Tag Archives: Stephen Harper

Reactions to Canada’s 2015 election Liberal majority and speculations about science and the new cabinet

The euphoria is dying down and, on balance, there was surprisingly little, the tone being more one of optimism laced with caution on the occasion of the Conservative’s defeat at the hands of the Liberal party in the Oct. 19, 2015 Canadian federal election.

Of course the big question for me and other Canadian science bloggers is:

What about science in the wake of the 2015 Liberal majority government in Canada?

I’ve gathered bits and pieces from various published opinions on the topic. First, there’s Brian Owen, a freelance writer in St. Stephen, New Brunswick (there’s more about him in my Aug. 18, 2015 posting about the upcoming Canadian Science Policy Conference to be held Nov. 25 -27, 2015 in Ottawa [Canada’s capital]) in an Oct. 20, 2015 opinion piece for ScienceInsider,

Many Canadian scientists are celebrating the result of yesterday’s federal election, which saw Stephen Harper’s Conservative government defeated after nearly 10 years in power.

The center-left Liberal Party under Justin Trudeau won an unexpected majority government, taking 184 of the 338 seats in the House of Commons. The Conservatives will form the opposition with 99 seats, while the left-leaning New Democratic Party (NDP) fell to third place with just 44 seats.

“Many scientists will be pleased with the outcome,” says Jim Woodgett, director of research at the Lunenfeld-Tanenbaum Research Institute at Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto. “The Liberal party has a strong record in supporting science.” [emphasis mine]

I don’t think the Liberal record is that great. If I understand it rightly, the first muzzle placed on government scientists was applied by a then Liberal government to Health Canada. That’s right the Conservatives got the idea from the Liberals and it’s not the only one they got from that source. Omnibus bills were also pioneered by the Liberal government.

However, hope still springs in mine and others’ bosoms as can be seen in an Oct. 21, 2015 essay in the Guardian (UK newspaper) by Michael Halpern of the Center for Science and Democracy at the US-based Union of Concerned Scientists  (Note: Links have been removed),

There was a palpable outpouring of relief from Canadian scientists as the Liberal Party won a majority on Monday night [Oct. 19, 2015], bringing to an end nine years of escalating hostility by the Harper government towards its own research base. Drastic cuts to funding and constraints on scientific freedom have significantly damaged Canadian research and its capacity to develop science-based public health and environmental policies.

Eight hundred scientists from thirty-two countries wrote an open letter urging the prime minster to ease restrictions on scientists and data. In October 2014, a Ryerson University professor wrote in Science magazine that the election presented an “opportunity to reboot the federal government’s controversial approach to science policy and research.”

All of this advocacy worked. Science became a major campaign issue during the election. There were all-party debates on science policy and extensive media coverage. The Green, Liberal and NDP platforms included significant commitments to restore science to its rightful place in society and public policy.

“We’ll reverse the $40 million cut that Harper made to our federal ocean science and monitoring programs,” said Liberal leader Justin Trudeau at a September campaign stop. “The war on science ends with the liberal government.” In tweet after tweet after tweet, opposition candidates argued that they were best positioned to defend scientific integrity.

Now that it’s been elected with a healthy majority, the Liberal Party says it will make data openly available, unmuzzle scientists, bring back the long form census, appoint a chief science officer, and make the agency Statistics Canada fully independent.

In the United States, many celebrated the end of the Bush administration in 2008, thinking that its restrictions on science would evaporate the moment that the Obama administration took office. It wasn’t true. There has been significant progress in protecting scientists from political influence. But the public has still lacked access to scientific information on multiple environmental and public health issues.

So who will keep watch over the new government, as it’s forced to choose among its many priorities? Canadian unions, scientists, policy experts and activists need to continue to push for real change. It’s up to those who care most about science and democracy to keep Trudeau on his toes.

Returning to Owen’s article, there are more pledges from the new Liberal government,

… Trudeau has also said his party will embrace “evidence based policy” and “data-driven decision-making,”  do more to address climate change, protect endangered species, and review the environmental impact of major energy and development projects.

Woodgett welcomes those pledges, but warns that they would not address the larger issue of what he sees as the government’s neglect of basic research funding. “I hope we will see less short-term thinking and much greater support for discovery research going forward,” he says. “We are at serious risk of a lost generation of scientists and it’s critical that younger researchers are given a clear indication that Canada is open to their ideas and needs.”

Science advocates plan to watch the new government closely to ensure it lives up to its promises. “Great to see Harper gone, but another majority is an awfully big blank cheque,” wrote Michael Rennie, a freshwater ecologist at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, on Twitter.

David Bruggeman in a cautionary Oct. 22, 2015 posting (on his Pasco Phronesis blog) sums things up in this title: Will New Canadian Government Be The Change Its Scientists Can Believe In? (Note: Links have been removed),

… Only one of the four party representatives at the recent science and technology debate managed to win a seat in the upcoming Parliament.  MP Marc Garneau will remain in Parliament, and his experience in the Canadian Space Agency means he may be able to better manage the changes sought in official government (as opposed to Parliamentary) policy.

The Conservatives will now shift to being the Official Opposition (the largest party not in power).  However, the current cabinet minister responsible for science and technology, and at least two of his predecessors, lost their seats.  The party that was the Official Opposition, the New Democratic Party (NDP), lost several seats, returning to the third largest party in Parliament.  (However, they appear to be a more natural ally for the Liberals than the Conservatives) MP Kennedy Stewart, who has championed the establishment of a Parliamentary Science Officer, barely retained his seat.  He will likely remain as the NDP science critic.

… While the policies on media access to government scientists are part of this trend, they may not be the first priority for Trudeau and his cabinet.  It may turn out to be something similar to the transition from the Bush to the Obama Administrations.  Changes to policies concerning so-called political interference with science were promised, but have not gotten the thorough commitment from the Obama Administration that some would have liked and/or expected.

As David notes. we lost significant critical voices when those Conservative MPs failed to get re-elected.

In a post-election Oct. 24, 2015 posting, Sarah Boon offers a call to action on her Watershed Moments blog (Note: Links have been removed),

I think it’s important to realize, however, that the work doesn’t end here.

Canadian scientists found their voice in the run up to the election, but they’d better not lose it now.

In a pre-election editorial on the Science Borealis Blog, Pascal Lapointe suggested that – after the election – the organizations that worked so hard to make science an election issue should join forces and keep pushing the government to keep science as a top priority. These groups include Evidence for Democracy, the Science Integrity Project, Get Science Right, Our Right to Know, the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada, and more.

Finally, there’s an Oct. 20, 2015 posting by Canadians Julia Whidden and Rachel Skubel on the Southern Fried Science blog explaining the Canadian election to American colleagues in what begins in a facey style which, thankfully and quickly, switches to informative and opinionated (Note: They have nothing good to say about the Conservatives and science),

Up until this past year, the thought of Canadian politics had probably never crossed your mind. For some of you, your introduction to the topic may have been via the astute criticisms of John Oliver published this past weekend. His YouTube video currently skyrocketing at just under 3 million views in less than 48 hours, may have even been the introduction to Canadian politics for some Canadians. Let’s face it: in comparison to the flashy and sometimes trashy race of our neighbors to the south (ahem, you Americans), Canadian politics are usually tame, boring, and dry. …

We present a few major issues related to marine science and conservation that Harper either dragged down or destroyed, and the complementary response by our new PM Trudeau from his platform. …

Based on the Liberals party’s platform, and their statements throughout the last year, here’s a taste of the contrasts between old and new:

Harper/Conservatives Trudeau/Liberals
Marine Protected AreasCommitted in 2011 to protect 10% of Canada’s coastal marine and coastal areas by 2020 under the International Convention on Biodiversity, but is lagging at a meager 1.3% – and only 0.11% is fully closed to “extractive activities.” 




Proposed MPAs have been stalled by inaction, failure to cooperate by the federal government or stakeholders, and overall a system which needs an infusion of resources – not cuts – to meet ambitious goals.

“We will increase the amount of Canada’s marine and coastal areas that are protected from 1.3 percent to 5 percent by 2017, and 10 percent by 2020.” Liberal Party’s Protecting our Oceans mandate

There is a bit of misinformation in the Southern Fried Science posting,

The National Research Council (NRC) is Canada’s equivalent of America’s National Science Foundation (NSF).

The closest analogue to the US National Science Foundation is Canada’s Tri-Council Agencies comprised of the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC), the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC), and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR).

Next step: appointing a cabinet

Oddly, I haven’t found anyone speculating as to what will happen to science when Justin Trudeau announces his cabinet. He has already stated that his cabinet will be significantly smaller than Stephen Harper’s cabinet of 39 ministers. Numbers for the new cabinet range from 25 to 28 to 30. The largest proposed Trudeau cabinet (30) is almost 25% less than the previous one. Clearly, some ministries will have to go or be combined with other ones.

I’m guessing that Science, which is considered a junior ministry, will be rolled into another ministry, possibly Industry, to be renamed, Industry and Science. Or, by appointing a Chief Science Advisor, Trudeau trumpets the new importance of science with this special status and disburses the Science Ministry responsibilities amongst a variety of ministries.

In any event, I look forward to finding out later this week (Nov. 2 – 6, 2015) whether either or neither of my predictions comes true.

*Canadian cabinet update: To see how I got it both wrong and right see my Nov.4, 2015 posting.

ETA Nov. 5, 2015: I found one more piece for this roundup, an Oct. 22, 2015 article by Helen Carmichael for Chemistry World published by the UK’s Royal Society of Chemistry (Note: Links have been removed),

There will likely be a shift in the Canadian government’s target research areas towards areas such as green energy and away from fossil fuels, observers say. In addition, they expect that the Trudeau government will be more hands off when it comes to the science that it funds – giving money to the granting councils and trusting them to disburse those funds via peer review. …

The way that science is funded – the politicisation of science – will be less of an issue for the next while,’ says John Brennan, a chemistry and chemical biology professor at McMaster University in Ontario, Canada, who directs the school’s Biointerfaces Institute.

