Tag Archives: United Nations

AI (artificial intelligence) for Good Global Summit from May 15 – 17, 2018 in Geneva, Switzerland: details and an interview with Frederic Werner

With all the talk about artificial intelligence (AI), a lot more attention seems to be paid to apocalyptic scenarios: loss of jobs, financial hardship, loss of personal agency and privacy, and more with all of these impacts being described as global. Still, there are some folks who are considering and working on ‘AI for good’.

If you’d asked me, the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) would not have been my first guess (my choice would have been United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization [UNESCO]) as an agency likely to host the 2018 AI for Good Global Summit. But, it turns out the ITU is a UN (United Nations agency) and, according to its Wikipedia entry, it’s an intergovernmental public-private partnership, which may explain the nature of the participants in the upcoming summit.

The news

First, there’s a May 4, 2018 ITU media advisory (received via email or you can find the full media advisory here) about the upcoming summit,

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is now widely identified as being able to address the greatest challenges facing humanity – supporting innovation in fields ranging from crisis management and healthcare to smart cities and communications networking.

The second annual ‘AI for Good Global Summit’ will take place 15-17 May [2018] in Geneva, and seeks to leverage AI to accelerate progress towards the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals and ultimately benefit humanity.

WHAT: Global event to advance ‘AI for Good’ with the participation of internationally recognized AI experts. The programme will include interactive high-level panels, while ‘AI Breakthrough Teams’ will propose AI strategies able to create impact in the near term, guided by an expert audience of mentors representing government, industry, academia and civil society – through interactive sessions. The summit will connect AI innovators with public and private-sector decision-makers, building collaboration to take promising strategies forward.

A special demo & exhibit track will feature innovative applications of AI designed to: protect women from sexual violence, avoid infant crib deaths, end child abuse, predict oral cancer, and improve mental health treatments for depression – as well as interactive robots including: Alice, a Dutch invention designed to support the aged; iCub, an open-source robot; and Sophia, the humanoid AI robot.

WHEN: 15-17 May 2018, beginning daily at 9 AM

WHERE: ITU Headquarters, 2 Rue de Varembé, Geneva, Switzerland (Please note: entrance to ITU is now limited for all visitors to the Montbrillant building entrance only on rue Varembé).

WHO: Confirmed participants to date include expert representatives from: Association for Computing Machinery, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Cambridge University, Carnegie Mellon, Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, Consumer Trade Association, Facebook, Fraunhofer, Google, Harvard University, IBM Watson, IEEE, Intellectual Ventures, ITU, Microsoft, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Partnership on AI, Planet Labs, Shenzhen Open Innovation Lab, University of California at Berkeley, University of Tokyo, XPRIZE Foundation, Yale University – and the participation of “Sophia” the humanoid robot and “iCub” the EU open source robotcub.

The interview

Frederic Werner, Senior Communications Officer at the International Telecommunication Union and** one of the organizers of the AI for Good Global Summit 2018 kindly took the time to speak to me and provide a few more details about the upcoming event.

Werner noted that the 2018 event grew out of a much smaller 2017 ‘workshop’ and first of its kind, about beneficial AI which this year has ballooned in size to 91 countries (about 15 participants are expected from Canada), 32 UN agencies, and substantive representation from the private sector. The 2017 event featured Dr. Yoshua Bengio of the University of Montreal  (Université de Montréal) was a featured speaker.

“This year, we’re focused on action-oriented projects that will help us reach our Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030. We’re looking at near-term practical AI applications,” says Werner. “We’re matchmaking problem-owners and solution-owners.”

Academics, industry professionals, government officials, and representatives from UN agencies are gathering  to work on four tracks/themes:

In advance of this meeting, the group launched an AI repository (an action item from the 2017 meeting) on April 25, 2018 inviting people to list their AI projects (from the ITU’s April 25, 2018? AI repository news announcement),

ITU has just launched an AI Repository where anyone working in the field of artificial intelligence (AI) can contribute key information about how to leverage AI to help solve humanity’s greatest challenges.

This is the only global repository that identifies AI-related projects, research initiatives, think-tanks and organizations that aim to accelerate progress on the 17 United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

To submit a project, just press ‘Submit’ on the AI Repository site and fill in the online questionnaire, providing all relevant details of your project. You will also be asked to map your project to the relevant World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) action lines and the SDGs. Approved projects will be officially registered in the repository database.

Benefits of participation on the AI Repository include:

WSIS Prizes recognize individuals, governments, civil society, local, regional and international agencies, research institutions and private-sector companies for outstanding success in implementing development oriented strategies that leverage the power of AI and ICTs.

Creating the AI Repository was one of the action items of last year’s AI for Good Global Summit.

We are looking forward to your submissions.

If you have any questions, please send an email to: ai@itu.int

“Your project won’t be visible immediately as we have to vet the submissions to weed out spam-type material and projects that are not in line with our goals,” says Werner. That said, there are already 29 projects in the repository. As you might expect, the UK, China, and US are in the repository but also represented are Egypt, Uganda, Belarus, Serbia, Peru, Italy, and other countries not commonly cited when discussing AI research.

Werner also pointed out in response to my surprise over the ITU’s role with regard to this AI initiative that the ITU is the only UN agency which has 192* member states (countries), 150 universities, and over 700 industry members as well as other member entities, which gives them tremendous breadth of reach. As well, the organization, founded originally in 1865 as the International Telegraph Convention, has extensive experience with global standardization in the information technology and telecommunications industries. (See more in their Wikipedia entry.)

Finally

There is a bit more about the summit on the ITU’s AI for Good Global Summit 2018 webpage,

The 2nd edition of the AI for Good Global Summit will be organized by ITU in Geneva on 15-17 May 2018, in partnership with XPRIZE Foundation, the global leader in incentivized prize competitions, the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) and sister United Nations agencies including UNESCO, UNICEF, UNCTAD, UNIDO, Global Pulse, UNICRI, UNODA, UNIDIR, UNODC, WFP, IFAD, UNAIDS, WIPO, ILO, UNITAR, UNOPS, OHCHR, UN UniversityWHO, UNEP, ICAO, UNDP, The World Bank, UN DESA, CTBTOUNISDRUNOG, UNOOSAUNFPAUNECE, UNDPA, and UNHCR.

The AI for Good series is the leading United Nations platform for dialogue on AI. The action​​-oriented 2018 summit will identify practical applications of AI and supporting strategies to improve the quality and sustainability of life on our planet. The summit will continue to formulate strategies to ensure trusted, safe and inclusive development of AI technologies and equitable access to their benefits.

While the 2017 summit sparked the first ever inclusive global dialogue on beneficial AI, the action-oriented 2018 summit will focus on impactful AI solutions able to yield long-term benefits and help achieve the Sustainable Development Goals. ‘Breakthrough teams’ will demonstrate the potential of AI to map poverty and aid with natural disasters using satellite imagery, how AI could assist the delivery of citizen-centric services in smart cities, and new opportunities for AI to help achieve Universal Health Coverage, and finally to help achieve transparency and explainability in AI algorithms.

