Tag Archives: Britain

The greatest intellectual theft in history? Tea!

Following my green tea and sensitive teeth story (August 4, 2017 posting), I stumbled on this August 2, 2017 story by Nicola Twilley and Cynthia Graber for The Atlantic,

… The Chinese domesticated tea over thousands of years, but they lost their near monopoly on international trade when a Scottish botanist, disguised as a Chinese nobleman, smuggled it out of China in the 1800s, in order to secure Britain’s favorite beverage and prop up its empire for another century. The story involves pirates, ponytails, and hard drugs—and, to help tell the tale, Cynthia and Nicky visit Britain’s one and only commercial tea plantation, tucked away in a secret garden on an aristocratic estate on the Cornish coast. While harvesting and processing tea leaves, we learn the difference between green and black tea, as well as which is better for your health. Put the kettle on, and settle in for the science and history of tea!

A podcast from Gastropod (Nicola Twilley’s and Cynthia Graber’s blog) is embedded into The Atlantic story but you can also find it here on the Gastropod website along with more details in the accompanying text (Note: Links have been removed),

It seemed so simple in the mid-1700s: China had tea, Britain wanted tea. First introduced by Portuguese princess Catherine de Braganza in 1662, tea soon overtook beer as Britain’s favorite brew. The only problem, according to Sarah Rose, author of For All the Tea in China: How England Stole the World’s Favorite Drink and Changed History, was that the Chinese weren’t purchasing any British goods in return. Britain was simply dumping its silver into China, creating a serious balance of payments problem. Britain’s solution? Trade drugs for drugs—specifically, the caffeine fix in tea for the poppies that grow abundantly on the Afghan-Pakistan border, which at the time was part of the British empire. “They just start dumping opium into China,” explained Rose. But drug-dealing proved to be an expensive headache, and so, in 1848, Britain embarked on the biggest botanical heist in history, as well as one of the biggest thefts of intellectual property to date: stealing Chinese tea plants, as well as Chinese tea-processing expertise, in order to create a tea industry in India.

I first wrote about Robert Fortune, master thief and scientist and Sarah Rose, author of ‘For All the Tea in China: How England Stole the World’s Favorite Drink and Changed History‘ (2011) in the context of computer chips, US and China relations, and piracy fears (my Aug. 11, 2010 posting).

In the Gastropod podcast, Rose seems to be willing to give more details from her book now that it’s no longer fresh off the press. Amongst other gems, you’ll find out that Fortune was six feet* or more in height, had shaved himself bald and had a queue sewn into his scalp, couldn’t speak any Chinese languages, and was a white Scotsman. How did he pass? It had to do with how the Chinese in that period viewed ‘foreigness’; for more details you’ll need to listed to the podcast. Rose also mentions the British East India Company, a quasi-government (they had their own army) , in some jurisdictions, and pirates.

As regular readers know, I have often featured intellectual property stories here and while this doesn’t seem to fit into my emerging technologies focus, arguably, tea could be described as an emerging technology (albeit stolen from China) for the British Empire at that time.

I strongly suggest listening to and/or reading the July 31, 2017 Gastropod posting in its entirety.

*One quick comment, I had a professor some years ago who was involved with various Chinese ethnic groups who were to be displaced by the massive ‘Three Gorges Project’ and learned this. The Han people are dominant in China but my professor noted there are others including are least one ethnic group where males are six feet and taller and the females five foot 10 inches and taller due to their preference for eating buckwheat rather than white rice as their main grain. Robert Fortune’s height may not have been quite as unusual as I would have believed prior to that lecture.

Health technology and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s (CBC) two-tier health system ‘Viewpoint’

There’s a lot of talk and handwringing about Canada’s health care system, which ebbs and flows in almost predictable cycles. Jesse Hirsh in a May 16, 2017 ‘Viewpoints’ segment (an occasional series run as part the of the CBC’s [Canadian Broadcasting Corporation] flagship, daily news programme, The National) dared to reframe the discussion as one about technology and ‘those who get it’  [the technologically literate] and ‘those who don’t’,  a state Hirsh described as being illiterate as you can see and hear in the following video.

I don’t know about you but I’m getting tired of being called illiterate when I don’t know something. To be illiterate means you can’t read and write and as it turns out I do both of those things on a daily basis (sometimes even in two languages). Despite my efforts, I’m ignorant about any number of things and those numbers keep increasing day by day. BTW, Is there anyone who isn’t having trouble keeping up?

Moving on from my rhetorical question, Hirsh has a point about the tech divide and about the need for discussion. It’s a point that hadn’t occurred to me (although I think he’s taking it in the wrong direction). In fact, this business of a tech divide already exists if you consider that people who live in rural environments and need the latest lifesaving techniques or complex procedures or access to highly specialized experts have to travel to urban centres. I gather that Hirsh feels that this divide isn’t necessarily going to be an urban/rural split so much as an issue of how technically literate you and your doctor are.  That’s intriguing but then his argumentation gets muddled. Confusingly, he seems to be suggesting that the key to the split is your access (not your technical literacy) to artificial intelligence (AI) and algorithms (presumably he’s referring to big data and data analytics). I expect access will come down more to money than technological literacy.

For example, money is likely to be a key issue when you consider his big pitch is for access to IBM’s Watson computer. (My Feb. 28, 2011 posting titled: Engineering, entertainment, IBM’s Watson, and product placement focuses largely on Watson, its winning appearances on the US television game show, Jeopardy, and its subsequent adoption into the University of Maryland’s School of Medicine in a project to bring Watson into the examining room with patients.)

Hirsh’s choice of IBM’s Watson is particularly interesting for a number of reasons. (1) Presumably there are companies other than IBM in this sector. Why do they not rate a mention?  (2) Given the current situation with IBM and the Canadian federal government’s introduction of the Phoenix payroll system (a PeopleSoft product customized by IBM), which is  a failure of monumental proportions (a Feb. 23, 2017 article by David Reevely for the Ottawa Citizen and a May 25, 2017 article by Jordan Press for the National Post), there may be a little hesitation, if not downright resistance, to a large scale implementation of any IBM product or service, regardless of where the blame lies. (3) Hirsh notes on the home page for his eponymous website,

I’m presently spending time at the IBM Innovation Space in Toronto Canada, investigating the impact of artificial intelligence and cognitive computing on all sectors and industries.

Yes, it would seem he has some sort of relationship with IBM not referenced in his Viewpoints segment on The National. Also, his description of the relationship isn’t especially illuminating but perhaps it.s this? (from the IBM Innovation Space  – Toronto Incubator Application webpage),

Our incubator

The IBM Innovation Space is a Toronto-based incubator that provides startups with a collaborative space to innovate and disrupt the market. Our goal is to provide you with the tools needed to take your idea to the next level, introduce you to the right networks and help you acquire new clients. Our unique approach, specifically around client engagement, positions your company for optimal growth and revenue at an accelerated pace.

OUR SERVICES

IBM Bluemix
IBM Global Entrepreneur
Softlayer – an IBM Company
Watson

Startups partnered with the IBM Innovation Space can receive up to $120,000 in IBM credits at no charge for up to 12 months through the Global Entrepreneurship Program (GEP). These credits can be used in our products such our IBM Bluemix developer platform, Softlayer cloud services, and our world-renowned IBM Watson ‘cognitive thinking’ APIs. We provide you with enterprise grade technology to meet your clients’ needs, large or small.

Collaborative workspace in the heart of Downtown Toronto
Mentorship opportunities available with leading experts
Access to large clients to scale your startup quickly and effectively
Weekly programming ranging from guest speakers to collaborative activities
Help with funding and access to local VCs and investors​

Final comments

While I have some issues with Hirsh’s presentation, I agree that we should be discussing the issues around increased automation of our health care system. A friend of mine’s husband is a doctor and according to him those prescriptions and orders you get when leaving the hospital? They are not made up by a doctor so much as they are spit up by a computer based on the data that the doctors and nurses have supplied.

GIGO, bias, and de-skilling

Leaving aside the wonders that Hirsh describes, there’s an oldish saying in the computer business, garbage in/garbage out (gigo). At its simplest, who’s going to catch a mistake? (There are lots of mistakes made in hospitals and other health care settings.)

