Tag Archives: Canadian Science Policy Centre (CSPC)

Canada’s 2021 budget and science

As more than one observer has noted, this April 19, 2021 budget is the first in two years. Predictably, there has been some distress over the copious amounts of money being spent to stimulate/restart the economy whether it needs it or not. Some have described this as a pre-election budget. Overall, there seems to be more satisfaction than criticism.

Maybe a little prescient?

After mentioning some of the government’s issues with money (Phoenix Payroll System debacle and WE Charity scandal) in my April 13, 2021 posting about the then upcoming Canadian Science Policy Centre’s post-budget symposium, I had these comments (which surprise even me),

None of this has anything to do with science funding (as far as I know) but it does set the stage for questions about how science funding is determined and who will be getting it. There are already systems in place for science funding through various agencies but the federal budget often sets special priorities such as the 2017 Pan-Canadian Artificial Intelligence Strategy [emphasis added April 29, 2021] with its attendant $125M. As well,Prime Minister Justin Trudeau likes to use science as a means of enhancing his appeal. [emphasis mine] See my March 16, 2018 posting for a sample of this, scroll down to the “Sunny ways: a discussion between Justin Trudeau and Bill Nye” subhead.

Budget 2021 introduced two new strategies, the first ones since the 2017 budget: the Pan-Canadian Genomics Strategy and the National Quantum Strategy. As for whether this ploy will help enhance Trudeau’s appeal, that seems doubtful given his current plight (see an April 27, 2021 CBC online news item “PM says his office didn’t know Vance allegations were about sexual misconduct” for a description of some of Trudeau’s latest political scandal).

Science in the 2021 budget (a few highlights)

For anyone who wants to take a look at the 2021 Canadian Federal Budget, Chapters Four and Five (in Part Two) seems to contain the bulk of the science funding announcements. Here are the highlights, given my perspective, from Chapter Four (Note: I don’t chime in again until the “A full list …. subhead):

4.6 Investing in World-leading Research and Innovation

A plan for a long-term recovery must look to challenges and opportunities that lie ahead in the years and decades to come. It must be led by a growth strategy that builds on the unique competitive advantages of the Canadian economy, and make sure that Canada is well-positioned to meet the demands of the next century. This work begins with innovation.

To drive growth and create good, well-paying jobs, entrepreneurs and businesses need to be able to translate Canada’s world-class leadership in research into innovative products and services for Canadians, and for the world.

These investments will help cement Canada’s position as a world leader in research and innovation, building a global brand that will attract talent and capital for years to come.

Supporting Innovation and Industrial Transformation

Since its launch in 2017, the Strategic Innovation Fund has been helping businesses invest, grow, and innovate in Canada. Through its efforts to help businesses make the investments they need to succeed, the fund is well-placed to support growth and the creation of good jobs across the Canadian economy—both now and in the future.

  • Budget 2021 proposes to provide the Strategic Innovation Fund with an incremental $7.2 billion over seven years on a cash basis, starting in 2021-22, and $511.4 million ongoing. This funding will be directed as follows:
  • $2.2 billion over seven years, and $511.4 million ongoing to support innovative projects across the economy—including in the life sciences, automotive, aerospace, and agriculture sectors.
  • $5 billion over seven years to increase funding for the Strategic Innovation Fund’s Net Zero Accelerator, as detailed in Chapter 5. Through the Net Zero Accelerator the fund would scale up its support for projects that will help decarbonize heavy industry, support clean technologies and help meaningfully accelerate domestic greenhouse gas emissions reductions by 2030.

