Category Archives: science policy

7th annual Vancouver Nanomedicine Day, Sept. 17, 2020

Like so many events these days (COVID-19 days), this event put on by Canada’s NanoMedicines Innovation Network (NMIN) will be held virtually. Here’s more from the ‘Virtual’ Vancouver Nanomedicine Day 2020 event page on the NMIN website,

This world-class symposium, the sixth event of its kind, will bring together a record number (1000+) of renowned Canadian and international experts from across the nanomedicines field to:

  • highlight the discoveries and innovations in nanomedicines that are contributing to global progress in acute, chronic and orphan disease treatment and management;
  • present up-to-date diagnostic and therapeutic  nanomedicine approaches to addressing the challenges of COVID-19; and
  • facilitate discussion among nanomedicine researchers and innovators and UBC and NMIN clinician-scientists, basic researchers, trainees, and research partners.

Since 2014, Vancouver Nanomedicine Day has advanced nanomedicine research, knowledge mobilization and commercialization in Canada by sharing high-impact findings and facilitating interaction—among researchers, postdoctoral fellows, graduate students, and life science and startup biotechnology companies—to catalyze research collaboration.

Here are a few highlights from the ‘Virtual’ Vancouver Nanomedicine Day 2020 event page,

  • An introduction to nanomedicines by Dr. Emmanuel Ho (University of Waterloo)
  • A keynote address by an iconic nanomedicine innovator: Dr. Robert Langer (MIT, Department of Chemical Engineering)
  • Invited talks by internationally renowned experts, including Dr. Vito Foderà (The University of Copenhagen, Denmark); Dr. Lucia Gemma Delogu (University of Padova, Italy); and Dr. Christine Allen (University of Toronto)
  • A virtual poster competition, with cash prizes for the top posters
  • A debate on whether “nanomedicines are still the next big thing” between Marcel Bally (proponent) and Kishor Wasan (opponent)

You can get the Program in PDF.

Registration is free. But you must Register.

Here’s the event poster,

[downloaded from https://www.nanomedicines.ca/nmd-2020/]

I have a few observations, First, Robert Langer is a big deal. Here are a few highlights from his Wikipedia entry (Note: Links have been removed),

Robert Samuel Langer, Jr. FREng[2] (born August 29, 1948) is an American chemical engineer, scientist, entrepreneur, inventor and one of the twelve Institute Professors at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.[3]

Langer holds over 1,350 granted or pending patents.[3][29] He is one of the world’s most highly cited researchers, having authored nearly 1,500 scientific papers, and has participated in the founding of multiple technology companies.[30][31]

Langer is the youngest person in history (at 43) to be elected to all three American science academies: the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering and the Institute of Medicine. He was also elected as a charter member of National Academy of Inventors.[32] He was elected as an International Fellow[2] of the Royal Academy of Engineering[2] in 2010.

It’s all about commercializing the research—or is it?

(This second observation is a little more complicated and requires a little context.) The NMIN is one of Canada’s Networks of Centres of Excellence (who thought that name up? …sigh), from the NMIN About page,

NMIN is funded by the Government of Canada through the Networks of Centres of Excellence (NCE) Program.

The NCEs seem to be firmly fixed on finding pathways to commercialization (from the NCE About page) Note: All is not as it seems,

Canada’s global economic competitiveness [emphasis mine] depends on making new discoveries and transforming them into products, services [emphasis mine] and processes that improve the lives of Canadians. To meet this challenge, the Networks of Centres of Excellence (NCE) offers a suite of programs that mobilize Canada’s best research, development and entrepreneurial [emphasis mine] expertise and focus it on specific issues and strategic areas.

NCE programs meet Canada’s needs to focus a critical mass of research resources on social and economic challenges, commercialize [emphasis mine] and apply more of its homegrown research breakthroughs, increase private-sector R&D, [emphasis mine] and train highly qualified people. As economic [emphasis mine] and social needs change, programs have evolved to address new challenges.

Interestingly, the NCE is being phased out,

As per the December 2018 NCE Program news, funding for the Networks of Centres of Excellence (NCE) Program will be gradually transferred to the New Frontiers in Research Fund (NFRF).

The new agency, NFRF, appears to have a completely different mandate, from the NFRF page on the Canada Research Coordinating Committee webspace,

The Canada Research Coordinating Committee designed the New Frontiers in Research Fund (NFRF) following a comprehensive national consultation, which involved Canadian researchers, research administrators, stakeholders and the public. NFRF is administered by the Tri-agency Institutional Programs Secretariat, which is housed within the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC), on behalf of Canada’s three research granting agencies: the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council and SSHRC.

The fund will invest $275 million over the next 5 years beginning in fiscal 2018-19, and $65 million ongoing, to fund international, interdisciplinary, fast-breaking and high-risk research.

NFRF is composed of three streams to support groundbreaking research.

  • Exploration generates opportunities for Canada to build strength in high-risk, high-reward and interdisciplinary research;
  • Transformation provides large-scale support for Canada to build strength and leadership in interdisciplinary and transformative research; and
  • International enhances opportunities for Canadian researchers to participate in research with international partners.

As you can see there’s no reference to commercialization or economic challenges.

Personally

Here at last is the second observation, I find it hard to believe that the government of Canada has given up on the idea of commercializing research and increasing the country’s economic competitiveness through research. Certainly, Langer’s virtual appearance at Vancouver Nanomedicine Day 2020, suggests that at least some corners of the Canadian research establishment are remaining staunchly entrepreneurial.

After all, the only Canadian government ministry with science in its name is this one: Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada (ISED), as of Sept. 11, 2020.. (The other ‘science’ ministries are Natural Resources Canada, Environment and Climate Change Canada, Fisheries and Oceans Canada, Health Canada, and Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada.) ISED is not exactly subtle. Intriguingly the latest review on the state of science and technology in Canada was released on April 10, 2018 (from the April 10, 2018 Council of Canadian Academies CCA] news release),

Canada remains strong in research output and impact, capacity for R&D and innovation at risk: New expert panel report

While Canada is a highly innovative country, with a robust research base and thriving communities of technology start-ups, significant barriers—such as a lack of managerial skills, the experience needed to scale-up companies, and foreign acquisition of high-tech firms—often prevent the translation of innovation into wealth creation.[emphasis mine] The result is a deficit of technology companies growing to scale in Canada, and a loss of associated economic and social benefits.This risks establishing a vicious cycle, where successful companies seek growth opportunities elsewhere due to a lack of critical skills and experience in Canada guiding companies through periods of rapid expansion.

According to the CCA’s [2018 report] Summary webpage, it was Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada which requested the report. (I wrote up a two-part commentary under one of my favourite titles: “The Hedy Lamarr of international research: Canada’s Third assessment of The State of Science and Technology and Industrial Research and Development in Canada.” Part 1 and Part 2)

I will be fascinated to watch the NFRF and science commercialization situations as they develop.

In the meantime, you can sign up for free to attend the ‘Virtual’ Vancouver Nanomedicine Day 2020.

News from the Canadian Light Source (CLS), Canadian Science Policy Conference (CSPC) 2020, the International Symposium on Electronic Arts (ISEA) 2020, and HotPopRobot

I have some news about conserving art; early bird registration deadlines for two events, and, finally, an announcement about contest winners.

Canadian Light Source (CLS) and modern art

Rita Letendre. Victoire [Victory], 1961. Oil on canvas, Overall: 202.6 × 268 cm. Art Gallery of Ontario. Gift of Jessie and Percy Waxer, 1974, donated by the Ontario Heritage Foundation, 1988. © Rita Letendre L74.8. Photography by Ian Lefebvre

This is one of three pieces by Rita Letendre that underwent chemical mapping according to an August 5, 2020 CLS news release by Victoria Martinez (also received via email),

Research undertaken at the Canadian Light Source (CLS) at the University of Saskatchewan was key to understanding how to conserve experimental oil paintings by Rita Letendre, one of Canada’s most respected living abstract artists.

The work done at the CLS was part of a collaborative research project between the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) and the Canadian Conservation Institute (CCI) that came out of a recent retrospective Rita Letendre: Fire & Light at the AGO. During close examination, Meaghan Monaghan, paintings conservator from the Michael and Sonja Koerner Centre for Conservation, observed that several of Letendre’s oil paintings from the fifties and sixties had suffered significant degradation, most prominently, uneven gloss and patchiness, snowy crystalline structures coating the surface known as efflorescence, and cracking and lifting of the paint in several areas.

Kate Helwig, Senior Conservation Scientist at the Canadian Conservation Institute, says these problems are typical of mid-20th century oil paintings. “We focused on three of Rita Letendre’s paintings in the AGO collection, which made for a really nice case study of her work and also fits into the larger question of why oil paintings from that period tend to have degradation issues.”

Growing evidence indicates that paintings from this period have experienced these problems due to the combination of the experimental techniques many artists employed and the additives paint manufacturers had begun to use.

In order to determine more precisely how these factors affected Letendre’s paintings, the research team members applied a variety of analytical techniques, using microscopic samples taken from key points in the works.