There are also issues around the quality of research. Are all the research papers included in the data used by the algorithms going to be considered equal? There’s more than one case where a piece of problematic research has been accepted uncritically, even if it get through peer review, and subsequently cited many times over. One of the ways to measure impact, i.e., importance, is to track the number of citations. There’s also the matter of where the research is published. A ‘high impact’ journal, such as Nature, Science, or Cell, automatically gives a piece of research a boost.

There are other kinds of bias as well. Increasingly, there’s discussion about algorithms being biased and about how machine learning (AI) can become biased. (See my May 24, 2017 posting: Machine learning programs learn bias, which highlights the issues and cites other FrogHeart posts on that and other related topics.)

These problems are to a large extent already present. Doctors have biases and research can be wrong and it can take a long time before there are corrections. However, the advent of an automated health diagnosis and treatment system is likely to exacerbate the problems. For example, if you don’t agree with your doctor’s diagnosis or treatment, you can search other opinions. What happens when your diagnosis and treatment have become data? Will the system give you another opinion? Who will you talk to? The doctor who got an answer from ‘Watson”? Is she or he going to debate Watson? Are you?

This leads to another issue and that’s automated systems getting more credit than they deserve. Futurists such as Hirsh tend to underestimate people and overestimate the positive impact that automation will have. A computer, data analystics, or an AI system are tools not gods. You’ll have as much luck petitioning one of those tools as you would Zeus.

The unasked question is how will your doctor or other health professional gain experience and skills if they never have to practice the basic, boring aspects of health care (asking questions for a history, reading medical journals to keep up with the research, etc.) and leave them to the computers? There had to be  a reason for calling it a medical ‘practice’.

There are definitely going to be advantages to these technological innovations but thoughtful adoption of these practices (pun intended) should be our goal.

Who owns your data?

Another issue which is increasingly making itself felt is ownership of data. Jacob Brogan has written a provocative May 23, 2017 piece for slate.com asking that question about the data Ancestry.com gathers for DNA testing (Note: Links have been removed),

AncestryDNA’s pitch to consumers is simple enough. For $99 (US), the company will analyze a sample of your saliva and then send back information about your “ethnic mix.” While that promise may be scientifically dubious, it’s a relatively clear-cut proposal. Some, however, worry that the service might raise significant privacy concerns.

After surveying AncestryDNA’s terms and conditions, consumer protection attorney Joel Winston found a few issues that troubled him. As he noted in a Medium post last week, the agreement asserts that it grants the company “a perpetual, royalty-free, world-wide, transferable license to use your DNA.” (The actual clause is considerably longer.) According to Winston, “With this single contractual provision, customers are granting Ancestry.com the broadest possible rights to own and exploit their genetic information.”

Winston also noted a handful of other issues that further complicate the question of ownership. Since we share much of our DNA with our relatives, he warned, “Even if you’ve never used Ancestry.com, but one of your genetic relatives has, the company may already own identifiable portions of your DNA.” [emphasis mine] Theoretically, that means information about your genetic makeup could make its way into the hands of insurers or other interested parties, whether or not you’ve sent the company your spit. (Maryam Zaringhalam explored some related risks in a recent Slate article.) Further, Winston notes that Ancestry’s customers waive their legal rights, meaning that they cannot sue the company if their information gets used against them in some way.

Over the weekend, Eric Heath, Ancestry’s chief privacy officer, responded to these concerns on the company’s own site. He claims that the transferable license is necessary for the company to provide its customers with the service that they’re paying for: “We need that license in order to move your data through our systems, render it around the globe, and to provide you with the results of our analysis work.” In other words, it allows them to send genetic samples to labs (Ancestry uses outside vendors), store the resulting data on servers, and furnish the company’s customers with the results of the study they’ve requested.

Speaking to me over the phone, Heath suggested that this license was akin to the ones that companies such as YouTube employ when users upload original content. It grants them the right to shift that data around and manipulate it in various ways, but isn’t an assertion of ownership. “We have committed to our users that their DNA data is theirs. They own their DNA,” he said.

I’m glad to see the company’s representatives are open to discussion and, later in the article, you’ll see there’ve already been some changes made. Still, there is no guarantee that the situation won’t again change, for ill this time.

What data do they have and what can they do with it?

It’s not everybody who thinks data collection and data analytics constitute problems. While some people might balk at the thought of their genetic data being traded around and possibly used against them, e.g., while hunting for a job, or turned into a source of revenue, there tends to be a more laissez-faire attitude to other types of data. Andrew MacLeod’s May 24, 2017 article for thetyee.ca highlights political implications and privacy issues (Note: Links have been removed),

After a small Victoria [British Columbia, Canada] company played an outsized role in the Brexit vote, government information and privacy watchdogs in British Columbia and Britain have been consulting each other about the use of social media to target voters based on their personal data.

The U.K.’s information commissioner, Elizabeth Denham [Note: Denham was formerly B.C.’s Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner], announced last week [May 17, 2017] that she is launching an investigation into “the use of data analytics for political purposes.”

The investigation will look at whether political parties or advocacy groups are gathering personal information from Facebook and other social media and using it to target individuals with messages, Denham said.

B.C.’s Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner confirmed it has been contacted by Denham.

Macleod’s March 6, 2017 article for thetyee.ca provides more details about the company’s role (note: Links have been removed),

The “tiny” and “secretive” British Columbia technology company [AggregateIQ; AIQ] that played a key role in the Brexit referendum was until recently listed as the Canadian office of a much larger firm that has 25 years of experience using behavioural research to shape public opinion around the world.

The larger firm, SCL Group, says it has worked to influence election outcomes in 19 countries. Its associated company in the U.S., Cambridge Analytica, has worked on a wide range of campaigns, including Donald Trump’s presidential bid.

In late February [2017], the Telegraph reported that campaign disclosures showed that Vote Leave campaigners had spent £3.5 million — about C$5.75 million [emphasis mine] — with a company called AggregateIQ, run by CEO Zack Massingham in downtown Victoria.

That was more than the Leave side paid any other company or individual during the campaign and about 40 per cent of its spending ahead of the June referendum that saw Britons narrowly vote to exit the European Union.

According to media reports, Aggregate develops advertising to be used on sites including Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, then targets messages to audiences who are likely to be receptive.

The Telegraph story described Victoria as “provincial” and “picturesque” and AggregateIQ as “secretive” and “low-profile.”

Canadian media also expressed surprise at AggregateIQ’s outsized role in the Brexit vote.

The Globe and Mail’s Paul Waldie wrote “It’s quite a coup for Mr. Massingham, who has only been involved in politics for six years and started AggregateIQ in 2013.”

Victoria Times Colonist columnist Jack Knox wrote “If you have never heard of AIQ, join the club.”

The Victoria company, however, appears to be connected to the much larger SCL Group, which describes itself on its website as “the global leader in data-driven communications.”

In the United States it works through related company Cambridge Analytica and has been involved in elections since 2012. Politico reported in 2015 that the firm was working on Ted Cruz’s presidential primary campaign.

And NBC and other media outlets reported that the Trump campaign paid Cambridge Analytica millions to crunch data on 230 million U.S. adults, using information from loyalty cards, club and gym memberships and charity donations [emphasis mine] to predict how an individual might vote and to shape targeted political messages.

That’s quite a chunk of change and I don’t believe that gym memberships, charity donations, etc. were the only sources of information (in the US, there’s voter registration, credit card information, and more) but the list did raise my eyebrows. It would seem we are under surveillance at all times, even in the gym.

In any event, I hope that Hirsh’s call for discussion is successful and that the discussion includes more critical thinking about the implications of Hirsh’s ‘Brave New World’.

The Canadian science scene and the 2017 Canadian federal budget

There’s not much happening in the 2017-18 budget in terms of new spending according to Paul Wells’ March 22, 2017 article for TheStar.com,

This is the 22nd or 23rd federal budget I’ve covered. And I’ve never seen the like of the one Bill Morneau introduced on Wednesday [March 22, 2017].

Not even in the last days of the Harper Conservatives did a budget provide for so little new spending — $1.3 billion in the current budget year, total, in all fields of government. That’s a little less than half of one per cent of all federal program spending for this year.