The funding proposed in Budget 2021 will build on the Strategic Innovation Fund’s existing resources, including the $3 billion over five years announced in December 2020 for the Net Zero Accelerator. With this additional support, the Strategic Innovation Fund will target investments in important areas of future growth over the coming years to advance multiple strategic objectives for the Canadian economy:

  • $1.75 billion in support over seven years would be targeted toward aerospace in recognition of the longer-lasting impacts to this sector following COVID-19. This is in addition to the $250 million Aerospace Regional Recovery Initiative, outlined in section 4.2, providing a combined support of $2 billion to help this innovative sector recover and grow out of the crisis.
  • $1 billion of support over seven years would be targeted toward growing Canada’s life sciences and bio-manufacturing sector, restoring capabilities that have been lost and supporting the innovative Canadian firms and jobs in this sector. This is an important component of Canada’s plan to build domestic resilience and improve long-term pandemic preparedness proposed in Chapter 1, providing a combined $2.2 billion over seven years.
  • $8 billion over seven years for the Net Zero Accelerator to support projects that will help reduce Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions by expediting decarbonization projects, scaling-up clean technology, and accelerating Canada’s industrial transformation. More details are in Chapter 5.

Renewing the Pan-Canadian Artificial Intelligence Strategy

Artificial intelligence is one of the greatest technological transformations of our age. Canada has communities of research, homegrown talent, and a diverse ecosystem of start-ups and scale-ups. But these Canadian innovators need investment in order to ensure our economy takes advantage of the enormous growth opportunities ahead in this sector. By leveraging our position of strength, we can also ensure that Canadian values are embedded across widely used, global platforms.

  • Budget 2021 proposes to provide up to $443.8 million over ten years, starting in 2021-22, in support of the Pan-Canadian Artificial Intelligence Strategy, including:
  • $185 million over five years, starting in 2021-22, to support the commercialization of artificial intelligence innovations and research in Canada.
  • $162.2 million over ten years, starting in 2021-22, to help retain and attract top academic talent across Canada—including in Alberta, British Columbia, Ontario, and Quebec. This programming will be delivered by the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research.
  • $48 million over five years, starting in 2021-22, for the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research to renew and enhance its research, training, and knowledge mobilization programs.
  • $40 million over five years, starting in 2022-23, to provide dedicated computing capacity for researchers at the national artificial intelligence institutes in Edmonton, Toronto, and Montréal.
  • $8.6 million over five years, starting in 2021-22, to advance the development and adoption of standards related to artificial intelligence.

Launching a National Quantum Strategy

Quantum technology is at the very leading edge of science and innovation today, with enormous potential for commercialization. This emerging field will transform how we develop and design everything from life-saving drugs to next generation batteries, and Canadian scientists and entrepreneurs are well-positioned to take advantage of these opportunities. But they need investments to be competitive in this fast growing global market.

  • Budget 2021 proposes to provide $360 million over seven years, starting in 2021-22, to launch a National Quantum Strategy. The strategy will amplify Canada’s significant strength in quantum research; grow our quantum-ready technologies, companies, and talent; and solidify Canada’s global leadership in this area. This funding will also establish a secretariat at the Department of Innovation, Science and Economic Development to coordinate this work.

The government will provide further details on the rollout of the strategy in the coming months.

Revitalizing the Canadian Photonics Fabrication Centre

Canada is a world leader in photonics, the technology of generating and harnessing the power of light. This is the science behind fibre optics, advanced semi-conductors, and other cutting-edge technologies, and there is a strong history of Canadian companies bringing this expertise to the world. The National Research Council’s Canadian Photonics Fabrication Centre supplies photonics research, testing, prototyping, and pilot-scale manufacturing services to academics and large, small and medium-sized photonics businesses in Canada. But its aging facility puts this critical research and development at risk.

  • Budget 2021 proposes to provide $90 million over five years on a cash basis, starting in 2021-22, to the National Research Council to retool and modernize the Canadian Photonics Fabrication Centre. This would allow the centre to continue helping Canadian researchers and companies grow and support highly skilled jobs.

Launching a Pan-Canadian Genomics Strategy

Genomics research is developing cutting-edge therapeutics and is helping Canada track and fight COVID-19. Canada was an early mover in advancing genomics science and is now a global leader in the field. A national approach to support genomics research can lead to breakthroughs that have real world applications. There is an opportunity to improve Canadians’ health and well-being while also creating good jobs and economic growth. Leveraging and commercializing this advantage will give Canadian companies, researchers, and workers a competitive edge in this growing field.