Teams will propose impactful AI strategies able to be enacted in the near term, guided by an expert audience of mentors representing government, industry, academia and civil society. Strategies will be evaluated by the mentors according to their feasibility and scalability, potential to address truly global challenges, degree of supporting advocacy, and applicability to market failures beyond the scope of government and industry. The exercise will connect AI innovators with public and private-sector decision-makers, building collaboration to take promising strategies forward.

“As the UN specialized agency for information and communication technologies, ITU is well placed to guide AI innovation towards the achievement of the UN Sustainable Development ​Goals. We are providing a neutral close quotation markplatform for international dialogue aimed at ​building a ​common understanding of the capabilities of emerging AI technologies.​​” Houlin Zhao, Secretary General ​of ITU​

Should you be close to Geneva, it seems that registration is still open. Just go to the ITU’s AI for Good Global Summit 2018 webpage, scroll the page down to ‘Documentation’ and you will find a link to the invitation and a link to online registration. Participation is free but I expect that you are responsible for your travel and accommodation costs.

For anyone unable to attend in person, the summit will be livestreamed (webcast in real time) and you can watch the sessions by following the link below,

https://www.itu.int/en/ITU-T/AI/2018/Pages/webcast.aspx

For those of us on the West Coast of Canada and other parts distant to Geneva, you will want to take the nine hour difference between Geneva (Switzerland) and here into account when viewing the proceedings. If you can’t manage the time difference, the sessions are being recorded and will be posted at a later date.

*’132 member states’ corrected to ‘192 member states’ on May 11, 2018 at 1500 hours PDT.

*Redundant ‘and’ removed on July 19, 2018.

International Women’s Day March 8, 2017 and UNESCO/L’Oréal’s For Women in Science (Rising Talents)

Before getting to the science, here’s a little music in honour of March 8, 2017 International Women’s Day,

There is is a Wikipedia entry devoted to Rise Up (Parachute Club song), Note: Links have been removed<

“Rise Up” is a pop song recorded by the Canadian group Parachute Club on their self-titled 1983 album. It was produced and engineered by Daniel Lanois, and written by Parachute Club members Billy Bryans, Lauri Conger, Lorraine Segato and Steve Webster with lyrics contributed by filmmaker Lynne Fernie.

An upbeat call for peace, celebration, and “freedom / to love who we please,” the song was a national hit in Canada, and was hailed as a unique achievement in Canadian pop music:

“ Rarely does one experience a piece of music in white North America where the barrier between participant and observer breaks down. Rise Up rises right up and breaks down the wall.[1] ”

According to Segato, the song was not written with any one individual group in mind, but as a universal anthem of freedom and equality;[2] Fernie described the song’s lyrics as having been inspired in part by West Coast First Nations rituals in which young girls would “rise up” at dawn to adopt their adult names as a rite of passage.[3]

It remains the band’s most famous song, and has been adopted as an activist anthem for causes as diverse as gay rights, feminism, anti-racism and the New Democratic Party.[4] As well, the song’s reggae and soca-influenced rhythms made it the first significant commercial breakthrough for Caribbean music in Canada.

L’Oréal UNESCO For Women in Science

From a March 8, 2017 UNESCO press release (received via email),

Fifteen outstanding young women researchers, selected
among more than 250 candidates in the framework of the 19th edition of
the L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science awards, will receive the
International Rising Talent fellowship during a gala on 21 March at the
hotel Pullman Tour Eiffel de Paris. By recognizing their achievements at
a key moment in their careers, the _For Women in Science programme aims
to help them pursue their research.

Since 1998, the L’Oréal-UNESCO _For Women in Science programme [1]
has highlighted the achievements of outstanding women scientists and
supported promising younger women who are in the early stages of their
scientific careers. Selected among the best national and regional
L’Oréal-UNESCO fellows, the International Rising Talents come from
all regions of the world (Africa and Arab States, Asia-Pacific, Europe,
Latin America and North America).

Together with the five laureates of the 2017 L’Oreal-UNESCO For Women
in Science awards [2], they will participate in a week of events,
training and exchanges that will culminate with the award ceremony on 23
March 2017 at the Mutualité in Paris.

The 2017 International Rising Talent are recognized for their work in
the following five categories:

WATCHING THE BRAIN AT WORK

* DOCTOR LORINA NACI, Canada
Fundamental medicine
In a coma: is the patient conscious or unconscious?     * ASSOCIATE
PROFESSOR MUIREANN IRISH, Australia

Clinical medicine
Recognizing Alzheimer’s before the first signs appear.

ON THE ROAD TO CONCEIVING NEW MEDICAL TREATMENTS

* DOCTOR HYUN LEE, Germany
Biological Sciences
Neurodegenerative diseases: untangling aggregated proteins.
* DOCTOR NAM-KYUNG YU, Republic of Korea
Biological Sciences
Rett syndrome: neuronal cells come under fire
* DOCTOR STEPHANIE FANUCCHI, South Africa
Biological Sciences
Better understanding the immune system.
* DOCTOR JULIA ETULAIN, Argentina
Biological Sciences
Better tissue healing.

Finding potential new sources of drugs

* DOCTOR RYM BEN SALLEM, Tunisia
Biological Sciences
New antibiotics are right under our feet.
* DOCTOR HAB JOANNA SULKOWSKA, Poland
Biological Sciences
Unraveling the secrets of entangled proteins.

GETTING TO THE HEART OF MATTER

* MS NAZEK EL-ATAB, United Arab Emirates
Electrical, Electronic and Computer Engineering
Miniaturizing electronics without losing memory.
* DOCTOR BILGE DEMIRKOZ, Turkey
Physics
Piercing the secrets of cosmic radiation.
* DOCTOR TAMARA ELZEIN, Lebanon
Material Sciences
Trapping radioactivity.
* DOCTOR RAN LONG, China
Chemistry
Unlocking the potential of energy resources with nanochemistry.

EXAMINING THE PAST TO SHED LIGHT ON THE FUTURE – OR VICE VERSA

* DOCTOR FERNANDA WERNECK, Brazil
Biological Sciences
Predicting how animal biodiversity will evolve.
* DOCTOR SAM GILES, United Kingdom
Biological Sciences
Taking another look at the evolution of vertebrates thanks to their
braincases.
* DOCTOR ÁGNES KÓSPÁL, Hungary
Astronomy and Space Sciences
Looking at the birth of distant suns and planets to better understand
the solar system.

Congratulations to all of the winners!

You can find out more about these awards and others on the 2017 L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science Awards webpage or on the For Women In Science website. (Again in honour of the 2017 International Women’s Day, I was the 92758th signer of the For Women in Science Manifesto.)

International Women’s Day origins

Thank you to Wikipedia (Note: Links have been removed),

International Women’s Day (IWD), originally called International Working Women’s Day, is celebrated on March 8 every year.[2] It commemorates the movement for women’s rights.

The earliest Women’s Day observance was held on February 28, 1909, in New York and organized by the Socialist Party of America.[3] On March 8, 1917, in the capital of the Russian Empire, Petrograd, a demonstration of women textile workers began, covering the whole city. This was the beginning of the Russian Revolution.[4] Seven days later, the Emperor of Russia Nicholas II abdicated and the provisional Government granted women the right to vote.[3] March 8 was declared a national holiday in Soviet Russia in 1917. The day was predominantly celebrated by the socialist movement and communist countries until it was adopted in 1975 by the United Nations.