“The work done at the CLS was particularly important because it allowed us to map the distribution of materials throughout a paint layer such as an impasto stroke,” Helwig said. The team used Mid-IR chemical mapping at the facility, which provides a map of different molecules in a small sample.

For example, chemical mapping at the CLS allowed the team to understand the distribution of the paint additive aluminum stearate throughout the paint layers of the painting Méduse. This painting showed areas of soft, incompletely dried paint, likely due to the high concentration and incomplete mixing of this additive. 

The painting Victoire had a crumbling base paint layer in some areas and cracking and efflorescence at the surface in others.  Infrared mapping at the CLS allowed the team to determine that excess free fatty acids in the paint were linked to both problems; where the fatty acids were found at the base they formed zing “soaps” which led to crumbling and cracking, and where they had moved to the surface they had crystallized, causing the snowflake-like efflorescence.

AGO curators and conservators interviewed Letendre to determine what was important to her in preserving and conserving her works, and she highlighted how important an even gloss across the surface was to her artworks, and the philosophical importance of the colour black in her paintings. These priorities guided conservation efforts, while the insights gained through scientific research will help maintain the works in the long term.

In order to restore the black paint to its intended even finish for display, conservator Meaghan Monaghan removed the white crystallization from the surface of Victoire, but it is possible that it could begin to recur. Understanding the processes that lead to this degradation will be an important tool to keep Letendre’s works in good condition.

“The world of modern paint research is complicated; each painting is unique, which is why it’s important to combine theoretical work on model paint systems with this kind of case study on actual works of art” said Helwig. The team hopes to collaborate on studying a larger cross section of Letendre’s paintings in oil and acrylic in the future to add to the body of knowledge.

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

Rita Letendre’s Oil Paintings from the 1960s: The Effect of Artist’s Materials on Degradation Phenomena by Kate Helwig, Meaghan Monaghan, Jennifer Poulin, Eric J. Henderson & Maeve Moriarty. Studies in Conservation (2020): 1-15 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1080/00393630.2020.1773055 Published online: 06 Jun 2020

This paper is behind a paywall.

Canadian Science Policy Conference (CSPC) 2020

The latest news from the CSPC 2020 (November 16 – 20 with preconference events from Nov. 1 -14) organizers is that registration is open and early birds have a deadline of September 27, 2020 (from an August 6, 2020 CSPC 2020 announcement received via email),

It’s time! Registration for the 12th Canadian Science Policy Conference (CSPC 2020) is open now. Early Bird registration is valid until Sept. 27th [2020].

CSPC 2020 is coming to your offices and homes:

Register for full access to 3 weeks of programming of the biggest science and innovation policy forum of 2020 under the overarching theme: New Decade, New Realities: Hindsight, Insight, Foresight.

2500+ Participants

300+ Speakers from five continents

65+ Panel sessions, 15 pre conference sessions and symposiums

50+ On demand videos and interviews with the most prominent figures of science and innovation policy 

20+ Partner-hosted functions

15+ Networking sessions

15 Open mic sessions to discuss specific topics

The virtual conference features an exclusive array of offerings:

3D Lounge and Exhibit area

Advance access to the Science Policy Magazine, featuring insightful reflections from the frontier of science and policy innovation

Many more

Don’t miss this unique opportunity to engage in the most important discussions of science and innovation policy with insights from around the globe, just from your office, home desk, or your mobile phone.

Benefit from significantly reduced registration fees for an online conference with an option for discount for multiple ticket purchases

Register now to benefit from the Early Bird rate!

The preliminary programme can be found here. This year there will be some discussion of a Canadian synthetic biology roadmap, presentations on various Indigenous concerns (mostly health), a climate challenge presentation focusing on Mexico and social vulnerability and another on parallels between climate challenges and COVID-19. There are many presentations focused on COVID-19 and.or health.

There doesn’t seem to be much focus on cyber security and, given that we just lost two ice caps (see Brandon Spektor’s August 1, 2020 article [Two Canadian ice caps have completely vanished from the Arctic, NASA imagery shows] on the Live Science website), it’s surprising that there are no presentations concerning the Arctic.

International Symposium on Electronic Arts (ISEA) 2020

According to my latest information, the early bird rate for ISEA 2020 (Oct. 13 -18) ends on August 13, 2020. (My June 22, 2020 posting describes their plans for the online event.)

You can find registration information here.

Margaux Davoine has written up a teaser for the 2020 edition of ISEA in the form of an August 6, 2020 interview with Yan Breuleux. I’ve excerpted one bit,

Finally, thinking about this year’s theme [Why Sentience?], there might be something a bit ironic about exploring the notion of sentience (historically reserved for biological life, and quite a small subsection of it) through digital media and electronic arts. There’s been much work done in the past 25 years to loosen the boundaries between such distinctions: how do you imagine ISEA2020 helping in that?

The similarities shared between humans, animals, and machines are fundamental in cybernetic sciences. According to the founder of cybernetics Norbert Wiener, the main tenets of the information paradigm – the notion of feedback – can be applied to humans, animals as well as the material world. Famously, the AA predictor (as analysed by Peter Galison in 1994) can be read as a first attempt at human-machine fusion (otherwise known as a cyborg).

The infamous Turing test also tends to blur the lines between humans and machines, between language and informational systems. Second-order cybernetics are often associated with biologists Francisco Varela and Humberto Maturana. The very notion of autopoiesis (a system capable of maintaining a certain level of stability in an unstable environment) relates back to the concept of homeostasis formulated by Willam Ross [William Ross Ashby] in 1952. Moreover, the concept of “ecosystems” emanates directly from the field of second-order cybernetics, providing researchers with a clearer picture of the interdependencies between living and non-living organisms. In light of these theories, the absence of boundaries between animals, humans, and machines constitutes the foundation of the technosciences paradigm. New media, technological arts, virtual arts, etc., partake in the dialogue between humans and machines, and thus contribute to the prolongation of this paradigm. Frank Popper nearly called his book “Techno Art” instead of “Virtual Art”, in reference to technosciences (his editor suggested the name change). For artists in the technological arts community, Jakob von Uexkull’s notion of “human-animal milieu” is an essential reference. Also present in Simondon’s reflections on human environments (both natural and artificial), the notion of “milieu” is quite important in the discourses about art and the environment. Concordia University’s artistic community chose the concept of “milieu” as the rallying point of its research laboratories.

ISEA2020’s theme resonates particularly well with the recent eruption of processing and artificial intelligence technologies. For me, Sentience is a purely human and animal idea: machines can only simulate our ways of thinking and feeling. Partly in an effort to explore the illusion of sentience in computers, Louis-Philippe Rondeau, Benoît Melançon and I have established the Mimesis laboratory at NAD University. Processing and AI technologies are especially useful in the creation of “digital doubles”, “Vactors”, real-time avatar generation, Deep Fakes and new forms of personalised interactions.

I adhere to the epistemological position that the living world is immeasurable. Through their ability to simulate, machines can merely reduce complex logics to a point of understandability. The utopian notion of empathetic computers is an idea mostly explored by popular science-fiction movies. Nonetheless, research into computer sentience allows us to devise possible applications, explore notions of embodiment and agency, and thereby develop new forms of interaction. Beyond my own point of view, the idea that machines can somehow feel emotions gives artists and researchers the opportunity to experiment with certain findings from the fields of the cognitive sciences, computer sciences and interactive design. For example, in 2002 I was particularly marked by an immersive installation at Universal Exhibition in Neuchatel, Switzerland titled Ada: Intelligence Space. The installation comprised an artificial environment controlled by a computer, which interacted with the audience on the basis of artificial emotion. The system encouraged visitors to participate by intelligently analysing their movements and sounds. Another example, Louis-Philippe Demers’ Blind Robot (2012),  demonstrates how artists can be both critical of, and amazed by, these new forms of knowledge. Additionally, the 2016 BIAN (Biennale internationale d’art numérique), organized by ELEKTRA (Alain Thibault) explored the various ways these concepts were appropriated in installation and interactive art. The way I see it, current works of digital art operate as boundary objects. The varied usages and interpretations of a particular work of art allow it to be analyzed from nearly every angle or field of study. Thus, philosophers can ask themselves: how does a computer come to understand what being human really is?

I have yet to attend conferences or exchange with researchers on that subject. Although the sheer number of presentation propositions sent to ISEA2020, I have no doubt that the symposium will be the ideal context to reflect on the concept of Sentience and many issues raised therein.

For the last bit of news.

HotPopRobot, one of six global winners of 2020 NASA SpaceApps COVID-19 challenge

I last wrote about HotPopRobot’s (Artash and Arushi with a little support from their parents) response to the 2020 NASA (US National Aeronautics and Space Administration) SpaceApps challenge in my July 1, 2020 post, Toronto COVID-19 Lockdown Musical: a data sonification project from HotPopRobot. (You’ll find a video of the project embedded in the post.)

Here’s more news from HotPopRobot’s August 4, 2020 posting (Note: Links have been removed),

Artash (14 years) and Arushi (10 years). Toronto.

