United States, France, Germany, United Kingdom, and
Japan), but below the world average, which reflects the rapid growth in China
and other emerging economies. Research output from the federal government,
particularly the National Research Council Canada, dropped significantly
between 2009 and 2014.(emphasis mine)  [p. xviii Print; p. 20 PDF]

For anyone unfamiliar with Canadian politics,  2009 – 2014 were years during which Stephen Harper’s Conservatives formed the government. Justin Trudeau’s Liberals were elected to form the government in late 2015.

During Harper’s years in government, the Conservatives were very interested in changing how the National Research Council of Canada operated and, if memory serves, the focus was on innovation over research. Consequently, the drop in their research output is predictable.

Given my interest in nanotechnology and other emerging technologies, this popped out (from the report released April 10, 2018),

When it comes to research on most enabling and strategic technologies, however, Canada lags other countries. Bibliometric evidence suggests that, with the exception of selected subfields in Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) such as Medical Informatics and Personalized Medicine, Canada accounts for a relatively small share of the world’s research output for promising areas of technology development. This is particularly true for Biotechnology, Nanotechnology, and Materials science [emphasis mine]. Canada’s research impact, as reflected by citations, is also modest in these areas. Aside from Biotechnology, none of the other subfields in Enabling and Strategic Technologies has an ARC rank among the top five countries. Optoelectronics and photonics is the next highest ranked at 7th place, followed by Materials, and Nanoscience and Nanotechnology, both of which have a rank of 9th. Even in areas where Canadian researchers and institutions played a seminal role in early research (and retain a substantial research capacity), such as Artificial Intelligence and Regenerative Medicine, Canada has lost ground to other countries.

Arguably, our early efforts in artificial intelligence wouldn’t have garnered us much in the way of ranking and yet we managed some cutting edge work such as machine learning. I’m not suggesting the expert panel should have or could have found some way to measure these kinds of efforts but I’m wondering if there could have been some acknowledgement in the text of the report. I’m thinking a couple of sentences in a paragraph about the confounding nature of scientific research where areas that are ignored for years and even decades then become important (e.g., machine learning) but are not measured as part of scientific progress until after they are universally recognized.

Still, point taken about our diminishing returns in ’emerging’ technologies and sciences (from the report released April 10, 2018),

The impression that emerges from these data is sobering. With the exception of selected ICT subfields, such as Medical Informatics, bibliometric evidence does not suggest that Canada excels internationally in most of these research areas. In areas such as Nanotechnology and Materials science, Canada lags behind other countries in levels of research output and impact, and other countries are outpacing Canada’s publication growth in these areas — leading to declining shares of world publications. Even in research areas such as AI, where Canadian researchers and institutions played a foundational role, Canadian R&D activity is not keeping pace with that of other countries and some researchers trained in Canada have relocated to other countries (Section 4.4.1). There are isolated exceptions to these trends, but the aggregate data reviewed by this Panel suggest that Canada is not currently a world leader in research on most emerging technologies.

The Hedy Lamarr treatment

We have ‘good looks’ (arts and humanities) but not the kind of brains (physical sciences and engineering) that people admire (from the report released April 10, 2018),

Canada, relative to the world, specializes in subjects generally referred to as the
humanities and social sciences (plus health and the environment), and does
not specialize as much as others in areas traditionally referred to as the physical
sciences and engineering. Specifically, Canada has comparatively high levels
of research output in Psychology and Cognitive Sciences, Public Health and
Health Services, Philosophy and Theology, Earth and Environmental Sciences,
and Visual and Performing Arts. [emphases mine] It accounts for more than 5% of world researchin these fields. Conversely, Canada has lower research output than expected
in Chemistry, Physics and Astronomy, Enabling and Strategic Technologies,
Engineering, and Mathematics and Statistics. The comparatively low research
output in core areas of the natural sciences and engineering is concerning,
and could impair the flexibility of Canada’s research base, preventing research
institutions and researchers from being able to pivot to tomorrow’s emerging
research areas. [p. xix Print; p. 21 PDF]

Couldn’t they have used a more buoyant tone? After all, science was known as ‘natural philosophy’ up until the 19th century. As for visual and performing arts, let’s include poetry as a performing and literary art (both have been the case historically and cross-culturally) and let’s also note that one of the great physics texts, (De rerum natura by Lucretius) was a multi-volume poem (from Lucretius’ Wikipedia entry; Note: Links have been removed).