It seems only fitting to bookend this post with another song (Happy International Women’s Day March 8, 2017),

While the lyrics are unabashedly romantic, the video is surprisingly moody with a bit of a ‘stalker vive’ although it does end up with her holding centre stage while singing and bouncing around in time to Walking on Sunshine.

Coat fruit with silk to keep it fresh

A May 6, 2016 news item on ScienceDaily describes a way to keep fruit fresh without refrigeration,

Half of the world’s fruit and vegetable crops are lost during the food supply chain, due mostly to premature deterioration of these perishable foods, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations.

Tufts University biomedical engineers have demonstrated that fruits can stay fresh for more than a week without refrigeration if they are coated in an odorless, biocompatible silk solution so thin as to be virtually invisible. The approach is a promising alternative for preservation of delicate foods using a naturally derived material and a water-based manufacturing process.

A May 6, 2016 Tufts University news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, describes the work,

Silk’s unique crystalline structure makes it one of nature’s toughest materials. Fibroin, an insoluble protein found in silk, has a remarkable ability to stabilize and protect other materials while being fully biocompatible and biodegradable.

For the study, researchers dipped freshly picked strawberries in a solution of 1 percent silk fibroin protein; the coating process was repeated up to four times.  The silk fibroin-coated fruits were then treated for varying amounts of time with water vapor under vacuum (water annealed) to create varying percentages of crystalline beta-sheets in the coating. The longer the exposure, the higher the percentage of beta-sheets and the more robust the fibroin coating. The coating was 27 to 35 microns thick.

The strawberries were then stored at room temperature. Uncoated berries were compared over time with berries dipped in varying numbers of coats of silk that had been annealed for different periods of time. At seven days, the berries coated with the higher beta-sheet silk were still juicy and firm while the uncoated berries were dehydrated and discolored.

Tests showed that the silk coating prolonged the freshness of the fruits by slowing fruit respiration, extending fruit firmness and preventing decay.

“The beta-sheet content of the edible silk fibroin coatings made the strawberries less permeable to carbon dioxide and oxygen. We saw a statistically significant delay in the decay of the fruit,” said senior and corresponding study author Fiorenzo G. Omenetto, Ph.D. Omenetto is the Frank C. Doble Professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering and also has appointments in the Department of Electrical Engineering and in the Department of Physics in the School of Arts and Sciences.

Similar experiments were performed on bananas, which, unlike strawberries, are able to ripen after they are harvested. The silk coating decreased the bananas’ ripening rate compared with uncoated controls and added firmness to the fruit by preventing softening of the peel.

The thin, odorless silk coating did not affect fruit texture.  Taste was not studied.

“Various therapeutic agents could be easily added to the water-based silk solution used for the coatings, so we could potentially both preserve and add therapeutic function to consumable goods without the need for complex chemistries,” said the study’s first author, Benedetto Marelli, Ph.D., formerly a post-doctoral associate in the Omenetto laboratory and now at MIT.

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

Silk Fibroin as Edible Coating for Perishable Food Preservation by B. Marelli, M. A. Brenckle, D. L. Kaplan & F. G. Omenetto. Scientific Reports 6, Article number: 25263 (2016) doi:10.1038/srep25263 Published online: 06 May 2016

This is an open access paper.

3D print the city of Palmyra (Syria)?

Designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization), Palmyra dates back to Second Century BCE (before the common era) as UNESCO’s Site of Palmyra webpage indicates,

An oasis in the Syrian desert, north-east of Damascus, Palmyra contains the monumental ruins of a great city that was one of the most important cultural centres of the ancient world. From the 1st to the 2nd century, the art and architecture of Palmyra, standing at the crossroads of several civilizations, married Graeco-Roman techniques with local traditions and Persian influences.

First mentioned in the archives of Mari in the 2nd millennium BC, Palmyra was an established caravan oasis when it came under Roman control in the mid-first century AD as part of the Roman province of Syria.  It grew steadily in importance as a city on the trade route linking Persia, India and China with the Roman Empire, marking the crossroads of several civilisations in the ancient world. A grand, colonnaded street of 1100 metres’ length forms the monumental axis of the city, which together with secondary colonnaded cross streets links the major public monuments including the Temple of Ba’al, Diocletian’s Camp, the Agora, Theatre, other temples and urban quarters. Architectural ornament including unique examples of funerary sculpture unites the forms of Greco-roman art with indigenous elements and Persian influences in a strongly original style. Outside the city’s walls are remains of a Roman aqueduct and immense necropolises.

Discovery of the ruined city by travellers in the 17th and 18th centuries resulted in its subsequent influence on architectural styles.

Until recently Palmyra was occupied by ISIS or ISIL or IS (depending on what the group is being called today). A March 31, 2016 news item on phys.org presents a perspective on the city and cultural heritage in a time of strife,

The destruction at the ancient city of Palmyra symbolises the suffering of the Syrian people at the hands of the terrorist group known as Islamic State (IS). Palmyra was a largely Roman city located at a desert oasis on a vital crossroad, and “one of the most important cultural centres of the ancient world”. Its remarkable preservation highlighted an intermingling of cultures that today, as then, came to stand for the tolerance and multiculturalism that pre-conflict Syria was renowned for -– tolerance that IS seeks to eradicate.

A March 31, 2016 essay by Emma Cunliffe (University of Oxford) for The Conversation, which originated the news item, expands on the theme,

Early in the conflict, the area was heavily fortified. Roads and embankments were dug through the necropolises and the Roman walls, and the historic citadel defences were upgraded. Yet the terrorists occupied and desecrated the city from May 2015, systematically destroying monuments such as the Temple of Baalshamin, the Temple of Bel, seven tower tombs, a large Lion goddess statue and two Islamic shrines. They ransacked the museum, tortured and executing the former site director Khaled al-Asaad in search of treasure to sell. According to satellite imagery analysis the site was heavily looted throughout it all.

Now the city has been recaptured, the first damage assessments are underway, and Syrian – and international – attention is already turning to restoration. This work will be greatly aided by the Syrians who risked their lives to transport the contents of the Palmyra museum to safety. The last truck pulled out as IS arrived, with bullets whizzing past.

There is a contrasting view as to how much destruction occurred from a March 29, 2016 essay by Paul Rogers (University of Bradford) for The Conversation,

Syrian Army units have taken back the ancient city of Palmyra from Islamic State. The units are now also trying to extend their control to include al-Qaryatain, to the south west of Palmyra, and Sukhnah, to the north east.

There are indications that the damage done to the ancient world heritage site which lies just outside Palmyra has been much less than feared. It may even have been limited to the destruction of two or three individual ruins – certainly important in their own right but just a small part of a huge complex that stretches over scores of hectares.

Written before some of the latest events, Rogers’ perspective is one of military tactics and strategy which contrasts with Cunliffe’s cultural heritage perspective. Like the answers to the classic question ‘Is the glass is half empty or is the glass is half full?’, both are correct, in their way.