We are excited to become the global winners of the 2020 NASA SpaceApps COVID-19 Challenge from among 2,000 teams from 150 countries. The six Global Winners will be invited to visit a NASA Rocket Launch site to view a spacecraft launch along with the SpaceApps Organizing team once travel is deemed safe. They will also receive an invitation to present their projects to NASA, ESA [European Space Agency], JAXA [Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency], CNES [Centre National D’Etudes Spatiales; France], and CSA [Canadian Space Agency] personnel. https://covid19.spaceappschallenge.org/awards

15,000 participants joined together to submit over 1400 projects for the COVID-19 Global Challenge that was held on 30-31 May 2020. 40 teams made to the Global Finalists. Amongst them, 6 teams became the global winners!

The 2020 SpaceApps was an international collaboration between NASA, Canadian Space Agency, ESA, JAXA, CSA,[sic] and CNES focused on solving global challenges. During a period of 48 hours, participants from around the world were required to create virtual teams and solve any of the 12 challenges related to the COVID-19 pandemic posted on the SpaceApps website. More details about the 2020 SpaceApps COVID-19 Challenge:  https://sa-2019.s3.amazonaws.com/media/documents/Space_Apps_FAQ_COVID_.pdf

We have been participating in NASA Space Challenge for the last seven years since 2014. We were only 8 years and 5 years respectively when we participated in our very first SpaceApps 2014.

We have grown up learning more about space, tacking global challenges, making hardware and software projects, participating in meetings, networking with mentors and teams across the globe, and giving presentations through the annual NASA Space Apps Challenges. This is one challenge we look forward to every year.

It has been a fun and exciting journey meeting so many people and astronauts and visiting several fascinating places on the way! We hope more kids, youths, and families are inspired by our space journey. Space is for all and is yours to discover!

If you have the time, I recommend reading HotPopRobot’s August 4, 2020 posting in its entirety.

New US regulations exempt many gene-edited crops from government oversight

A June 1, 2020 essay by Maywa Montenegro (Postdoctoral Fellow, University of California at Davis) for The Conversation posits that new regulations (which in fact result in deregulation) are likely to create problems,

In May [2020], federal regulators finalized a new biotechnology policy that will bring sweeping changes to the U.S. food system. Dubbed “SECURE,” the rule revises U.S. Department of Agriculture regulations over genetically engineered plants, automatically exempting many gene-edited crops from government oversight. Companies and labs will be allowed to “self-determine” whether or not a crop should undergo regulatory review or environmental risk assessment.

Initial responses to this new policy have followed familiar fault lines in the food community. Seed industry trade groups and biotech firms hailed the rule as “important to support continuing innovation.” Environmental and small farmer NGOs called the USDA’s decision “shameful” and less attentive to public well-being than to agribusiness’s bottom line.

But the gene-editing tool CRISPR was supposed to break the impasse in old GM wars by making biotechnology more widely affordable, accessible and thus democratic.

In my research, I study how biotechnology affects transitions to sustainable food systems. It’s clear that since 2012 the swelling R&D pipeline of gene-edited grains, fruits and vegetables, fish and livestock has forced U.S. agencies to respond to the so-called CRISPR revolution.

Yet this rule change has a number of people in the food and scientific communities concerned. To me, it reflects the lack of accountability and trust between the public and government agencies setting policies.

Is there a better way?

… I have developed a set of principles and practices for governing CRISPR based on dialogue with front-line communities who are most affected by the technologies others usher in. Communities don’t just have to adopt or refuse technology – they can co-create [emphasis mine] it.

One way to move forward in the U.S. is to take advantage of common ground between sustainable agriculture movements and CRISPR scientists. The struggle over USDA rules suggests that few outside of industry believe self-regulation is fair, wise or scientific.

h/t: June 1, 2020 news item on phys.org

If you have the time and the inclination, do read the essay in its entirety.

Anyone who has read my COVID-19 op-ed for the Canadian Science Policy may see some similarity between Montenegro’s “co-create” and this from my May 15, 2020 posting which included my reference materials or this version on the Canadian Science Policy Centre where you can find many other COVID-19 op-eds)

In addition to engaging experts as we navigate our way into the future, we can look to artists, writers, citizen scientists, elders, indigenous communities, rural and urban communities, politicians, philosophers, ethicists, religious leaders, and bureaucrats of all stripes for more insight into the potential for collateral and unintended consequences.

To be clear, I think times of crises are when a lot of people call for more co-creation and input. Here’s more about Montenegro’s work on her profile page (which includes her academic credentials, research interests and publications) on the University of California at Berkeley’s Department of Environmental Science, Policy, and Management webspace. She seems to have been making the call for years.

I am a US-Dutch-Peruvian citizen who grew up in Appalachia, studied molecular biology in the Northeast, worked as a journalist in New York City, and then migrated to the left coast to pursue a PhD. My indigenous ancestry, smallholder family history, and the colonizing/decolonizing experiences of both the Netherlands and Peru informs my personal and professional interests in seeds and agrobiodiversity. My background engenders a strong desire to explore synergies between western science and the indigenous/traditional knowledge systems that have historically been devalued and marginalized.

Trained in molecular biology, science writing, and now, a range of critical social and ecological theory, I incorporate these perspectives into research on seeds.

I am particularly interested in the relationship between formal seed systems – characterized by professional breeding, certification, intellectual property – and commercial sale and informal seed systems through which farmers traditionally save, exchange, and sell seeds. …

You can find more on her Twitter feed, which is where I discovered a call for papers for a “Special Feature: Gene Editing the Food System” in the journal, Elementa: Science of the Anthropocene. They have a rolling deadline, which started in February 2020. At this time, there is one paper in the series,

Democratizing CRISPR? Stories, practices, and politics of science and governance on the agricultural gene editing frontier by Maywa Montenegro de Wit. Elem Sci Anth, 8(1), p.9. DOI: http://doi.org/10.1525/elementa.405 Published February 25, 2020

The paper is open access. Interestingly, the guest editor is Elizabeth Fitting of Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, Canada.

COVID-19 editorial (in response to Canadian Science Policy Centre call for submissions)

I successfully submitted an editorial to the Canadian Science Policy Centre (CSPC). You can find it and a host of others on the CSPC Editorial Series: Response to COVID-19 Pandemic and its Impacts webpage (scroll down under Policy Development) or in the CSPC Featured Editorial Series Volume 1, Issue 2, May 2020 PDF on pp. 31-2.

What I’ve posted here is the piece followed by attribution for the artwork used to illustrate my op-ed in the PDF version of essays and by links to all of my reference materials.

It can become overwhelming as one looks at the images of coffins laid out in various venues, listens to exhausted health care professionals, and sees body bags being loaded onto vans while reading stories about the people who have been hospitalized and/or have died.

In this sea of information, it’s easy to forget that COVID-19 is one in a long history of pandemics. For the sake of brevity, here’s a mostly complete roundup of the last 100 years. The H1N1 pandemic of 1918/19 resulted in either 17 million, 50 million, or 100 million deaths depending on the source of information. The H2N2 pandemic of 1958/59 resulted in approximately 1.1. million deaths; the H3N2 pandemic of 1968/69 resulted in somewhere from 1 to 4 million deaths; and the H1N1pdm09 pandemic of 2009 resulted in roughly 150,000 -575,000 deaths. The HIV/AIDS global pandemic or, depending on the agency, epidemic is ongoing. The estimate for HIVAIDS-related deaths in 2018 alone was between 500,000 – 1.1 million.

It’s now clear that the 2019/20 pandemic will take upwards of 350,000 lives and, quite possibly, many more lives before it has run its course.

On the face of it, the numbers for COVID-19 would not seem to occasion the current massive attempt at physical isolation which ranges across the globe and within entire countries. There is no record of any such previous, more or less global effort. In the past, physical isolation seems to have been practiced on a more localized level.

We are told the current policy ‘flattening the curve’ is an attempt to constrain the numbers so as to lighten the burden on the health care system, i.e. the primary focus being to lessen the number of people needing care at any one time and also lessening the number of deaths and hospitalizations

It’s an idea that can be traced back in more recent times to the 1918/19 pandemic (and stretches back to at least the 17th century when as a student Isaac Newton was sent home from Cambridge to self-isolate from the Great Plague of London).

During the 1918/19 pandemic, Philadelphia and St. Louis, in the US had vastly different experiences. Ignoring advice from infectious disease experts, Philadelphia held a large public parade. Within two or three days, people sickened and, ultimately, 16,000 died in six months. By contrast, St. Louis adopted social and physical isolation measures suffering 2,000 deaths and flattening the curve. (That city too suffered greatly but more slowly.)

In 2019/20, many governments were slow to respond and many have been harshly criticized for their tardiness. Government leaders seem to have been following an older script, something more laissez-faire, something similar to the one we have followed with past pandemics.

We are breaking new ground by following a policy that is untested at this scale.

