Tag Archives: Brian Owens

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].

Announcing Canada’s Chief Science Advisor: Dr. Mona Nemer

Thanks to the Canadian Science Policy Centre’s September 26, 2017 announcement (received via email) a burning question has been answered,

After great anticipation, Prime Minister Trudeau along with Minister Duncan have announced Canada’s Chief Science Advisor, Dr. Mona Nemer, [emphasis mine]  at a ceremony at the House of Commons. The Canadian Science Policy Centre welcomes this exciting news and congratulates Dr. Nemer on her appointment in this role and we wish her the best in carrying out her duties in this esteemed position. CSPC is looking forward to working closely with Dr. Nemer for the Canadian science policy community. Mehrdad Hariri, CEO & President of the CSPC, stated, “Today’s historic announcement is excellent news for science in Canada, for informed policy-making and for all Canadians. We look forward to working closely with the new Chief Science Advisor.”

In fulfilling our commitment to keep the community up to date and informed regarding science, technology, and innovation policy issues, CSPC has been compiling all news, publications, and editorials in recognition of the importance of the Federal Chief Science Officer as it has been developing, as you may see by clicking here.

We invite your opinions regarding the new Chief Science Advisor, to be published on our CSPC Featured Editorial page. We will publish your reactions on our website, sciencepolicy.ca on our Chief Science Advisor page.

Please send your opinion pieces to editorial@sciencepolicy.ca.

Here are a few (very few) details from the Prime Minister’s (Justin Trudeau) Sept. 26, 2017 press release making the official announcement,

The Government of Canada is committed to strengthen science in government decision-making and to support scientists’ vital work.

In keeping with these commitments, the Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, today announced Dr. Mona Nemer as Canada’s new Chief Science Advisor, following an open, transparent, and merit-based selection process.  

We know Canadians value science. As the new Chief Science Advisor, Dr. Nemer will help promote science and its real benefits for Canadians—new knowledge, novel technologies, and advanced skills for future jobs. These breakthroughs and new opportunities form an essential part of the Government’s strategy to secure a better future for Canadian families and to grow Canada’s middle class.

Dr. Nemer is a distinguished medical researcher whose focus has been on the heart, particularly on the mechanisms of heart failure and congenital heart diseases. In addition to publishing over 200 scholarly articles, her research has led to new diagnostic tests for heart failure and the genetics of cardiac birth defects. Dr. Nemer has spent more than ten years as the Vice-President, Research at the University of Ottawa, has served on many national and international scientific advisory boards, and is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, a Member of the Order of Canada, and a Chevalier de l’Ordre du Québec.

As Canada’s new top scientist, Dr. Nemer will provide impartial scientific advice to the Prime Minister and the Minister of Science. She will also make recommendations to help ensure that government science is fully available and accessible to the public, and that federal scientists remain free to speak about their work. Once a year, she will submit a report about the state of federal government science in Canada to the Prime Minister and the Minister of Science, which will also be made public.

Quotes

“We have taken great strides to fulfill our promise to restore science as a pillar of government decision-making. Today, we took another big step forward by announcing Dr. Mona Nemer as our Chief Science Advisor. Dr. Nemer brings a wealth of expertise to the role. Her advice will be invaluable and inform decisions made at the highest levels. I look forward to working with her to promote a culture of scientific excellence in Canada.”
— The Rt. Hon. Justin Trudeau, Prime Minister of Canada

“A respect for science and for Canada’s remarkable scientists is a core value for our government. I look forward to working with Dr. Nemer, Canada’s new Chief Science Advisor, who will provide us with the evidence we need to make decisions about what matters most to Canadians: their health and safety, their families and communities, their jobs, environment and future prosperity.”
— The Honourable Kirsty Duncan, Minister of Science

“I am honoured and excited to be Canada’s Chief Science Advisor. I am very pleased to be representing Canadian science and research – work that plays a crucial role in protecting and improving the lives of people everywhere. I look forward to advising the Prime Minister and the Minister of Science and working with the science community, policy makers, and the public to make science part of government policy making.”
— Dr. Mona Nemer, Chief Science Advisor, Canada

Quick Facts

  • Dr. Nemer is also a Knight of the Order of Merit of the French Republic, and has been awarded honorary doctorates from universities in France and Finland.
  • The Office of the Chief Science Advisor will be housed at Innovation, Science and Economic Development and supported by a secretariat.