His poem De rerum natura (usually translated as “On the Nature of Things” or “On the Nature of the Universe”) transmits the ideas of Epicureanism, which includes Atomism [the concept of atoms forming materials] and psychology. Lucretius was the first writer to introduce Roman readers to Epicurean philosophy.[15] The poem, written in some 7,400 dactylic hexameters, is divided into six untitled books, and explores Epicurean physics through richly poetic language and metaphors. Lucretius presents the principles of atomism; the nature of the mind and soul; explanations of sensation and thought; the development of the world and its phenomena; and explains a variety of celestial and terrestrial phenomena. The universe described in the poem operates according to these physical principles, guided by fortuna, “chance”, and not the divine intervention of the traditional Roman deities.[16]

Should you need more proof that the arts might have something to contribute to physical sciences, there’s this in my March 7, 2018 posting,

It’s not often you see research that combines biologically inspired engineering and a molecular biophysicist with a professional animator who worked at Peter Jackson’s (Lord of the Rings film trilogy, etc.) Park Road Post film studio. An Oct. 18, 2017 news item on ScienceDaily describes the project,

Like many other scientists, Don Ingber, M.D., Ph.D., the Founding Director of the Wyss Institute, [emphasis mine] is concerned that non-scientists have become skeptical and even fearful of his field at a time when technology can offer solutions to many of the world’s greatest problems. “I feel that there’s a huge disconnect between science and the public because it’s depicted as rote memorization in schools, when by definition, if you can memorize it, it’s not science,” says Ingber, who is also the Judah Folkman Professor of Vascular Biology at Harvard Medical School and the Vascular Biology Program at Boston Children’s Hospital, and Professor of Bioengineering at the Harvard Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS). [emphasis mine] “Science is the pursuit of the unknown. We have a responsibility to reach out to the public and convey that excitement of exploration and discovery, and fortunately, the film industry is already great at doing that.”

“Not only is our physics-based simulation and animation system as good as other data-based modeling systems, it led to the new scientific insight [emphasis mine] that the limited motion of the dynein hinge focuses the energy released by ATP hydrolysis, which causes dynein’s shape change and drives microtubule sliding and axoneme motion,” says Ingber. “Additionally, while previous studies of dynein have revealed the molecule’s two different static conformations, our animation visually depicts one plausible way that the protein can transition between those shapes at atomic resolution, which is something that other simulations can’t do. The animation approach also allows us to visualize how rows of dyneins work in unison, like rowers pulling together in a boat, which is difficult using conventional scientific simulation approaches.”

It comes down to how we look at things. Yes, physical sciences and engineering are very important. If the report is to be believed we have a very highly educated population and according to PISA scores our students rank highly in mathematics, science, and reading skills. (For more information on Canada’s latest PISA scores from 2015 see this OECD page. As for PISA itself, it’s an OECD [Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development] programme where 15-year-old students from around the world are tested on their reading, mathematics, and science skills, you can get some information from my Oct. 9, 2013 posting.)

Is it really so bad that we choose to apply those skills in fields other than the physical sciences and engineering? It’s a little bit like Hedy Lamarr’s problem except instead of being judged for our looks and having our inventions dismissed, we’re being judged for not applying ourselves to physical sciences and engineering and having our work in other closely aligned fields dismissed as less important.

Canada’s Industrial R&D: an oft-told, very sad story

Bemoaning the state of Canada’s industrial research and development efforts has been a national pastime as long as I can remember. Here’s this from the report released April 10, 2018,

There has been a sustained erosion in Canada’s industrial R&D capacity and competitiveness. Canada ranks 33rd among leading countries on an index assessing the magnitude, intensity, and growth of industrial R&D expenditures. Although Canada is the 11th largest spender, its industrial R&D intensity (0.9%) is only half the OECD average and total spending is declining (−0.7%). Compared with G7 countries, the Canadian portfolio of R&D investment is more concentrated in industries that are intrinsically not as R&D intensive. Canada invests more heavily than the G7 average in oil and gas, forestry, machinery and equipment, and finance where R&D has been less central to business strategy than in many other industries. …  About 50% of Canada’s industrial R&D spending is in high-tech sectors (including industries such as ICT, aerospace, pharmaceuticals, and automotive) compared with the G7 average of 80%. Canadian Business Enterprise Expenditures on R&D (BERD) intensity is also below the OECD average in these sectors. In contrast, Canadian investment in low and medium-low tech sectors is substantially higher than the G7 average. Canada’s spending reflects both its long-standing industrial structure and patterns of economic activity.

R&D investment patterns in Canada appear to be evolving in response to global and domestic shifts. While small and medium-sized enterprises continue to perform a greater share of industrial R&D in Canada than in the United States, between 2009 and 2013, there was a shift in R&D from smaller to larger firms. Canada is an increasingly attractive place to conduct R&D. Investment by foreign-controlled firms in Canada has increased to more than 35% of total R&D investment, with the United States accounting for more than half of that. [emphasis mine]  Multinational enterprises seem to be increasingly locating some of their R&D operations outside their country of ownership, possibly to gain proximity to superior talent. Increasing foreign-controlled R&D, however, also could signal a long-term strategic loss of control over intellectual property (IP) developed in this country, ultimately undermining the government’s efforts to support high-growth firms as they scale up. [pp. xxii-xxiii Print; pp. 24-25 PDF]

Canada has been known as a ‘branch plant’ economy for decades. For anyone unfamiliar with the term, it means that companies from other countries come here, open up a branch and that’s how we get our jobs as we don’t have all that many large companies here. Increasingly, multinationals are locating R&D shops here.