  • Budget 2021 proposes to provide $400 million over six years, starting in 2021-22, in support of a Pan-Canadian Genomics Strategy. This funding would provide $136.7 million over five years, starting in 2022-23, for mission-driven programming delivered by Genome Canada to kick-start the new Strategy and complement the government’s existing genomics research and innovation programming.

Further investments to grow Canada’s strengths in genomics under the Strategy will be announced in the future.

Conducting Clinical Trials

Canadian scientists are among the best in the world at conducting high-quality clinical trials. Clinical trials lead to the development of new scientifically proven treatments and cures, and improved health outcomes for Canadians. They also create good jobs in the health research sector, including the pharmaceutical sector, and support the creation of new companies, drugs, medical devices, and other health products.

  • Budget 2021 proposes to provide $250 million over three years, starting in 2021-22, to the Canadian Institutes of Health Research to implement a new Clinical Trials Fund.

Supporting the Innovation Superclusters Initiative

Since it was launched in 2017, the Innovation Superclusters Initiative has helped Canada build successful innovation ecosystems in important areas of the economy. Drawing on the strength and breadth of their networks, the superclusters were able to quickly pivot their operations and played an important role in Canada’s COVID-19 response. For example, the Digital Technology Supercluster allocated resources to projects that used digital technologies and artificial intelligence to help facilitate faster, more accurate diagnosis, treatment, and care of COVID-19 patients.

To help ensure those superclusters that made emergency investments to support Canada’s COVID-19 response and others can continue supporting innovative Canadian projects:

  • Budget 2021 proposes to provide $60 million over two years, starting in 2021-22, to the Innovation Superclusters Initiative.

Promoting Canadian Intellectual Property

As the most highly educated country in the OECD, Canada is full of innovative and entrepreneurial people with great ideas. Those ideas are valuable intellectual property that are the seeds of huge growth opportunities. Building on the National Intellectual Property Strategy announced in Budget 2018, the government proposes to further support Canadian innovators, start-ups, and technology-intensive businesses. Budget 2021 proposes:

  • $90 million, over two years, starting in 2022-23, to create ElevateIP, a program to help accelerators and incubators provide start-ups with access to expert intellectual property services.
  • $75 million over three years, starting in 2021-22, for the National Research Council’s Industrial Research Assistance Program to provide high-growth client firms with access to expert intellectual property services.

These direct investments would be complemented by a Strategic Intellectual Property Program Review that will be launched. It is intended as a broad assessment of intellectual property provisions in Canada’s innovation and science programming, from basic research to near-commercial projects. This work will make sure Canada and Canadians fully benefit from innovations and intellectual property.

Capitalizing on Space-based Earth Observation

Earth observation satellites support critical services that Canadians rely on. They provide reliable weather forecasts, support military and transport logistics, help us monitor and fight climate change, and support innovation across sectors, including energy and agriculture. They also create high-quality jobs in Canada and the government will continue to explore opportunities to support Canadian capacity, innovation, and jobs in this sector. To maintain Canada’s capacity to collect and use important data from these satellites, Budget 2021 proposes to provide:

  • $80.2 million over eleven years, starting in 2021-22, with $14.9 million in remaining amortization and $6.2 million per year ongoing, to Natural Resources Canada and Environment and Climate Change Canada to replace and expand critical but aging ground-based infrastructure to receive satellite data.
  • $9.9 million over two years, starting in 2021-22, to the Canadian Space Agency to plan for the next generation of Earth observation satellites.

Science and Technology Collaboration with Israeli Firms

Collaborating with global innovation leaders allows Canadian companies to leverage expertise to create new products and services, support good jobs, and reach new export markets.