Nemers’ Wikipedia entry does not provide much additional information although you can find out a bit more on her University of Ottawa page. Brian Owens in a Sept. 26, 2017 article for the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s (AAAS) Science Magazine provides a bit more detail, about this newly created office and its budget

Nemer’s office will have a $2 million budget, and she will report to both Trudeau and science minister Kirsty Duncan. Her mandate includes providing scientific advice to government ministers, helping keep government-funded science accessible to the public, and protecting government scientists from being muzzled.

Ivan Semeniuk’s Sept. 26, 2017 article for the Globe and Mail newspaper about Nemer’s appointment is the most informative (that I’ve been able to find),

Mona Nemer, a specialist in the genetics of heart disease and a long time vice-president of research at the University of Ottawa, has been named Canada’s new chief science advisor.

The appointment, announced Tuesday [Sept. 26, 2017] by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, comes two years after the federal Liberals pledged to reinstate the position during the last election campaign and nearly a decade after the previous version of the role was cut by then prime minister Stephen Harper.

Dr. Nemer steps into the job of advising the federal government on science-related policy at a crucial time. Following a landmark review of Canada’s research landscape [Naylor report] released last spring, university-based scientists are lobbying hard for Ottawa to significantly boost science funding, one of the report’s key recommendations. At the same time, scientists and science-advocacy groups are increasingly scrutinizing federal actions on a range of sensitive environment and health-related issues to ensure the Trudeau government is making good on promises to embrace evidence-based decision making.

A key test of the position’s relevance for many observers will be the extent to which Dr. Nemer is able to speak her mind on matters where science may run afoul of political expediency.

Born in 1957, Dr. Nemer grew up in Lebanon and pursued an early passion for chemistry at a time and place where women were typically discouraged from entering scientific fields. With Lebanon’s civil war making it increasingly difficult for her to pursue her studies, her family was able to arrange for her to move to the United States, where she completed an undergraduate degree at Wichita State University in Kansas.

A key turning point came in the summer of 1977 when Dr. Nemer took a trip with friends to Montreal. She quickly fell for the city and, in short order, managed to secure acceptance to McGill University, where she received a PhD in 1982. …

It took a lot of searching to find out that Nemer was born in Lebanon and went to the United States first. A lot of immigrants and their families view Canada as a second choice and Nemer and her family would appear to have followed that pattern. It’s widely believed (amongst Canadians too) that the US is where you go for social mobility. I’m not sure if this is still the case but at one point in the 1980s Israel ranked as having the greatest social mobility in the world. Canada came in second while the US wasn’t even third or fourth ranked.

It’s the second major appointment by Justin Trudeau in the last few months to feature a woman who speaks French. The first was Julie Payette, former astronaut and Québecker, as the upcoming Governor General (there’s more detail and a whiff of sad scandal in this Aug. 21, 2017 Canadian Broadcasting Corporation online news item). Now there’s Dr. Mona Nemer who’s lived both in Québec and Ontario. Trudeau and his feminism, eh? Also, his desire to keep Québeckers happy (more or less).

I’m not surprised by the fact that Nemer has been based in Ottawa for several years. I guess they want someone who’s comfortable with the government apparatus although I for one think a little fresh air might be welcome. After all, the Minister of Science, Kirsty Duncan, is from Toronto which between Nemer and Duncan gives us the age-old Canadian government trifecta (geographically speaking), Ottawa-Montréal-Toronto.