But times are tight. The future is a place where we can dream. So the dollars flow more freely in later years. In 2021-22, the budget’s fifth planning year, new spending peaks at $8.2 billion. Which will be about 2.4 per cent of all program spending.

He’s not alone in this 2017 federal budget analysis; CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) pundits, Chantal Hébert, Andrew Coyne, and Jennifer Ditchburn said much the same during their ‘At Issue’ segment of the March 22, 2017 broadcast of The National (news).

Before I focus on the science and technology budget, here are some general highlights from the CBC’s March 22, 2017 article on the 2017-18 budget announcement (Note: Links have been removed,

Here are highlights from the 2017 federal budget:

  • Deficit: $28.5 billion, up from $25.4 billion projected in the fall.
  • Trend: Deficits gradually decline over next five years — but still at $18.8 billion in 2021-22.
  • Housing: $11.2 billion over 11 years, already budgeted, will go to a national housing strategy.
  • Child care: $7 billion over 10 years, already budgeted, for new spaces, starting 2018-19.
  • Indigenous: $3.4 billion in new money over five years for infrastructure, health and education.
  • Defence: $8.4 billion in capital spending for equipment pushed forward to 2035.
  • Care givers: New care-giving benefit up to 15 weeks, starting next year.
  • Skills: New agency to research and measure skills development, starting 2018-19.
  • Innovation: $950 million over five years to support business-led “superclusters.”
  • Startups: $400 million over three years for a new venture capital catalyst initiative.
  • AI: $125 million to launch a pan-Canadian Artificial Intelligence Strategy.
  • Coding kids: $50 million over two years for initiatives to teach children to code.
  • Families: Option to extend parental leave up to 18 months.
  • Uber tax: GST to be collected on ride-sharing services.
  • Sin taxes: One cent more on a bottle of wine, five cents on 24 case of beer.
  • Bye-bye: No more Canada Savings Bonds.
  • Transit credit killed: 15 per cent non-refundable public transit tax credit phased out this year.

You can find the entire 2017-18 budget here.

Science and the 2017-18 budget

For anyone interested in the science news, you’ll find most of that in the 2017 budget’s Chapter 1 — Skills, Innovation and Middle Class jobs. As well, Wayne Kondro has written up a précis in his March 22, 2017 article for Science (magazine),

Finance officials, who speak on condition of anonymity during the budget lock-up, indicated the budgets of the granting councils, the main source of operational grants for university researchers, will be “static” until the government can assess recommendations that emerge from an expert panel formed in 2015 and headed by former University of Toronto President David Naylor to review basic science in Canada [highlighted in my June 15, 2016 posting ; $2M has been allocated for the advisor and associated secretariat]. Until then, the officials said, funding for the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) will remain at roughly $848 million, whereas that for the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) will remain at $773 million, and for the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council [SSHRC] at $547 million.

NSERC, though, will receive $8.1 million over 5 years to administer a PromoScience Program that introduces youth, particularly unrepresented groups like Aboriginal people and women, to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics through measures like “space camps and conservation projects.” CIHR, meanwhile, could receive modest amounts from separate plans to identify climate change health risks and to reduce drug and substance abuse, the officials added.

… Canada’s Innovation and Skills Plan, would funnel $600 million over 5 years allocated in 2016, and $112.5 million slated for public transit and green infrastructure, to create Silicon Valley–like “super clusters,” which the budget defined as “dense areas of business activity that contain large and small companies, post-secondary institutions and specialized talent and infrastructure.” …

… The Canadian Institute for Advanced Research will receive $93.7 million [emphasis mine] to “launch a Pan-Canadian Artificial Intelligence Strategy … (to) position Canada as a world-leading destination for companies seeking to invest in artificial intelligence and innovation.”

… Among more specific measures are vows to: Use $87.7 million in previous allocations to the Canada Research Chairs program to create 25 “Canada 150 Research Chairs” honoring the nation’s 150th year of existence, provide $1.5 million per year to support the operations of the office of the as-yet-unappointed national science adviser [see my Dec. 7, 2016 post for information about the job posting, which is now closed]; provide $165.7 million [emphasis mine] over 5 years for the nonprofit organization Mitacs to create roughly 6300 more co-op positions for university students and grads, and provide $60.7 million over five years for new Canadian Space Agency projects, particularly for Canadian participation in the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s next Mars Orbiter Mission.

Kondros was either reading an earlier version of the budget or made an error regarding Mitacs (from the budget in the “A New, Ambitious Approach to Work-Integrated Learning” subsection),

Mitacs has set an ambitious goal of providing 10,000 work-integrated learning placements for Canadian post-secondary students and graduates each year—up from the current level of around 3,750 placements. Budget 2017 proposes to provide $221 million [emphasis mine] over five years, starting in 2017–18, to achieve this goal and provide relevant work experience to Canadian students.

As well, the budget item for the Pan-Canadian Artificial Intelligence Strategy is $125M.

Moving from Kondros’ précis, the budget (in the “Positioning National Research Council Canada Within the Innovation and Skills Plan” subsection) announces support for these specific areas of science,

Stem Cell Research

The Stem Cell Network, established in 2001, is a national not-for-profit organization that helps translate stem cell research into clinical applications, commercial products and public policy. Its research holds great promise, offering the potential for new therapies and medical treatments for respiratory and heart diseases, cancer, diabetes, spinal cord injury, multiple sclerosis, Crohn’s disease, auto-immune disorders and Parkinson’s disease. To support this important work, Budget 2017 proposes to provide the Stem Cell Network with renewed funding of $6 million in 2018–19.

Space Exploration

Canada has a long and proud history as a space-faring nation. As our international partners prepare to chart new missions, Budget 2017 proposes investments that will underscore Canada’s commitment to innovation and leadership in space. Budget 2017 proposes to provide $80.9 million on a cash basis over five years, starting in 2017–18, for new projects through the Canadian Space Agency that will demonstrate and utilize Canadian innovations in space, including in the field of quantum technology as well as for Mars surface observation. The latter project will enable Canada to join the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA’s) next Mars Orbiter Mission.

Quantum Information

The development of new quantum technologies has the potential to transform markets, create new industries and produce leading-edge jobs. The Institute for Quantum Computing is a world-leading Canadian research facility that furthers our understanding of these innovative technologies. Budget 2017 proposes to provide the Institute with renewed funding of $10 million over two years, starting in 2017–18.

Social Innovation

Through community-college partnerships, the Community and College Social Innovation Fund fosters positive social outcomes, such as the integration of vulnerable populations into Canadian communities. Following the success of this pilot program, Budget 2017 proposes to invest $10 million over two years, starting in 2017–18, to continue this work.

International Research Collaborations

The Canadian Institute for Advanced Research (CIFAR) connects Canadian researchers with collaborative research networks led by eminent Canadian and international researchers on topics that touch all humanity. Past collaborations facilitated by CIFAR are credited with fostering Canada’s leadership in artificial intelligence and deep learning. Budget 2017 proposes to provide renewed and enhanced funding of $35 million over five years, starting in 2017–18.

Earlier this week, I highlighted Canada’s strength in the field of regenerative medicine, specifically stem cells in a March 21, 2017 posting. The $6M in the current budget doesn’t look like increased funding but rather a one-year extension. I’m sure they’re happy to receive it  but I imagine it’s a little hard to plan major research projects when you’re not sure how long your funding will last.

As for Canadian leadership in artificial intelligence, that was news to me. Here’s more from the budget,

Canada a Pioneer in Deep Learning in Machines and Brains

CIFAR’s Learning in Machines & Brains program has shaken up the field of artificial intelligence by pioneering a technique called “deep learning,” a computer technique inspired by the human brain and neural networks, which is now routinely used by the likes of Google and Facebook. The program brings together computer scientists, biologists, neuroscientists, psychologists and others, and the result is rich collaborations that have propelled artificial intelligence research forward. The program is co-directed by one of Canada’s foremost experts in artificial intelligence, the Université de Montréal’s Yoshua Bengio, and for his many contributions to the program, the University of Toronto’s Geoffrey Hinton, another Canadian leader in this field, was awarded the title of Distinguished Fellow by CIFAR in 2014.