Trudeau and his Liberal party have promised to appoint a chief science officer similar to the national science adviser position that the Harper government eliminated in 2008. Canada’s new chief science officer would report to the prime minister and ensure that government science is available to the public, that all the country’s scientists are able to speak freely about their work and that scientific analyses are considered when the Canadian government develops policy. The Trudeau government has also said that it will create a central online portal for government-funded scientific research to enable greater public access.

The Liberals offer quite a different vision for the Canadian economy than the Conservatives, planning to run short-term budget deficits to increase government spending on public infrastructure, and to return the country to a balanced budget in 2019–20. The party has committed to C$25 million (£12 million) in funding for National Parks and reversing budget cuts to government ocean science and monitoring programmes.

In addition to proposing initiatives to increase business investment in research and development, the Liberals want a tax credit, and will invest C$200 million annually to support innovation in the forestry, fisheries, mining, energy and agriculture sectors. Public science is particularly important in Canada, where the private sector funds a much lower proportion of research than most industrialised nations.

Provincial governments own Canada’s natural resources, with fossil fuel production largely in Alberta and Saskatchewan. Energy production is a major part of the Canadian economy. Trudeau has committed to set up a C$2 billion fund to help the country transition to a low carbon economy, but meanwhile he is not expected to withdraw support for the proposed Alberta to Texas Keystone XL oil pipeline.

Incoming president and chief executive of the Chemistry Industry Association of Canada (CIAC), Bob Masterson, recently told Chemistry World that rapid policy decisions by Canadian governments and retailers, without sufficient consultation with industry, are not advantageous or based on sound science. He described missed opportunities for the Canadian chemical industry to engage with regulators, coupled with a lack of coordination between various tiers of Canada’s national and regional regulations. On key issues, such as Canada’s Chemical Management Plan, global trade and maintaining competitive corporate tax rates, Masterson says the CIAC believes the liberal positions represent continuity rather than change from the previous government.

Carmichael’s offers a good overview and is the only one of *three* (the others* being from David Bruggeman *and Michael Halpern*) analyses  I’ve found, that are being written by people who are not navel gazing.

*’two’ changed to ‘three’, ‘other’ changed to ‘others’, and ‘and Michael Halpern’ added 1250 PST on Nov. 5, 2015.

Happy Thanksgiving! Oct. 12, 2015, my last mention of science debates in the Canadian 2015 federal election, and my 4001st posting

Two things for me to celebrate today: Thanksgiving (in Canada, we celebrate on the 2nd Monday of October) and my 4001st posting (this one).

Science for the people

Plus, there’s much to celebrate about science discussion during the 2015 Canadian federal election. I stumbled across Science for the People, which is a weekly radio show based in Canada (from the About page),

Science for the People is a syndicated radio show and podcast that broadcasts weekly across North America. We are a long-format interview show that explores the connections between science, popular culture, history, and public policy, to help listeners understand the evidence and arguments behind what’s in the news and on the shelves.

Every week, our hosts sit down with science researchers, writers, authors, journalists, and experts to discuss science from the past, the science that affects our lives today, and how science might change our future.


If you have comments, show ideas, or questions about Science for the People, email feedback@scienceforthepeople.ca.

Theme Song

Our theme song music comes from the song “Binary Consequence” by the band Fractal Pattern. You can find the full version of it on their album No Hope But Mt. Hope.

License & Copyright

All Science for the People episodes are under the Creative Commons license. You are free to distribute unedited versions of the episodes for non-commercial purposes. If you would like to edit the episode please contact us.

Episode #338 (2015 Canadian federal election and science) was originally broadcast on Oct. 9,  2015 and features,

This week, we’re talking about politics, and the prospects for pro-science politicians, parties and voters in Canada. We’ll spend the hour with panelists Katie Gibbs, Executive Director of Evidence for Democracy, science librarian John Dupuis, journalist Mike De Souza, and former Canadian government scientist Steven Campana, for an in-depth discussion about the treatment of science by the current Canadian government, and what’s at stake for science in the upcoming federal election.

The podcast is approximately one hour long and Désirée Schell (sp?) hosts/moderates an interesting discussion where one of the participants notes that issues about science and science muzzles predate Harper. The speaker dates the issues back to the Chrétien/Martin years. Note: Jean Chrétien was Prime Minister from 1993 to 2003 and Paul Martin, his successor, was Prime Minister from 2003 to 2006 when he was succeeded by current Prime Minister, Stephen Harper. (I attended a Philosophers’ Cafe event on Oct. 1, 2015 where the moderator dated the issues back to the Mulroney years. Note: Brian Mulroney was Prime Minister from 1984 – 1993.) So, it’s been 10, 20, or 30 years depending on your viewpoint and when you started noticing (assuming you’re of an age to have noticed something happening 30 years ago).

The participants also spent some time discussing why Canadians would care about science. Interestingly, one of the speakers claimed the current Syrian refugee crisis has its roots in climate change, a science issue, and he noted the US Dept. of Defense views climate change as a threat multiplier. For anyone who doesn’t know, the US Dept. of Defense funds a lot of science research.

It’s a far ranging discussion, which doesn’t really touch on science as an election issue until some 40 mins. into the podcast.

One day later on Oct. 10, 2015 (where you’ll find the podcast), the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s Quirks & Quarks radio programme broadcast and made available its podcast of a 2015 Canadian election science debate/panel,

There is just over a week to go before Canadians head to the polls to elect a new government. But one topic that hasn’t received much attention on the campaign trail is science.

So we thought we’d gather together candidates from each of the major federal parties to talk about science and environmental issues in this election.

We asked each of them where they and their parties stood on federal funding of science; basic vs. applied research; the controversy around federal scientists being permitted to speak about their research, and how to cut greenhouse gas emissions while protecting jobs and the economy.

Our panel of candidates were:

– Lynne Quarmby, The Green Party candidate [and Green Party Science critic] in Burnaby North-Seymour, and  professor and Chair of the Department of Molecular Biology and Biochemistry at Simon Fraser University

– Gary Goodyear, Conservative Party candidate in Cambridge, Ontario, and former Minister of State for Science and Technology

– Marc Garneau, Liberal Party candidate in NDG-Westmount, and a former Canadian astronaut

– Megan Leslie, NDP candidate in Halifax and her party’s environment critic

It was a crackling debate. Gary Goodyear was the biggest surprise in that he was quite vigorous and informed in his defence of the government’s track record. Unfortunately, he was also quite patronizing.

The others didn’t seem to have as much information and data at their fingertips. Goodyear quote OECD reports of Canada doing well in the sciences and they didn’t have any statistics of their own to provide a counter argument. Quarmby, Garneau, and Leslie did at one time or another come back strongly on one point or another but none of them seriously damaged Goodyear’s defense. I can’t help wondering if Kennedy Stewart, NDP science critic, or Laurin Liu, NDP deputy science critic, and Ted Hsu, Liberal science critic might have been better choices for this debate.

The Quirks & Quarks debate was approximately 40 or 45 mins. with the remainder of the broadcast devoted to Canadian 2015 Nobel Prize winner in Physics, Arthur B. McDonald (Takaaki Kajita of the University of Tokyo shared the prize) for the discovery of neutrino oscillations, i.e., neutrinos have mass.

Kate Allen writing an Oct. 9, 2015 article for thestar.com got a preview of the pretaped debate and excerpted a few of the exchanges,

On science funding

Gary Goodyear: Currently, we spend more than twice what the Liberals spent in their last year. We have not cut science, and in fact our science budget this year is over $10 billion. But the strategy is rather simple. We are very strong in Canada on basic research. Where we fall down sometimes as compared to other countries is moving the knowledge that we discover in our laboratories out of the laboratory onto our factory floors where we can create jobs, and then off to the hospitals and living rooms of the world — which is how we make that home run. No longer is publishing an article the home run, as it once was.

Lynne Quarmby: I would take issue with the statement that science funding is robust in this country … The fact is that basic scientific research is at starvation levels. Truly fundamental research, without an obvious immediate application, is starving. And that is the research that is feeding the creativity — it’s the source of new ideas, and new understanding about the world, that ultimately feeds innovation.

If you’re looking for a good representation of the discussion and you don’t have time to listen to the podcast, Allen’s article is a good choice.

Finally, Research2Reality, a science outreach and communication project I profiled earlier in 2015 has produced an Oct. 9, 2015 election blog posting by Karyn Ho, which in addition to the usual ‘science is dying in Canada’ talk includes links to more information and to the official party platforms, as well as, an exhortation to get out there and vote.

Something seems to be in the air as voter turnout for the advance polls is somewhere from 24% to 34% higher than usual.

Happy Thanksgiving!

ETA Oct. 14, 2015:  There’s been some commentary about the Quirks & Quarks debate elsewhere. First, there’s David Bruggeman’s Oct. 13, 2015 post on his Pasco Phronesis blog (Note: Links have been removed),

Chalk it up to being a Yank who doesn’t give Canadian science policy his full attention, but one thing (among several) I learned from the recent Canadian cross-party science debate concerns open access policy.

As I haven’t posted anything on Canadian open access policies since 2010, clearly I need to catch up.  I am assuming Goodyear is referring to the Tri-Agency Open Access Policy, introduced in February by his successor as Minister of State for Science and Technology.  It applies to all grants issued from May 1, 2015 and forward (unless the work was already applicable to preexisting government open access policy), and applies most of the open access policy of the Canadian Institutes for Health Research (CIHR) to the other major granting agencies (the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada).

The policy establishes that grantees must make research articles coming from their grants available free to the public within 12 months of publication. …

Then, there’s Michael Rennie, an Assistant Professor at Lakehead University and a former Canadian government scientist whose Oct. 14, 2015 posting on his unmuzzled science blog notes this,

This [Gary Goodyear’s debate presentation] pissed me off so much it made me come out of retirement on this blog.