Two final comments, I am surprised that Duncan did not make the announcement. After all, it was in her 2015 mandate letter.But perhaps Paul Wells in his acerbic June 29, 2017 article for Macleans hints at the reason as he discusses the Naylor report (review of fundamental science mentioned in Semeniuk’s article and for which Nemer is expected to provide advice),

The Naylor report represents Canadian research scientists’ side of a power struggle. The struggle has been continuing since Jean Chrétien left office. After early cuts, he presided for years over very large increases to the budgets of the main science granting councils. But since 2003, governments have preferred to put new funding dollars to targeted projects in applied sciences. …

Naylor wants that trend reversed, quickly. He is supported in that call by a frankly astonishingly broad coalition of university administrators and working researchers, who until his report were more often at odds. So you have the group representing Canada’s 15 largest research universities and the group representing all universities and a new group representing early-career researchers and, as far as I can tell, every Canadian scientist on Twitter. All backing Naylor. All fundamentally concerned that new money for research is of no particular interest if it does not back the best science as chosen by scientists, through peer review.

The competing model, the one preferred by governments of all stripes, might best be called superclusters. Very large investments into very large projects with loosely defined scientific objectives, whose real goal is to retain decorated veteran scientists and to improve the Canadian high-tech industry. Vast and sprawling labs and tech incubators, cabinet ministers nodding gravely as world leaders in sexy trendy fields sketch the golden path to Jobs of Tomorrow.

You see the imbalance. On one side, ribbons to cut. On the other, nerds experimenting on tapeworms. Kirsty Duncan, a shaky political performer, transparently a junior minister to the supercluster guy, with no deputy minister or department reporting to her, is in a structurally weak position: her title suggests she’s science’s emissary to the government, but she is not equipped to be anything more than government’s emissary to science.

Second,  our other science minister, Navdeep Bains, Minister of Innovation, Science  and Economic Development does not appear to have been present at the announcement. Quite surprising given where her office will located (from the government’s Sept. 26, 2017 press release in Quick Facts section ) “The Office of the Chief Science Advisor will be housed at Innovation, Science and Economic Development and supported by a secretariat.”

Finally, Wells’ article is well worth reading in its entirety and for those who are information gluttons, I have a three part series on the Naylor report, published June 8, 2017,

INVESTING IN CANADA’S FUTURE; Strengthening the Foundations of Canadian Research (Review of fundamental research final report): 1 of 3

INVESTING IN CANADA’S FUTURE; Strengthening the Foundations of Canadian Research (Review of fundamental research final report): 2 of 3

INVESTING IN CANADA’S FUTURE; Strengthening the Foundations of Canadian Research (Review of fundamental research final report): 3 of 3

Montreal Neuro goes open science

The Montreal Neurological Institute (MNI) in Québec, Canada, known informally and widely as Montreal Neuro, has ‘opened’ its science research to the world. David Bruggeman tells the story in a Jan. 21, 2016 posting on his Pasco Phronesis blog (Note: Links have been removed),

The Montreal Neurological Institute (MNI) at McGill University announced that it will be the first academic research institute to become what it calls ‘Open Science.’  As Science is reporting, the MNI will make available all research results and research data at the time of publication.  Additionally it will not seek patents on any of the discoveries made on research at the Institute.

Will this catch on?  I have no idea if this particular combination of open access research data and results with no patents will spread to other university research institutes.  But I do believe that those elements will continue to spread.  More universities and federal agencies are pursuing open access options for research they support.  Elon Musk has opted to not pursue patent litigation for any of Tesla Motors’ patents, and has not pursued patents for SpaceX technology (though it has pursued litigation over patents in rocket technology). …

Montreal Neuro and its place in Canadian and world history

Before pursuing this announcement a little more closely, you might be interested in some of the institute’s research history (from the Montreal Neurological Institute Wikipedia entry and Note: Links have been removed),