Meanwhile, from chapter 1 of the budget in the subsection titled “Preparing for the Digital Economy,” there is this provision for children,

Providing educational opportunities for digital skills development to Canadian girls and boys—from kindergarten to grade 12—will give them the head start they need to find and keep good, well-paying, in-demand jobs. To help provide coding and digital skills education to more young Canadians, the Government intends to launch a competitive process through which digital skills training organizations can apply for funding. Budget 2017 proposes to provide $50 million over two years, starting in 2017–18, to support these teaching initiatives.

I wonder if BC Premier Christy Clark is heaving a sigh of relief. At the 2016 #BCTECH Summit, she announced that students in BC would learn to code at school and in newly enhanced coding camp programmes (see my Jan. 19, 2016 posting). Interestingly, there was no mention of additional funding to support her initiative. I guess this money from the federal government comes at a good time as we will have a provincial election later this spring where she can announce the initiative again and, this time, mention there’s money for it.

Attracting brains from afar

Ivan Semeniuk in his March 23, 2017 article (for the Globe and Mail) reads between the lines to analyze the budget’s possible impact on Canadian science,

But a between-the-lines reading of the budget document suggests the government also has another audience in mind: uneasy scientists from the United States and Britain.

The federal government showed its hand at the 2017 #BCTECH Summit. From a March 16, 2017 article by Meera Bains for the CBC news online,

At the B.C. tech summit, Navdeep Bains, Canada’s minister of innovation, said the government will act quickly to fast track work permits to attract highly skilled talent from other countries.

“We’re taking the processing time, which takes months, and reducing it to two weeks for immigration processing for individuals [who] need to come here to help companies grow and scale up,” Bains said.

“So this is a big deal. It’s a game changer.”

That change will happen through the Global Talent Stream, a new program under the federal government’s temporary foreign worker program.  It’s scheduled to begin on June 12, 2017.

U.S. companies are taking notice and a Canadian firm, True North, is offering to help them set up shop.

“What we suggest is that they think about moving their operations, or at least a chunk of their operations, to Vancouver, set up a Canadian subsidiary,” said the company’s founder, Michael Tippett.

“And that subsidiary would be able to house and accommodate those employees.”

Industry experts says while the future is unclear for the tech sector in the U.S., it’s clear high tech in B.C. is gearing up to take advantage.

US business attempts to take advantage of Canada’s relative stability and openness to immigration would seem to be the motive for at least one cross border initiative, the Cascadia Urban Analytics Cooperative. From my Feb. 28, 2017 posting,

There was some big news about the smallest version of the Cascadia region on Thursday, Feb. 23, 2017 when the University of British Columbia (UBC) , the University of Washington (state; UW), and Microsoft announced the launch of the Cascadia Urban Analytics Cooperative. From the joint Feb. 23, 2017 news release (read on the UBC website or read on the UW website),

In an expansion of regional cooperation, the University of British Columbia and the University of Washington today announced the establishment of the Cascadia Urban Analytics Cooperative to use data to help cities and communities address challenges from traffic to homelessness. The largest industry-funded research partnership between UBC and the UW, the collaborative will bring faculty, students and community stakeholders together to solve problems, and is made possible thanks to a $1-million gift from Microsoft.

Today’s announcement follows last September’s [2016] Emerging Cascadia Innovation Corridor Conference in Vancouver, B.C. The forum brought together regional leaders for the first time to identify concrete opportunities for partnerships in education, transportation, university research, human capital and other areas.

A Boston Consulting Group study unveiled at the conference showed the region between Seattle and Vancouver has “high potential to cultivate an innovation corridor” that competes on an international scale, but only if regional leaders work together. The study says that could be possible through sustained collaboration aided by an educated and skilled workforce, a vibrant network of research universities and a dynamic policy environment.

It gets better, it seems Microsoft has been positioning itself for a while if Matt Day’s analysis is correct (from my Feb. 28, 2017 posting),

Matt Day in a Feb. 23, 2017 article for the The Seattle Times provides additional perspective (Note: Links have been removed),

Microsoft’s effort to nudge Seattle and Vancouver, B.C., a bit closer together got an endorsement Thursday [Feb. 23, 2017] from the leading university in each city.

The partnership has its roots in a September [2016] conference in Vancouver organized by Microsoft’s public affairs and lobbying unit [emphasis mine.] That gathering was aimed at tying business, government and educational institutions in Microsoft’s home region in the Seattle area closer to its Canadian neighbor.

Microsoft last year [2016] opened an expanded office in downtown Vancouver with space for 750 employees, an outpost partly designed to draw to the Northwest more engineers than the company can get through the U.S. guest worker system [emphasis mine].

This was all prior to President Trump’s legislative moves in the US, which have at least one Canadian observer a little more gleeful than I’m comfortable with. From a March 21, 2017 article by Susan Lum  for CBC News online,

U.S. President Donald Trump’s efforts to limit travel into his country while simultaneously cutting money from science-based programs provides an opportunity for Canada’s science sector, says a leading Canadian researcher.

“This is Canada’s moment. I think it’s a time we should be bold,” said Alan Bernstein, president of CIFAR [which on March 22, 2017 was awarded $125M to launch the Pan Canada Artificial Intelligence Strategy in the Canadian federal budget announcement], a global research network that funds hundreds of scientists in 16 countries.

Bernstein believes there are many reasons why Canada has become increasingly attractive to scientists around the world, including the political climate in the United States and the Trump administration’s travel bans.

Thankfully, Bernstein calms down a bit,

“It used to be if you were a bright young person anywhere in the world, you would want to go to Harvard or Berkeley or Stanford, or what have you. Now I think you should give pause to that,” he said. “We have pretty good universities here [emphasis mine]. We speak English. We’re a welcoming society for immigrants.”​

Bernstein cautions that Canada should not be seen to be poaching scientists from the United States — but there is an opportunity.

“It’s as if we’ve been in a choir of an opera in the back of the stage and all of a sudden the stars all left the stage. And the audience is expecting us to sing an aria. So we should sing,” Bernstein said.

Bernstein said the federal government, with this week’s so-called innovation budget, can help Canada hit the right notes.

“Innovation is built on fundamental science, so I’m looking to see if the government is willing to support, in a big way, fundamental science in the country.”

Pretty good universities, eh? Thank you, Dr. Bernstein, for keeping some of the boosterism in check. Let’s leave the chest thumping to President Trump and his cronies.

Ivan Semeniuk’s March 23, 2017 article (for the Globe and Mail) provides more details about the situation in the US and in Britain,

Last week, Donald Trump’s first budget request made clear the U.S. President would significantly reduce or entirely eliminate research funding in areas such as climate science and renewable energy if permitted by Congress. Even the National Institutes of Health, which spearheads medical research in the United States and is historically supported across party lines, was unexpectedly targeted for a $6-billion (U.S.) cut that the White House said could be achieved through “efficiencies.”

In Britain, a recent survey found that 42 per cent of academics were considering leaving the country over worries about a less welcoming environment and the loss of research money that a split with the European Union is expected to bring.

In contrast, Canada’s upbeat language about science in the budget makes a not-so-subtle pitch for diversity and talent from abroad, including $117.6-million to establish 25 research chairs with the aim of attracting “top-tier international scholars.”

For good measure, the budget also includes funding for science promotion and $2-million annually for Canada’s yet-to-be-hired Chief Science Advisor, whose duties will include ensuring that government researchers can speak freely about their work.

“What we’ve been hearing over the last few months is that Canada is seen as a beacon, for its openness and for its commitment to science,” said Ms. Duncan [Kirsty Duncan, Minister of Science], who did not refer directly to either the United States or Britain in her comments.

Providing a less optimistic note, Erica Alini in her March 22, 2017 online article for Global News mentions a perennial problem, the Canadian brain drain,

The budget includes a slew of proposed reforms and boosted funding for existing training programs, as well as new skills-development resources for unemployed and underemployed Canadians not covered under current EI-funded programs.

There are initiatives to help women and indigenous people get degrees or training in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (the so-called STEM subjects) and even to teach kids as young as kindergarten-age to code.

But there was no mention of how to make sure Canadians with the right skills remain in Canada, TD’s DePratto {Toronto Dominion Bank} Economics; TD is currently experiencing a scandal {March 13, 2017 Huffington Post news item}] told Global News.

