Tag Archives: Beth Swan

2011 roundup and thoughts on the Canadian science blogging scene

Last year I found about a dozen of us, Canadians blogging about science, and this year (2011) I count approximately 20 of us. Sadly, one blog has disappeared; Elizabeth Howell has removed her PARS3C blog from her website. Others appear to be in pause mode, Rob Annan at the Researcher Forum: Don’t leave Canada behind (no posts since May 4, 2011), The Bubble Chamber at the University of Toronto (no posts since Aug. 12, 2011), Gregor Wolbring’s  Nano and Nano- Bio, Info, Cogno, Neuro, Synbio, Geo, Chem…  (no new posts since Oct. 2010; I’m about ready to give up on this one) and Je vote pour la science (no posts since May 2011).

I’ve been fairly catholic in my approach to including blogs on this list although I do have a preference for blogs with an individual voice that focuses primarily on science (for example, explaining the science you’re writing about rather than complaining about a professor’s marking of your science paper).

Piece of Mind is Nassif Ghoussoub’s (professor of mathematics at the University of British Columbia) blog which is largely about academe, science, and grants. Nassif does go much further afield in some of his posts, as do we all from time to time. He’s quite outspoken and always interesting.

Cool Science is John McKay’s blog which he describes this way ” This site is about raising a creative rationalist in an age of nonsense. It is about parents getting excited about science, learning and critical thinking. It is about smart parents raising smart kids who can think for themselves, make good decisions and discern the credible from the incredible. ” His posts cover a wide range of topics from the paleontology museum in Alberta to a space shuttle launch to the science of good decisions and more.

Dave Ng makes me dizzy. A professor with the Michael Smith Laboratories at the University of British Columbia, he’s a very active science communicator who has started blogging again on the Popperfont blog. This looks like a compilation of bits from Twitter, some very brief postings, and bits from other sources. I’m seeing this style of blogging more frequently these days.

The queen of Canadian science blogging, Rosie Redfield, was just acknowledged as a ‘newsmaker of the year’ by Nature magazine. The Dec. 22, 20111 Vancouver Sun article by Margaret Munro had this to say,

A critical thinker in Vancouver has been named one of the top science newsmakers of the year.

“She appeared like a shot out of the blogosphere: a wild-haired Canadian microbiologist with a propensity to say what was on her mind,” the leading research journal Nature says of Rosie Redfield, a professor at the University of B.C.

The journal editors say Redfield is one of 10 individuals who “had an impact, good or bad, on the world of science” in 2011. She was chosen for her “critical” inquiry and “remarkable experiment in open science” that challenged a now-infamous “arsenic life” study funded by NASA.

Rosie has two blogs, RRResearch and RRTeaching. She used to say she wasn’t a blogger but I rather think she’s changed her tune.

Jeff Sharom’s Science Canada blog isn’t, strictly speaking, a blog so much as it is an aggregator of Canadian science policy news and a good one at that. There are also some very useful resources on the site. (I shamelessly plundered Jeff’s list to add more blogs to this posting).

The Black Hole is owned by Beth Swan and David Kent (although they often have guest posters too). Here’s a description from the About page,

I have entered the Post Doctoral Fellow Black Hole… I’ve witnessed a lot and heard about much more and, while this is the time in academic life when you’re meant to be the busiest, I have begun this blog. Just as a black hole is difficult to define, the label Post Doc is bandied about with recklessness by university administrators, professors, and even PDFs themselves. One thing is certain though… once you get sucked in, it appears to be near impossible to get back out.

David, Beth, and their contributors offer extensive discussions about the opportunities and the failings of the post graduate science experience.

Nicole Arbour, a Science and Innovation Officer at the British High Commission Office in Ottawa, Canada, blogs regularly about Canadian science policy and more on the Foreign and Commonwealth Office blogs.

Colin Schultz, a freelance science journalist, blogs at his website CMBR. He focuses largely on climate change, environmental research, space, and science communication.

exposure/effect is a blog about toxicology, chemical exposures, health and more, which is written by a scientist who chooses to use a pseudonym, ashartus.

Mario’s Entangled Bank is written by theoretical biologist, Mario Pineda-Krch at the University of Alberta. One of Pineda-Krch’s most recent postings was about a special section of a recent Science Magazine issue on Reproducible Research.