Viewed positively, the policy hints at a shift in how we view disease and death and hopes are that this heralds a more cohesive and integrated approach to all life on this planet. Viewed more negatively, it suggests an agenda of social control being enacted and promoted to varying degrees across the planet.

Regardless of your perspective, ‘flattening the curve’ seems to have been employed without any substantive consideration of collateral damages and unintended consequences

We are beginning to understand some of the consequences. On April 5, 2020, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres expressed grave concern about a global surge in domestic violence. King’s College London and the Australian National University released a report on April 9, 2020 estimating that half a billion people around the world may be pushed into poverty because of these measures.

As well, access to water, which many of us take for granted, can be highly problematic. Homeless people, incarcerated people, indigenous peoples and others note that washing with water and soap, the recommended practice for killing the virus should it land on you, is not a simple matter for them.

More crises such as pandemics, climate change as seen in extreme weather events and water shortages along with rising sea levels around the world, and economic downturns either singly or connected together in ways we have difficulty fully appreciating can be anticipated.

In addition to engaging experts as we navigate our way into the future, we can look to artists, writers, citizen scientists, elders, indigenous communities, rural and urban communities, politicians, philosophers, ethicists, religious leaders, and bureaucrats of all stripes for more insight into the potential for collateral and unintended consequences.

We have the tools what remains is the will and the wit to use them. Brute force analysis has its uses but it’s also important to pay attention to the outliers. “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” (Albert Einstein)

PDF of essays (Response to COVID-19 Pandemic and its Impacts, volume 1, issue 2, May 20202)

Low-resolution detail of an art work by Samuel Monnier. Inspired by the w:Fibonacci word fractal. Orginal owned by Alexis Monnerot-Dumaine. CC BY-SA 3.0

This image of an art piece derived from a Fibonacci word fractal was used to illustrate my essay (pp. 31-2) as reproduced in the PDF only.

For anyone unfamiliar with Fibonacci words (from its Wikipedia entry), Note: Links have been removed,

A Fibonacci word is a specific sequence of binary digits (or symbols from any two-letter alphabet). The Fibonacci word is formed by repeated concatenation in the same way that the Fibonacci numbers are formed by repeated addition.

It is a paradigmatic example of a Sturmian word and specifically, a morphic word.

The name “Fibonacci word” has also been used to refer to the members of a formal language L consisting of strings of zeros and ones with no two repeated ones. Any prefix of the specific Fibonacci word belongs to L, but so do many other strings. L has a Fibonacci number of members of each possible length.

References used for op-ed

That opinion piece was roughly 787 words and as such fit into the 600-800 words submission guideline. It’s been a long time since I’ve written something without links and supporting information. What follows are the supporting sources I used for my statements. (Note: i have also included a few pieces that were published after my op-ed was submitted on April 20, 2020 as they lend further support for some of my contentions.)

Statistics for previous pandemics

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spanish_flu For 1918/19 numbers see: Mortality; Around the globe, 2nd. para

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2009_swine_flu_pandemic

https://www.mphonline.org/worst-pandemics-in-history/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_epidemics

https://www.who.int/gho/hiv/epidemic_status/deaths_text/en/

https://www.avert.org/global-hiv-and-aids-statistics

https://vancouversun.com/news/local-news/how-long-is-covid-19-pandemic-going-to-last-what-will-spread-look-like/ The print version of this article by Gordon Hoekstra featured a sidebar with statistics from the Imperial College of London, US Centers for Disease Control, and The Canadian Encyclopedia. Sadly, it has not been reproduced for the online version.

Statistics supporting my projections

https://www.covid-19canada.com/ This is a Canadian site relying on information from the Canadian federal government, Johns Hopkins University (US) and the World Health Organization (WHO) as well as others.

https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/ The focus is international with information being supplied by WHO and by various nations.

History of physical and social isolation and ‘flattening the curve’

https://www.washingtonpost.com/history/2020/03/12/during-pandemic-isaac-newton-had-work-home-too-he-used-time-wisely/

https://history.com/news/spanish-flu-pandemic-response-cities

https://www.livescience.com/coronavirus-flatten-the-curve.html What does flattening the curve mean? The writer provides an answer.

Slow response and harsh criticism (e.g., Canada)

https://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/covid-19-government-documents-1.5528726

https://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/coronavirus-pandemic-covid-canadian-military-intelligence-wuhan-1.5528381

https://vancouversun.com/opinion/columnists/douglas-todd-weighing-deaths-from-covid-19-against-deaths-from-despair/

Laissez-faire script

https://slate.com/news-and-politics/2020/04/sweden-coronavirus-response-death-social-distancing.html Essay by ex-pat Swede returning home. Ranges from pointed criticism to strong doubt mixed with hope (at the end) about laissez-faire.

Positive and negative views of the ‘flatten the curve’ policy

https://phys.org/news/2020-04-french-philosopher-virus-exploitation.html A French philosopher, Bernard-Henri Levy, suggests the policy reflects two views “life has become sacred” and the [information system] “helps to bring hysteria to the perception of things … . “

https://business.financialpost.com/diane-francis/diane-francis-to-beat-this-coronavirus-we-must-sacrifice-our-freedoms “To beat this coronavirus, we must sacrifice our freedoms” presents arguments for more control over what people do and don’t do. I find it unpleasantly extreme but Diane Francis supports her contentions with some valid points.

Unintended consequences (the good and the bad)

https://www.voanews.com/covid-19-pandemic/cleaner-air-covid-19-lockdowns-may-save-lives Cleaner air.

https://news.itu.int/sharing-best-practices-on-digital-cooperation-during-covid19-and-beyond/ “I think what COVID has done, is actually to put the will to get the world connected right in front of us – and we rallied around that will,” said Doreen Bogdan-Martin, Director of ITU’s Telecommunication Development Bureau. “We have come together in these very difficult circumstances and we have come up with innovative practices to actually better connect people who actually weren’t connected before.”

https://en.unesco.org/news/unesco-mobilizes-122-countries-promote-open-science-and-reinforced-cooperation-face-covid-19 Open science and more cooperation

https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/04/global-surge-domestic-violence-coronavirus-lockdowns-200406065737864.html International rise in domestic violence

https://news.un.org/en/story/2020/04/1061052 International rise in domestic violence

https://www.anu.edu.au/news/all-news/covid-19-to-push-half-a-billion-people-into-poverty Increase in poverty worldwide Australian National University press release

https://www.kcl.ac.uk/news/half-a-billion-people-could-be-pushed-into-poverty-by-covid-19 Increase in poverty worldwide Kings College London press release

https://www.wider.unu.edu/publication/estimates-impact-covid-19-global-poverty Rise in poverty worldwide UN working paper

https://www.techdirt.com/articles/20200422/11395644353/unesco-suggests-covid-19-is-reason-to-create-eternal-copyright.shtml Taking advantage of the situation

https://phys.org/news/2020-04-climate-scientists-world-response-coronavirus.html COVID-19 might prove helpful with climate change

ETC.

You might not want to keep getting advice from your usual (expert) crew only

https://www.frogheart.ca/?p=638 Kevin Dunbar’s research into how problem-solving is improved when you get a more diverse set of experts than usual

https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2020/04/the-perks-of-being-a-weirdo/606778/?utm_source=pocket-newtab How loners and weirdos (often found amongst writers, artists, etc.) can promote more creative problem-solving

Brute force analysis and tools for broader consultation

I came up with the term ‘brute force analysis’ after an experience in local participatory budgeting. (For those who don’t know, there’s a movement afoot for a government body [in this case, it was the City of Vancouver] to dedicate a portion of their budget to a community [in this case, it was the West End neighbourhood] for citizens to decide on how the allocation should be sent.)

In our case, volunteers had gone out out and solicited ideas for how neighbourhood residents would like to see the money spent. The ideas were categorized and a call for volunteers to work on committees went out. I ended up on the ‘arts and culture’ committee and we were tasked with taking some 300 – 400 suggestions and establishing a list of 10 – 12 possibilities for more discussion and research after which we were to present three or four to city staff who would select a maximum of two suggestions for a community vote.

Our deadlines, many of which seemed artificially imposed, were tight and we had to be quite ruthless as we winnowed away the suggestions. It became an exercise in determining which were the most frequently made suggestions, hence, ‘brute force analysis’. (This a condensed description of the process.)

As for tools to encourage wider participation, I was thinking of something like ‘Foldit‘ (scroll down to ‘Folding …’.). Both a research project (University of Washington) and a video puzzle game for participants who want to try protein-folding, it’s a remarkable effort first described in my August 6, 2010 posting when the researchers had their work published in Nature with an astonishing 50,000 co-authors.

Albert Einstein

The quote, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them,” is attributed to Albert Einstein in many places but I have not been able to find any supporting references or documentation.

Canadian Science Policy Conference 2020: changes

It can’t be any surprise that Canadian Science Policy Conference 2020 (CSPC 2020) is going to be virtual this year. Not unexpectedly, at least one deadline is being extended.