Canada ranks in the middle of the pack compared to other advanced economies when it comes to its share of its graduates in STEM fields, but the U.S. doesn’t shine either, said DePratto [Brian DePratto, senior economist at TD .

The key difference between Canada and the U.S. is the ability to retain domestic talent and attract brains from all over the world, he noted.

To be blunt, there may be some opportunities for Canadian science but it does well to remember (a) US businesses have no particular loyalty to Canada and (b) all it takes is an election to change any perceived advantages to disadvantages.

Digital policy and intellectual property issues

Dubbed by some as the ‘innovation’ budget (official title:  Building a Strong Middle Class), there is an attempt to address a longstanding innovation issue (from a March 22, 2017 posting by Michael Geist on his eponymous blog (Note: Links have been removed),

The release of today’s [march 22, 2017] federal budget is expected to include a significant emphasis on innovation, with the government revealing how it plans to spend (or re-allocate) hundreds of millions of dollars that is intended to support innovation. Canada’s dismal innovation record needs attention, but spending our way to a more innovative economy is unlikely to yield the desired results. While Navdeep Bains, the Innovation, Science and Economic Development Minister, has talked for months about the importance of innovation, Toronto Star columnist Paul Wells today delivers a cutting but accurate assessment of those efforts:

“This government is the first with a minister for innovation! He’s Navdeep Bains. He frequently posts photos of his meetings on Twitter, with the hashtag “#innovation.” That’s how you know there is innovation going on. A year and a half after he became the minister for #innovation, it’s not clear what Bains’s plans are. It’s pretty clear that within the government he has less than complete control over #innovation. There’s an advisory council on economic growth, chaired by the McKinsey guru Dominic Barton, which periodically reports to the government urging more #innovation.

There’s a science advisory panel, chaired by former University of Toronto president David Naylor, that delivered a report to Science Minister Kirsty Duncan more than three months ago. That report has vanished. One presumes that’s because it offered some advice. Whatever Bains proposes, it will have company.”

Wells is right. Bains has been very visible with plenty of meetings and public photo shoots but no obvious innovation policy direction. This represents a missed opportunity since Bains has plenty of policy tools at his disposal that could advance Canada’s innovation framework without focusing on government spending.

For example, Canada’s communications system – wireless and broadband Internet access – falls directly within his portfolio and is crucial for both business and consumers. Yet Bains has been largely missing in action on the file. He gave approval for the Bell – MTS merger that virtually everyone concedes will increase prices in the province and make the communications market less competitive. There are potential policy measures that could bring new competitors into the market (MVNOs [mobile virtual network operators] and municipal broadband) and that could make it easier for consumers to switch providers (ban on unlocking devices). Some of this falls to the CRTC, but government direction and emphasis would make a difference.

Even more troubling has been his near total invisibility on issues relating to new fees or taxes on Internet access and digital services. Canadian Heritage Minister Mélanie Joly has taken control of the issue with the possibility that Canadians could face increased costs for their Internet access or digital services through mandatory fees to contribute to Canadian content.  Leaving aside the policy objections to such an approach (reducing affordable access and the fact that foreign sources now contribute more toward Canadian English language TV production than Canadian broadcasters and distributors), Internet access and e-commerce are supposed to be Bains’ issue and they have a direct connection to the innovation file. How is it possible for the Innovation, Science and Economic Development Minister to have remained silent for months on the issue?

Bains has been largely missing on trade related innovation issues as well. My Globe and Mail column today focuses on a digital-era NAFTA, pointing to likely U.S. demands on data localization, data transfers, e-commerce rules, and net neutrality.  These are all issues that fall under Bains’ portfolio and will impact investment in Canadian networks and digital services. There are innovation opportunities for Canada here, but Bains has been content to leave the policy issues to others, who will be willing to sacrifice potential gains in those areas.

Intellectual property policy is yet another area that falls directly under Bains’ mandate with an obvious link to innovation, but he has done little on the file. Canada won a huge NAFTA victory late last week involving the Canadian patent system, which was challenged by pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly. Why has Bains not promoted the decision as an affirmation of how Canada’s intellectual property rules?

On the copyright front, the government is scheduled to conduct a review of the Copyright Act later this year, but it is not clear whether Bains will take the lead or again cede responsibility to Joly. The Copyright Act is statutorily under the Industry Minister and reform offers the chance to kickstart innovation. …

For anyone who’s not familiar with this area, innovation is often code for commercialization of science and technology research efforts. These days, digital service and access policies and intellectual property policies are all key to research and innovation efforts.

The country that’s most often (except in mainstream Canadian news media) held up as an example of leadership in innovation is Estonia. The Economist profiled the country in a July 31, 2013 article and a July 7, 2016 article on apolitical.co provides and update.

Conclusions

Science monies for the tri-council science funding agencies (NSERC, SSHRC, and CIHR) are more or less flat but there were a number of line items in the federal budget which qualify as science funding. The $221M over five years for Mitacs, the $125M for the Pan-Canadian Artificial Intelligence Strategy, additional funding for the Canada research chairs, and some of the digital funding could also be included as part of the overall haul. This is in line with the former government’s (Stephen Harper’s Conservatives) penchant for keeping the tri-council’s budgets under control while spreading largesse elsewhere (notably the Perimeter Institute, TRIUMF [Canada’s National Laboratory for Particle and Nuclear Physics], and, in the 2015 budget, $243.5-million towards the Thirty Metre Telescope (TMT) — a massive astronomical observatory to be constructed on the summit of Mauna Kea, Hawaii, a $1.5-billion project). This has lead to some hard feelings in the past with regard to ‘big science’ projects getting what some have felt is an undeserved boost in finances while the ‘small fish’ are left scrabbling for the ever-diminishing (due to budget cuts in years past and inflation) pittances available from the tri-council agencies.

Mitacs, which started life as a federally funded Network Centre for Excellence focused on mathematics, has since shifted focus to become an innovation ‘champion’. You can find Mitacs here and you can find the organization’s March 2016 budget submission to the House of Commons Standing Committee on Finance here. At the time, they did not request a specific amount of money; they just asked for more.

The amount Mitacs expects to receive this year is over $40M which represents more than double what they received from the federal government and almost of 1/2 of their total income in the 2015-16 fiscal year according to their 2015-16 annual report (see p. 327 for the Mitacs Statement of Operations to March 31, 2016). In fact, the federal government forked over $39,900,189. in the 2015-16 fiscal year to be their largest supporter while Mitacs’ total income (receipts) was $81,993,390.

It’s a strange thing but too much money, etc. can be as bad as too little. I wish the folks Mitacs nothing but good luck with their windfall.

I don’t see anything in the budget that encourages innovation and investment from the industrial sector in Canada.

Finallyl, innovation is a cultural issue as much as it is a financial issue and having worked with a number of developers and start-up companies, the most popular business model is to develop a successful business that will be acquired by a large enterprise thereby allowing the entrepreneurs to retire before the age of 30 (or 40 at the latest). I don’t see anything from the government acknowledging the problem let alone any attempts to tackle it.

All in all, it was a decent budget with nothing in it to seriously offend anyone.

Epic Scottish poetry and social network science

It’s been a while since I’ve run a social network story here and this research into a 250-year controversy piqued my interest anew. From an Oct. 20, 2016 Coventry University (UK) press release (also on EurekAlert) Note: A link has been removed,

The social networks behind one of the most famous literary controversies of all time have been uncovered using modern networks science.

Since James Macpherson published what he claimed were translations of ancient Scottish Gaelic poetry by a third-century bard named Ossian, scholars have questioned the authenticity of the works and whether they were misappropriated from Irish mythology or, as heralded at the time, authored by a Scottish equivalent to Homer.

Now, in a joint study by Coventry University, the National University of Ireland, Galway and the University of Oxford, published today in the journal Advances in Complex Systems, researchers have revealed the structures of the social networks underlying the Ossian’s works and their similarities to Irish mythology.

The researchers mapped the characters at the heart of the works and the relationships between them to compare the social networks found in the Scottish epics with classical Greek literature and Irish mythology.