Listening to Gary Goodyear (Conservative representative, and MP in Cambridge and former Minister of State for Science and Technology), I became furious with the level of misinformation given. …

Rennie went ahead and Storified the twitter responses to the Goodyear’s comments (Note: Links have been removed),

Here’s my Storify of tweets that help clarify a good deal of the misinformation Gary Goodyear presented during the debate, as well as some rebuttals from folks who are in the know: I was a Canadian Government Scientist with DFO [Department of Fisheries and Oceans] from 2010-2014, and was a Research Scientist at the Experimental Lakes Area [ELA], who heard about the announcement regarding the intention of the government to close the facility first-hand on the telephone at ELA.

Goodyear: “I was involved in that decision. With respect to the Experimental Lakes, we never said we would shut it down. We said that we wanted to transfer it to a facility that was better suited to operate it. And that’s exactly what we’ve done. Right now, DFO is up there undertaking some significant remediation effects to clean up those lakes that are contaminated by the science that’s been going on up there. We all hope these lakes will recover soon so that science and experimentation can continue but not under the federal envelope. So it’s secure and it’s misleading to suggest that we were trying to stop science there.”
There’s so many inaccuracies in here, it’s hard to know where to start. First, Goodyear’s assertion that there are “contaminated lakes” at ELA is nonsense. Experiments conducted there are done using environmentally-relevant exposures; in other words, what you’d see going on somewhere else on earth, and in every case, each lake has recovered to it’s natural state, simply by stopping the experiment.

Second, there ARE experiments going on at ELA currently, many of which I am involved in; the many tours, classes and researchers on site this year can attest to this.

Third, this “cleanup” that is ongoing is to clean up all the crap that was left behind by DFO staff during 40 years of experiments- wood debris, old gear, concrete, basically junk that was left on the shorelines of lakes. No “lake remediation” to speak of.

Fourth, the conservative government DID stop science at ELA- no new experiments were permitted to begin, even ones that were already funded and on the books like the nanosilver experiment which was halted until 2014, jeopardizing the futures the futures of many students involved. Only basic monitoring occurred between 2012-2014.

Last, the current government deserves very little credit for the transfer of ELA to another operator; the successful move was conceived and implemented largely by other people and organizations, and the attempts made by the government to try and move the facility to a university were met with incredulity by the deans and vice presidents invited to the discussion.

There’s a lot more and I strongly recommend reading Rennie’s Storify piece.

It was unfortunate that the representatives from the other parties were not able to seriously question Goodyear’s points.

Perhaps next time (fingers crossed), the representatives from the various parties will be better prepared. I’d also like to suggest that there be some commentary from experts afterwards in the same way the leaders’ debates are followed by commentary. And while I’m dreaming, maybe there could be an opportunity for phone-in or Twitter questions.

Of Canadian 2015 election science debates and science weeks

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7th (2015) Canadian Science Policy Conference line-up

The Seventh Canadian Science Policy Conference, being held in Ottawa, Ontario from Nov. 25 – 27, 2015 at the Delta Ottawa City Centre Hotel, has announced its programme and speakers in a July 16, 2015 Canadian Science Policy Centre newsletter,


Theme 1: Transformative and Converging Technologies on
Private Sector Innovation and Productivity

New technologies, from 3D printing to quantum computing, present risks and opportunities for Canadian industries and the economy. Join CSPC 2015 in a discussion of how Canada’s mining industry and digital economy can best take advantage of these technological innovations.

Challenges Associated with Transferring New Technologies to the Mining Industry,
Centre for Excellence in Mining Innovation

Creating Digital Opportunity for Canada: challenges and emerging trends,
Munk School of Global Affairs

Disruptive Technologies,
Ryerson University

Theme 2: Big Science in Canada – Realizing the Benefits

ENCode, the LHC, the Very Large Array: Big Science is reshaping modern research and with it, Canada’s scientific landscape. Join the conversation at CSPC 2015 on how Canada navigates those vast new waters.

Science Without Boundaries,

Are we Jupiters in the celestial field of science? How ‘Big Science’ and major facilities influence Canadian Science Culture,

Theme 3: Transformation of Science, Society and Research
in the Digital Age: Open science, participation, security and

The digital age has brought important changes to the Canadian scientific landscape. Come discuss and think about the effects of those changes on our society.

The Role of Innovation in Addressing Antimicrobial Resistance,
Industry Canada

Digital Literacy: What is going to make the real difference?,

Science Blogging: The Next Generation,
Science Borealis

Proposals for Advancing Canadian Open Science Policy,
Environment Canada

Theme 4: Science and Innovation for Development

Innovation and sciences are among the key driver of development. Come and find out how Canadian creativity creates unique opportunities.

Role of Open Science in Innovation for Development,
International Development Research Centre (IDRC)

Learning Creativity in STEM Education,
University of Calgary

Theme 5: Evidence-Based Decision Making: The challenge
of connecting science and policy making

GMOs, climate change, energy: Many of the big major issues facing Canada fall at the nexus of science and policymaking. Join CSPC 2015 in a discussion of the role of big data and evidence-based decision-making in government.

Beating Superbugs: Innovative Genomics and Policies to Tackle AMR,
Genome Canada

Addressing Concerns Over GMOs – Striking the Right Balance,
Agriculture and Agri-food Canada

Who Should be the Voice for Science Within Government?,
Evidence for Democracy

Data Driven Decisions: Putting IoT, Big Data and Analytics to Work For Better Public Policy,

The future of university support for Canada’s Science, Technology & Innovation Strategy,
York University

Please note, there will be more panels announced soon.

Keynote Session

Science Advice to Governments
Innovation, science and technologies never had a more critical role in decision making than today. CSPC 2015 keynote session will address the importance and role of the input from the scientific world to decision making in political affairs.


Sir Peter Gluckman,
Chief Science Adviser to New Zealand Government

Rémi Quirion,
Chief Scientist, Quebec

Arthur Carty,
Executive Director, Inst. Nanotechnology U Waterloo, Former science adviser to PM Paul Martin [emphasis mine]

I have a few comments. First, I’m glad to see the balance between the “money, money, money” attitude and more scholarly/policy interests has been evened out somewhat as compared to last year’s conference in Halifax (Nova Scotia). Second, I see there aren’t any politicians listed as speakers in the website’s banner as is the usual case (Ted Hsu, Member of Parliament and current science critic for the Liberal Party, is on the speaker list but will not be running in the 2015 election). This makes some sense since there is a federal election coming up in October 2015 and changes are likely. Especially, since it seems to be a three-horse race at this point. (For anyone unfamiliar with the term, it means that any one of the three main political parties could win and lead should they possess a majority of the votes in the House of Commons. There are other possibilities such as a minority government led by one party (the Harper Conservatives have been in that situation). Or, should two parties, with enough combined votes to outnumber the third party, be able to agree, there could be a coalition government of some kind.) As for other politicians at the provincial and municipal levels, perhaps it’s too early to commit? Third, Arthur Carty, as he notes, was a science advisor to Prime Minister Paul Martin. Martin was the leader of the country for approximately two years from Dec. 2003 – Nov. 2005 when a motion of non confidence was passed in Parliament (more about Paul Martin and his political career in his Wikipedia entry) an election was called for January 2006 when Stephen Harper and the conservatives were voted in to form a minority government. Arthur Carty’s tenure as Canada’s first science advisor began in 2004 and ended in 2008, according to Carty’s Wikipedia entry. It seems Carty is not claiming to have been Stephen Harper’s science advisor although arguably he was the Harper government’s science advisor for the same amount of time. This excerpt from a March 6, 2008 Canada.com news item seems to shed some light on why the Harper sojourn is not mentioned in Cary’s conference biography,

The need for a national science adviser has never been greater and the government is risking damage to Canada’s international reputation as a science leader by cutting the position, according to the man who holds the job until the end of the month.

Appearing before a Commons committee on Thursday, Arthur Carty told MPs that he is “dismayed and disappointed” that the Conservative government decided last fall to discontinue the office of the national science adviser.

“There are, I think, negative consequences of eliminating the position,” said Carty. He said his international counterparts have expressed support for him and that Canada eliminating the position has the “potential to tarnish our image,” as a world leader in science and innovation.

Carty was head of the National Research Council in 2004 when former prime minister Paul Martin asked him to be his science adviser.

In October 2006, [months] after Prime Minister Stephen Harper was elected, Carty’s office was shifted to Industry Canada. After that move, he and his staff were “increasingly marginalized,” Carty told the industry, science and technology committee, and they had little input in crafting the government’s new science and technology strategy.

But Conservative members of the committee questioned whether taxpayers got their money’s worth from the national adviser and asked Carty to explain travel and meal expenses he had claimed during his time in the public service, including lunch and dinner meetings that cost around $1,000 each. Some of the figures they cited were from when Carty was head of the National Research Council.

The suggestions that Carty took advantage of the public purse prompted Liberal MP Scott Brison to accuse the Tories of launching a “smear campaign” against Carty, whom he described as a “great public servant.”

“I have never overcharged the government for anything,” Carty said in his own defence.

The keynote has the potential for some liveliness based on Carty’s history as a science advisor but one never knows.  It would have been nice if the organizers had been able to include someone from South Korea, Japan, India, China, etc. to be a keynote speaker on the topic of science advice. After all, those countries have all invested heavily in science and made some significant social and economic progress based on those investments. If you’re going to talk about the global science enterprise perhaps you could attract a few new people (and let’s not forget Latin America, Africa, and the Middle East) to the table, so to speak.

You can find out more about the conference and register (there’s a 30% supersaver discount at the moment) here.

Bring back the mandatory Canadian long form census: a long shot private member’s bill in Parliament

It’s been over four years since I last mentioned the mandatory Canadian long form census, a topic which seems to be enjoying some new interest. For those unfamiliar or whose memory of the controversy is foggy, here’s a brief description of the situation. The mandatory aspect of the long form census was abolished by the Conservative government despite serious opposition from core Conservative supporters in the business community and at least two of the Prime Minister’s own cabinet members. There’s more about the discussion at the time in my July 20, 2010 posting (scroll down about 25% of the way).