Getting back to the cultural heritage aspect, Cunliffe outlines how Syrians and others in the international community are attempting to restore Palmyra, from her March 31, 2016 essay (Note: Links have been removed),

Even as they were displaced, Syrians have worked to keep a detailed memory of the city alive. Syrian artists created artworks depicting the destruction. In a Jordanian camp, refugees made miniature models of the city and other cultural sites, even measuring out the number and position of Palmyra’s columns from photographs.

The international community is also playing its part. Groups like UNOSAT [UNITAR’s Operational Satellite Applications Programme], the UN’s satellite imagery analysts have used satellite imagery to monitor the damage. On the ground, Syrian-founded NGOs like APSA [Association for the Protection Syrian Archaeology] have linked with universities to assess the site. Groups such as NewPalmyra and Palmyra 3D Model are using the latest technology to create open-access 3D computer models from photographs.

Others have gone even further. The Million Image Database Project at the Oxford Institute for Digital Archaeology distributed cameras to volunteers across the Middle East to collect 3D photos of sites. As well as creating 3D models, they will recreate full-scale artefacts, sites, and architectural features using their own cement-based 3D printing techniques. This will start with a recreation of the arch from Palmyra’s Temple of Bel, due to be unveiled in London in April 2016.

Here’s an artistic representation of the destruction,

A depiction of the destruction. Humam Alsalim and Rami Bakhos

A depiction of the destruction. Humam Alsalim and Rami Bakhos

Of course, there are some ethical issues about the restoration being raised, from Cunliffe’s March 31, 2016 essay (Note: Links have been removed),

It wouldn’t be the first time such large-scale restoration has been undertaken. Historic central Warsaw, for example, was destroyed during World War II, and was almost completely reconstructed and is now a World Heritage site. Reconstruction is costly, but might be accomplished more quickly and cheaply using new digital techniques, showing the world that Syria values its cultural heritage.

But many argue that 3D printing fails to capture the authenticity of the original structures, amounting to little more than the Disneyfication of heritage. They also point out that the fighting is still ongoing: 370,000 Syrians are dead, millions are displaced, and perhaps 50%-70% of the nearby town has been destroyed. Given the pressing humanitarian needs, stabilisation alone should be the priority for now.

Rebuilding also fails to redress the loss caused by the extensive looting of the site, focusing only on the dramatically destroyed monuments. Perhaps most importantly, its worth asking whether returning Palmyra exactly to its pre-conflict state denies a major chapter of its history? There needs to be a wide-ranging discussion on the priorities for the immediate future and the nature of any future reconstruction.

While I grasp most of the arguments I’m not sure why 3D printing raises a greater ethical issue, “… many argue that 3D printing fails to capture the authenticity of the original structures, amounting to little more than the Disneyfication of heritage … .” Couldn’t you say that about any form of restoration? Certainly, I was disconcerted when I saw the Sphinx in Cairo in real life where the restoration is quite obvious from angles not usually seen in tourist pictures.

More tangentially, how big is the 3D printer? If memory serves, building materials from ancient times were often large blocks of stone.

Getting back to the point, both Cunliffe’s and Rogers’ essays are worth reading in their entirety if you have the time. And since those essays have been written there has been an update for Associated Press in an April 1, 2016 article by Albert Aji on phys.org. Apparently, the IS retreat included time to plant thousands of mines throughout Palmyra with trees, doors, animals and more being booby-trapped and, now, being detonated by the Syrian army.

One final comment, The booby-trapping reminded me of a scene in the English Patient (movie) when the allies have won the war, the Germans have withdrawn and British and Canadian soldiers have liberated a town in Italy. They celebrate that night and one exuberant Brit soldier climbs a flagpole (I think) and is killed because the Germans had booby-trapped the top of the flagpole. Some years ago, a friend of mine was peacekeeper in Croatia and he said that everything was booby-trapped, flagpoles, mailboxes, cemetery markers, etc. He never said anything much more about but I have the impression it was demoralizing and stressful. I think the discussion about restoration and the artwork produced by Syrians in response to the happenings in Palmyra are an important way to counteract demoralization and stress. Whether money should be spent on restoration or all of it dedicated to pressing humanitarian needs is a question for other people to answer but a society without art and culture is one that is dying so it is heartening to note the vibrancy in Syria.

ETA April 19, 2016: Palmyra’s Arch of Triumph has been successfully replicated and is standing in London, UK according to an April 19, 2016 news item on phys.org. The replica is about 2/3 the size of the original. No reason for the size change is given in the Associated Press article. The arch scheduled to remain in London for a few more days before moving to New York, Dubai, and other destinations before arriving in Palmyra.

Happy International Women’s Day March 8, 2016!

The UK’s Medical Research Council’s Clinical Science Centre and  Imperial College have found an interesting way to celebrate   International Women’s Day 2016 according to a March 8, 2016 posting by Stuart Clark for the Guardian (Note: Links have been removed),

Tonight [March 8, 2016] at the Royal Society, London, around a dozen women will be presented with Suffrage Science awards. Organised by the Medical Research Council’s Clinical Science Centre, Imperial College, they honour women’s contributions to science and are timing to coincide with International Women’s Day.

One of today’s awardees is Pippa Goldschmidt. She is being honoured for her work in science communication. With a PhD in astronomy, …

Her latest project is editing the short story collection I Am Because You Are. These stories all take their inspiration from Albert Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity, which is currently celebrating its 100th anniversary.

What can fiction bring to science?

Science is too often a closed book for many people, they study it at school and are bored by it, or find it difficult or irrelevant to their lives. But fiction has this incredible ability to reflect and examine all aspects of the real world, and writing fiction about science is a great way of opening it up to new audiences, and helping to demystify it.

Science is also heavily reliant on literary concepts, such as metaphors, to get its points across; we often hear the phrases ‘the Universe is like an expanding balloon’, or ‘DNA is like an alphabet’. So I think fiction and science have more in common with each other than may first appear.

Should you be able to attend, I’d be delighted to hear more about the event.

Next, I have a March 8, 2016 article by Lauren J. Young on Inverse.com (Note: Links have been removed),

Women have achieved a lot throughout history. That’s why today, on March 8, thousands of events are taking place in more than 40 countries across the world to celebrate International Women’s Day. This year’s theme is Planet 50-50 by 2030: Step it up for Gender Equality, alluding to the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals — a 15-year plan for growth and development in all countries including gender equality and education for all.

International Women’s Day dates back to February 28, 1909, when the Socialist Party of America observed it for the first time in the United States, and two years later, the leader of the Women’s Office for Germany’s Social Democratic Party, Clara Zetkin, expanded the idea internationally. It gained support by the United Nations in 1975, which strengthened the movement.

International Women’s Day is also a day to celebrate science: The United Nations created an interactive timeline documenting some of the most significant contributions made by women. Here are the three:

In Ancient Greece, Agnodice was one of the first female gynecologists. She risked her life to practice medicine even though women who were caught were sentenced to death.

You can find the UN timeline here.