The study revealed that the networks in the Scottish poems bore no resemblance to epics by Homer, but strongly resembled those in mythological stories from Ireland.

The Ossianic poems are considered to be some of the most important literary works ever to have emerged from Britain or Ireland, given their influence over the Romantic period in literature and the arts. Figures from Brahms to Wordsworth reacted enthusiastically; Napoleon took a copy on his military campaigns and US President Thomas Jefferson believed that Ossian was the greatest poet to have ever existed.

The poems launched the romantic portrayal of the Scottish Highlands which persists, in many forms, to the present day and inspired Romantic nationalism all across Europe.

Professor Ralph Kenna, a statistical physicist based at Coventry University, said:

By working together, it shows how science can open up new avenues of research in the humanities. The opposite also applies, as social structures discovered in Ossian inspire new questions in mathematics.”

Dr Justin Tonra, a digital humanities expert from the National University of Ireland, Galway said:

From a humanities point of view, while it cannot fully resolve the debate about Ossian, this scientific analysis does reveal an insightful statistical picture: close similarity to the Irish texts which Macpherson explicitly rejected, and distance from the Greek sources which he sought to emulate.”

A statistical physicist, eh? I find that specialty quite an unexpected addition to the team stretching my ideas about social networks in new directions.

Getting back to the research, the scientists have supplied this image to illustrate their work,

Caption: In the social network underlying the Ossianic epic, the 325 nodes represent characters appearing in the narratives and the 748 links represent interactions between them. Credit: Coventry University

Caption: In the social network underlying the Ossianic epic, the 325 nodes represent characters appearing in the narratives and the 748 links represent interactions between them. Credit: Coventry University

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

A networks-science investigation into the epic poems of Ossian by Joseph Yose, Ralph Kenna, Pádraig MacCarron, Thierry Platini, Justin Tonra.  Complex Syst. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1142/S0219525916500089 Published: 21 October 2016

This paper is behind a paywall.

Unbreakable encrypted message with key that’s shorter than the message

A Sept. 5, 2016 University of Rochester (NY state, US) news release (also on EurekAlert), makes an intriguing announcement,

Researchers at the University of Rochester have moved beyond the theoretical in demonstrating that an unbreakable encrypted message can be sent with a key that’s far shorter than the message—the first time that has ever been done.

Until now, unbreakable encrypted messages were transmitted via a system envisioned by American mathematician Claude Shannon, considered the “father of information theory.” Shannon combined his knowledge of algebra and electrical circuitry to come up with a binary system of transmitting messages that are secure, under three conditions: the key is random, used only once, and is at least as long as the message itself.

The findings by Daniel Lum, a graduate student in physics, and John Howell, a professor of physics, have been published in the journal Physical Review A.

“Daniel’s research amounts to an important step forward, not just for encryption, but for the field of quantum data locking,” said Howell.

Quantum data locking is a method of encryption advanced by Seth Lloyd, a professor of quantum information at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, that uses photons—the smallest particles associated with light—to carry a message. Quantum data locking was thought to have limitations for securely encrypting messages, but Lloyd figured out how to make additional assumptions—namely those involving the boundary between light and matter—to make it a more secure method of sending data.  While a binary system allows for only an on or off position with each bit of information, photon waves can be altered in many more ways: the angle of tilt can be changed, the wavelength can be made longer or shorter, and the size of the amplitude can be modified. Since a photon has more variables—and there are fundamental uncertainties when it comes to quantum measurements—the quantum key for encrypting and deciphering a message can be shorter that the message itself.

Lloyd’s system remained theoretical until this year, when Lum and his team developed a device—a quantum enigma machine—that would put the theory into practice. The device takes its name from the encryption machine used by Germany during World War II, which employed a coding method that the British and Polish intelligence agencies were secretly able to crack.

Let’s assume that Alice wants to send an encrypted message to Bob. She uses the machine to generate photons that travel through free space and into a spatial light modulator (SLM) that alters the properties of the individual photons (e.g. amplitude, tilt) to properly encode the message into flat but tilted wavefronts that can be focused to unique points dictated by the tilt. But the SLM does one more thing: it distorts the shapes of the photons into random patterns, such that the wavefront is no longer flat which means it no longer has a well-defined focus. Alice and Bob both know the keys which identify the implemented scrambling operations, so Bob is able to use his own SLM to flatten the wavefront, re-focus the photons, and translate the altered properties into the distinct elements of the message.

Along with modifying the shape of the photons, Lum and the team made use of the uncertainty principle, which states that the more we know about one property of a particle, the less we know about another of its properties. Because of that, the researchers were able to securely lock in six bits of classical information using only one bit of an encryption key—an operation called data locking.

“While our device is not 100 percent secure, due to photon loss,” said Lum, “it does show that data locking in message encryption is far more than a theory.”

The ultimate goal of the quantum enigma machine is to prevent a third party—for example, someone named Eve—from intercepting and deciphering the message. A crucial principle of quantum theory is that the mere act of measuring a quantum system changes the system. As a result, Eve has only one shot at obtaining and translating the encrypted message—something that is virtually impossible, given the nearly limitless number of patterns that exist for each photon.

The paper by Lum and Howell was one of two papers published simultaneously on the same topic. The other paper, “Quantum data locking,” was from a team led by Chinese physicist Jian-Wei Pan.

“It’s highly unlikely that our free-space implementation will be useful through atmospheric conditions,” said Lum. “Instead, we have identified the use of optic fiber as a more practical route for data locking, a path Pan’s group actually started with. Regardless, the field is still in its infancy with a great deal more research needed.”

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

Quantum enigma machine: Experimentally demonstrating quantum data locking by Daniel J. Lum, John C. Howell, M. S. Allman, Thomas Gerrits, Varun B. Verma, Sae Woo Nam, Cosmo Lupo, and Seth Lloyd. Phys. Rev. A, Vol. 94, Iss. 2 — August 2016 DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1103/PhysRevA.94.022315

©2016 American Physical Society

This paper is behind a paywall.

There is an earlier open access version of the paper by the Chinese researchers on arXiv.org,

Experimental quantum data locking by Yang Liu, Zhu Cao, Cheng Wu, Daiji Fukuda, Lixing You, Jiaqiang Zhong, Takayuki Numata, Sijing Chen, Weijun Zhang, Sheng-Cai Shi, Chao-Yang Lu, Zhen Wang, Xiongfeng Ma, Jingyun Fan, Qiang Zhang, Jian-Wei Pan. arXiv.org > quant-ph > arXiv:1605.04030

The Chinese team’s later version of the paper is available here,

Experimental quantum data locking by Yang Liu, Zhu Cao, Cheng Wu, Daiji Fukuda, Lixing You, Jiaqiang Zhong, Takayuki Numata, Sijing Chen, Weijun Zhang, Sheng-Cai Shi, Chao-Yang Lu, Zhen Wang, Xiongfeng Ma, Jingyun Fan, Qiang Zhang, and Jian-Wei Pan. Phys. Rev. A, Vol. 94, Iss. 2 — August 2016 DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1103/PhysRevA.94.020301

©2016 American Physical Society

This version is behind a paywall.

Getting back to the folks at the University of Rochester, they have provided this image to illustrate their work,

The quantum enigma machine developed by researchers at the University of Rochester, MIT, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology. (Image by Daniel Lum/University of Rochester)

The quantum enigma machine developed by researchers at the University of Rochester, MIT, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology. (Image by Daniel Lum/University of Rochester)

Tempest in a teapot or a sign of things to come? UK’s National Graphene Institute kerfuffle

A scandal-in-the-offing, intellectual property, miffed academics, a chortling businessman, graphene, and much more make this a fascinating story.

Before launching into the main attractions, those unfamiliar with the UK graphene effort might find this background informal useful. Graphene, was first isolated at the University of Manchester in 2004 by scientists Andre Geim* and Konstantin Novoselov, Russian immigrants, both of whom have since become Nobel laureates and knights of the realm. The excitement in the UK and elsewhere is due to graphene’s extraordinary properties which could lead to transparent electronics, foldable/bendable electronics, better implants, efficient and inexpensive (they hope) water filters, and more. The UK government has invested a lot of money in graphene as has the European Union (1B Euros in the Graphene Flagship) in the hope that huge economic benefits will be reaped.