Thanks to David Bruggeman’s Feb. 1, 2015 post cleverly titled, Counting The Impact Of How A Government Counts, on his Pasco Phronesis blog, I can update the situation (Note: Links have been removed).

Back in 2010, the Canadian government opted to make the long form portion of its 2011 census voluntary.  Researchers who use the data in their work, and policymakers who use the data to make decisions were concerned about how a voluntary survey would impact the resulting data.

As expected, the early analysis suggests that the lower quality data will lead to higher spending. …

Ted Hsu, Liberal member of Parliament (MP), introduced Bill C-626 An Act to amend the Statistics Act (appointment of Chief Statistician and long-form census in Sept. 2014 when it received its first reading. Last week, Jan. 29, 2015, the bill received its second reading and was referred to committee according to this Bill C-626 webpage on the openparliament.ca website. I’m excerpting portions of Ted Hsu’s Jan. 29, 2015 (?)  comments from the House of Commons floor, (from openparliament.ca’s Bill C-626 webpage; Note: Links have been removed),

Today I rise to present my private member’s bill, Bill C-626. It is a bill that reflects the belief that people must have trustworthy information about themselves to govern themselves wisely.

Indeed, the Prime Minister himself said in his recent speech to the United Nations:

…vital statistics are critical.

You can’t manage what you can’t measure.

We parliamentarians should aspire to safeguard the integrity and quality of fundamental information about the people of Canada, whom we endeavour to serve. Is that not what we seek when we pray at the beginning of each day in the House of Commons: Grant us wisdom, knowledge, and understanding to preserve the blessings of this country for the benefit of all, and to make good laws and wise decisions?

However, the quality of national statistics has been compromised. In 2011, the voluntary national household survey replaced the long form census. Researchers have publicly called that survey worthless.

What are some of the effects? In May 2014, the Progressive Conservative premier of New Brunswick said that the elimination of the long form census makes it hard to track the outcomes of the province’s poverty program. That is, it is hard to figure out what New Brunswick got from the money spent to help the poor.

National household survey data were too meaningless to be published for 25% of Canada’s towns and cities because of low response rates, rising to 30% in Newfoundland and Labrador’s and 40% in Saskatchewan.

All levels of government and the private sector have been handicapped by bad data here in Canada. What is worse is that the one mandatory long form census forms an essential anchor that is needed to adjust for errors in many other voluntary surveys. We have lost that data anchor.

Why is the voluntary national household survey so poor? The problem is that certain groups of people tended not to fill out the voluntary survey. Rural residents, single parents, one-person households, renters, the very rich, the poor, and younger people all tended not to complete the national household survey. The result is a biased and misleading picture of Canada and Canadians. This is what scientists call a systematic error. A systematic error, unlike a random error, cannot be corrected by sending out more census forms.

This systematic error is eliminated if everyone who receives a long form survey fills it out. Not filling out the long form census is a disservice to the country. That is why filling out the census should be considered a civic duty.

In 2011, the government went ahead and sent out more voluntary surveys to compensate for the lower response rate. This inflated the cost of the census by approximately $20 million, but it gave us poorer information. Avoiding such waste is another reason we should restore the mandatory long form census.

More importantly, making business and investment decisions and managing the economy and the affairs of the people all require trustworthy information about the people. That is why, just this past summer, the Canadian Chamber of Commerce passed a policy resolution calling for the restoration of the mandatory long form census. That is why, in 2010, groups such as the Canadian Association for Business Economics, the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, the Conference Board of Canada, and the Toronto Region Board of Trade opposed the elimination of the mandatory long form census.

Let me say this again. The Canadian Chamber of Commerce, the Canadian Association for Business Economics, the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, the Conference Board of Canada, and the Toronto Region Board of Trade want the mandatory long form census.

It’s well worth reading all of the comments as they run both pro and con. BTW, kudos to the openparliament.ca website for making information about legislation and the legislative process so accessible!

The Globe & Mail newspaper ran a Nov. 6, 2014 editorial about six weeks after the bill was first introduced,

Bill C-626, a private member’s bill that would restore the mandatory long-form census and shield the Chief Statistician of Canada from political interference, has no chance of becoming law. It was introduced by a Liberal MP, Ted Hsu, and has limited support in Parliament. Even more foreboding, its adoption would require the Harper government [Stephen Harper, Prime Minister, Canada] to do something it loathes: admit an error.

But an error it was – and a now well-documented one – for the government to eliminate the mandatory long-form census in 2010 and replace it with the voluntary National Household Survey.

To be fair, I don’t know of any government that admits its errors easily but, even by those standards, the Harper government seems extraordinarily loathe to do so.

More of the new National Household Survey’s shortcomings come to light in a Jan. 29, 2015 article by Tavia Grant for the Globe & Mail,

The cancellation of the mandatory long-form census has damaged research in key areas, from how immigrants are doing in the labour market to how the middle class is faring, while making it more difficult for cities to ensure taxpayer dollars are being spent wisely, planners and researchers say.

Statistics Canada developed a voluntary survey after Ottawa cancelled the long-form census in 2010. Many had warned that the switch would mean lower response rates and policies based on an eroded understanding of important trends. Now researchers – from city planners to public health units – say they have sifted through the 2011 data and found it lacking.

Their comments come as a private member’s bill to reinstate the mandatory long-form census will be debated in the House of Commons Thursday [Jan. 29, 2015]. The bill, expected to be voted on next week, has slim odds of passing, given the Conservative majority. But it is drawing attention to the impact of the switch, which has created difficulties in determining income-inequality trends, housing needs and whether low-income families are getting adequate services.

The impact isn’t just on researchers. Cities, such as Toronto, say it’s become more expensive and requires more staffing to obtain data that’s of lower quality. …

Sara Mayo, social planner at the Social Planning and Research Council of Hamilton [Ontario], says the result of the census changes has been less data for more money. “In terms of fiscal prudence, this made no sense. Why would any government want to pay more for worse-quality data?” [emphasis mine]

Many, many people noted in 2010 that we would be paying more for lower quality data. Adding insult to injury, the cancellation was not made due to a huge public outcry demanding the end of the mandatory long form census, In fact, as I noted earlier, many of Stephen Harper’s core supporters were not in favour of his initiative.

Moving on to Ted Hsu for a moment, I was interested to note that he will not be running for election later this year (2015) according to an Aug.7, 2014 article on thestar.com website. For now, according to his Wikipedia entry, Hsu is the the Liberal Party’s Critic for Science and Technology, Post-Secondary Education, Federal Economic Development Agency for Southern Ontario and Federal Economic Development Initiative in Northern Ontario. By training, Hsu is a physicist.

While no one seems to hold much hope for Hsu’s bill, there is a timeline provided for its passage through Parliament before the final vote (from tedshu.ca’s C-626 webpage),

First reading: September 22, 2014
First hour of second reading debate: November 7, 2014
Second hour of second reading debate: January 29, 2015
Second reading vote to send the bill to committee: February 4, 2015
Committee hearings: March-April (expected)
Report Stage to vote on any amendments and the report from committee: April 2015 (expected)
Final hour of debate and third reading vote to send the bill to the Senate: April 2015 (expected)

According to the openparliament.ca website the Jan. 29, 2015 reading was the one where the bill was sent to committee but Ted Hsu’s site suggests that today’s Feb. 4, 2015 reading  is when the vote to send the bill to committee will be held.

ETA Feb. 4, 2014 1420 PDT: Apparently, city governments are weighing in the discussion, from a Feb. 3, 2015 article by Tavia Grant and Elizabeth Church for the Globe & Mail,

The debate over the demise of the mandatory long-form census has reached the city level in Canada, where mayors and local officials say the cancellation has hampered the ability to plan and support the needs of their communities.

Toronto Mayor John Tory told The Globe and Mail he plans to raise the issue at the big city mayors’ meeting this week.

Across the country, cities are feeling the impact of the census changes, said Brad Woodside, president of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities and mayor of Fredericton [New Brunswick].

“We’ve heard from our members that the change to the new National Household Survey [NHS] is impacting their ability to effectively plan and monitor the changing needs of their communities,” he said in an e-mailed statement to The Globe. “We support all efforts to increase the reliability of the data from the census.”

A website that lobbies for more accessible data, called Datalibre.ca, lists 11 individuals and organizations that supported the government’s decision to scrap the census and 488 who oppose it. Those who were against the move include 42 cities – from Red Deer to Montreal, Victoria and Fredericton.

Regina’s mayor said the loss of detailed data is a concern. He wants the long-form reinstated.

In Vancouver, city planner Michael Gordon said the end of the mandatory census is a “significant issue,” hampering the ability to analyze infrastructure needs, such as transportation planning, along with housing, particularly affordable housing. Mr. Gordon, president of the Canadian Institute of Planners, has found some data from NHS “fishy,” and says there has been a “very disappointing” impact in the ability to provide sound advice based on factual information.

Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to find any information as to whether today’s vote to send this bill committee was successful or not.

ETA Feb. 5, 2015 0840 PDT: The bill did not make it past the second reading, from a Feb. 4, 2015 news item (posted at 2000 hours EDT) on the Huffington Post,

Liberal MP Ted Hsu’s drive to resurrect the long-form census has come to an end.

His private member’s bill to bring back the long-form census and bolster the independence of the chief statistician was voted down on second reading in the Commons on Wednesday.

Mopping up that oil spill with a nanocellulose sponge and a segue into Canadian oil and politics

Empa (Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology or ,in German, Eidgenössische Materialprüfungs- und Forschungsanstalt) has announced the development of a nanocellulose sponge useful for cleaning up oil spills in a May 5, 2014 news item on Nanowerk (Note: A link has been removed),

A new, absorbable material from Empa wood research could be of assistance in future oil spill accidents: a chemically modified nanocellulose sponge. The light material absorbs the oil spill, remains floating on the surface and can then be recovered. The absorbent can be produced in an environmentally-friendly manner from recycled paper, wood or agricultural by-products (“Ultralightweight and Flexible Silylated Nanocellulose Sponges for the Selective Removal of Oil from Water”).