Finally, the UN has a separate International Day of Women and Girls in Science celebrated on Feb. 11 (presumably of each year).

United Nations’ Scientific Advisory Board recommends scientific investment of up to 3.5% of GDP (gross domestic product)

Somehow, it’s no surprise that the United Nations (UN) Secretary General’s (SG) Scientific Advisory Board has recommended that more money is needed for science and more science advice is necessary, too. Does anyone expect a group scientists to come to another conclusion regarding the money? Admittedly, the science advice is a little more controversial.

A July 9, 2015 UN SG’s Scientific Advisory Board news release on EurekAlert provides details,

Investing up to 3.5% of a nation’s GDP in science, technology and innovation – including basic science and education – is a key benchmark for advancing sustainable development effectively, leading experts say.

In papers released July 9 [2015] in New York, international scientists advising UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon say closing the gap between developed and developing countries depends on first closing international science, technology and innovation (STI) investment gaps.

According to the UN SG’s 26-member Scientific Advisory Board: “While a target of 1% of (Gross Domestic Product) for (research and development) is perceived high by many governments, countries with strong and effective STI systems invest up to 3.5% of their GPD in R&D.”

“If countries wish to break the poverty cycle and achieve (post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals), they will have to set up ambitious national minimum target investments for STI, including special allotments for the promotion of basic science and science education and literacy.”

The Board also recommends specific investment areas, including “novel alternative energy solutions, water filters that remove pathogens at the point-of-use, new robust building materials from locally available materials, nanotechnology for health and agriculture, and biological approaches to industrial production, environmental remediation and management.”

Instituted by the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) on behalf of the Secretary-General, the Board is comprised of experts from a range of scientific disciplines relevant to sustainable development, including its social and ethical dimensions.

The Board contributes to a process concluding this fall to replace the UN’s Millennium Development Goals, agreed by nations in 2000 for achievement in 2015, with a new set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), through which progress in improving quality of life around the world will be tracked through 2030.

Among other highlights of the papers presented at UN Headquarters:

The Board recommends a dedicated seat for science at an influential new world leaders’ forum created to promote and monitor sustainable development – the UN High Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development – saying science needs to be engaged “formally in the HLPF as an advisor rather than an observer.”

“This could be accomplished by creating a formal seat for science on the HLPF, and/or by involving the UNSG’s Scientific Advisory Board and organizations such as the National Academies of Sciences, UNESCO, ICSU, Future Earth, regional scientific bodies, and others.”

The High-level Political Forum meets every four years at the level of Heads of State and Government under the auspices of the General Assembly, and annually under the auspices of the UN Economic and Social Council. The Forum adopts negotiated declarations.

The Board also suggests engaging scientific bodies in reviews of pending policy decisions against scientific evidence.

“The UN Scientific Advisory Board, ICSU (the International Council for Science), National Academies of Science, and other bodies and networks, in collaboration with UNESCO and the UN system, would run a rigorous process of scientific review and assessment identifying possible risks and opportunities related to key political decisions.”

In addition, the Board calls for an annual Global Sustainable Development Report – a flagship UN publication like the Human Development Report – that monitors progress, identifies critical issues and root causes of challenges, and offers potential ways forward.

The report would synthesize and integrate findings from a wide range of scientific fields and institutions, developed with strong inter-agency support involving a suggested consortium of UN agencies working on sustainable development.

Needed to support long-term thinking: A better educated, informed world

Creating and engaging a better informed and educated public, it adds, would help establish policies that serve humanity’s long-term wellbeing over decisions that favour short-term economic and political interests.

The success of STI “will depend on the efficiency of the science-policy-society interface,” involving stakeholders from governments, civil society, indigenous peoples and local communities, industry and business, academia and research organizations.

“Such an active cooperation of multiple stakeholders will need more than the occasional by-chance interaction of different groups of society. It will require institutionalized architecture that brings together all affected actors to ensure linking scientific information and data as well as findings, scientific assessments and evidence-based advice with both policy and society.”

“Broader societal understanding and support of key scientific findings would make it more likely for science-based actions and evidence-based solutions to also be supported and promoted by decision-makers at all levels.”

The Board underlines that science, technology and innovation can be “the game changer” for the future development efforts.

“It can contribute to alleviating poverty, creating jobs, reducing inequalities, increasing income and enhancing health and well-being. It can assist in solving critical problems such as access to energy, food and water security, climate change and biodiversity loss.”

Not everyone is entirely supportive of this recommendation as Stuart Freedman notes in his July 2015 article (Developing nations urged to spend big on science) for SciDev.net,

Only a handful of countries have reached this figure (3.5%), including Finland and South Korea.

Zakri Abdul Hamid, a board member, gives the examples of Germany, Japan and South Korea, which, he says, upped their science investment to boost economic recovery after the devastation of the Second World War.

But Rafael Palacios Bustamante, a Venezuelan sociologist who specialises in science and innovation policy in Latin America, says this comparison is inappropriate.

“The gap between developing and industrialised countries is much bigger now and our dependence on technology has become more radical,” he says. …

Investing more money is a gamble but the opposite (not investing) is also a gamble and I think there’s the will to invest. From the materials I stumble across, it seems there’s an appetite at the grassroots level for more science as a means towards self-sustaining economies whether the scope is village, city, regional, or national.

For anyone curious about the UN’s Scientific Advisory Board, I wrote an Oct. 24, 2013 posting which listed the members whose two-year terms of appointment are almost complete.

For anyone interested in the two reports which form the bases for the recommendations,

Science, Technology and Innovation: Critical Means of Implementation for the SDGs (report)

Strengthening the High-Level Political Forum and the UN
Global Sustainable Development Report

December 2014 issue of the Nano Bite (from the Nanoscale Informal Science Education Network) features last day (Dec. 1, 2014) to apply for NanoDays 2015 physical kit and a bit about a medieval cleric who* ‘unwove’ light

Depending on your timezone, there are still a few hours left to submit an online application for a NanoDays 2015 physical kit. From a Sept. 15, 2014 posting by Catherine McCarthy for NISENet (Nanoscale Informal Science Education Network),

Apply now for a NanoDays 2015 physical kit!
NanoDays 2015 will be held from March 28 through April 5, 2015. NanoDays is a week of community-based educational outreach events to raise public awareness of nanoscale science, technology and engineering throughout the United States. NanoDays kits are currently in production and will be ready for distribution in early 2015. We invite you to fill out an online application for a physical kit containing all of the materials and resources you need to start planning your community events; applications are due December 1, 2014.

 

We’re in Year 10 of funding for NISE Net, what’s going to happen to NanoDays?

This is the final NanoDays physical kit that will be funded through the current NISE Net award. Beyond 2015, we encourage you to continue to host NanoDays and strengthen local partnerships by using this kit (and any previous kits you have). We’ve set dates for the next five years to promote national participation in NanoDays in the years to come.

Future NanoDays will be held:

  • 2016: March 26-April 3
  • 2017: March 25-April 2
  • 2018: March 31-April 8
  • 2019: March 30-April 7
  • 2020: March 28-April 5

The NISE Network leadership is seeking opportunities to continue NanoDays after 2015, so stay tuned for further information!