Boundary Vision is written by Marie-Claire Shanahan, a professor of science education at the University of Alberta. She not only writes a science blog, she also researches the language and the social spaces of science blogs.

Eric Michael Johnson writes The Primate Diaries blog which is now part of the Scientific American blog network. With a master’s degree in evolutionary anthropology, Johnson examines the interplay between evolutionary biology and politics both on his blog and as part of his PhD work (he’s a student at the University of British Columbia).

The Atoms and Numbers blog is written by Marc Leger. From the About Marc page,

I am a scientist who has always been curious and fascinated by how our universe works.  I love discovering the mysteries and surprises of our World.  I want to share this passion with others, and make science accessible to anyone willing to open their minds.

Many people have appreciated my ability to explain complex scientific ideas in simple terms, and this is one motivation behind my website, Atoms and Numbers.  I taught chemistry in universities for several years, and I participated in the Scientists in the Schools program as a graduate student at Dalhousie University, presenting chemistry magic shows to children and teenagers from kindergarten to grade 12.  I’ve also given presentations on chemistry and forensics to high school students.  I’m even acknowledged in a cookbook for providing a few morsels of information about food chemistry.

Massimo Boninsegni writes about science-related topics (some are about the academic side of science; some physics; some personal items) on his Exponential Book blog.

The Last Word on Nothing is a group blog that features Heather Pringle, a well-known Canadian science writer, on some posts. Pringle’s latest posting is, Absinthe and the Corpse Reviver, all about a legendary cure for hangovers. While this isn’t strictly speaking a Canadian science blog, there is a Canadian science blogger in the group and the topics are quite engaging.

Daniel Lemire’s blog is known simply as Daniel Lemire. He’s a computer scientist in Montréal who writes one of the more technical blogs I’ve come across and his focus seems to be databases. He does cover other topics too, notably in this post titled, Where do debt, credit and currencies come from?

Confessions of a Science Librarian by John Dupuis (head of the Steacie Science & Engineering Library at York University) is a blog I missed mentioning last year and I’m very glad I remembered it this year. As you might expect from a librarian, the last few postings have consisted of lists of the best science books of 2011.

Sci/Why is a science blog being written by Canadian children’s writers who discuss science, words, and the eternal question – why?

I have mixed feelings about including this blog, the Dark Matter science blog by Tom Spears, as it is a ‘newspaper blog’ from the Ottawa Citizen.

Similarly, the MaRS blog is a corporate initiative from the Toronto area science and technology business incubator, MaRS Discovery District.

The last three blogs I’m mentioning are from medical and health science writers.

Susan Baxter’s blog Curmudgeon’s Corner features her insights into various medical matters, for example there’s her Dec. 5, 2011 posting on mammograms, along with her opinions on spandex, travel, and politics.

Peter Janiszewski and Travis Saunders co-own two different blogs, Obesity Panacea, which is part of the PLoS (Public Library of Science) blogs network, and Science of Blogging (nothing posted since July 2011 but it’s well worth a look).

I don’t have anything particularly profound to say about the state of Canadian science blogging this year. It does look to be getting more populous online and I hope that trend continues. I do have a wish for the New Year; I think it should be easier to find Canadian science blogs and would like  to see some sort of network or aggregated list.

Science research spending and innovation in Europe and reflections on the Canadian situation

I thought I’d pull together some information about science funding and innovation for closer examination. First, in early July 2011 the European Union announced plans for a huge spending increase, approximately 45%, for science. Their current programme, the Seventh Framework Programme (US$79B budget) is coming to an end in 2013 and the next iteration will be called, Horizon 2020 (proposed US$114B budget).  Here’s more from Kit Eaton’s July 6, 2011 article on Fast Company,

The proposal still awaits approval by the E.U.’s parliament and member states, but just getting this far is a milestone. The next phase is to forge spending into the next generation of the E.U.’s Framework Programme, which is its main research spending entity, to produce a plan called Horizon 2020. The spending shift has been championed by E.U. research commissioner Márie Geoghan-Quinn, and means that the share of the E.U. budget portioned out for scientific research will eventually double from its 4.5% figure in 2007 to 9% in 2020.

How will Europe pay for it? This is actually the biggest trick being pulled off: More than €4.5 billion would be transferred from the E.U.’s farm subsidies program, the Common Agricultural Policy. This is the enormous pile of cash paid by E.U. authorities to farmers each year to keep them in business, to keep food products rolling off the production line, and to keep fields fallow–as well as to diversify their businesses.