Here’s more from the CSPC 2020 Goes Virtual webpage,

[Conference theme] New Decade, New Realities: Hindsight, Insight, Foresight

New Deadline for Panel Submission: June 12th, 2020

Due to the unprecedented circumstances generated by the COVID-19 pandemic, the 12th

Canadian Science Policy Conference, CSPC 2020, will be held completely online! The conference will be held virtually through the week of November 16th – 20th, 2020.

In the time of social distancing and with abundance of caution, we are excited to bring this year’s conference right to your offices and homes! CSPC has a rich history of hosting exciting in-person conferences. Expect no less from the virtual conference experience!

What to expect from a virtual conference:

CSPC 2020 will feature a week-long variety of engaging and informative online sessions including panel discussions, workshops, live interviews, online networking opportunities, and even virtual exhibitions. Registered participants will have the opportunity to watch sessions live and on-demand. Live sessions will be held throughout the day, such that participants across time zones will be able to attend them. Lower registration fees will permit much bigger and geographically diverse participation, including many from around the globe. We look forward to bringing the Canadian and global science and innovation policy communities together in these pivotal times and continue the crucial and insightful conversation on the world post-pandemic.

In order to accommodate this new conference format and acknowledging that individuals and organizations have been adapting to new realities, the panel proposal submission deadline,as well as the individual short-talks submission deadline has been extended further by 1 month, to Friday, June 12th, 2020. Please review the revised criteria for panel proposal submissions and access the submission forms by clicking on the link below.

CSPC 2020 Call for Panel Proposals

Good luck with your submissions and good luck to the organizers! I imagine there are going to be logistical and technical challenges.

Call for 2020 Canadian Science Policy Conference panel submissions

I just received (via email on February 7, 2020) the call for the 2020 (or 12th annual) Canadian Science Policy Conference (CSPC) panel submissions. After many years in Ottawa, the conference is moving a few feet over the provincial border between Ontario and Quebec into the city of Gatineau. For anyone not familiar with the Ottawa region, Gatineau is next door (from the Gatineau Wikipedia entry), Note: Links have been removed,

Gatineau (/ˈɡætɪnoʊ/; French: [ɡatino]) is a city in western Quebec, Canada. It is the fourth-largest city in the province after Montreal, Quebec City, and Laval. It is located on the northern bank of the Ottawa River, immediately across from Ottawa, Ontario, together with which it forms Canada’s National Capital Region. [emphasis mine] As of 2016, Gatineau had a population of 276,245,[6] and a metropolitan population of 332,057.[7] The Ottawa–Gatineau census metropolitan area had a population of 1,323,783.[8]

The 2020 CSPC is being held from November 23 – 25, 2020 at the Hilton Lac-Leamy,in Gatineau, Quebec. On the plus side (I guess), you can fly to Ottawa as usual.

At a guess, the Ottawa location is the most economically advantageous choice for the Canadian Science Policy Conference but I’m sorry to see they haven’t made any attempts to organize at least one conference outside that very constrained geography in something like seven years.

Organizers have established a deadline of April 10, 2020 for submissions. Here’s more from the CSPC 2020 themes page,

CSPC 2020 Themes and Topics:

List of the themes and topics

CSPC 2020 Special theme: Grand Challenges

  • Climate Change, Net Zero Plan
  • Global Health:  Pandemics, Ageing, AMR
  • Cyber Security & Digital Transformation
  • Disruptive Technologies
  • Energy & Resources
  • Sustainable Development Goals

Science and Society

  • Science communication
  • Information/Mis-information; How science can help
  • Science and society relationship
  • Contributing to solutions – the social and human sciences
  • Science and democracy
  • A changing workplace

Science and Policy

  • Government Science
  • Policy for Emerging Technologies
  • Best practices in research and translation
  • Equity, diversity and inclusion
  • Open Science
  • Linking science to policy; new trends in EBDM
  • Modernising the science ecosystem
  • Research excellence
  • Science Policy at Muinicpal and local level
  • Big data
  • The Decade of Ocean, declared by the UN

Science, Innovation and Economic Developmennt

  • Knowledge translation/technology transfer
  • Regional innovation capacity
  • Connecting science to innovation
  • Industrial R&D and Private sector innovation
  • Transition to low carbon economy
  • New Decade: Perspectives from industry

Science and International Affairs and Security

  • Trends in international collaboration
  • Risks and uncertainties in International collaboration
  • Science diplomacy in a polarized world
  • International agencies and the deglobalized world
  • Space – managing the “international commons”

Science and the Next Generation

  • Skill Development
  • Mobilty of researchers
  • Research training – how and for what
  • Science as a career
  • Next generation of science activists

Panel organizers are requested to develop the content of their proposals with a solution-oriented approach that covers important questions such as;

Why is this a pressing issue that Canada faces today and/or over the next decade? 

How and what kind of scientific and/or traditional knowledge can help address the challenge?

How do we strengthen the Canadian institutions and policies that support the production, integration and use of knowledge in tackling this challenge?

How do we more effectively link the public, private and academic sectors in tackling this challenge?

How could the public be engaged in addressing this challenge?

How should CSPC play a role in helping to find solutions to this priority challenge?

The proposed panel needs not to answer or discuss each of these questions but encouraged to take into consideration answering a few of the above questions.    

I can’t find a link to an online submission or any other information about submitting a proposal but I have sent a query via Twitter and will hopefully be able to update this soon.

One final bit, the Canadian Science Policy Centre (CSPC) organizes the annual Canadian Science Policy Conference which is also abbreviated as CSPC.

ETA March 2, 2020: You can get submission forms (panels and short talks) from this Call for Panel Proposals page (scroll down to the bottom)

Science and technology, the 2019 Canadian federal government, and the Phoenix Pay System

This posting will focus on science, technology, the tragic consequence of bureaucratic and political bungling (the technology disaster that is is the Phoenix payroll system), and the puzzling lack of concern about some of the biggest upcoming technological and scientific changes in government and society in decades or more.

Setting the scene

After getting enough Liberal party members elected to the Canadian Parliament’s House of Commons to form a minority government in October 2019, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced a new cabinet and some changes to the ‘science’ portfolios in November 2019. You can read more about the overall cabinet announcement in this November 20, 2019 news item by Peter Zimonjic on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) website, my focus will be the science and technology. (Note: For those who don’t know, there is already much discussion about how long this Liberal minority government will last. All i takes is a ‘loss of confidence’ motion and a majority of the official opposition and other parties to vote ‘no confidence’ and Canada will back into the throes of an election. Mitigating against a speedy new federal election,, the Conservative party [official opposition] needs to choose a new leader and the other parties may not have the financial resources for another federal election so soon after the last one.)

Getting back to now and the most recent Cabinet announcements, it seems this time around, there’s significantly less interest in science. Concerns about this were noted in a November 22, 2019 article by Ivan Semeniuk for the Globe and Mail,

Canadian researchers are raising concerns that the loss of a dedicated science minister signals a reduced voice for their agenda around the federal cabinet table.

“People are wondering if the government thinks its science agenda is done,” said Marie Franquin, a doctoral student in neuroscience and co-president of Science and Policy Exchange, a student-led research-advocacy group. “There’s still a lot of work to do.”

While not a powerful player within cabinet, Ms. Duncan [Kirsty Duncan] proved to be an ardent booster of Canada’s research community and engaged with its issues, including the muzzling of federal scientists by the former Harper government and the need to improve gender equity in the research ecosystem.

Among Ms. Duncan’s accomplishments was the appointment of a federal chief science adviser [sic] and the commissioning of a landmark review of Ottawa’s support for fundamental research, chaired by former University of Toronto president David Naylor

… He [Andre Albinati, managing principal with Earnscliffe Strategy Group] added the role of science in government is now further bolstered by chief science adviser [sic] Mona Nemer and a growing network of departmental science advisers [sic]. .

Mehrdad Hariri, president of the Canadian Science Policy Centre …, cautioned that the chief science adviser’s [sic] role was best described as “science for policy,” meaning the use of science advice in decision-making. He added that the government still needed a separate role like that filled by Ms. Duncan … to champion “policy for science,” meaning decisions that optimize Canada’s research enterprise.

There’s one other commentary (by CresoSá) but I’m saving it for later.

The science minister disappears

There is no longer a separate position for Science. Kirsty Duncan was moved from her ‘junior’ position as Minister of Science (and Sport) to Deputy Leader of the government. Duncan’s science portfolio has been moved over to Navdeep Bains whose portfolio evolved from Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development (yes, there were two ‘ministers of science’) to Minister of Innovation, Science and Industry. (It doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. Sadly, nobody from the Prime Minister’s team called to ask for my input on the matter.)

Science (and technology) have to be found elsewhere

There’s the Natural Resources (i.e., energy, minerals and metals, forests, earth sciences, mapping, etc.) portfolio which was led by Catherine McKenna who’s been moved over to Infrastructure and Communities. There have been mumblings that she was considered ‘too combative’ in her efforts. Her replacement in Natural Resources is Seamus O’Regan. No word yet on whether or not, he might also be ‘too combative’. Of course, it’s much easier if you’re female to gain that label. (You can read about the spray-painted slurs found on the windows of McKenna’s campaign offices after she was successfully re-elected. See: Mike Blanchfield’s October 24, 2019 article for Huffington Post and Brigitte Pellerin’s October 31, 2019 article for the Ottawa Citizen.)