Who can participate in NanoDays?
NanoDays kits are intended for use in public events; most host organizations are informal science education institutions and public outreach programs of nanoscience research centers. We invite you and your organization to participate in NanoDays 2015, whether or not you have previous experience with nano-related public outreach activities.

For anyone unfamiliar with the NanoDays programs, the post goes on to provide more details.

Here’s more about the upcoming International Year of Light (IYL)  mentioned in my Nov. 7, 2014 post,

What’s Nano about Light?
The United Nations has declared that 2015 is the International Year of Light (IYL) and light-based technologies. This global initiative helps to highlight for the public the importance of light and optical technologies in ones’ everyday life and it’s role in the development of society and the future. Endorsed by the International Council of Science, the International Year of Light 2015 has more than 100 partners from more than 85 countries!

Are you looking for ways to get involved?

There’s this tidbit about a special event featuring the University of Vermont physics department, light, and a local watershed (from the newsletter),

A Bi-Polar Affair Captivates Visitors with EnLIGHTening Nanoscale Science

By Luke Donforth, The University of Vermont

The University of Vermont (UVM) Physics Department and ECHO Lake Aquarium and Science Center have a long collaborative relationship, through which the NISE Network has provided an excellent framework to help strengthen and deepen. Although an institution of formal learning, UVM values and contributes to informal education in the surrounding community.

Recently, the UVM Physics Department and ECHO received a NISE Net mini-grant to develop a daylong event outside the purview of NanoDays. ECHO focuses on the Lake Champlain watershed, and the Physics Department wanted to show how basic science is a useful tool for investigating, understanding, and caring for the lake and world around us. Light, and specifically polarization, gave us a unifying theme to bring a number of activities and concepts to ECHO. Visible light, something most museum visitors have experience with, has wavelengths in the hundreds of nanometers. This provides a comfortable entry point to familiarize visitors with “nano,” and from there we can highlight how interacting with light at the length scale of its wavelength allows us to investigate both light and the world around us.

….

Polarization, the orientation of components of light, provides a tool with uses ranging from telling the time of day to monitoring invasive species in Lake Champlain. As an example of the later, Professor J. Ellen Marsden (an ichthyologist with UVM’s Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources and long-time ECHO collaborator) supplied samples of larval zebra mussels from Lake Champlain. Zebra mussels, an invasive species actively monitored in the lake, are more easily distinguished and detected earlier with the thoughtful application polarized light.

We’re going to be hearing a lot more about light as we gear up for 2015. Meanwhile, you can read the entire December 2014 issue of the Nano Bite here.

In keeping with my previous comment, there’s this bit about a medieval cleric who helped us to understand light and optics. From a Nov. 27, 2014 posting by Michael Brooks, on the Guardian science blog, concerning his recent participation in a Festival of Humanities event held at the medieval Durham Cathedral,

Robert Grosseteste was a medieval pioneer of science. And, despite having died in 1253, the good bishop is up for an award on Thursday night [Nov. 27, 2014]. The shortlist for the Times Higher Education’s 2014 Research Project of the Year includes the researchers from Durham University who laid on last week’s activities in the cathedral’s Chapter House and Deanery, and they openly describe Grosseteste as one of their collaborators.

They made this clear in a paper they published in the prestigious journal Nature Physics in July. The scientists are re-examining Grosseteste’s work, and finding he made contributions to the field of optics that have yet to be assimilated into the canon of science. So they’ve come on board to help complete the record.

Grosseteste’s insight into the physics of rainbows has, for instance, enabled the researchers in the Ordered Universe collaboration to create a new co-ordinate system for colour. Anyone who has tried to calibrate a computer monitor knows that we now talk in terms of hue (a particular ratio of red, green and blue), saturation and brightness. Examination of Grosseteste’s writings has inspired an equally valid rainbow-based colour system.

It is based on the angle through which sunlight is scattered by the water drops, the “purity” of the medium – related to the size of the water drops – and the distance of the sun above the horizon. Grosseteste’s three-dimensional scheme outlines what Durham physicist Tom McLeish calls “the space of all possible rainbows”.

Here’s an image of a rainbow over Durham Cathedral,

 Rainbow over Durham Cathedral by StephieBee [downloaded from https://www.flickr.com/photos/visitengland/galleries/72157625178514241/]


Rainbow over Durham Cathedral
by StephieBee [downloaded from https://www.flickr.com/photos/visitengland/galleries/72157625178514241/]

Here’s where you can find more of StephieBee‘s work.

Sadly, GrosseTeste did not win top prize but I’m sure if he were still around, he’d say something like, “It was an honour to be nominated and I thank God.” As for the Festival of Humanities (Being Human), there’s more here about its 2014 inaugural year.

*Changed ‘on’ to ‘who’ in headline on Dec. 2, 2014.

First ever UN (United Nations) Scientific Advisory Board launches with 26 members

Thanks to David Bruggeman and his Oct. 23, 2013 posting (on the Pasco Phronesis blog where he tracks science policy issues in the US and other countries/jurisdictions as he is able) for information about the UN (United Nations) and its new scientific advisory board (Note: Links have been removed),

Ending the beginning of a process that has been at least a year in the making, the United Nation named the first members of the Secretary-General’s Scientific Advisory Board (H/T ScienceInsider).

Here’s more from the Oct. 18, 2013 UN press release,

Twenty-six eminent scientists, representing natural, social and human sciences and engineering, have been appointed to a Scientific Advisory Board, announced by the UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon. The new Board will provide advice on science, technology and innovation (STI) for sustainable development to the UN Secretary-General and to Executive Heads of UN organizations. UNESCO will host the Secretariat for the Board.

The members of the Scientific Advisory Board are:

·         Tanya Abrahamse (South Africa), CEO, South African National Biodiversity Institute;

·         Susan Avery (United States of America), President and Director, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution;

·         Hilary McDonald Beckles (Barbados), Pro-Vice Chancellor and Principal, University of the West Indies;

·         Joji Cariño (Philippines), Director, Forest Peoples Programme;

·         Rosie Cooney (Australia), Visiting Fellow, University of Sciences, Sydney;

·         Abdallah Daar (Oman), Professor of Public Health, University of Toronto, Canada;

·         Gebisa Ejeta (Ethiopia), Professor of Agronomy, Purdue University, United States;

·         Vladimir Fortov (Russian Federation), President of the Russian Academy of Sciences;

·         Fabiola Gianotti (Italy), Research physicist and former Coordinator of ATLAS Experiment, CERN, Geneva, Switzerland;

·         Ke Gong (China), President of Nankai University;

·         Jörg Hinrich Hacker (Germany), President, German National Academy of Sciences – Leopoldina;

·         Maria Ivanova (Bulgaria), Professor of Global Governance, University of Massachusetts, United States;

·         Eugenia Kalnay (Argentina), Professor of Atmospheric and Ocean Sciences, University of Maryland, Unites States;

·         Eva Kondorosi (Hungary), Research Professor, Biological Research Centre, Academy of Sciences of Hungary;