  • Budget 2021 proposes to provide additional funding of $10 million over five years, starting in 2021-2022, and $2 million per year ongoing, to expand opportunities for Canadian SMEs to engage in research and development partnerships with Israeli SMEs as part of the Canadian International Innovation Program. This will be sourced from existing Global Affairs Canada resources. The government also intends to implement an enhanced delivery model for this program, including possible legislation.

4.7 Supporting a Digital Economy

More and more of our lives are happening online—from socializing, to our jobs, to commerce. Recognizing the fundamental shifts underway in our society, the government introduced a new Digital Charter in 2020 that seeks to better protect the privacy, security, and personal data of Canadians, building trust and confidence in the digital economy.

To make sure that Canadian businesses can keep pace with this digital transformation and that they are part of this growth, Budget 2021 includes measures to ensure businesses and workers in every region of the country have access to fast, reliable internet. It also has measures to make sure that the digital economy is fair and well reported on.

A digital economy that serves and protects Canadians and Canadian businesses is vital for long-term growth.

Accelerating Broadband for Everyone

The COVID-19 pandemic has shifted much of our lives online and transformed how we live, work, learn, and do business. This makes it more important than ever that Canadians, including Canadian small businesses in every corner of this country, have access to fast and reliable high-speed internet. Canadians and Canadian businesses in many rural and remote communities who still do not have access to high-speed internet face a barrier to equal participation in the economy. Building on the $6.2 billion the federal government and federal agencies have made available for universal broadband since 2015:

  • Budget 2021 proposes to provide an additional $1 billion over six years, starting in 2021-22, to the Universal Broadband Fund to support a more rapid rollout of broadband projects in collaboration with provinces and territories and other partners. This would mean thousands more Canadians and small businesses will have faster, more reliable internet connections.

In total, including proposed Budget 2021 funding, $2.75 billion will be made available through the Universal Broadband Fund to support Canadians in rural and remote communities. Recently, the Universal Broadband Fund provided funding to ensure Quebec could launch Operation High Speed, connecting nearly 150,000 Quebecers to high-speed internet. These continuing investments will help Canada accelerate work to reach its goal of 98 per cent of the country having high-speed broadband by 2026 and 100 per cent by 2030.

Establishing a New Data Commissioner

Digital and data-driven technologies open up new markets for products and services that allow innovative Canadians to create new business opportunities—and high-value jobs. But as the digital and data economy grows, Canadians must be able to trust that their data are protected and being used responsibly.

  • Budget 2021 proposes to provide $17.6 million over five years, starting in 2021-22, and $3.4 million per year ongoing, to create a Data Commissioner. The Data Commissioner would inform government and business approaches to data-driven issues to help protect people’s personal data and to encourage innovation in the digital marketplace.
  • Budget 2021 also proposes to provide $8.4 million over five years, starting in 2021-22, and $2.3 million ongoing, to the Standards Council of Canada to continue its work to advance industry-wide data governance standards.

A full list of science funding highlights from the 2021 federal budget

If you don’t have the time or patience to comb through the budget for all of the science funding announcements, you can find an excellent list in an April 19, 2021posting on Evidence for Democracy (Note: Links have been removed; h/t Science Media Centre of Canada newsletter),

Previously, we saw a landmark budget for science in 2018, which made historic investments in fundamental research totaling more than $1.7 billion. This was followed by additional commitments in 2019 that included expanded support for research trainees and access to post-secondary education. While no federal budget was tabled in 2020, there have been ongoing investments in Canadian science throughout the pandemic.

Budget 2021 attempts to balance the pressing challenges of the pandemic with a long-term view towards recovery and growth. We are pleased to see strategic investments across the Canadian science ecosystem, including targeted research funding in artificial intelligence, quantum technologies, and bioinnovation. There is also a focus on climate action, which outlines a $17.6 billion investment towards green recovery and conservation. There are also noteworthy investments in research and development partnerships, and data capacity. Beyond research, Budget 2021 includes investments in childcare, mental health, Indigenous communities, post-secondary education, and support for gender-based and Black-led initiatives.