Nature journal also covered the news in a July 5, 2011 article by Colin Macilwane,

Other research advocates say that the proposal — although falling short of the major realignment of funding priorities they had been hoping for — was as good as could be expected in the circumstances. “Given the times we’re in, we couldn’t realistically have hoped for much more,” says Dieter Imboden, president of Eurohorcs, the body representing Europe’s national research agencies.

Geoghegan-Quinn told Nature that the proposal was “a big vote of confidence in science” but also called on researchers to push to get the proposal implemented — especially in their home countries. “The farmers will be out there lobbying, and scientists and researchers need to do the same,” she says.

While the European Union wrangles over a budget that could double their investment in science research, Canadians evince, at best, a mild interest in science research.

The latest Science, Technology and Innovation Council report, State of the Nation 2010: Canada’s Science, Technology and Innovation System, was released in June 2011 and has, so far, occasioned little interest despite an article in the Globe & Mail and a Maclean’s blog posting by Paul Wells. Hopefully,  The Black Hole Blog, where Beth Swan and David Kent are writing a series about the report, will be able to stimulate some discussion.

From Beth’s July 12, 2011 posting,

The report – at least the section I’m talking about today – is based on data from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s (OECD) Programme for International Student Assessment and Statistics Canada. Some of the interesting points include:

  • 15-year-old Canadians rank in the top 10 of OECD countries for math and science in 20091.
  • 80% of 15-19 year-old Canadians are pursuing a formal education, which is lower than the OECD average
  • But Canada ranks 1st in OECD countries for adults (ages 25–64 years) in terms of the percentage of the population with a post-secondary education (49%)
  • The numbers of Canadian students in science and engineering at the undergraduate level increased (18% increase in the number of science undergraduate degrees, 9% increase in the number of engineering undergraduate degrees) in 2008 compared to 2005

This all begs the question, though, of what those science-based graduates do once they graduate. It’s something that we’ve talked about a fair bit here on the Black Hole and the STIC report gives us some unhappy data on it. Canada had higher unemployment rates for science-based PhDs (~3-4%) compared to other OECD countries (e.g., in the US, it’s about ~1-1.5%).  Specifically, in 2006 Canada had the highest rate of unemployment for the medical sciences -3%- and engineering -4%- and the third highest rate of unemployment for the natural sciences -3%- among the OECD countries: the data are from 2006.

David, in his July 16, 2011 posting, focuses on direct and indirect Canadian federal government Research & Development (R&D) spending,

It appears from a whole host of statistics, reports, etc – that Canada lags in innovation, but what is the government’s role in helping to nurture its advancement.  Is it simply to create fertile ground for “the market” to do its work?  or is it a more interventionist style of determining what sorts of projects the country needs and investing as such?  Perhaps it involves altering the way we train and inspire our young people?

Beth then comments on Canadian business R&D investment, which has always been a low priority according to the material I’ve read, in her July 25, 2011 posting on ,

Taken together, this shows a rather unfavourable trend in Canadian businesses not investing in research & development – i.e, not contributing to innovation. We know from Dave’s last posting that Canada is not very good at contributing direct funds to research and my first posting in this series illustrated that while Canada is pretty good at getting PhDs trained, we are not so good at having jobs for those PhDs once they are done their schooling.

The latest July 27, 2011 posting from David asks the age old question, Why does Canada lag in R&D spending?

Many reports have been written over the past 30 years about Canada and its R&D spending, and they clamour one after the other about Canada’s relative lack of investment into R&D.  We’ve been through periods of deep cutbacks and periods of very strong growth, yet one thing remains remarkably consistent – Canada underspends on R&D relative to other countries.

The waters around such questions are extremely murky and tangible outcomes are tough to identify and quantify when so many factors are at play.  What does seem reasonable though is to ask where this investment gap is filled from in other countries that currently outstrip Canada’s spending – is it public money, private money, foreign money, or domestic money?  Hopefully these questions are being asked and answered before we set forth on another 30 year path of poor relative investment.

As I stated in my submission to the federal government’s R&D review panel and noted in my March 15, 2011 posting about the ‘Innovation’ consultation, I think we need to approach the issues in more imaginative ways.