The MNI was founded in 1934 by the neurosurgeon Dr. Wilder Penfield (1891–1976), with a $1.2 million grant from the Rockefeller Foundation of New York and the support of the government of Quebec, the city of Montreal, and private donors such as Izaak Walton Killam. In the years since the MNI’s first structure, the Rockefeller Pavilion was opened, several major structures were added to expand the scope of the MNI’s research and clinical activities. The MNI is the site of many Canadian “firsts.” Electroencephalography (EEG) was largely introduced and developed in Canada by MNI scientist Herbert Jasper, and all of the major new neuroimaging techniques—computer axial tomography (CAT), positron emission tomography (PET), and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) were first used in Canada at the MNI. Working under the same roof, the Neuro’s scientists and physicians made discoveries that drew world attention. Penfield’s technique for epilepsy neurosurgery became known as the Montreal procedure. K.A.C. Elliott identified γ-aminobutyric acid (GABA) as the first inhibitory neurotransmitter. Brenda Milner revealed new aspects of brain function and ushered in the field of neuropsychology as a result of her groundbreaking study of the most famous neuroscience patient of the 20th century, H.M., who had anterograde amnesia and was unable to form new memories. In 2007, the Canadian government recognized the innovation and work of the MNI by naming it one of seven national Centres of Excellence in Commercialization and Research.

For those with the time and the interest, here’s a link to an interview (early 2015?) with Brenda Milner (and a bonus, related second link) as part of a science podcast series (from my March 6, 2015 posting),

Dr. Wendy Suzuki, a Professor of Neural Science and Psychology in the Center for Neural Science at New York University, whose research focuses on understanding how our brains form and retain new long-term memories and the effects of aerobic exercise on memory. Her book Healthy Brain, Happy Life will be published by Harper Collins in the Spring of 2015.

  • Totally Cerebral: Untangling the Mystery of Memory: Neuroscientist Wendy Suzuki introduces us to scientists who have uncovered some of the deepest secrets about our brains. She begins by talking with experimental psychologist Brenda Milner [interviewed in her office at McGill University, Montréal, Quebéc], who in the 1950s, completely changed our understanding of the parts of the brain important for forming new long-term memories.
  • Totally Cerebral: The Man Without a Memory: Imagine never being able to form a new long term memory after the age of 27. Welcome to the life of the famous amnesic patient “HM”. Neuroscientist Suzanne Corkin studied HM for almost half a century, and gives us a glimpse of what daily life was like for him, and his tremendous contribution to our understanding of how our memories work.

Brief personal anecdote
For those who just want the science, you may want to skip this section.

About 15 years ago, I had the privilege of talking with Mary Filer, a former surgical nurse and artist in glass. Originally from Saskatchewan, she, a former member of Wilder Penfield’s surgical team, was then in her 80s living in Vancouver and still associated with Montreal Neuro, albeit as an artist rather than a surgical nurse.

Penfield had encouraged her to pursue her interest in the arts (he was an art/science aficionado) and at this point her work could be seen many places throughout the world and, if memory serves, she had just been asked to go MNI for the unveiling of one of her latest pieces.

Her husband, then in his 90s, had founded the School of Architecture at McGill University. This couple had known all the ‘movers and shakers’ in Montreal society for decades and retired to Vancouver where their home was in a former chocolate factory.

It was one of those conversations, you just don’t forget.

More about ‘open science’ at Montreal Neuro

Brian Owens’ Jan. 21, 2016 article for Science Magazine offers some insight into the reason for the move to ‘open science’,

Guy Rouleau, the director of McGill University’s Montreal Neurological Institute (MNI) and Hospital in Canada, is frustrated with how slowly neuroscience research translates into treatments. “We’re doing a really shitty job,” he says. “It’s not because we’re not trying; it has to do with the complexity of the problem.”