·         Reiko Kuroda (Japan), Professor, Research Institute for Science and Technology, Tokyo University of Science;

·         Dong-Pil Min (Republic of Korea), Emeritus Professor, Seoul National University;

·         Carlos Nobre (Brazil), Senior Climate Scientist, National Secretary for R&D Policies;

·         Rajendra Kumar Pachauri (India), Director-General, The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI); Chair, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – Nobel Laureate for Peace;

·         Shankar Sastry (United States of America), Dean, College of Engineering, University of California, Berkeley;

·         Hayat Sindi (Saudi Arabia), Founder and CEO, Institute of Imagination and Ingenuity;

·         Wole Soboyejo (Nigeria), President, African University of Science and Technology (AUST), Garki;

·         Laurence Tubiana (France), Director, Institute of Sustainable Development and International Relations (IDDRI), Paris;

·         Judi Wakhungu (Kenya), Professor of Energy Resources Management, First Cabinet Secretary, Ministry for Environment, Water and Natural Resources;

·         Ada Yonath (Israel), Director, Helen and  Milton A. Kimmelman Centre for Biomolecular Structure and Assembly, Weizmann Institute of Sciences; Nobel Laureate in Chemistry;

·         Abdul Hamid Zakri (Malaysia), Science Advisor to the Prime Minister of Malaysia; Chair, Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES);

·         Ahmed Zewail (Egypt), Director, Department of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering, California Institute of Technology, United States; Nobel Laureate in Chemistry.

The countries listed beside the individual member’s names appears to be their country of origin, e.g., Abdallah Daar (Oman), Professor of Public Health, University of Toronto, Canada, which may or may not be where they are currently located. In any event, they seem to have representation from every continent in one way or another. One other observation, it seems that the gender split is either 50/50 or tilted toward participation from women. (I’m not familiar enough with some of the language groups to be able to identify male as opposed to female first names, not to mention names that are androgynous.)

Moving on, I found these passages of the UN’s news release of particular interest,

“The creation of the Scientific Advisory Board follows on a wide-ranging consultation work entrusted to UNESCO by the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon,” said UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova.  “It brings together scientists of international stature, and will serve as a global reference point to improve links between science and public policies.”

The Board is the first such body set up by the UN Secretary-General to influence and shape action by the international community to advance sustainable development and eradicate poverty. The initiative derives from the report of the UN Secretary-General’s High-level Panel on Global Sustainability Resilient People, Resilient Planet: A Future worth choosing (January, 2012). This report recommended the launch of a “major global scientific initiative to strengthen the interface between policy and science. This should include the preparation of regular assessments and digests of the science around such concepts as “planetary boundaries”, “tipping points” and “environmental thresholds” in the context of sustainable development”.

The fields covered by the Board range from the basic sciences, through engineering and technology, social sciences and humanities, ethics, health, economic, behavioral, and agricultural sciences, in addition to the environmental sciences.[emphasis mine]

Board members will act in their personal capacity and will provide advice on a strictly independent basis. They will serve pro bono for two years, with the possibility of renewal for one further two-year term, upon the decision of the Secretary-General. The first session of the Board will be held at the beginning of 2014.

I applaud the range of fields they’ve tried to include in the advisory board. As for serving pro bomo for two years, that’s very good of the individual appointees. Still, It’s hard to know how much time will be required and I doubt anyone is going to be out-of-pocket, as presumably there will be trips and other perks courtesy of the UN or home institutions or someone’s national budget. There’s also the prestige associated with being appointed by the UN to this advisory council (good for the CV), not to mention the networking possibilities that could open up.

Despite pointing out that this is not entirely selfless service, I wish the members of UN’s Scientific Advisory Board well in their efforts.

Canadian government withdraws from UN treaty, recycles old news, and undergoes a ‘muzzled’ science probe

Every once in a while, there’s a slew of announcements that seem to reveal a pattern of sorts with regard to political doings. In this case, I’m looking at three announcements about recent moves by the  Canadian Conservative government and which seem, to me, curiously interlinked.

First there was the announcement (CBC Mar. 27, 2013 news item) that Canada is withdrawing from the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification, in those Countries Experiencing Severe Drought and/or Desertification (to become the only country in the world not party to it) and its annual commitment of $350,000. The CBC Mar. 28, 2013 news item provided more detail,

Prime Minister Stephen Harper said less than one-fifth of the $350,000 Canada contributes to the UN Convention to Combat Desertification goes to programming.

“This particular organization spends less than 20 per cent — 18 per cent — of the funds that we send it are actually spent on programming, the rest goes to various bureaucratic measures.That’s not an effective way to spend taxpayers’ money,” Harper told MPs during question period Thursday.

The Canadian Press reported Wednesday [Mar. 27, 2013?] the UN secretariat that administers the program was unaware of Canada’s decision until contacted by its reporter.

A spokesperson for the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) [emphasis mine] told CBC News the head of the secretariat was informed of the decision on Monday [Mar. 25, 2013?], and written confirmation was delivered to the UN Secretary General’s office in New York the same day.

But a UN official in Bonn told CBC News that Canada notified the UN about its withdrawal “informally last week by telephone” and “this is not considered proper notification… or protocol.”

The proper protocol is to formally write to the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon in New York and formally provide a notice that Canada is withdrawing from the treaty.

Paul Heinbecker, a former Canadian ambassador to the UN and chief foreign policy advisor to Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, wrote an Apr. 1, 2013 essay for the Globe and Mail about some recent history between Canada and the UN, this latest withdrawal, and its implications (Note: A link has been removed),

Following the Harper government’s failure in 2010 to win a Canadian seat on the UN Security Council, its disregard of the UN gave way to disdain. Ottawa’s rare appearances at the UN have tended to stress what it regards as Canada’s uniquely “principled” foreign policy, bringing to mind U.S. Secretary of State Dean Acheson’s characterization of Canadian foreign policy in the fifties as “the stern voice of the daughter of God,” and cementing Canada’s long-standing reputation as global mother-in-law.

Because of the links between drought, land degradation, desertification and climate change, withdrawal from the Desertification Convention comes with potentially significant costs. …

Heinbecker develops this line of thought by noting that the withdrawal makes it seem that Canada does not care about climate change (let’s not forget the withdrawal from Kyoto protocol, the UN Convention on Climate Change, a UN initiative from which the Canadian Conservative government withdrew in 2011) and noting this,

Given that the government of Alberta as well as ministers and departments in Ottawa have been going to considerable effort and expense to argue in the U.S. that Canada does care, it is self-harming to hand America’s Keystone opponents a stick to beat the pipeline with.

Also, because the locus of most of the devastation arising from desertification is in Africa, walking away from a treaty whose creation was led by the Mulroney and Chrétien governments reinforces the impression that Ottawa no longer cares about Africa. It is an impression that this government also went to some trouble and expense to try to reverse. Further, because the worst destruction from desertification is happening in the Sahara region, abandoning the treaty sends a mixed signal about the security issues at stake in Mali and the Sahel, and about Canadian mining interests there as well.