There are other portfolios which can also be said to include science such as Environment and Climate Change which welcomes a new minister, Jonathan Wilkinson moving over from his previous science portfolio, Fisheries, Oceans, and Canadian Coast Guard where Bernadette Jordan has moved into place. Patti Hajdu takes over at Heath Canada (which despite all of the talk about science muzzles being lifted still has its muzzle in place). While it’s not typically considered a ‘science’ portfolio in Canada, the military establishment regardless of country has long been considered a source of science innovation; Harjit Sajjan has retained his Minister of National Defence portfolio.

Plus there are at least half a dozen other portfolios that can be described as having significant science and/or technology elements folded into their portfolios, e.g., Transport Canada, Agriculture and Agri-Food, Safety and Emergency Preparedness, etc.

As I tend to focus on emerging science and technology, most of these portfolios are not ones I follow even on an irregular basis meaning I have nothing more to add about them in this posting. Mixing science and technology together in this posting is a reflection of how tightly the two are linked together. For example, university research into artificial intelligence is taking place on theoretical levels (science) and as applied in business and government (technology). Apologies to the mathematicians but this explanation is already complicated and I don’t think I can do justice to their importance.

Moving onto technology with a strong science link, this next portfolio received even less attention than the ‘science’ portfolios and I believe that’s undeserved.

The Minister of Digital Government and a bureaucratic débacle

These days people tend to take the digital nature of daily life for granted and that may be why this portfolio has escaped much notice. When the ministerial posting was first introduced, it was an addition to Scott Brison’s responsibilities as head of the Treasury Board. It continued to be linked to the Treasury Board when Joyce Murray* inherited Brison’s position, after his departure from politics. As of the latest announcement in November 2019, Digital Government and the Treasury Board are no longer tended to by the same cabinet member.

The new head of the Treasury Board is Jean-Yves Duclos while Joyce Murray has held on to the Minister of Digital Government designation. I’m not sure if the separation from the Treasury Board is indicative of the esteem the Prime Minister has for digital government or if this has been done to appease someone or some group, which means the digital government portfolio could well disappear in the future just as the ‘junior’ science portfolio did.

Regardless, here’s some evidence as to why I think ‘digital government’ is unfairly overlooked, from the minister’s December 13, 2019 Mandate Letter from the Prime Minister (Note: All of the emphases are mine],

I will expect you to work with your colleagues and through established legislative, regulatory and Cabinet processes to deliver on your top priorities. In particular, you will:

  • Lead work across government to transition to a more digital government in order to improve citizen service.
  • Oversee the Chief Information Officer and the Canadian Digital Service as they work with departments to develop solutions that will benefit Canadians and enhance the capacity to use modern tools and methodologies across Government.
  • Lead work to analyze and improve the delivery of information technology (IT) within government. This work will include identifying all core and at-risk IT systems and platforms. You will lead the renewal of SSC [Shared Services Canada which provides ‘modern, secure and reliable IT services so federal organizations can deliver digital programs and services to meet Canadians’ needs’] so that it is properly resourced and aligned to deliver common IT infrastructure that is reliable and secure.
  • Lead work to create a centre of expertise that brings together the necessary skills to effectively implement major transformation projects across government, including technical, procurement and legal expertise.
  • Support the Minister of Innovation, Science and Industry in continuing work on the ethical use of data and digital tools like artificial intelligence for better government.
  • With the support of the President of the Treasury Board and the Minister of Families, Children and Social Development, accelerate progress on a new Government of Canada service strategy that aims to create a single online window for all government services with new performance standards.
  • Support the Minister of Families, Children and Social Development in expanding and improving the services provided by Service Canada.
  • Support the Minister of National Revenue on additional steps required to meaningfully improve the satisfaction of Canadians with the quality, timeliness and accuracy of services they receive from the Canada Revenue Agency.
  • Support the Minister of Public Services and Procurement in eliminating the backlog of outstanding pay issues for public servants as a result of the Phoenix Pay System.
  • Lead work on the Next Generation Human Resources and Pay System to replace the Phoenix Pay System and support the President of the Treasury Board as he actively engages Canada’s major public sector unions.
  • Support the Minister of Families, Children and Social Development and the Minister of National Revenue to implement a voluntary, real-time e-payroll system with an initial focus on small businesses.
  • Fully implement lessons learned from previous information technology project challenges and failures [e,g, the Phoenix Payroll System], particularly around sunk costs and major multi-year contracts. Act transparently by sharing identified successes and difficulties within government, with the aim of constantly improving the delivery of projects large and small.
  • Encourage the use and development of open source products and open data, allowing for experimentation within existing policy directives and building an inventory of validated and secure applications that can be used by government to share knowledge and expertise to support innovation.

To be clear, the Minister of Digital Government is responsible (more or less) for helping to clean up a débacle, i.e., the implementation of the federal government’s Phoenix Payroll System and drive even more digitization and modernization of government data and processes.

They’ve been trying to fix the Phoenix problems since the day it was implemented in early 2016.That’s right, it will be four years in Spring 2020 when the Liberal government chose to implement a digital payroll system that had been largely untested and despite its supplier’s concerns.

The Phoenix Pay System and a great sadness

The Public Service Alliance of Canada (the largest union for federal employees; PSAC) has a separate space for Phoneix on its website, which features this video,

That video was posted on September 24, 2018 (on YouTube) and, to my knowledge, the situation has not changed appreciably. A November 8, 2019 article by Tom Spears for the Ottawa Citizen details a very personal story about what can only be described as a failure on just about every level you can imagine,

Linda Deschâtelets’s death by suicide might have been prevented if the flawed Phoenix pay system hadn’t led her to emotional and financial ruin, a Quebec coroner has found.

Deschâtelets died in December of 2017, at age 52. At the time she was struggling with chronic pain and massive mortgage payments.

The fear of losing her home weighed heavily on her. In her final text message to one of her sons she said she had run out of energy and wanted to die before she lost her house in Val des Monts.

But Deschâtelets might have lived, says a report from coroner Pascale Boulay, if her employer, the Canada Revenue Agency, had shown a little empathy.

“During the final months before her death, she experienced serious financial troubles linked to the federal government’s pay system, Phoenix, which cut off her pay in a significant way, making her fear she would lose her house,” said Boulay’s report.

“A thorough analysis of this case strongly suggests that this death could have been avoided if a search for a solution to the current financial, psychological and medical situation had been made.”

Boulay found “there is no indication that management sought to meet Ms. Deschâtelets to offer her options. In addition, the lack of prompt follow-up in the processing of requests for information indicates a distressing lack of empathy for an employee who is experiencing real financial insecurity.”

Pay records “indeed show that she was living through serious financial problems and that she received irregular payments since the beginning of October 2017,” the coroner wrote.

As well, “her numerous online applications using the form for a compensation problem, in which she expresses her fear of not being able to make her mortgage payments and says that she wants a detailed statement of account, remain unanswered.”

On top of that, she had chronic back pain and sciatica and had been missing work. She was scheduled to get an ergonomically designed work area, but this change was never made even though she waited for months.

Money troubles kept getting worse.

She ran out of paid sick leave, and her department sent her an email to explain that she had automatically been docked pay for taking sick days. “In this same email, she was also advised that in the event that she missed additional days, other amounts would be deducted. No further follow-up with her was done,” the coroner wrote.

That email came eight days before her death.

Deschâtelets was also taking cocaine but this did not alter the fact that she genuinely risked losing her home over her financial problems, the coroner wrote.

“Given the circumstances, it is highly likely that Ms. Deschâtelets felt trapped” and ended her life “because of her belief that she would lose the house anyway. It was only a matter of time.”

The situation is “even more sad” because CRA had advisers on site who dealt with Phoenix issues, and could meet with employees, Boulay wrote.

“The federal government does a lot of promotion of workplace wellness. Surprisingly, these wellness measures are silent on the subject of financial insecurity at work,” Boulay wrote.

I feel sad for the family and indignant that there doesn’t seem to have been enough done to mitigate the hardships due to an astoundingly ill-advised decision to implement an untested payroll system for the federal government’s 280,000 or more civil servants.

Canada’s Senate reports back on Phoenix

I’m highlighting the Senate report here although there are also two reports from the Auditor General should you care to chase them down. From an August 1, 2018 article by Brian Jackson for IT World Canada,

In February 2016, in anticipation of the start of the Phoenix system rolling out, the government laid off 2,700 payroll clerks serving 120,000 employees. [I’m guessing the discrepancy in numbers of employees may be due to how the clerks were laid off, i.e., if they were load off in groups scheduled to be made redundant at different intervals.]

As soon as Phoenix was launched, problems began. By May 2018 there were 60,000 pay requests backlogged. Now the government has dedicated resources to explaining to affected employees the best way to avoid pay-related problems, and to file grievances related to the system.