A May 2, 2014 Empa news release (also on EurekAlert*}, which originated the news item, includes a description of the potential for oil spills due to transport issues, Empa’s proposed clean-up technology, and a request for investment,

All industrial nations need large volumes of oil which is normally delivered by ocean-going tankers or via inland waterways to its destination. The most environmentally-friendly way of cleaning up nature after an oil spill accident is to absorb and recover the floating film of oil. The Empa researchers Tanja Zimmermann and Philippe Tingaut, in collaboration with Gilles Sèbe from the University of Bordeaux, have now succeeded in developing a highly absorbent material which separates the oil film from the water and can then be easily recovered, “silylated” nanocellulose sponge. In laboratory tests the sponges absorbed up to 50 times their own weight of mineral oil or engine oil. They kept their shape to such an extent that they could be removed with pincers from the water. The next step is to fine tune the sponges so that they can be used not only on a laboratory scale but also in real disasters. To this end, a partner from industry is currently seeked.

Here’s what the nanocellulose sponge looks like (oil was dyed red and the sponge has absorbed it from the water),

The sponge remains afloat and can be pulled out easily. The oil phase is selectively removed from the surface of water. Image: Empa

The sponge remains afloat and can be pulled out easily. The oil phase is selectively removed from the surface of water.
Image: Empa

The news release describes the substance, nanofibrillated cellulose (NFC), and its advantages,

Nanofibrillated Cellulose (NFC), the basic material for the sponges, is extracted from cellulose-containing materials like wood pulp, agricultural by products (such as straw) or waste materials (such as recycled paper) by adding water to them and pressing the aqueous pulp through several narrow nozzles at high pressure. This produces a suspension with gel-like properties containing long and interconnected cellulose nanofibres .

When the water from the gel is replaced with air by freeze-drying, a nanocellulose sponge is formed which absorbs both water and oil. This pristine material sinks in water and is thus not useful for the envisaged purpose. The Empa researchers have succeeded in modifying the chemical properties of the nanocellulose in just one process step by admixing a reactive alkoxysilane molecule in the gel before freeze-drying. The nanocellulose sponge loses its hydrophilic properties, is no longer suffused with water and only binds with oily substances.

In the laboratory the “silylated” nanocellulose sponge absorbed test substances like engine oil, silicone oil, ethanol, acetone or chloroform within seconds. Nanofibrillated cellulose sponge, therefore, reconciles several desirable properties: it is absorbent, floats reliably on water even when fully saturated and is biodegradable.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Ultralightweight and Flexible Silylated Nanocellulose Sponges for the Selective Removal of Oil from Water by Zheng Zhang, Gilles Sèbe, Daniel Rentsch, Tanja Zimmermann, and Philippe Tingaut. Chem. Mater., 2014, 26 (8), pp 2659–2668 DOI: 10.1021/cm5004164 Publication Date (Web): April 10, 2014

Copyright © 2014 American Chemical Society

This article is behind a paywall.

I featured ‘nanocellulose and oil spills’ research at the University Wisconsin-Madison in a Feb. 26, 2014 post titled, Cleaning up oil* spills with cellulose nanofibril aerogels (Note: I corrected a typo in my headline hence the asterisk). I also have a Dec. 31, 2013 piece about a nanotechnology-enabled oil spill recovery technology project (Naimor) searching for funds via crowdfunding. Some major oil projects being considered in Canada and the lack of research on remediation are also mentioned in the post.

Segue Alert! As for the latest on Canada and its oil export situation, there’s a rather interesting May 2, 2014 Bloomberg.com article Canada Finds China Option No Easy Answer to Keystone Snub‘ by Edward Greenspon, Andrew Mayeda, Jeremy van Loon and Rebecca Penty describing two Canadian oil projects and offering a US perspective,

It was February 2012, three months since President Barack Obama had phoned the Canadian prime minister to say the Keystone XL pipeline designed to carry vast volumes of Canadian crude to American markets would be delayed.

Now Harper [Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper] found himself thousands of miles from Canada on the banks of the Pearl River promoting Plan B: a pipeline from Alberta’s landlocked oil sands to the Pacific Coast where it could be shipped in tankers to a place that would certainly have it — China. It was a country to which he had never warmed yet that served his current purposes. [China’s President at that time was Hu Jintao, 2002 – 2012; currently the President is Xi Jinping, 2013 – ]

The writers do a good job of describing a number of factors having an impact on one or both of the pipeline projects. However, no mention is made in the article that Harper is from the province of Alberta and represents that province’s Calgary Southwest riding. For those unfamiliar with Calgary, it is a city dominated by oil companies. I imagine Mr. Harper is under considerable pressure to resolve oil export and transport issues and I would expect they would prefer to resolve the US issues since many of those oil companies in Calgary have US headquarters.

Still, it seems simple, if the US is not interested as per the problems with the Keystone XL pipeline project, ship the oil to China via a pipeline through the province of British Columbia and onto a tanker. What the writers do not mention is yet another complicating factor, Trudeau, both Justin and, the deceased, Pierre.

As Prime Minister of Canada, Pierre Trudeau was unloved in Alberta, Harper’s home province, due to his energy policies and the formation of the National Energy Board. Harper appears, despite his denials, to have an antipathy towards Pierre Trudeau that goes beyond the political to the personal and it seems to extend beyond Pierre’s grave to his son, Justin. A March 21, 2014 article by Mark Kennedy for the National Post describes Harper’s response to Trudeau’s 2000 funeral this way,

Stephen Harper, then the 41-year-old president of the National Citizens Coalition (NCC), was a proud conservative who had spent three years as a Reform MP. He had entered politics in the mid-1980s, in part because of his disdain for how Pierre Trudeau’s “Just Society” had changed Canada.

So while others were celebrating Trudeau’s legacy, Harper hammered out a newspaper article eviscerating the former prime minister on everything from policy to personality.

Harper blasted Trudeau Sr. for creating “huge deficits, a mammoth national debt, high taxes, bloated bureaucracy, rising unemployment, record inflation, curtailed trade and declining competitiveness.”

On national unity, he wrote that Trudeau was a failure. “Only a bastardized version of his unity vision remains and his other policies have been rejected and repealed by even his own Liberal party.”

Trudeau had merely “embraced the fashionable causes of his time,” wrote Harper.

Getting personal, he took a jab at Trudeau over not joining the military during the Second World War: “He was also a member of the ‘greatest generation,’ the one that defeated the Nazis in war and resolutely stood down the Soviets in the decades that followed. In those battles however, the ones that truly defined his century, Mr. Trudeau took a pass.”

The article was published in the National Post Oct. 5, 2000 — two days after the funeral.

Kennedy’s article was occasioned by the campaign being led by Harper’;s Conservative party against the  leader (as of April 2013) of the Liberal Party, Justin Trudeau.

It’s hard to believe that Harper’s hesitation over China is solely due to human rights issues especially  since Harper has not been noted for consistent interest in those issues and, more particularly, since Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau was one of the first ‘Western’ leaders to visit communist China . Interestingly, Harper has been much more enthusiastic about the US than Pierre Trudeau who while addressing the Press Club in Washington, DC in March 1969, made this observation (from the Pierre Trudeau Wikiquote entry),

Living next to you [the US] is in some ways like sleeping with an elephant. No matter how friendly and even-tempered is the beast, if I can call it that, one is affected by every twitch and grunt.

On that note, I think Canada is always going to be sleeping with an elephant; the only question is, who’s the elephant now? In any event, perhaps Harper is more comfortable with the elephant he knows and that may explain why China’s offer to negotiate a free trade agreement has been left unanswered (this too was not noted in the Bloomberg article). The offer and lack of response were mentioned by Yuen Pau Woo, President and CEO of the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada, who spoke at length about China, Canada, and their trade relations at a Jan. 31, 2014 MP breakfast (scroll down for video highlights of the Jan. 31, 2014 breakfast) held by Member of Parliament (MP) for Vancouver-Quadra, Joyce Murray.

Geopolitical tensions and Canadian sensitivities aside, I think Canadians in British Columbia (BC), at least, had best prepare for more oil being transported and the likelihood of spills. In fact, there are already more shipments according to a May 6, 2014 article by Larry Pynn for the Vancouver Sun,

B.C. municipalities work to prevent a disastrous accident as rail transport of oil skyrockets

The number of rail cars transporting crude oil and petroleum products through B.C. jumped almost 200 per cent last year, reinforcing the resolve of municipalities to prevent a disastrous accident similar to the derailment in Lac-Mégantic in Quebec last July [2013].

Transport Canada figures provided at The Vancouver Sun’s request show just under 3,400 oil and petroleum rail-car shipments in B.C. last year, compared with about 1,200 in 2012 and 50 in 2011.

The figures come a week after The Sun revealed that train derailments jumped 20 per cent to 110 incidents last year in B.C., the highest level in five years.

Between 2011 and 2012, there was an increase of 2400% (from 50 to 1200) of oil and petroleum rail-car shipments in BC. The almost 300% increase in shipments between 2012 and 2013 seems paltry in comparison.  Given the increase in shipments and the rise in the percentage of derailments, one assumes there’s an oil spill waiting to happen. Especially so, if the Canadian government manages to come to an agreement regarding the proposed pipeline for BC and frankly, I have concerns about the other pipeline too, since either will require more rail cars, trucks, and/or tankers for transport to major centres edging us all closer to a major oil spill.

All of this brings me back to Empa, its oil-absorbing nanocellulose sponges, and the researchers’ plea for investors and funds to further their research. I hope they and all the other researchers (e.g., Naimor) searching for ways to develop and bring their clean-up ideas to market find some support.

*EurekAlert link added May 7, 2014.

ETA May 8, 2014:  Some types of crude oil are more flammable than others according to a May 7, 2014 article by Lindsay Abrams for Salon.com (Note: Links have been removed),

Why oil-by-rail is an explosive disaster waiting to happen
A recent spate of fiery train accidents all have one thing in common: highly volatile cargo from North Dakota

In case the near continuous reports of fiery, deadly oil train accidents hasn’t been enough to convince you, Earth Island Journal is out with a startling investigative piece on North Dakota’s oil boom and the dire need for regulations governing that oil’s transport by rail.