Thankfully, Prime Minister Stephen Harper and the conservative government are ensuring that our annual $350,000 contribution, after 2014, will no be longer wasted on what they termed a ‘talkfest’. To combat this negative impression being made on the rest of the world, there’s been an announcement (Azonano Apr. 6, 2013 news item) recycling some old government news about monies for the second phase of the Canadian International Food Security Research Fund (CIFSRF),

 “The Harper Government is committed to increasing food security to those most in need as part of Canada’s effective international assistance through investing in scientific research and innovation,” said Parliamentary Secretary Brown [Lois Brown]. “Canadian universities, businesses, and NGOs [nongovernmental organizations]  have expertise that they can share with the world. Together, we can use innovation to put an end to global hunger.”

The Canadian International Food Security Research Fund is a joint initiative between the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) and the International Development Research Centre (IDRC). [emphases mine] It supports innovative research partnerships between Canadian and developing-country researchers to respond to immediate food needs while increasing access to quality, nutritious food over the long term. Phase 2 will focus on connecting promising research results to public and private sector organizations that can get them to end users on a larger scale.

“IDRC and CIDA have a long history of supporting Canada’s leadership in agricultural research and innovation for development,” said Jean Lebel, Acting President of IDRC. “CIFSRF demonstrates our mutual commitment to achieving sustainable results that put Canada’s considerable experience in agricultural and nutrition science to work globally to ensure farmers have access to new technologies and specialized expertise to keep pace with the growing demand for food.  Through CIFSRF, we are also expanding Canada’s scientific base and contributing to the country’s science and technology strategy.”

The Canadian International Food Security Research Fund, first launched in 2009, currently supports 19 projects, bringing together some of the best researchers from 11 Canadian and 26 developing-country organizations, as well as partners from scientific, private sector and civil society organizations, to develop innovative solutions to improve global food security.

The part where it got really interesting for me was the April 4, 2013 article by Rick Westhead for  star.com about the funds some of which are bound for the University of Guelph as per its Apr. 5, 2013 news release about the matter. Not to be too confusing but the following excerpt is from the April 4, 2013 Westhead article,

Manish Raizada, a University of Guelph agriculture professor, is changing lives in India, Nepal and Sri Lanka by showing farmers how to boost crop yields with weeding and planting techniques and by adding new crops.

Other Canadian researchers are bolstering Ethiopia’s agriculture sector, introducing farmers to rhizobia, a bacteria that naturally adds nitrogen to the soil and helped Saskatchewan, nearly a century ago, become a leading soybean exporter.

Then there are Canadian-led efforts in India that use nanotechnology to improve the lifespan of mangoes, efforts that should help improve livelihoods in a country where half of children under five are malnourished. [In fact, this an India, Sri Lanka, and Canada effort which I mentioned in a June 21, 2012 posting and again in a Nov. 1, 2012 posting.]

For instance, McGurk [Dr. Stephen McGurk, IDRC director of agriculture programmes] said one government-funded project is helping lengthen the shelf life of mangoes by as much as two weeks by introducing a nanoparticle-based coating that prevents them from ripening as fast.

“That way they’re attractive when they get to market, not looking like pulp,” McGurk said. “That science, once it has been tried in India can be equally applied to fruits here like plums or raspberries.”

Interestingly, McGurk gives this quote to Westhead,

“In no way would Canadian scientists in the agriculture sector say they are muzzled,” said Stephen McGurk, director of IDRC’s agriculture programs. [emphasis mine] “We’re engaged outside our borders and doing research now that’s valuable to Canadians but has to prove its salt somewhere else first.”

What makes McGurk an interesting spokesperson regarding ‘muzzles and Canadian scientists’ is that he  is an economist and a sinologist who prior to his latest appointment as IDRC director of agriculture programmes seems to have lived in Asia for the last 12 years and given this career description is likely from the US originally (from the Oct. 9, 2012 IDRC announcement of McGurk’s appointment),

Stephen McGurk is a Sinologist and economist who has spent more than two decades studying Asia’s rural development.Since 2006, he has been Director of IDRC’s Regional Office for South Asia and China in New Delhi (now the Asia Regional Office). From 2000 to 2006, he led IDRC’s office in Singapore.

Before joining IDRC, McGurk worked with the Ford Foundation in Beijing, where he was responsible for its economic security program in China. He has also taught at the University of California and worked with the World Bank on investments in China’s rural development. McGurk has a PhD from Stanford University’s [California] Food Research Institute.

I am curious as to how Dr. McGurk comes by his information about Canadian government agricultural scientists and their views on muzzles or lack thereof.

In looking at all of these bits of information, the desertification treaty withdrawal seems odd, almost as if it were designed to divert attention from something else the Conservative government is doing. Or, perhaps it’s an example of meanspirited shortsightedness something this government has been accused of before.

The recycled news item seems like it might not be as helpful as one would hope, although governments of all stripes are known to announce monies for projects that have been previously announced making it seem that a great deal more money is being dispersed than is the case. These announcements are always excellent for distraction but one would think the government would be eager to emphasize funding for projects in African countries rather than Asian countries given the conservatives’ current public relations problems in that region, as noted by Heinbecker.

As for McGurk’s quote about muzzles and agricultural scientists, while it does seem a bit ‘facey’ of him, he, at least, is not afraid to say something (although it’s not clear why he was asked about the muzzle since the news release was strictly about funding). For more about the ‘muzzles’,  there’s this excerpt from the Apr. 2, 2013 Canadian Press news item found at macleans.ca on campus,

Federal policies that restrict what government scientists can say publicly about their work are about to be put under the microscope.

Federal Information Commissioner Suzanne Legault has agreed to investigate how government communications rules on taxpayer-funded science impact public access to information.

Legault is responding to a detailed complaint lodged by the Environmental Law Centre at the University of Victoria and the ethics advocacy group Democracy Watch.

Their lengthy report — “Muzzling Civil Servants: A Threat to Democracy?” — laid out repeated examples of taxpayer-funded science being suppressed or limited to pre-packaged media lines across six different government departments and agencies.

Chris Tollefson, the executive director of UVic’s law centre, said their research into suppressed science revealed both the wide scope of the practice and that it “represents a significant departure” in government practice over the last five to seven years.

…Gary Goodyear, the minister of state for science and technology, was not available Monday to defend Conservative practices. His office provided an email stating government scientists “are readily available to share their research with the media and the public.”

“Last year, Environment Canada participated in more than 1,300 media interviews, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada issued nearly 1,000 scientific publications, and Natural Resources Canada published nearly 500 studies,” said the statement.

It came the same day that the Globe and Mail reported that the National Research Council declined to make available its lead engineer for a front page story on research into truck safety. [emphases mine]

“Great spin — but missing the point,” Democracy Watch’s Duff Conacher said of the government response.

“It’s not the number of documents, it’s what percentage of documents are being released.”

Truck safety? That seems an odd topic for which to suppress or restrict any discussion with the lead engineer. But then, why withdraw from a treaty to save $350,000? As for the recycled announcement about funding for food and agriculture projects in Asia when you have substantive perception issues regarding  Africa and having someone who hasn’t lived in the country for 12 years defending your policies, the whole thing seems rather inept.