“The causes of the failure are multiple, including, failing to manage the pay system in an integrated fashion with human resources processes, not conducting a pilot project, removing essential processing functions to stay on budget, laying off experienced compensation advisors, and implementing a pay system that wasn’t ready,” the Senate report states. “We are dismayed that this project proceeded with minimal independent oversight, including from central agencies, and that no one has accepted responsibility for the failure of Phoenix or has been held to account. We believe that there is an underlying cultural problem that needs to be addressed. The government needs to move away from a culture that plays down bad news and avoids responsibility, [emphasis mine] to one that encourages employee engagement, feedback and collaboration.”

There is at least one estimate that the Phoenix failure will cost $2.2 billion but I’m reasonably certain that figure does not include the costs of suicide, substance abuse, counseling, marriage breakdown, etc. (Of course, how do you really estimate the cost of a suicide or a marriage breakdown or the impact that financial woes have on children?)

Also concerning the Senate report, there is a July 31, 2018 news item on CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) news online,

“We are not confident that this problem has been solved, that the lessons have all been learned,” said Sen. André Pratte, deputy chair of the committee. [emphases mine]

I haven’t seen much coverage about the Phoenix Pay System recently in the mainstream media but according to a December 4, 2019 PSAC update,

The Parliamentary Budget Officer has said the Phoenix situation could continue until 2023, yet government funding commitments so far have fallen significantly short of what is needed to end the Phoenix nightmare. 

PSAC will continue pressing for enough funding and urgent action:

  • eliminate the over 200,000 cases in the pay issues backlog
  • compensate workers for their many hardships
  • stabilize Phoenix
  • properly develop, test and launch a new pay system

2023 would mean the débacle had a seven year lifespan, assuming everything has been made better by then.

Finally, there seems to be one other minister tasked with the Phoenix Pay System ‘fix’ (December 13, 2019 mandate letter) and that is the Minister of Public Services and Procurement, Anita Anand. She is apparently a rookie MP (member of Parliament), which would make her a ‘cabinet rookie’ as well. Interesting choice.

More digital for federal workers and the Canadian public

Despite all that has gone before, the government is continuing in its drive to digitize itself as can be seen in the Minister of Digital Government’s mandate letter (excerpted above in ‘The Minister of Digital Government and some …’ subsection) and on the government’s Digital Government webspace,

Our digital shift to becoming more agile, open, and user-focused. We’re working on tomorrow’s Canada today.

I don’t find that particularly reassuring in light of the Phoenix Payroll System situation. However, on the plus side, Canada has a Digital Charter with 10 principles which include universal access, safety and security, control and consent, etc. Oddly, it looks like it’s the Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada, the Minister of Canadian Heritage and the Minister of Innovation, Science and Industry who are tasked with enhancing and advancing the charter. Shouldn’t this group also include the Minister of Digital Government?

The Minister of Digital Government, Joyce Murray, does not oversee a ministry and I think that makes this a ‘junior’ position in much the same way the Minister of Science was a junior position. It suggests a mindset where some of the biggest changes to come for both employees and the Canadian public are being overseen by someone without the resources to do the work effectively or the bureaucratic weight and importance to ensure the changes are done properly.

It’s all very well to have a section on the Responsible use of artificial intelligence (AI) on your Digital Government webspace but there is no mention of ways and means to fix problems. For example, what happens to people who somehow run into an issue that the AI system can’t fix or even respond to because the algorithm wasn’t designed that way. Ever gotten caught in an automated telephone system? Or perhaps more saliently, what about the people who died in two different airplane accidents due to the pilots’ poor training and an AI system? (For a more informed view of the Boeing 737 Max, AI, and two fatal plane crashes see: a June 2, 2019 article by Rachel Kraus for Mashable.)

The only other minister whose mandate letter includes AI is the Minister of Innovation, Science and Industry, Navdeep Bains (from his December 13, 2019 mandate letter),

  • With the support of the Minister of Digital Government, continue work on the ethical use of data and digital tools like artificial intelligence for better government.

So, the Minister of Digital Government, Joyce Murray, is supporting the Minister of Innovation, Science and Industry, Navdeep Bains. That would suggest a ‘junior’ position wouldn’t it? If you look closely at the Minister of Digital Services’ mandate letter, you’ll see the Minister is almost always supporting another minister.

Where the Phoenix Pay System is concerned, the Minister of Digital Services is supporting the Minister of Public Services and Procurement, the previously mentioned rookie MP and rookie Cabinet member, Anita Anand. Interestingly, the employees’ union, PSAC, has decided (as of a November 20, 2019 news release) to ramp up its ad campaign regarding the Phoenix Pay System and its bargaining issues by targeting the Prime Minister and the new President of the Treasury Board, Jean-Yves Duclos. Guess whose mandate letter makes no mention of Phoenix (December 13, 2019 mandate letter for the President of the Treasury Board).

Open government, eh?

Putting a gift bow on a pile of manure doesn’t turn it into a gift (for most people, anyway) and calling your government open and/or transparent doesn’t necessarily make it so even when you amend your Access to Information Act to make it more accessible (August 22, 2019 Digital Government news release by Ruth Naylor).

One of the Liberal government’s most heavily publicized ‘open’ initiatives was the lifting of the muzzles put on federal scientists in the Environment and Natural Resources ministries. Those muzzles were put into place by a Conservative government and the 2015 Liberal government gained a lot of political capital from its actions. No one seemed to remember that Health Canada also had been muzzled. That muzzle had been put into place by one of the Liberal governments preceding the Conservative one. To date there is no word as to whether or not that muzzle has ever been lifted.

However, even in the ministries where the muzzles were lifted, it seems scientists didn’t feel free to speak even many months later (from a Feb 21, 2018 article by Brian Owens for Science),

More than half of government scientists in Canada—53%—do not feel they can speak freely to the media about their work, even after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government eased restrictions on what they can say publicly, according to a survey released today by a union that represents more than 16,000 federal scientists.

That union—the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada (PIPSC) based in Ottawa—conducted the survey last summer, a little more than a year and a half into the Trudeau government. It followed up on a similar survey the union released in 2013 at the height of the controversy over the then-Conservative government’s reported muzzling of scientists by preventing media interviews and curtailing travel to scientific conferences. The new survey found the situation much improved—in 2013, 90% of scientists felt unable to speak about their work. But the union says more work needs to be done. “The work needs to be done at the department level,” where civil servants may have been slow to implement political directives, PIPSC President Debi Daviau said. ”We need a culture change that promotes what we have heard from ministers.”

I found this a little chilling (from the PIPSC Defrosting Public Science; a 2017 survey of federal scientists webpage),

To better illustrate this concern, in 2013, The Big Chill revealed that 86% of respondents feared censorship or retaliation from their department or agency if they spoke out about a departmental decision or action that, based on their scientific knowledge, could bring harm to the public interest. In 2017, when asked the same question, 73% of respondents said they would not be able to do so without fear of censorship or retaliation – a mere 13% drop.

It’s possible things have improved but while the 2018 Senate report did not focus on scientists, it did highlight issues with the government’s openness and transparency or in their words: “… a culture that plays down bad news and avoids responsibility.” It seems the Senate is not the only group with concerns about government culture; so do the government’s employees (the scientists, anyway).

The other science commentary

I can’t find any commentary or editorials about the latest ministerial changes or the mandate letters on the Canadian Science Policy Centre website so was doubly pleased to find this December 6, 2019 commentary by Creso Sá for University Affairs,

The recently announced Liberal cabinet brings what appear to be cosmetic changes to the science file. Former Science Minister Kirsty Duncan is no longer in it, which sparked confusion among casual observers who believed that the elimination of her position signalled the termination of the science ministry or the downgrading of the science agenda. In reality, science was and remains part of the renamed Ministry of Innovation, Science, and (now) Industry (rather than Economic Development), where Minister Navdeep Bains continues at the helm.

Arguably, these reactions show that appearances have been central [emphasis mine] to the modus operandi of this government. Minister Duncan was an active, and generally well-liked, champion for the Trudeau government’s science platform. She carried the torch of team science over the last four years, becoming vividly associated with the launch of initiatives such as the Fundamental Science Review, the creation of the chief science advisor position, and the introduction of equity provisions in the Canada Research Chairs program. She talked a good talk, but her role did not in fact give her much authority to change the course of science policy in the country. From the start, her mandate was mostly defined around building bridges with members of cabinet, which was likely good experience for her new role of deputy house leader.

Upon the announcement of the new cabinet, Minister Bains took to Twitter to thank Dr. Duncan for her dedication to placing science in “its rightful place back at the centre of everything our government does.” He indicated that he will take over her responsibilities, which he was already formally responsible for. Presumably, he will now make time to place science at the centre of everything the government does.

This kind of sloganeering has been common [emphasis mine] since the 2015 campaign, which seems to be the strategic moment the Liberals can’t get out of. Such was the real and perceived hostility of the Harper Conservatives to science that the Liberals embraced the role of enlightened advocates. Perhaps the lowest hanging fruit their predecessors left behind was the sheer absence of any intelligible articulation of where they stood on the science file, which the Liberals seized upon with gusto. Virtue signalling [emphasis mine] became a first line of response.