So he and his colleagues at the renowned institute decided to try a radical solution. Starting this year, any work done there will conform to the principles of the “open-
science” movement—all results and data will be made freely available at the time of publication, for example, and the institute will not pursue patents on any of its discoveries. …

“It’s an experiment; no one has ever done this before,” he says. The intent is that neuroscience research will become more efficient if duplication is reduced and data are shared more widely and earlier. …”

After a year of consultations among the institute’s staff, pretty much everyone—about 70 principal investigators and 600 other scientific faculty and staff—has agreed to take part, Rouleau says. Over the next 6 months, individual units will hash out the details of how each will ensure that its work lives up to guiding principles for openness that the institute has developed. …

Owens’ article provides more information about implementation and issues about sharing. I encourage you to read it in its entirety.

As for getting more research to the patient, there’s a Jan. 26, 2016 Cafe Scientifique talk in Vancouver (my Jan. 22, 2016 ‘Events’ posting; scroll down about 40% of the way) regarding that issue although there’s no hint that the speakers will be discussing ‘open science’.

Science blogging session at 2015 Canadian Science Policy Conference? Hmmm. Really, really really?

Who can resist a Carly Rae Jepsen reference (specifically, the “I really like you” song with its over 60 instances of the word, ‘really’)? Not me.

I have a few things to say about the Science Blogging: The Next Generation session organized by Science Borealis (?) for the Seventh Canadian Science Policy Conference, being held in Ottawa, Ontario from Nov. 25 – 27, 2015 at the Delta Ottawa City Centre Hotel.

First, congratulations to the session organizer(s) for a successful conference submission. (A few years ago I chatted with someone from an institution that I thought would gain almost automatic acceptance whose submission had been rejected. So, there is competition for these spots.) Second, I know it’s tough to pull a panel together. The process can range from merely challenging to downright hellacious.

That said, I have a few comments and suggestions. There seem to be a few oddities regarding the blogging session. Let’s start with the biographies where you’d expect to see something about science blogging credentials, i.e., the name of his or her science blog, how long they’ve publishing/writing, their topics, etc.

Brian Owens [moderator]
General Science editor, Research Canada/Science Borealis
Brian is an experienced science policy journalist. He is editor of Research Canada, the newest publication of the international science policy publisher Research Professional. He is also General Science editor of Science Borealis.

Our moderator does not mention having a blog or writing for one regularly although he does edit for Science Borealis (a Canadian science blog aggregator). How long has he been doing that and how do you edit a science blog aggregator?

Moving on, Owens’ LinkedIn profile indicates he returned to Canada from  the UK in November 2012. So, by the time the conference rolls round, he will have been back in the country three years. (Shades of Michael Ignatieff!) It’s possible he’s kept up with Canada’s science policy while he was in London but he does seem to have held a high pressure job suggesting he wouldn’t have had the bandwidth to regularly keep up with the Canadian science policy scene.

His LinkedIn profile shows this experience,

Online news editor
Nature Publishing Group
January 2011 – November 2012 (1 year 11 months)London, United Kingdom

Responsible for all online news and blog content, including running daily news meetings, assigning stories, editing copy and managing an international team of staff and freelance reporters. Also led on developing Nature’s social media strategy. [emphasis mine]

It’s always good to have Nature on your résumé, although the journal has a somewhat spotty reputation where social media is concerned. Perhaps he helped turn it around?

So, how does guy who’s never had a blog (editing is not the same thing) and has about three years experience back home in New Brunswick after several years abroad moderate a Canadian science blogging panel with a policy focus?

Given the information at hand, it seems a little sketchy but doable provided your panel has solid experience.

Let’s check out the panel (Note: All the excerpts come from this session description):

Amelia Buchanan
blogger, Journalism student at Algonquin College
A recent convert to science communication, Amelia Buchanan is a journalism student with a Bachelor’s degree in biology. She writes stories about science and technology at school and blogs about urban wildlife in her spare time.

What’s Buchanan’s blog called? After searching, I found this, lab bench to park bench. Her blog archives indicate that she started in April 2014. Unless she’s owned other blogs, she will have approximately 18 months experience writing about the natural world, for the most part, when the conference session takes place.

