I was asked two weeks ago (via twitter in late October by @ Connexscience) this question, “What do you think is there value in bringing Nano types together with others?” in the context of my Oct. 28,2010 posting about the newly announced public engagement effort, Connex Science (CS). CS is soliciting comments and participation from the greater Canadian ‘science’ community to a create a national online science community (working title: HUB).
I use the word ‘greater’ to indicate that this intended to engage not just working scientists but students of all stripes, science teachers, engineers, citizen scientists, science communications personnel, science journalists, science museums, artists whose work (in one fashion or another) is oriented to or based in science, science writers (fiction and non fiction), science librarians, etc.
Getting back to the question about nano types and others, I answered, “Yes, there is value.” Then, I started thinking about it. The question itself assumes a nano community of sorts and that’s an interesting proposition.
First off, Canada unlike the US hasn’t created a nanotechnology community as such. The US National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) has acted as a hub or organizing principle in a way that Canada’s National Institute of Nanotechnology (NINT) has not. From the NNI’s About page,
The National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) is the program established in fiscal year 2001 to coordinate Federal nanotechnology research and development.
The NNI provides a vision of the long-term opportunities and benefits of nanotechnology. By serving as a central locus for communication, cooperation, and collaboration for all Federal agencies that wish to participate, the NNI brings together the expertise needed to guide and support the advancement of this broad and complex field.
The NNI creates a framework for a comprehensive nanotechnology R&D program by establishing shared goals, priorities, and strategies, and it provides avenues for each individual agency to leverage the resources of all participating agencies.
Today the NNI consists of the individual and cooperative nanotechnology-related activities of 25 Federal agencies with a range of research and regulatory roles and responsibilities. Thirteen of the participating agencies have R&D budgets that relate to nanotechnology, with the reported NNI budget representing the collective sum of these. The NNI as a program does not fund research; however, it informs and influences the Federal budget and planning processes through its member agencies.
The enterprise here in Canada has been much more fragmented despite NINT’s existence.From NINT’s About page,
The National Institute for Nanotechnology (NINT) is an integrated, multi-disciplinary institution involving researchers in physics, chemistry, engineering, biology, informatics, pharmacy and medicine. Established in 2001, it is operated as a partnership between the National Research Council and the University of Alberta, and is jointly funded by the Government of Canada, the Government of Alberta and the university.
NINT researchers are focused on the revolutionary work being done at the nano-scale, the world of individual atoms or molecules. The main focus of nanotechnology research is the integration of nano-scale devices and materials into complex nanosystems that are connected to the outside world. The long-term objective is to discover ‘design rules’ for nanotechnology, and develop platforms for building nanosystems and materials that can be constructed and programmed for a particular application.
NINT’s Business Development Office will assist Edmonton-based nanotechnology firms. The goal is to develop a cluster of nanotechnology companies using and producing nanotech. NINT will be the nexus of this cluster by fostering collaboration, providing access to the facility and researcher expertise, and assisting companies with commercialization, licensing and other business activities.
Located in Edmonton, Alberta on the University of Alberta campus, NINT’s 20,000 square-metre building is one of the world’s most technologically advanced research facilities and houses the quietest laboratory space in Canada.
NINT is one of many institutes associated with the National Research Council as opposed to the NNI which sits by itself. Rob Annan in his April 7, 2010 posting at ‘Don’t leave Canada behind’ offers a history and a lively analysis of the organization at large. Here’s an excerpt,
Last week, the Government announced John McDougall’s appointment as the new President of the National Research Council (NRC) of Canada. His appointment provides an opportunity to point something out:
The NRC is a mess.
And the mess of the NRC neatly encapsulates much that’s wrong with Canadian science policy. No direction, no cohesion, multiple conflicting purposes.
What is the NRC?
The NRC was founded more than 90 years ago to advise the government on matters related to science and technology. It evolved into a federal research laboratory with the construction of the Sussex Dr. [Drive] labs in the 1930s, and was the focus of Canada’s research efforts during WWII. Post-war, the NRC expanded and was a major source of Canadian research success, with notable achievements like the invention of the pacemaker, development of Canola and the crash position indicator.
The last time (about 2 years ago) I checked, the NINT (located in Edmonton) was funded 50% federally through the NRC and 50% by the province of Alberta. I’ve tried a number of times to get more information about NINT (I chased Martha Piper, one of the board members, for 2 years and I chased Nils Petersen, director general, for about 4 months and was never able to get a response to my questions about NINT). I mention this because the information I’ve received has come from the province of Alberta naturally, this makes it very Alberta-centric). That situation has changed in the last few months and there’s been slightly more information of general interest (a few twitter messages and one news release, this represents all of the public communication in 2010 so far) coming from NINT.