We note that this budget does not include significant increases to the federal granting agencies, or legislation to safeguard the Office of the Chief Science Advisor.

Below, we highlight key research-related investments in Budget 2021.

The list is here in the April 19, 2021posting.

Is it magic or how does the federal budget get developed?

I believe most of the priorities are set by power players behind the scenes. We glimpsed some of the dynamics courtesy of the WE Charity scandal 2020/21 and the SNC-Lavalin scandal in 2019.

Access to special meetings and encounters are not likely to be given to any member of the ‘great unwashed’ but we do get to see the briefs that are submitted in anticipation of a new budget. These briefs and meetings with witnesses are available on the Parliament of Canada website (Standing Committee on Finance (FINA) webpage for pre-budget consultations.

For the 2021 federal budget, there are 792 briefs and transcripts of meeting with 52 witnesses. Whoever designed the page decided to make looking at more than one or two briefs onerous. Just click on a brief that interests you and try to get back to the list.

National Quantum Strategy

There is a search function but ‘quantum’ finds only Xanadu Quantum Technologies (more about their brief in a minute) and not D-Wave Systems, which is arguably a more important player in the field. Regardless, both companies presented briefs although the one from Xanadu was of the most interest as it seems to be recommending a national strategy without actually using the term (from the Xanadu Quantum Technologies budget 2021 brief),

Recommendation 1: Quantum Advisory Board

The world is at the beginning of the second Quantum Revolution, which will result in the development and deployment of revolutionary quantum technologies, based upon the scientific discoveries of the past century. Major economies of the world, including the USA, China, Japan, EU, UK and South Korea, have all identified quantum technologies as strategically important, and have adopted national strategies or frameworks. Many of them have dedicated billions of dollars of funding to quantum technology R&D and commercialization. We urge the government to create a Quantum Advisory Board or Task Force, to ensure a coherent national strategy which involves all areas of government:research, education, industry, trade, digital government, transportation, health, defence,etc.

Recommendation 2: Continue Supporting Existing Research Centres

Canada has a long history of nurturing world-class academic research in quantum science at our universities. The CFREF [Canada First Research Excellence Fund {CFREF}] program was a welcome catalyst which solidified the international stature of the quantum research programs at UBC [University of British Columbia], Waterloo [University of Waterloo; Ontario] and Sherbrooke [University of Sherbrooke; Québec]. Many of our highly qualified team members have graduated from these programs and other Canadian universities. We urge the government to continue funding these research centers past the expiration of the CFREF program, to ensure the scientific critical mass is not dissipated, and the highly sought-after talent is not pulled away to other centers around the world.

Recommendation 3: National Quantum Computing Access Centre

Our Canadian competitor, D-Wave Systems, was started in Canada nearly 20 years ago,and has yet to make significant sales or build a strong user base within Canada. At Xanadu we also find that the most ready customers for our computers are researchers in the USA,rather than in Canada, despite the strong interest from many individual professors we speak with at a number of Canadian universities. We urge the government to create a National Quantum Computing Access Centre, through Compute Canada or another similar national organization, which can centralize and coordinate the provision of quantum computing access for the Canadian academic research community. Without access to these new machines, Canadian researchers will lose their ability to innovate new algorithms and applications of this groundbreaking technology. It will be impossible to train the future workforce of quantum programmers, without access to the machines like those of D-Wave and Xanadu.

Recommendation 4: National Quantum Technology Roundtable

Traditional, resource-based Canadian industries are not historically known for the ir innovative adoption of new technology, and the government has created many programs to encourage digitalization of manufacturing and resource industries, and also newer,cleaner technology adoption in the energy and other heavy industries. Quantum technologies in computing, communications and sensing have the potential to make exponential improvements in many industries, including: chemicals, materials, logistics,transportation, electricity grids, transit systems, wireless networks, financial portfolio analysis and optimization, remote sensing, exploration, border security, and improved communication security. We urge the government to convene national roundtable discussions, perhaps led by the NRC, to bring together the Canadian researchers and companies developing these new technologies, along with the traditional industries and government bodies of Canada who stand to benefit from adopting them, for mutual education and information sharing, roadmapping, benchmarking and strategic planning.