That’s not much experience although someone with a fresh perspective can be a good addition to panels like this. Let’s see who’s next.

Chris Buddle
Associate Professor and Associate Dean at McGill University’s Macdonald Campus, University of Montreal/Science Borealis
Dr. Chris Buddle is an Associate Professor and Associate Dean at McGill University’s Macdonald Campus. He is an enthusiastic and devoted science communicator and blogger, and a member of the Science Borealis board of directors.

What is his blog called? It turns out to be, Arthropod Ecology. The earliest date I could find for any mention of it was in 2012. Unfortunately, the About this blog description is relatively uninformative with regard to its inception so I’m stuck with that one reference to a 2012 posting on Buddle’s blog. This one, too, focuses on the natural world.

So, Buddle has possibly three years experience. He does write more extensive pieces but, more frequently, he illustrates* his posts liberally with images while making extensive use of bullet points and links elsewhere. He’s mixing two styles for his postings, ‘illustrated essay writing’ and ‘picture book with lots of linked resources’. It can be a way to address different audiences and attention spans.

***ETA: Aug. 20, 2015: Chris Buddle has kindly provided more information about his blog via twitter:

@CMBuddle
Aug 20
@frogheart yes it is called “arthropod ecology”, I post 1-2 times per week, since 2012. Some posts are ‘link-fests’ hence the bullets 3/n

@frogheart many other posts are long-form research blogging. Had about 300K + unique visitors, & avg b/w 600-900 visits per day 4/n

@frogheart audience is other scientists, students, colleagues, broader public. Try to write in ‘plain language’ to make accessible

Thank you, Chris for providing more details about your blog and passing on a link to this posting with its criticisms and suggestions to the session organizers.***

* ‘illustrate’ changed to ‘illustrates’ Aug. 20, 2015.

The fourth panelist in this group is,

Sabrina Doyle
Canadian Geographic
Sabrina Doyle is the new media editor at Canadian Geographic. She is fascinated by arctic exploration, enjoys triathlons, and has a deep fondness for all things edible. Hates dirt under her fingernails but loves activities that get it there. Tweet her at @sab_jad |

I gather this bio is something she uses elsewhere. Unfortunately, it doesn’t answer the question: what is she doing on this panel?

It turns out she writes the posts for the Canadian Geographic Compass Blog. From her LinkedIn profile, she’s been working for Canadian Geographic since July 2013 and became responsible for the blog in Oct. 2014. She doesn’t seem to have blogged prior to that time, which gives her approximately 13 months experience once she’s at the science blogging session in November 2015. While she, too, writes much about the natural world, she offers the most diverse range of topics amongst the panelists.

There is one more panelist,

Paul Dufour
Principal/adjunct professor, PaulicyWorks/University of Ottawa
Paul Dufour is Principal of PaulicyWorks, a science and technology policy consulting firm based in Gatineau, Quebec, and an adjunct professor at the University of Ottawa’s Institute for Science, Society and Policy.

Dufour does not seem to own and/or write a blog and, as far as I’m aware, has no media background of any kind (Dufour’s LinkedIn profile). He seems to a science policy wonk which makes sense for the conference but leaves the question: what he is doing on this panel? Other media experience might have given him some comparative insight into how blogs have affected the science media and science policy spaces. But perhaps he reads blogs and is going to share how they’ve influenced his work in science policy?

Here’s what they’re supposed to be talking about, from the session description,

Science blogs serve many communities, including research, policy, the mainstream media and the public at large. They validate successful science, challenge weak conclusions, and are an increasingly important tool for providing valuable context and understanding of research via an open and public forum that encourages debate. Further, science blogging fills the void left by the changing media landscape with fewer resources invested in science writing and reporting. Policy makers are looking to trusted blogs and social channels for insight and information.