The article is pegged to the train that derailed and exploded last summer in  [Lac-Mégantic] Quebec, killing 47 people, although it just as well could have been the story of the train that derailed and exploded in Alabama last November, the train that derailed and exploded in North Dakota last December, the train that derailed and exploded in Virginia last week or — let’s face it — any future accidents that many see as an inevitability.

The Bakken oil fields in North Dakota are producing over a million barrels of crude oil a day, more than 60 percent of which is shipped by rail. All that greenhouse gas-emitting fossil fuel is bad enough; that more oil spilled in rail accidents last year than the past 35 years combined is also no small thing. But the particular chemical composition of Bakken oil lends an extra weight to these concerns: according to the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, it may be more flammable and explosive than traditional crude.

While Abrams’ piece is not focused on oil cleanups, it does raise some interesting questions about crude oil transport and whether or not the oil from Alberta might also be more than usually dangerous.

Xerox Research Centre Canada, authentic currency, etc. and a ‘nano’ deal with Authentix

An April 1, 2014 news item on labcanada.com describes a recently signed deal which may turn up the competition in Canada’s currency authentication business sector,

The Xerox Research Centre Canada [XRCC] says it has signed a multi-year materials research services agreement with Dallas-based Authentix, a provider of anti-counterfeiting, brand protection and program integrity solutions for the oil and gas industry; currency, branded products and tax stamp markets.

“Working with companies like Authentix adds to the value our scientists bring to the research world,” said Paul Smith, vice president and director of the Xerox Research Centre Canada. “Not only do we continue to strengthen our scientific role in Canadian innovation, we are now bringing valuable research capabilities to other companies globally.”

Given that Xerox is a US company with a Canadian branch, I’m not sure how signing a deal with another US company aids Canadian innovation. On the plus side, it does give some Canadian scientists a job.

I also noted the reference to “currency authentication”, which suggests that Authentix could be in direct competition with the Canadian company, Nanotech Security Corp. (I have written about Nanotech Security Corp. previously with the two most recent being a Jan. 31, 2014 posting about the company’s presentation at an Optical Document Security Conference and a March 17, 2014 posting about the company’s first commercial client, TED.) Perhaps Xerox plans to spur Canadian innovation by providing more competition for our technology companies.

Here’s more from the March 31, 2014 Xerox news release, which originated the news item about the deal with Authentix,

Scientists at XRCC specialize in the design and development of electronic materials and specialty components; environmentally-friendly processes; coatings, applied nanotechnology; polymer science, engineering and pilot plant scale-up. [emphasis mine]

“Materials science research makes it possible to bring new levels of security, accuracy and efficiency to product authentication,” said Jeff Conroy, chief technology officer of Authentix.  “Leveraging the core competencies of Xerox’s materials lab in Canada expands and accelerates our ability to bring innovative solutions to the authentication market.”

Located near Toronto, XRCC is part of the global Xerox Innovation Group made up of researchers and engineers in five world-renowned research centers. Each center leverages XRCC’s unique, integrated, global materials research and development mandate.

You can find out more about Authentix here.

Getting back to XRCC, they had a longstanding relationship with Canada’s National Institute of Nanotechnology (NINT) having signed a 2007 contract with NINT and the Government of Alberta, from a Xerox Innovation Story,

In Canada’s first major public-private nanotechnology research partnership, the Xerox Research Centre of Canada (XRCC), NRC National Institute for Nanotechnology (NINT) and Government of Alberta will provide approximately $4.5 million for research and development of materials-based nanotechnology over the next three years.

The three partners will invest funds, human resources, and available infrastructures to create a research program and teams focused on developing commercially successful nanotechnology-based discoveries. Personnel from NINT and XRCC will collaborate on research projects at NINT in Edmonton, Alberta, and at XRCC in Mississauga, Ontario.

The funds will contribute to the hiring of eight to 10 scientists who will investigate materials-based nanotechnologies, including document- and display-related technologies. The research program, co-managed by XRCC and NINT, will allow access to Xerox’s experience in successfully commercializing technology to facilitate the market application of resulting inventions.

“This level of public and private sector partnership helps fuel the type of innovation that will keep Alberta, and Canada as a whole, strong and competitive in an increasingly global, knowledge-based economy,” said Doug Horner, minister for Advanced Education and Technology, Government of Alberta. “The investments from the Government of Alberta, Xerox and NINT will build a world-class nanotechnology research program that embraces the spirit of innovation, but also that of commercialization.”

I find the references to Xerox and innovation and commercialization amusing since the company is famous for its innovation missteps. For example, the company owned the photocopying business from the 1960s into the 1970s due to its patent rights but once those rights ran out (there’s usually a time limit on a patent) the company was poorly equipped to compete. My guess is that they didn’t know how in an environment where they no longer held a monopoly. The other famous story concerns the mouse and the graphical user interface both of which were developed at Xerox but the company never pursued those innovations leaving Stephen Jobs and his colleagues to found Apple.

At any rate, Xerox survived those missteps so perhaps they learned something and they really do mean it when they talk about spurring innovation. Although, given the business model for most Canadian technology companies, I expect Nanotech Security Corp. to get purchased by Authentix or one of its competitors with the consequence that Canadian taxpayers have helped to pay, yet again, for innovation that will be purchased by a corporate entity with headquarters in another country and much less interest in maintaining a business presence in Canada. If you think I’m being cynical about another country’s corporate interests in Canada, take a look at this excerpt from Derrick Penner’s March 28, 2014 article for the Vancouver Sun about Vancouver’s recent Globe 2014 conference,

Globe, the biannual conference on sustainable development [March 26 – 28, 2014], is as much about doing business as it is about discussing bright ideas for reducing the impact of industry on the environment.

And a new twist for European delegates, such as Roumeas [Vincent Roumeas, a business development manager for the Paris Region Economic Development Agency], is the prospect of Canada Europe Free Trade.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper and European Commission President José Manuel Barroso, last October, signed an agreement in principal, which commits the two sides to finalizing a full agreement giving each other tariff-free access to each others’ markets.

Roumeas said it is too soon to tell how much of a draw EU free trade will be because he is working on developing immediate prospects within the next 18 months, which would be before any benefits from free trade would kick in, if the deal is concluded.

However, his colleague Jeremy Bernard Orawiec, a trade adviser for UbiFrance, does see the agreement as an attraction for French firms interested the American market.

He added that the U.S. is viewed as a tough market to crack, so Canada is looked at as an easier-accessed entry point to all of North America.

“It’s really positive to see Canada able to make an agreement before the U.S.,” Orawiec said. “It gives us a time frame so (companies) can come here [Canada] and explore the whole American market.” [emphases mine]

It’s not clear from his comments but I suspect Orawiec is unaware that Mexico is part of North America. In any event, Canada as a market place or as an innovation centre is not important in and of itself. One can criticize Orawiec for making those comments but I’d like to thank him as he has expressed an attitude that I believe is widely held.

Does digitizing material mean it’s safe? A tale of Canada’s Fisheries and Oceans scientific libraries

As has been noted elsewhere the federal government of Canada has shut down a number of Fisheries and Oceans Canada libraries in a cost-saving exercise. The government is hoping to save some $440,000 in the 2014-15 fiscal year by digitizing, consolidating, and discarding the libraries and their holdings.

One would imagine that this is being done in a measured, thoughtful fashion but one would be wrong.

Andrew Nikiforuk in a December 23, 2013 article for The Tyee wrote one of the first articles about the closure of the fisheries libraries,

Scientists say the closure of some of the world’s finest fishery, ocean and environmental libraries by the Harper government has been so chaotic that irreplaceable collections of intellectual capital built by Canadian taxpayers for future generations has been lost forever.

Glyn Moody in a Jan. 7, 2014 post on Techdirt noted this,

What’s strange is that even though the rationale for this mass destruction is apparently in order to reduce costs, opportunities to sell off more valuable items have been ignored. A scientist is quoted as follows:

“Hundreds of bound journals, technical reports and texts still on the shelves, presumably meant for the garbage or shredding. I saw one famous monograph on zooplankton, which would probably fetch a pretty penny at a used science bookstore… anybody could go in and help themselves, with no record kept of who got what.”

Gloria Galloway in a Jan. 7, 2014 article for the Globe and Mail adds more details about what has been lost,

Peter Wells, an adjunct professor and senior research fellow at the International Ocean Institute at Dalhousie University in Halifax, said it is not surprising few members of the public used the libraries. But “the public benefits by the researchers and the different research labs being able to access the information,” he said.

Scientists say it is true that most modern research is done online.

But much of the material in the DFO libraries was not available digitally, Dr. Wells said, adding that some of it had great historical value. And some was data from decades ago that researchers use to determine how lakes and rivers have changed.

“I see this situation as a national tragedy, done under the pretext of cost savings, which, when examined closely, will prove to be a false motive,” Dr. Wells said. “A modern democratic society should value its information resources, not reduce, or worse, trash them.”

Dr. Ayles [Burton Ayles, a former DFO regional director and the former director of science for the Freshwater Institute in Winnipeg] said the Freshwater Institute had reports from the 1880s and some that were available nowhere else. “There was a whole core people who used that library on a regular basis,” he said.

Dr. Ayles pointed to a collection of three-ringed binders, occupying seven metres of shelf space, that contained the data collected during a study in the 1960s and 1970s of the proposed Mackenzie Valley pipeline. For a similar study in the early years of this century, he said, “scientists could go back to that information and say, ‘What was the baseline 30 years ago? What was there then and what is there now?’ ”

When asked how much of the discarded information has been digitized, the government did not provide an answer, but said the process continues.

Today, Margo McDiarmid’s Jan. 30, 2014 article for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) news online further explores digitization of the holdings,

Fisheries and Oceans is closing seven of its 11 libraries by 2015. It’s hoping to save more than $443,000 in 2014-15 by consolidating its collections into four remaining libraries.