As far as I can tell, national communication efforts are close to nonexistent and, if there’s no communication, there’s no community. Pushing this further, f you don’t have a community, then you can’t mix with other communities.
There are meetings and conferences but they attract nanotechnology experts who focus on specific areas (such as biocomposites) and any networks that arise are very loose and informal—the kind of thing that tends to die quickly due to lack of attention.
There are a few provincial networks, notably in Alberta, Ontario, and Québec. They usually include businesses, academics (the majority membership), and venture capitalists and are heavily focussed on commercialization.
Amongst academic scientists, there are nanoscientists (sometimes they describe themselves as working in nanotechnology) in Canada but they are often part of a longer-standing academic department, e.g. physics or chemistry or engineering.
Funding for nanotechnology (other than NINT’s) is a grab bag of monies from different ministries and the tricouncil funding agencies (the Natural Sciences and Engineering Council, the Canadian Institutes of Health, and the Social Science and Humanities Research Council). I received a copy(from MP Peter Julian’s office) of the government’s response to his request for information about federal funding for nanotechnology. It’s some 80 pages of data organized in some fashion that I don’t entirely fathom.
This scattered approach to the nanotechnology enterprise may or may not be a good strategy. It’s possible that ‘nanoscience’ or ‘nanotechnology’ will fade into physics or chemistry or engineering as a specialization within the discipline rather than emerging as a distinct specialty. I’ve already seen some discussion along those lines as per this October 3, 2010 entry on Richard Jones’s Soft Machines blog,
Last week I spent a couple of days in Darmstadt, at the second meeting of the Society for the Study of Nanoscience and Emerging Technologies (S.NET). This is a relatively informal group of scholars in the field of Science and Technology Studies from Europe, the USA and some other countries like Brazil and India, coming together from disciplines like philosophy, political science, law, innovation studies and sociology.
Arie Rip (president of the society, and to many the doyen of European science and technology studies) kicked things off with the assertion that nanotechnology is, above all, a socio-political project, and the warning that this object of study was in the process of disappearing (a theme that recurred throughout the conference). [emphasis mine] Not to be worried by this prospect, Arie observed that their society could keep its acronym and rename itself the Society for the Study of Newly Emerging Technologies.
Getting back to the question about ‘nano types getting together with other science types’, for me, has a subtext: how do we identify and reach out to the various science communities in Canada and what value would they see in connecting with each other in a national conversation? I’m going to add another question here, can we get them to use social media publicly? [Note the emphasis] As far as I can tell there is only a very small Canadian science community in the public blogosphere (at the most, there are about one dozen blogs) or on Twitter (am not sure about other social media).
The social media issue is an interesting one. Here’s an excerpt from an article about government agencies (where much science is practiced) and social media by Stephanie Levitz in the Winnipeg Free Press,
For bureaucrats used to filling out forms in triplicate and waiting days for approval to open their mouths, freedom in the form of 140 characters was a novelty.
But then the Clerk of the Privy Council started tweeting.
Since Wayne Wouters began using the social messaging site, his online presence has been taken as a call to thumbs by the public service.
Tweeted one user: “When the Clerk is tweeting, it shows the rest of (the Government of Canada) that it’s ok for the rest of us.”
Well, not quite.
As government departments rush to embrace social media tools such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to connect with the public, there are different rules for individual public servants.
Interestingly given the concerns about their scientists being muzzled (my Sept. 16 2010 posting), Natural Resources Canada, amongst federal agencies, is considered a model for using social media,
Many departments are taking their lead from Natural Resources Canada.
The department is widely held up as the gold standard for how, and why, public servants need access to the web.
They started with a wiki, an online site that allows people to post and edit content, with the goal of getting 101 users over 101 days as a test of whether people were interested in using the technology.
At the end of their 101 days, they had 270 users and several hundred pages of content, said Peter Cowan, director of enterprise information management for Natural Resources.
Now they have internal blogs and an internal video channel, all of which helped break down barriers between different sectors of the department. [emphasis mine]
Yes, it’s all internal communication for Natural Resources Canada. So the social media are being embraced from within which begs the question: can scientists and other staff from Natural Resources Canada and other departments, such as Environment Canada and Health Canada said to have muzzles, participate in a public national science convo?
All of that said, I do see signs of life with scientists organizing a science policy conference for themselves two years in a row; interest in citizen scientists; and a Canadian science blogosphere which has recently attracted some new members. I am hopeful this HUB idea will enrich these efforts and allow them to develop deep roots.
As for my speculations about the Canadian nanotechnology scene, if your mileage varies about that or anything else I’ve got here and you feel inclined to comment, please do.