This session will provide an in-depth and hands-on look at science blogging and its impact on the Transformation of Science, Society and Research in the Digital Age. With a particular focus on tools and platforms, best practices, the current Canadian blogging landscape, and some predictions for the future, this interactive session will demonstrate how blogs are a platform for engagement, discussion and sharing of science.

Canada has many talented science bloggers, representing both the science reporting and documentary approaches. Our science blogging community has strengthened and grown in recent years, with Science Borealis, launched at the 2013 CSPC, providing a cohesive platform for discussion, discovery and delivery. The proposed panel will address how science blogs are useful for both policymakers and scientists.

Tapping into the power of the crowd, the session will interactively engage the audience in the creation of a quality, high-impact, policy-oriented blog post that will later be published on Science Borealis. The panel will provide audience members with hands-on experience in good blogging practice: goals, approaches, dos and don’ts — and more — to create a well-designed post accessible to government, the broader scientific community, industry and the public.

The panel will discuss the current state of science blogging in Canada showcasing best examples and demonstrating their impacts on the public perception of science and the transformation of science and research and. It will briefly explore this type of digital engagement with an eye to the future. [this para seems redundant]

The validity of at least some of the assertions in the first paragraph are due to work by researchers such as Dominique Brossard and Dietram Sheufele (New media landscapes and the science information consumer) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. It would have been nice to have seen a few citations (I’d really like to see the research supporting the notion that policymakers read and are influenced by science bloggers) replacing that somewhat redundant final paragraph.

I highlighted a number of words and terms, “platform,” “engagement,” “interactive,” “high-impact,” and “Tapping into the power of the crowd,” which I imagine helped them sell this panel to the organizers.

Despite some statements suggesting otherwise, it seems the main purpose of this session is to focus on and write a science policy posting, “the session will interactively engage the audience in the creation of a quality, high-impact, policy-oriented blog post .” That should be an interesting trick since none of the panelists write that type of blog and the one science policy type doesn’t seem to write for any kind of blog. I gather the panelists are going to tap into ‘the power of each other’. More puzzling, this session seems like a workshop not a panel. Just how are the participants going to have a “hands-on” experience of “interactively writing up a science policy blog post?” There aren’t that many ways to operationalize this endeavour. It’s either a session where people have access to computers and collectively write and post individual pieces under one banner or they submit their posts and someone edits in real time or someone is acting as secretary taking notes from the discussion and summarizing it in a post (not exactly hands-on for anyone except the writer).

As for the ‘tips and tricks’ to be offered by the panelists, is there going to be a handout and/or accessible webpage with the information? I also don’t see any mention about building an audience for your work, search engine optimization, and/or policies for your blog (e.g., what do you do when someone wants to send you a book for review? how do you handle comments [sometimes people get pretty angry]?).

I hope there’s an opportunity to update the bios. in the ways I’ve suggested: list your blog, explain what you write, how long you’ve been posting, how you’ve built up your audience, etc. For the participants who don’t have blogs perhaps they could discuss how blogs have affected their work, or not. In any event, I wish the organizers and panelists good luck. Especially since the session is scheduled for the very end of the conference. (I’ve been in that position; everyone at that conference laughed when they learned when my session was scheduled.)

Reading media

It’s been a while since I’ve attempted an analysis of media coverage but the appearance of these two articles at roughly the same time inspired me.  Nature has a Mar. 22, 2013 article by Brian Owens titled, Canada puts commercialization ahead of blue-sky research; Federal budget boosts clean-energy research and university infrastructure. It’s not an unusual response to the 2013 budget and there has been a great deal of discussion about the trend towards commercialization (e.g. Ivan Semeniuk’s Mar. 25, 2013 Globe and Mail article, Federal budget ignites debate over what science is for).

Particularly striking with regard to the Nature article about the Canadian federal budget is the picture which accompanies it, the least flattering image I have ever seen of Canada’s Finance Minister, Jim Flaherty. Shot from the side and below, it emphasizes his girth and receding hairline. Interestingly, this shot is used in a British publication which is taking the Canadian government to task. I have not seen any comparable images in Canadian media pieces where Flaherty is usually shown full face and from mid-chest up.