Shea [Fisheries and Oceans Minister Gail Shea] told CBC News in a statement Jan. 6 that all copyrighted material has been digitized and the rest of the collection will be soon. The government says that putting material online is a more efficient way of handling it.

But documents from her office show there’s no way of really knowing that is happening.

“The Department of Fisheries and Oceans’ systems do not enable us to determine the number of items digitized by location and collection,” says the response by the minister’s office to MacAulay’s inquiry. [emphasis mine]

The documents also that show the department had to figure out what to do with 242,207 books and research documents from the libraries being closed. It kept 158,140 items and offered the remaining 84,067 to libraries outside the federal government.

Shea’s office told CBC that the books were also “offered to the general public and recycled in a ‘green fashion’ if there were no takers.”

The fate of thousands of books appears to be “unknown,” although the documents’ numbers show 160 items from the Maurice Lamontagne Library in Mont Jolie, Que., were “discarded.”  A Radio-Canada story in June about the library showed piles of volumes in dumpsters.

And the numbers prove a lot more material was tossed out. The bill to discard material from four of the seven libraries totals $22,816.76

Leaving aside the issue of whether or not rare books were given away or put in dumpsters, It’s not confidence-building when the government minister can’t offer information about which books have been digitized and where they might located online.

Interestingly,  Fisheries and Oceans is not the only department/ministry shutting down libraries (from McDiarmid’s CBC article),

Fisheries and Oceans is just one of the 14 federal departments, including Health Canada and Environment Canada, that have been shutting physical libraries and digitizing or consolidating the material into closed central book vaults.

I was unaware of the problems with Health Canada’s libraries but Laura Payton’s and Max Paris’ Jan. 20, 2014 article for CBC news online certainly raised my eyebrows,

Health Canada scientists are so concerned about losing access to their research library that they’re finding workarounds, with one squirrelling away journals and books in his basement for colleagues to consult, says a report obtained by CBC News.

The draft report from a consultant hired by the department warned it not to close its library, but the report was rejected as flawed and the advice went unheeded.

Before the main library closed, the inter-library loan functions were outsourced to a private company called Infotrieve, the consultant wrote in a report ordered by the department. The library’s physical collection was moved to the National Science Library on the Ottawa campus of the National Research Council last year.

“Staff requests have dropped 90 per cent over in-house service levels prior to the outsource. This statistic has been heralded as a cost savings by senior HC [Health Canada] management,” the report said.

“However, HC scientists have repeatedly said during the interview process that the decrease is because the information has become inaccessible — either it cannot arrive in due time, or it is unaffordable due to the fee structure in place.”


The report noted the workarounds scientists used to overcome their access problems.

Mueller [Dr. Rudi Mueller, who left the department in 2012] used his contacts in industry for scientific literature. He also went to university libraries where he had a faculty connection.

The report said Health Canada scientists sometimes use the library cards of university students in co-operative programs at the department.

Unsanctioned libraries have been created by science staff.

“One group moved its 250 feet of published materials to an employee’s basement. When you need a book, you email ‘Fred,’ and ‘Fred’ brings the book in with him the next day,” the consultant wrote in his report.

“I think it’s part of being a scientist. You find a way around the problems,” Mueller told CBC News.

Unsanctioned, underground libraries aside, the assumption that digitizing documents and books ensures access is false.  Glyn Moody in a Nov. 12, 2013 article for Techdirt gives a chastening example of how vulnerable our digital memories are,

The Internet Archive is the world’s online memory, holding the only copies of many historic (and not-so-historic) Web pages that have long disappeared from the Web itself.

Bad news:

This morning at about 3:30 a.m. a fire started at the Internet Archive’s San Francisco scanning center.

Good news:

no one was hurt and no data was lost. Our main building was not affected except for damage to one electrical run. This power issue caused us to lose power to some servers for a while.

Bad news:

Some physical materials were in the scanning center because they were being digitized, but most were in a separate locked room or in our physical archive and were not lost. Of those materials we did unfortunately lose, about half had already been digitized. We are working with our library partners now to assess.

That loss is unfortunate, but imagine if the fire had been in the main server room holding the Internet Archive’s 2 petabytes of data. Wisely, the project has placed copies at other locations …

That’s good to know, but it seems rather foolish for the world to depend on the Internet Archive always being able to keep all its copies up to date, especially as the quantity of data that it stores continues to rise. This digital library is so important in historical and cultural terms: surely it’s time to start mirroring the Internet Archive around the world in many locations, with direct and sustained support from multiple governments.

In addition to the issue of vulnerability, there’s also the issue of authenticity, from my June 5, 2013 posting about science, archives and memories,

… Luciana Duranti [Professor and Chair, MAS {Master of Archival Studies}Program at the University of British Columbia and Director, InterPARES] and her talk titled, Trust and Authenticity in the Digital Environment: An Increasingly Cloudy Issue, which took place in Vancouver (Canada) last year (mentioned in my May 18, 2012 posting).

Duranti raised many, many issues that most of us don’t consider when we blithely store information in the ‘cloud’ or create blogs that turn out to be repositories of a sort (and then don’t know what to do with them; ça c’est moi). She also previewed a Sept. 26 – 28, 2013 conference to be hosted in Vancouver by UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization), “Memory of the World in the Digital Age: Digitization and Preservation.” (UNESCO’s Memory of the World programme hosts a number of these themed conferences and workshops.)

The Sept. 2013 UNESCO ‘memory of the world’ conference in Vancouver seems rather timely in retrospect. The Council of Canadian Academies (CCA) announced that Dr. Doug Owram would be chairing their Memory Institutions and the Digital Revolution assessment (mentioned in my Feb. 22, 2013 posting; scroll down 80% of the way) and, after checking recently, I noticed that the Expert Panel has been assembled and it includes Duranti. Here’s the assessment description from the CCA’s ‘memory institutions’ webpage,

Library and Archives Canada has asked the Council of Canadian Academies to assess how memory institutions, which include archives, libraries, museums, and other cultural institutions, can embrace the opportunities and challenges of the changing ways in which Canadians are communicating and working in the digital age.


Over the past three decades, Canadians have seen a dramatic transformation in both personal and professional forms of communication due to new technologies. Where the early personal computer and word-processing systems were largely used and understood as extensions of the typewriter, advances in technology since the 1980s have enabled people to adopt different approaches to communicating and documenting their lives, culture, and work. Increased computing power, inexpensive electronic storage, and the widespread adoption of broadband computer networks have thrust methods of communication far ahead of our ability to grasp the implications of these advances.

These trends present both significant challenges and opportunities for traditional memory institutions as they work towards ensuring that valuable information is safeguarded and maintained for the long term and for the benefit of future generations. It requires that they keep track of new types of records that may be of future cultural significance, and of any changes in how decisions are being documented. As part of this assessment, the Council’s expert panel will examine the evidence as it relates to emerging trends, international best practices in archiving, and strengths and weaknesses in how Canada’s memory institutions are responding to these opportunities and challenges. Once complete, this assessment will provide an in-depth and balanced report that will support Library and Archives Canada and other memory institutions as they consider how best to manage and preserve the mass quantity of communications records generated as a result of new and emerging technologies.

The Council’s assessment is running concurrently with the Royal Society of Canada’s expert panel assessment on Libraries and Archives in 21st century Canada. Though similar in subject matter, these assessments have a different focus and follow a different process. The Council’s assessment is concerned foremost with opportunities and challenges for memory institutions as they adapt to a rapidly changing digital environment. In navigating these issues, the Council will draw on a highly qualified and multidisciplinary expert panel to undertake a rigorous assessment of the evidence and of significant international trends in policy and technology now underway. The final report will provide Canadians, policy-makers, and decision-makers with the evidence and information needed to consider policy directions. In contrast, the RSC panel focuses on the status and future of libraries and archives, and will draw upon a public engagement process.

So, the government is shutting down libraries in order to save money and they’re praying (?) that the materials have been digitized and adequate care has been taken to ensure that they will not be lost in some disaster or other. Meanwhile the Council of Canadian Academies is conducting an assessment of memory institutions in the digital age. The approach seems to backwards.

On a more amusing note, Rick Mercer parodies at lease one way scientists are finding to circumvent the cost-cutting exercise in an excerpt (approximately 1 min.)  from his Jan. 29, 2014 Rick Mercer Report telecast (thanks Roz),

Mercer’s comment about sports and Canada’s Prime Minister, Stephen Harper’s preferences is a reference to Harper’s expressed desire to write a book about hockey and possibly a veiled reference to Harper’s successful move to prorogue parliament during the 2010 Winter Olympic games in Vancouver in what many observers suggested was a strategy allowing Harper to attend the games at his leisure.

Whether or not you agree with the decision to shutdown some libraries, the implementation seems to have been a remarkably sloppy affair.

The European Union’s Technology Platform on Nanomedicine (ETPN) and Canada’s Prime Minister Stephen Harper

Sometimes the European Union (EU) projects make my head spin and this is one of those times. From a June 6, 2013 news item on Nanowerk (Note: Links have been removed),

The European Technology Platform on Nanomedicine (ETPN) and the NANOMED2020 project published the White Paper on Contribution of Nanomedicine to Horizon 2020 (pdf), the next European Framework Programme for Research and Innovation till 2020. This strategic document provides a set of key recommendations for the European Commission and the EU Member States to create a favourable ecosystem for the successful deployment of Nanomedicine in Europe. It lays thereby the groundwork to manage the efficient translation of nanotechnology from a Key Enabling Technology (KET) into new and innovative medical products.