While our small to medium size companies fund industrial R&D, it’s large companies (multinationals) which can afford long-term and serious investment in R&D. Luckily for companies from other countries, we have a well-educated population of people looking for jobs.

In 2017, we opened the door more widely so we can scoop up talented researchers and scientists from other countries, from a June 14, 2017 article by Beckie Smith for The PIE News,

Universities have welcomed the inclusion of the work permit exemption for academic stays of up to 120 days in the strategy, which also introduces expedited visa processing for some highly skilled professions.

Foreign researchers working on projects at a publicly funded degree-granting institution or affiliated research institution will be eligible for one 120-day stay in Canada every 12 months.

And universities will also be able to access a dedicated service channel that will support employers and provide guidance on visa applications for foreign talent.

The Global Skills Strategy, which came into force on June 12 [2017], aims to boost the Canadian economy by filling skills gaps with international talent.

As well as the short term work permit exemption, the Global Skills Strategy aims to make it easier for employers to recruit highly skilled workers in certain fields such as computer engineering.

“Employers that are making plans for job-creating investments in Canada will often need an experienced leader, dynamic researcher or an innovator with unique skills not readily available in Canada to make that investment happen,” said Ahmed Hussen, Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship.

“The Global Skills Strategy aims to give those employers confidence that when they need to hire from abroad, they’ll have faster, more reliable access to top talent.”

Coincidentally, Microsoft, Facebook, Google, etc. have announced, in 2017, new jobs and new offices in Canadian cities. There’s a also Chinese multinational telecom company Huawei Canada which has enjoyed success in Canada and continues to invest here (from a Jan. 19, 2018 article about security concerns by Matthew Braga for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) online news,

For the past decade, Chinese tech company Huawei has found no shortage of success in Canada. Its equipment is used in telecommunications infrastructure run by the country’s major carriers, and some have sold Huawei’s phones.

The company has struck up partnerships with Canadian universities, and say it is investing more than half a billion dollars in researching next generation cellular networks here. [emphasis mine]

While I’m not thrilled about using patents as an indicator of progress, this is interesting to note (from the report released April 10, 2018),

Canada produces about 1% of global patents, ranking 18th in the world. It lags further behind in trademark (34th) and design applications (34th). Despite relatively weak performance overall in patents, Canada excels in some technical fields such as Civil Engineering, Digital Communication, Other Special Machines, Computer Technology, and Telecommunications. [emphases mine] Canada is a net exporter of patents, which signals the R&D strength of some technology industries. It may also reflect increasing R&D investment by foreign-controlled firms. [emphasis mine] [p. xxiii Print; p. 25 PDF]

Getting back to my point, we don’t have large companies here. In fact, the dream for most of our high tech startups is to build up the company so it’s attractive to buyers, sell, and retire (hopefully before the age of 40). Strangely, the expert panel doesn’t seem to share my insight into this matter,

Canada’s combination of high performance in measures of research output and impact, and low performance on measures of industrial R&D investment and innovation (e.g., subpar productivity growth), continue to be viewed as a paradox, leading to the hypothesis that barriers are impeding the flow of Canada’s research achievements into commercial applications. The Panel’s analysis suggests the need for a more nuanced view. The process of transforming research into innovation and wealth creation is a complex multifaceted process, making it difficult to point to any definitive cause of Canada’s deficit in R&D investment and productivity growth. Based on the Panel’s interpretation of the evidence, Canada is a highly innovative nation, but significant barriers prevent the translation of innovation into wealth creation. The available evidence does point to a number of important contributing factors that are analyzed in this report. Figure 5 represents the relationships between R&D, innovation, and wealth creation.

The Panel concluded that many factors commonly identified as points of concern do not adequately explain the overall weakness in Canada’s innovation performance compared with other countries. [emphasis mine] Academia-business linkages appear relatively robust in quantitative terms given the extent of cross-sectoral R&D funding and increasing academia-industry partnerships, though the volume of academia-industry interactions does not indicate the nature or the quality of that interaction, nor the extent to which firms are capitalizing on the research conducted and the resulting IP. The educational system is high performing by international standards and there does not appear to be a widespread lack of researchers or STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) skills. IP policies differ across universities and are unlikely to explain a divergence in research commercialization activity between Canadian and U.S. institutions, though Canadian universities and governments could do more to help Canadian firms access university IP and compete in IP management and strategy. Venture capital availability in Canada has improved dramatically in recent years and is now competitive internationally, though still overshadowed by Silicon Valley. Technology start-ups and start-up ecosystems are also flourishing in many sectors and regions, demonstrating their ability to build on research advances to develop and deliver innovative products and services.

You’ll note there’s no mention of a cultural issue where start-ups are designed for sale as soon as possible and this isn’t new. Years ago, there was an accounting firm that published a series of historical maps (the last one I saw was in 2005) of technology companies in the Vancouver region. Technology companies were being developed and sold to large foreign companies from the 19th century to present day.

Part 2

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.