Dexter Johnson’s March 15, 2016 posting on his Nanoclast blog (on the IEEE [Institute for Electrical and Electronics Engineers] website) provides details about the situation (Note: Links have been removed),

A technology that, a year ago, was being lauded as the “first commercially viable consumer product” using graphene now appears to be caught up in an imbroglio over who owns its intellectual property rights. The resulting controversy has left the research institute behind the technology in a bit of a public relations quagmire.

The venerable UK publication The Sunday Times reported this week on what appeared to be a mutiny occurring at the National Graphene Institute (NGI) located at the University of Manchester. Researchers at the NGI had reportedly stayed away from working at the institute’s gleaming new $71 million research facility over fears that their research was going to end up in the hands of foreign companies, in particular a Taiwan-based company called BGT Materials.

The “first commercially viable consumer product” noted in Dexter’s posting was a graphene-based lightbulb which was announced by the NGI to much loud crowing in March 2015 (see my March 30, 2015 posting). The company producing the lightbulb was announced as “… Graphene Lighting PLC is a spin-out based on a strategic partnership with the National Graphene Institute (NGI) at The University of Manchester to create graphene applications.” There was no mention of BGT.

Dexter describes the situation from the BGT perspective (from his March 15, 2016 posting), Note: Links have been removed,

… BGT did not demur when asked by  the Times whether it owned the technology. In fact, Chung Ping Lai, BGT’s CEO, claimed it was his company that had invented the technology for the light bulb and not the NGI. The Times report further stated that Lai controls all the key patents and claims to be delighted with his joint venture with the university. “I believe in luck and I have had luck in Manchester,” Lai told the Times.

With companies outside the UK holding majority stakes in the companies spun out of the NGI—allowing them to claim ownership of the technologies developed at the institute—one is left to wonder what was the purpose of the £50 million (US $79 million) earmarked for graphene research in the UK more than four years ago? Was it to develop a local economy based around graphene—a “Graphene Valley”, if you will? Or was it to prop up the local construction industry through the building of shiny new buildings that reportedly few people occupy? That’s the charge leveled by Andre Geim, Nobel laureate for his discovery of graphene, and NGI’s shining star. Geim reportedly described the new NGI building as: “Money put in the British building industry rather than science.”

Dexter ends his March 15, 2016 posting with an observation  that will seem familiar to Canadians,

Now, it seems the government’s eagerness to invest in graphene research—or at least, the facilities for conducting that research—might have ended up bringing it to the same place as its previous lack of investment: the science is done in the UK and the exploitation of the technology is done elsewhere.

The March 13, 2016 Sunday Times article [ETA on April 3, 2016: This article is now behind a paywall] by Tom Harper, Jon Ungoed-Thomas and Michael Sheridan, which seems to be the source of Dexter’s posting, takes a more partisan approach,

ACADEMICS are boycotting a top research facility after a company linked to China was given access to lucrative confidential material from one of Britain’s greatest scientific breakthroughs.

Some scientists at Manchester University working on graphene, a wonder substance 200 times stronger than steel, refuse to work at the new £61m national institution, set up to find ways to exploit the material, amid concerns over a deal struck between senior university management and BGT Materials.

The academics are concerned that the National Graphene Institute (NGI), which was opened last year by George Osborne, the chancellor, and forms one of the key planks of his “northern powerhouse” industrial strategy, does not have the necessary safeguards to protect their confidential research, which could revolutionise the electronics, energy, health and building industries.

BGT, which is controlled by a Taiwanese businessman, subsequently agreed to work with a Chinese manufacturing company and university to develop similar graphene technology.

BGT says its work in Manchester has been successful and it is “offensive” and “untrue” to suggest that it would unfairly use intellectual property. The university say there is no evidence “whatsoever” of unfair use of confidential information. Manchester says it is understandable that some scientists are cautious about the collaborative environment of the new institute. But one senior academic said the arrangement with BGT had caused the university’s graphene research to descend into “complete anarchy”.

The academic said: “The NGI is a national facility, and why should we use it for a company, which is not even an English [owned] company? How much [intellectual property] is staying in England and how much is going to Taiwan?”

The row highlights concerns that the UK has dawdled in developing one of its greatest discoveries. Nearly 50% of ­graphene-related patents have been filed in China, and just 1% in Britain.

Manchester signed a £5m “research collaboration agreement” with BGT Materials in October 2013. Although the company is controlled by a Taiwanese businessman, Chung-ping Lai, the university does have a 17.5% shareholding.

Manchester claimed that the commercial deal would “attract a significant number of jobs to the city” and “benefit the UK economy”.

However, an investigation by The Sunday Times has established:

Only four jobs have been created as a result of the deal and BGT has not paid the full £5m due under the agreement after two projects were cancelled.

Pictures sent to The Sunday Times by a source at the university last month show that the offices at the NGI [National Graphene Institute], which can accommodate 120 staff, were deserted.

British-based businessmen working with graphene have also told The Sunday Times of their concerns about the institute’s information security. Tim Harper, a Manchester-based graphene entrepreneur, said: “We looked at locating there [at the NGI] but we take intellectual property extremely seriously and it is a problem locating in such a facility.

“If you don’t have control over your computer systems or the keys to your lab, then you’ve got a problem.”

I recommend reading Dexter’s post and the Sunday Times article as they provide some compelling insight into the UK situation vis à vis nanotechnology, science, and innovation.

*’Gheim’ corrected to ‘Geim’ on March 30, 2016.

US soldiers get batteries woven into their clothes

Last time I wrote about soldiers, equipment, and energy-efficiency (April 5, 2012 posting) the soldiers in question were British. Today’s posting focuses on US soldiers. From the May 7, 2012 news item on Nanowerk,

U.S. soldiers are increasingly weighed down by batteries to power weapons, detection devices and communications equipment. So the Army Research Laboratory has awarded a University of Utah-led consortium almost $15 million to use computer simulations to help design materials for lighter-weight, energy efficient devices and batteries.

“We want to help the Army make advances in fundamental research that will lead to better materials to help our soldiers in the field,” says computing Professor Martin Berzins, principal investigator among five University of Utah faculty members who will work on the project. “One of Utah’s main contributions will be the batteries.”

Of the five-year Army grant of $14,898,000, the University of Utah will retain $4.2 million for research plus additional administrative costs. The remainder will go to members of the consortium led by the University of Utah, including Boston University, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Pennsylvania State University, Harvard University, Brown University, the University of California, Davis, and the Polytechnic University of Turin, Italy.

The new research effort is based on the idea that by using powerful computers to simulate the behavior of materials on multiple scales – from the atomic and molecular nanoscale to the large or “bulk” scale – new, lighter, more energy efficient power supplies and materials can be designed and developed. Improving existing materials also is a goal.

“We want to model everything from the nanoscale to the soldier scale,” Berzins says. “It’s virtual design, in some sense.”

“Today’s soldier enters the battle space with an amazing array of advanced electronic materials devices and systems,” the University of Utah said in its grant proposal. “The soldier of the future will rely even more heavily on electronic weaponry, detection devices, advanced communications systems and protection systems. Currently, a typical infantry soldier might carry up to 35 pounds of batteries in order to power these systems, and it is clear that the energy and power requirements for future soldiers will be much greater.” [emphasis mine]

“These requirements have a dramatic adverse effect on the survivability and lethality of the soldier by reducing mobility as well as the amount of weaponry, sensors, communication equipment and armor that the soldier can carry. Hence, the Army’s desire for greater lethality and survivability of its men and women in the field is fundamentally tied to the development of devices and systems with increased energy efficiency as well as dramatic improvement in the energy and power density of [battery] storage and delivery systems.”

Up to 35 lbs. of batteries? I’m trying to imagine what the rest of the equipment would weigh. In any event, they seem to be more interested in adding to the weaponry than reducing weight. At least, that’s how I understand “greater *lethality.” Nice of them to mention greater survivability too.

The British project is more modest, they are weaving e-textiles that harvest energy allowing British soldiers to carry fewer batteries. I believe field trials were scheduled for May 2012.

* Correction: leathility changed to lethality on July 31, 2013.

British election and science, lessons for Canadians?