The second piece I’m highlighting is about a technology application (thanks to @BoraZ for the tweet link) which features fascinating insight into the politics of selling technology, from an Open note to tech press/bloggers (Note: Links have been removed),

We just did a great rollout, the product is fantastic. This is going to move tech in a new direction. It’ll create new standards. I’m absolutely sure of it.

Yet, even with my track record as one who leads change in technology, the release of this software has gotten almost no note from leading tech bloggers and reporters.

That’s okay, because it’ll happen without them. Last time I pushed something through, it didn’t get support from the press either. And the time before that. We can make it happen without their help.

I think they’re comfortable with big software ideas coming from big companies. But I can’t make change happen within the context of a big corporation. Too much second-guessing, too many strategy taxes, too many phony business models. So I choose to do it as an independent.

These are early days, the product is very simple, and well-documented. We went to great lengths to make it easy to understand.

Helping users understand new relevant technology is what you do, after all.

PS: I did not include comments on this post because this is the kind of thing that attracts a lot of trolls.

PPS: To users, this is why you haven’t heard much about Little Outliner in the tech press. There’s nothing wrong with the product.

Curious yet? The product is called Little Outliner, from the home page (Note: A link has been removed),

Little Outliner is a powerful and easy editor that automatically saves text locally, a new feature in HTML5.

Here’s more information from the Little Outliner press guide,

You do not have to register or create an account. Just visit the site, and start typing.

It stores text in local storage on your own computer.

The user’s outline is not transmitted to our servers.

There is no charge to use Little Outliner. Use it to become familiar with outliners. For some people the features of Little Outliner will be exactly what they need.

Little Outliner is our entry-level product.

It’s where we start. We will release deeper, more specialized, technical and sophisticated products built on outlining. Little Outliner will remain simple, general, easy and approachable. It’s where we expect new users to start.

All of our products will be focused on outliners and communication.

As for who is behind Little Outliner, the company is called Small Picture (from the press guide),

Small Picture, Inc is a Delaware corporation, founded on December 19, 2012 by Dave Winer and Kyle Shank.

Dave Winer, 57, has a long history in the tech industry. He is the founder of Living Videotext, founded in 1981, created the first personal computer outliners, ThinkTank, Ready and MORE. UserLand Software, founded in 1988, created Frontier, integrated development tools and web content management software for desktop computers. UserLand developed the first blogging software, Manila and Radio, and pioneered the development of RSS aggregator and interapplication protocols. Winer was the first blogger, and pioneered the development of podcasting, in 1994 and 2001 respectively. He has been a researcher at Harvard and NYU and has a MS in Computer Science from the University of Wisconsin, and a BA in Mathematics from Tulane University.

Kyle Shank, 28, has worked as a consultant to Silicon Valley tech companies. He has worked within the software group at IBM in Massachusetts, North Carolina and Zurich, Switzerland. In 2005 he co-founded the first open source Ruby on Rails specific IDE RadRails based on Eclipse. Kyle graduated from the Rochester Institute of Technology in 2007 with a BS in Software Engineering.

Dave works in New York City, Kyle in the Boston area and collaborate via Instant Outline and Skype.

I think these two stories demonstrate the political nature of choosing images (in this case, presenting an image that suggests Flaherty is big [an upward angle tends to make someone seem big and threatening] while emphasizing his weight and aging) and choosing stories (in this case, determining what technology consumers will hear about). We tend to think of our information flow as being free and unencumbered when it is not. There are any number of gatekeepers and choosers who decide what we will and won’t see.

There is a kind of paradox at work. In order to blog or write or communicate one needs to make choices but that means one is inevitably put in the position of becoming a gatekeeper/editor/censor.

I don’t believe there is a magic way to escape the paradox and the best we can hope for is that we be  vigilant about our own biases and that our readers or audiences remind us when we fail in our attempts.