I found more information on the ETPN webpage,

Based on an in-depth analysis of the main bottlenecks in the translation of nanomedicine to the market, i.e. the inefficient selection process of translatable projects and the lack of technical infrastructures, such as pharmacology and toxicology facilities, the White Paper strives for the creation of an strong SME [small to medium enterprises] based supply chain for innovative therapeutics and diagnostics as a profitable industrial sector. This will support innovation and keep production and high tech jobs in Europe for the benefit of both European economy and European patients. The pivotal proposition of the White Paper is the establishment of a Nanomedicine Translation Hub designed as an umbrella for a set of complementary actions and initiatives such as:

  • a dedicated Nanomedicine Translation Advisory Board (TAB) with experienced industrial experts to select, guide and push forward the best translatable concepts,
  • a European Nano-Characterisation Laboratory (EU-NCL) for physical, chemical and biological characterisation of nanomaterials intended for medical use,
  • GMP manufacturing pilot lines for clinical batches to assist both academia and SMEs to develop nanomedical materials for validation in clinical trials, before transfer to dedicated manufacturing organisations,
  • a dedicated NanoMed SME instrument aiming at funding discovery projects and innovative SMEs in order to keep excellence in nanomedicine research and development.

I have looked at the White Paper, which is a slim 32 pp. and was particularly struck by this passage,

Based on this experience, the ETPN will cooperate with health care industry organisations to bring together EU, national and private resources to create an SME based supply chain for innovative ground breaking therapeutics and diagnostics. It will focus on nanotechnology based medicine and regenerative medicine, moving European SMEs to a position where their knowledge of development competes with the best in the US and Far East. This strengthening of the nanomedicine supply chain will support nanomedicine innovation and keep high tech jobs in Europe for the benefit both of the European economy and patients. (p. 6)

The ETPN folks are prepared to be generous in light of changing medical and health care research conditions,

Much has changed in the last decade in healthcare companies, with the result that pharmaceutical companies for example are moving to a global Open Innovation model, with a reduction in their own research capacities, especially in Europe. They have found their revenues under pressure and their pipeline of new products unable to provide the income to support the headcount without a loss of jobs. Most large pharmaceutical companies have now radically changed and embraced in-licencing and Open Innovation (OI) to try to reduce risks, to lower costs and to raise innovation standards. One consequence of this move is the cut in R&D staff in Europe’s research centres, and an investment in business development with the aim of technology scouting and in-licencing from academia or SMEs. This global strategy aims to recognise novel putative products or concepts, from SMEs and academics, wherever they originate in the world . Large companies are now focusing their business on late clinical validation, regulatory approval and worldwide distribution. The advantage for large pharmaceutical companies as well as for diagnostic and imaging companies is that it does not require early investment of resources, just the use of the knowledge of what makes a good potential marketable product. However, this OI concept will only succeed in Europe, if projects from the emerging healthcare supply chain of SMEs (and even academics) are developable.

If I read this rightly, they want to keep jobs in Europe and they’re perfectly happy to receive from other parts of the world. It seems to me that this could develop into a one-directional relationship and it provides an interesting contrast to Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s current campaign for a Canada-EU trade pact. From the Financial Post’s June 13, 2013 article by Stephen Rennie about Harper’s appeal to the British Parliament,

The prime minister’s pitch included talk of Canada’s economic strength relative to much of the rest of the world. Harper argued, as he often has in the past, against protectionism and touted trade as the main driver of prosperity.

“Another value whose certainty has been repeatedly proven, though sadly sometimes more in the breach than the application, is that everyone gains in an open economy,” Harper said.

“Our businesses grow when new markets are opened.”

To sum this up, I find the ETPN project intriguing and applaud the transparency although I find the messages a little confusing. As for Prime Minister Stephen Harper, I hope he has someone on his staff paying attention to these things.

Gary Goodyear rouses passions: more on Canada’s National Research Council and its new commitment to business

Gary Goodyear’s, Minister of State (Science and Technology), office in attempting to set the record straight has, inadvertently, roused even more passion in Phil Plait’s (Slate.com blogger) bosom and inspired me to examine more commentary about the situation regarding the NRC and its ‘new’ commitment to business.

Phil Plait in a May 22, 2013 followup to one 0f his recent postings (I have the details about Plait’s and other commentaries in my May 13, 2013 posting about the NRC’s recent declarations) responds to an email from Michele-Jamali Paquette, the director of communication for Goodyear (Note: A link has been removed),

I read the transcripts, and assuming they are accurate, let me be very clear: Yes, the literal word-for-word quotation I used was incorrect, and one point I made was technically and superficially in error. But the overall point—that this is a terrible move by the NRC and the conservative Canadian government, short-changing real science—still stands. And, in my opinion, Goodyear’s office is simply trying to spin what has become a PR problem.

I’ll note that in her email to me, Paquette quoted my own statement:

John MacDougal [sic], President of the NRC, literally said, “Scientific discovery is not valuable unless it has commercial value”

Paquette took exception to my use of the word “literally,” emphasizing it in her email. (The link, in both her email and my original post, goes to the Toronto Sun story with the garbled quotation.) Apparently MacDougal did not literally say that. But the objection strikes me as political spin since the meaning of what MacDougal said at the press conference is just as I said it was in my original post.

As I pointed out in my first post: Science can and should be done for its own sake. It pays off in the end, but that’s not why we do it. To wit …

Paquette’s choice of what issues (the 2nd issue was Plait’s original description of the NRC as a funding agency) to dispute seem odd and picayune as they don’t have an impact on Plait’s main argument,

Unfortunately, despite these errors, the overall meaning remains the same: The NRC is moving away from basic science to support business better, and the statements by both Goodyear and MacDougal [sic] are cause for concern.

Plait goes on to restate his argument and provide a roundup of commentaries. It’s well worth reading for the roundup alone.  (One picayune comment from me, I wish Plait would notice that the head of Canada’s National Research Council’s name is spelled this way, John McDougall.)

Happily, Nassif Ghoussoub has also chimed in with a May 22, 2013 posting (on his Piece of Mind blog) regarding the online discussion (Note: Links have been removed),

The Canadian twitter world has been split in the last couple of days. … But then, you have the story of the Tories’ problem with science, be it defunding, muzzling, disbelieving, doubting, preventing, delegitimizing etc. The latter must have restarted with the incredible announcement about the National Research Council (NRC), presented as “Canada sells out science” in Slate, and as “Failure doesn’t come cheap” in Maclean’s. What went unnoticed was the fact that the restructuring turned out to be totally orthogonal to the recommendations of the Jenkins report about the NRC. Then came the latest Science, Technology and Innovation Council (STIC) report, which showed that Canada’s expenditure on research and development has fallen from 16th out of 41 comparable countries in the year Stephen Harper became prime minister, to 23rd in 2011. Paul Wells seems to be racking up hits on his Maclean’s article,  “Stephen Harper and the knowledge economy: perfect strangers.”  But the story of the last 48 hours has been John Dupuis’s chronology of what he calls, “The Canadian war on science” and much more.

Yes, it’s another roundup but it’s complementary (albeit with one or two repetitions) since Plait does not seem all that familiar with the Canadian scene (I find it’s always valuable to have an outside perspective) and Nassif is a longtime insider.

John Dupuis’ May 20, 2013 posting (on his Confessions of a Science Librarian blog), mentioned by both Nassif and Plait, provides an extraordinary listing of stories ranging from 2006 through to 2013 whose headlines alone paint a very bleak picture of the practice of science in Canada,

As is occasionally my habit, I have pulled together a chronology of sorts. It is a chronology of all the various cuts, insults, muzzlings and cancellations that I’ve been able to dig up. Each of them represents a single shot in the Canadian Conservative war on science. It should be noted that not every item in this chronology, if taken in isolation, is necessarily the end of the world. It’s the accumulated evidence that is so damning.

As I’ve noted before, I am no friend of Stephen Harper and his Conservative government and many of their actions have been reprehensible and, at times, seem childishly spiteful but they do occasionally get something right. There was a serious infrastructure problem in Canada. Buildings dedicated to the pursuit of science were sadly aged and no longer appropriate for the use to which they were being put. Harper and his government have poured money into rebuilding infrastructure and for that they should be acknowledged.

As for what the Conservatives are attempting with this shift in direction for the National Research Council (NRC), which has been ongoing for at least two years as I noted in my May 13, 2013 posting, I believe they are attempting to rebalance the Canadian research enterprise.  It’s generally agreed that Canada historically has very poor levels of industrial research and development (R&D) and high levels of industrial R&D are considered, internationally, as key to a successful economy. (Richard Jones, Pro-Vice Chancellor for Research and Innovation at the University of Sheffield, UK, discusses how a falling percentage of industrial R&D, taking place over decades,  is affecting the UK economy in a May 10, 2013 commentary on the University of  Sheffield SPERI [Sheffield Political Economy Research Institute] website.)

This NRC redirection when taken in conjunction with the recent StartUp visa programme (my May 20, 2013 posting discusses Minister of Immigration Jason Kenney’s recent recruitment tour in San Francisco [Silicon Valley]),  is designed to take Canada and Canadians into uncharted territory—the much desired place where we develop a viable industrial R&D sector and an innovative economy in action.

In having reviewed at least some of the commentary, there are a couple of questions left unasked about this international obsession with industrial R&D,

  • is a country’s economic health truly tied to industrial R&D or is this ‘received’ wisdom?
  • if industrial R&D is the key to economic health, what would be the best balance between it and the practice of basic science?

As for the Canadian situation, what might be some of the unintended consequences? It occurs to me that if scientists are rewarded for turning their research into commercially viable products they might be inclined to constrain access to materials. Understandable if the enterprise is purely private but the NRC redirection is aimed at bringing together academics and private enterprise in a scheme that seems a weird amalgam of both.

For example, cellulose nanocrystals (CNC) are not easily accessed if you’re a run-of-the-mill entrepreneur. I’ve had more than one back-channel request about how to purchase the material and it would seem that access is tightly controlled by the academics and publicly funded enterprise, in this case, a private business, who produce the material. (I’m speaking of the FPInnovations and Domtar comingling in CelluForce, a CNC production facility and much more. It would make a fascinating case study on how public monies are used to help finance private enterprises and their R&D efforts; the relationship between nongovernmental agencies (FPInnovations, which I believe was an NRC spinoff), various federal public funding agencies, and Domtar, a private enterprise; and the power dynamics between all the players including the lowly entrepreneur.