I’m finally getting around to posting about the British Election and its science aspect in a little more detail than I did in my April 23, 2010 posting now that’s it been held and a coalition is going forward.

During the election period, all three parties produced manifestos that included some mention of policies for science. The Canadian Science Policy Centre provides links to an analysis of the science policies (in the New Scientist journal) found in the Conservative, Liberal Democrat, and Labour parties’ election 2010 manifestos. Short story: not a lot of detail in any of them but there are differences.

In light of the election results and the roles the various parties are likely to play in the government once it is formed, I have given the Liberal Democrats more prominence by putting them first. While the Conservatives won far more seats, it would seem that the Liberal Democrats will have substantial leverage with their colleagues in a coalition government and it will be interesting to see if they use this leverage for science.

The Liberal Democrats (excerpted from the New Scientist commentary),

Today saw the Liberal Democrats publish their election manifesto – Change that works for you – which is the last of the big three.

Like Labour’s and the Conservatives’, the Liberal Democrats’ manifesto covers science policies affecting research and education.

Unlike the other two, however, the Liberal Democrats have also made commitments about scientific advice in government.

Liberal Democrats say they want to create a “dynamic environment for science and innovation”, but the focus of their commitments is firmly on the science side.

Although they recognise the importance of science investment to the economic recovery, they admit that the economic climate means that they cannot commitment to increased investment.

The Conservatives (excerpted from the New Scientist commentary),

Like Labour’s manifesto, published yesterday, science policies affecting research, innovation and education all get a mention.

With the Conservatives leading in the polls, scientists will be particularly keen to know what the level of their commitment to science is – especially after it has been said they are “a vision-free zone” when it comes to science policy.

In fact, the Conservation vision for science is upfront in the foreword to the manifesto, stating that they want “an economy where Britain leads in science, technology and innovation”.

Finally, Labour (excerpted from the New Scientist commentary)

Labour is the first party to publish its election manifesto – A future fair for all.

There is debate about the importance of manifestos, but they do set out what the parties’ political priorities would be. Science policies affecting research, innovation and education all get a mention in the manifesto, but none of those commitments rank as one of their 50 steps for a fairer Britain.

The economy is probably the biggest issue in this election, and it is in the first section on “growth” that science policy first is mentioned.

Labour takes the opportunity to highlight the “substantial” investment it has made in the research base since 1997. This is certainly true, as Labour has almost doubled investment in the research base between 1997 and 2007 in real terms.

It is harder to argue, as Labour claims, that it has “massively increased investment in research and development (R&D) as a proportion of national income.” In 1997, 1.77% of GDP was spent on R&D and in 2007 it was up to 1.81%. In both 1997 and 2007 was 0.55% of GDP was spent on R&D by government.

In terms of funding commitments, Labour says it will have a “ring-fenced science budget in the next spending review”.

(A ‘ring-fenced’ budget would be a commitment to a minimum guaranteed amount for funding.)

Richard Jones on his blog, Soft Machines, provides some insight into the use of ‘science’ social media during the 2010 election campaign. From his post,

Is there a significant constituency for science, that might impose any political price on cutting science budgets? This election has seen high hopes for social media as a way of mobilising a science voting block – see #scivote on Twitter. Looking at this, one sees something that looks very much like an attempt to develop an identity politics for science – the idea that there might be a “science vote”, in the way that people talk (correctly or not) about a “gay vote” or a “christian vote”. There’s a sense of a community of right-minded people, with leaders from politics and the media, and clear dividing lines from the forces of unreason. What’s obvious, though, is this strategy hasn’t worked – a candidate standing on a single issue science platform ended up with 197 votes, which compares unfavourably with the 228 votes the Monster Raving Loony Party got in my own, nearby constituency.

I would encourage you to read the entire post as Richard provides an insider’s (he’s a scientist who’s been involved in a number of important British science reports and advisory groups) view.

CaSE (Campaign for Science and Engineering) has posted an analysis of science policy in the new coalition government based on the manifestos and the coalition negotiation agreement. (Note: CaSE is a British science advocacy organization mentioned in this blog here.) From CaSE’s May 12, 2010 posting,

The dramatic election outcome gives the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats an opportunity to rethink and refine their election commitments. Science and engineering did not feature in the coalition negotiation agreement, but looking through the parties’ manifestos and additional commitments made in letters from David Cameron and Nick Clegg to CaSE, gives us a feel for what the future might hold.

Funding is always a key issue,

First, as ever, let’s talk about the money – do the parties agree on funding the research base? The Liberal Democrats committed to not cutting science spending in the first year of the new Parliament. Unfortunately, the Conservatives never wrote down strong commitments, although they did promise a multi-year settlement in recognition of the need for stability.

The Conservatives came close, but never actually committed to protecting science budget spending once it has been allocated. The Liberal Democrats stated that they would clearly define and then ring-fence this spending.

On how the money should be allocated, the Liberal Democrats support the Haldane Principle – that decisions on how the science budget should be spent are best made by those in the science community itself.

The poster (Hilary Leevers) also comments on private investment and education and skills but I’m more focused on science and engineering in government or ‘science advice’,

The Liberal Democrats made a series of strong commitments on scientific advice and policy making which we hope that they can persuade the Conservatives to adopt. First, they endorsed the original Principles for the Treatment of Independent Scientific Advice, which was drawn up by the scientific community and underlines the independence and freedom of advisers to the Government. CaSE would like to see an adaptation of this incorporated into the new Ministerial Code.

The Liberal Democrats pledged to appoint a Chief Scientific Adviser to the Treasury and reinforce the powers of the Government’s Chief Scientific Adviser, as well as strengthening the role of the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology. They also said that they would like to see regular use of Randomised Controlled Trials in testing new social policy initiatives.

Finally, both parties committed to reform libel laws, as the Conservatives put it, “to protect freedom of speech, reduce costs and discourage libel tourism”, and more specifically for researchers from the Liberal Democrats, “to protect peer reviewed research from libel suits”. Reviewing libel laws to protect feedom of speech did actually make it into the coalition agreement.

As of today, David Willetts has been named Minister of State for Universities and Science, from the May 13, 2010 CaSE posting,

In our brave new coalition government, it seems that there will be two strong, respected and thoughtful advocates for science and engineering. David Willetts has been appointed Minister of State for Universities and Science in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) with Vince Cable as Secretary of State for BIS. Cable studied natural sciences with economics at Cambridge and, while his background is not in the sciences, Willetts has often engaged well with science issues in his former roles as Shadow Secretary for Education and then Innovation, Universities and Skills.

Dave Bruggeman (Pasco Pronesis blog) also notes Willett’s appointment in one of his recent postings and, in a previous posting, provided the numbers of newly elected British MPs with science experience,

The Times had estimated that the number of MPs with a science background and/or serious engagement with science issues would drop from 86 to 77. It dropped to 71.

Dave goes on to provide some thoughtful analysis as to what all this might mean in the context of Britain’s current economic situation.

It’s interesting to consider these British science election commentaries in relationship to the Canadian scene which features three national federal parties (only one of which has any mention of science in its policy platform [4 four bullet points in the Conservation party platform]). No science debates and no mention (that I can recall) of science in any Canadian election for the last 10 years, at least.

The current discussion about science in Britain is extraordinary by Canadian standards and my hat’s off to the Brits not only for ‘getting science to the table’ but for working so long and so hard to make sure that it stays there.

There are a couple rays of hope on the Canadian scene, the Canadian Science Policy Centre which will be putting on its second annual conference this coming October (I’ll post more about that as details are released).  There are also Canadian science bloggers such as:

  • Rob Annan at Don’t leave Canada behind who comments extensively on the Canadian science policy scene and offers in-depth analysis;
  • Pascal Lapointe and his colleague at Je vote pour la science (coincidentally they have a podcast about scientists as politicians, which includes some commentary about the recent British election); offer wide-ranging discussion on Canadian science policy and science; and
  • the folks at The Black Hole who usually comment on the situation for Canadian science postdoctoral ‘students’ while also offering thoughts on science education and literacy.

Not exactly a blog,

  • Science Canada functions as an aggregator of Canadian science policy news.

If you know of any other bloggers or developments on the Canadian science policy scene, please do let me know.