When asked about her main accomplishments over the past year as chief science advisor at the recent Canadian Science Policy Conference in Ottawa, Mona Nemer started with the creation of a network of science advisors across government departments. Over the past four years, the government has indeed not been shy about increasing the number of appointments with “science” in their job titles. That is not a bad thing. We just do not hear much about how “science is at the centre of everything the government does.” Things get much fuzzier when the conversation turns to the bold promises of promoting evidence-based decision making that this government has been vocal about. Queried on how her role has impacted policy making, Dr. Nemer suggested the question should be asked to politicians. [emphasis mine]

I’m tempted to describe the ‘Digital Government’ existence and portfolio as virtue signalling.

Finally

There doesn’t seem to be all that much government interest in science or, even, technology for that matter. We have a ‘junior’ Minister of Science disappear so that science can become part of all the ministries. Frankly, I wish that science were integrated throughout all the ministries but when you consider the government culture, this move more easily lends itself to even less responsibility being taken by anyone. Take another look at the Canada’s Chief Science Advisor’s comment: “Queried on how her role has impacted policy making, Dr. Nemer suggested the question should be asked to politicians.” Meanwhile, we get a ‘junior Minister of Digital Government whose portfolio has the potential to affect Canadians of all ages and resident in Canada or not.

A ‘junior’ minister is not necessarily evil as Sá points out but I would like to see some indication that efforts are being made to shift the civil service culture and the attitude about how the government conducts its business and that the Minister of Digital Government will receive the resources and the respect she needs to do her job. I’d also like to see some understanding of how catastrophic a wrong move has already been and could be in the future along with options for how citizens are going to be making their way through this brave new digital government world and some options for fixing problems, especially the catastrophic ones.

*December 30, 2019 correction: After Scott Brison left his position as President of the Treasury Board and Minister of Digital Government in January 2019, Jane Philpott held the two positions until March 2019 when she left the Liberal Party. Carla Quatrough was acting head from March 4 – March 18, 2019 when Joyce Murray was appointed to the two positions which she held for eight months until November 2019 when, as I’ve noted, the ‘Minister of Digital Government’ was split from the ‘President of the Treasury Board’ appointment.

ETA January 28, 2020: The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) has an update on the Phoenix Pay System situation in a January 28, 2020 posting (supplied by The Canadian Press),

More than 98,000 civil servants may still owe the federal government money after being overpaid through the disastrous Phoenix pay system.

… the problems persist, despite the hiring of hundreds of pay specialists to work through a backlog of system errors.

The public service pay centre was still dealing with a backlog of about 202,000 complaints as of Dec. 24 [2019], down from 214,000 pay transactions that went beyond normal workload in November [2019].

RFP (request for proposal) from Evidence for Democracy and undergraduate physics summer school/internship opportunities at the Perimeter Institute

Two very different Canadian institutions are offering opportunities to work, in one case, and to study and work, in the other case.

Evidence for Democracy and their RFP

The deadline for making your proposal is November 25, 2019 and the competition was opened on November 11, 2019. Here’s more from Evidence for Democracy’s RFP webpage,

Description
Evidence for Democracy (E4D) is a national science-based non-partisan, non-profit organization promoting science integrity and evidence-based policy development in Canada.

E4D intends to hire a contractor to work with us to produce a case study documenting and examining the grassroots movement that evolved in Canada to support evidence-informed policymaking (EIP) from 2013 to 2019, and to determine which elements could inspire similar work in other countries.

Background
E4D will produce a case study documenting and examining the grassroots movement that evolved in Canada to support evidence-informed policymaking from 2013 to 2019 to see which elements could inspire similar work in other countries.

The goals are to better understand what elements of E4D’s work over this period have been successful and why. This will be achieved through a survey of E4D’s supporters and interviews with various people in the science policy and evidence field in Canada.

The project will start with information gathering from inside and outside the E4D community. One of the goals is to learn more about which E4D activities have been the most and least effective at engaging and mobilizing individuals around evidence-informed policymaking, so we will start with a digital survey of our broad supporter base to learn from them. This will be disseminated by email to our E4D network. To add to the survey data, we will conduct interviews with selected members of E4D’s network to dig deeper into why they chose to engage and what motivated them (aiming for 20 interviews with E4D volunteers and network of expert members). Finally, we will conduct interviews with individuals who are external to E4D but engaged in science policy or EIP to have an external perspective on E4D’s work and grassroots engagement.

The information will be synthesized into a report outlining the grassroots movement to support EIP that emerged in Canada; what actions and activities strengthened this movement and why; and what specific actions, strategies and lessons learned can be drawn out to be applied in other countries.

E4D is looking to contract an individual to develop survey and interview questions, execute the interviews, complete the information synthesis and the first draft of the report. The ideal individual will be a freelance science writer or science journalist who has some experience looking at issues through an international lens to ensure the final report is context-appropriate.

Timeline and Compensation
December: Drafting and finalizing interview questions and recipient list and begin survey and interviews
January: Complete survey/interviews
February: Draft report

Budget
$18,000 CDN

Responses
Responses shall be submitted by email to katie@evidencefordemocracy.ca by November 25th, 2019. Please provide your resume and a short (under 1 page) summary of your qualifications and availability for this project.

About Evidence for Democracy
Evidence for Democracy is the leading fact-driven, non-partisan, not-for-profit organization promoting the transparent use of evidence in government decision-making in Canada. Through research, education and issue campaigns, we engage and empower the science community while cultivating public and political demand for evidence-based decision-making.

A case study without science?

It’s fascinating to me that there’s no mention that the contractor might need skills in building a survey, creating an interview instrument, interviewing, and analyzing both qualitative and quantitative data. Where is the social science?

Focusing on a science writer or science journalist as examples of people who might have the required skill set suggests that more attention has been paid to the end result (the draft report) than the process.

I hope I’m wrong but this looks like a project where the importance of questions has been ignored. It can take a couple or more iterations to get your survey questions right and then you have to get your interview questions right. As for a sample of 20 qualitative interviews, that’s a lot of work.both from the perspective of setting up and conducting interviews and analyzing the copious amounts of information you are likely to receive.

Given that E4D is a science- and evidence-based organization, the project seems odd. Either they’ve left a lot out of their project description or they don’t plan to build a proper case study following basic social science protocols. It almost seems as if they’re more interested in self-promotion than in evidence. Time will tell. Once the report is released, it will be possible to examine how the gathered their information.

Perimeter Institute (PI) invites undergraduate physics students to their 2020 summer program

This looks pretty nifty given that PI will pay your expenses and you might end up with a paid internship afterwards. From a November 4, 2019 PI announcement (received via email),

Undergraduate Theoretical Physics Summer Program
Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics is now accepting applications for the Undergraduate Theoretical Physics Summer Program.

The program invites 20 exceptional students to join its research community for a fully-funded two-week summer school. Students will learn research tools and collaboration skills in the multi-disciplinary environment of the world’s largest independent theoretical physics research centre.

This program consists of two parts:
Two-week Summer School (fully-funded): Students are immersed in Perimeter’s dynamic research environment — attending courses on cutting-edge topics in physics, learning new techniques to solve interesting problems, working on group research projects, and potentially even publishing their work. 
Research Internship: Applicants may also be considered for a paid summer research internship. Accepted interns will work on projects alongside Perimeter researchers 

The program is accepting applications for the summer school beginning May 25, 2020.

Ways to share this opportunity with your colleagues and students
Download, print, and hang this high-resolution poster
Direct all to the Undergraduate Theoretical Physics Summer Program website for more information
Paste this key information on your sites and blogs
Application Deadline: January 6, 2020
Apply at perimeterinstitute.ca/undergrad

I’m not sure what the image on the left represents but the one on the right would seem to be some very happy students,

Perimeter Institute Summer Program

The institute is located in Waterloo, Ontario (from the PI Summer Program webpage),

We accept excellent students with a demonstrated interest in the program, who are entering the final year of their undergraduate program in Fall 2020 (special exceptions allowed).

The two-week summer school is fully funded. Successful candidates will be provided with workspace, accommodations, and weekday meals (per diem are provided for weekends). Perimeter Institute will also cover economy travel expenses between the applicant’s home institutions and Toronto Pearson Airport. Ground transportation from Toronto Pearson Airport to Perimeter Institute will be provided.

The two-week summer school is fully funded to ensure that a diverse group of top students, both in background and nationality and without regard for financial means, may attend.

Students staying for the research internship will be paid through a Research Award.

APPLY ONLINE

There is no application fee required.

Important Dates

January 6, 2020 – Application deadline

January 20, 2020 – By this date, all applicants will have received an email on their application status (for summer school acceptance and internship offers)

May 25 to June 5, 2020 – Two-week summer school program in session

Questions should be directed to Santiago Almada

According to the PI website, Waterloo is approximately one hour from Toronto.

Good luck!