Recommendation 5: New Quantum Computing Institute in Toronto

The University of Toronto is the leading research institution in Canada, and one of the top research universities in the world. Many world-class scientists in quantum physics,chemistry, computer science, and electrical engineering are currently part of the Centre for Quantum Information and Quantum Control (CQIQC) at the university [University of Toronto]. British Columbia has recently announced the creation of a new institute dedicated to the study of Quantum Algorithms, and we encourage the government to build upon the existing strengths of the quantum research programs at the CQIQC, through the funding of a new,world-class research institute, focussed on quantum computing. Such an institute will leverage not only the existing quantum expertise, but also the world-class artificial intelligence and machine learning research communities in the city. The tech industry in Toronto is also the fastest growing in North America, hiring more than San Francisco or Boston. We request the government fund the establishment of a new quantum computing institute built on Toronto’s 3 pillars of quantum research, artificial intelligence, and a thriving tech industry, to create a center of excellence with global impact.

Recommendation 6: Dedicated BDC [Business Development Bank of Canada] Quantum Venture Fund

Although there is no major international firm developing and selling quantum-based technology from Canada, a number of the world’s most promising start-ups are based here. Xanadu and our peer firms are now actively shaping our business models; refining our products and services; undertaking research and development; and developing networks of customers.To date, Canadian firms like Xanadu have been successful at raising risk capital from primarily domestic funds like BDC, OMERS, Georgian Partners and Real Ventures,without having to leave the country. In order to ensure a strong “Quantum Startup”ecosystem in Canada, we request that the BDC be mandated to establish a specialist quantum technology venture capital fund. Such a fund will help ensure the ongoing creation of a whole cluster of Canadian startups in all areas of Quantum Technology, and help to keep the technologies and talent coming from our research universities within the country.

Christian Weedbrook, Xanadu Chief Executive Officer, has taken the time to dismiss his chief competitor and managed to ignore the University of Calgary in his Canadian quantum future. (See my September 21, 2016 posting “Teleporting photons in Calgary (Canada) is a step towards a quantum internet,” where that team set a record for distance.)

The D-Wave Systems budget 2021 brief does have some overlapping interests but is largely standalone and more focused on business initiatives and on the US. Both briefs mention the Quantum Algorithms Institute (QAI), which is being established at Simon Fraser University (SFU) with an investment from the government of British Columbia (see this Oct. 2, 2019 SFU press release).

Where Weedbrook is passionately Canadian and signed the Xanadu brief himself, the D-Wave brief is impersonal and anonymous.

Pan-Canadian Genomics Strategy

The Genome Canada brief doesn’t mention a pan-Canadian strategy,

List of Recommendations:

•Recommendation 1: That the government invest in mission-driven research —with line-of-sight to application —to mobilize genomics to drive Canada’s recovery in key sectors.

•Recommendation 2: That the government invest in a national genomics data strategy to drive data generation, analysis, standards, tools, access and usage to derive maximum value and impact from Canada’s genomics data assets.

•Recommendation 3: That the government invest in training of the next generation of genomics researchers, innovators and entrepreneurs to support the development of a genomics-enabled Canadian bioeconomy.

•Recommendation 4: That the government invest in long-term and predictable research and research infrastructure through the federal granting agencies and the Canada Foundation forInnovation to ensure a strong and vibrant knowledge base for recovery.

It’s not an exciting start but if you continue you’ll find a well written and compelling brief.

A happy April 19, 2021 GenomeCanada news release provides an overview of how this affects the Canadian life sciences research effort,

“The federal government announced $400 million for a new Pan-Canadian Genomics Strategy, including $136.7 million for Genome Canada to kickstart the Strategy, with further investments to be announced in the future. The budget recognized the key role genomics plays in developing cutting-edge therapeutics and in helping Canada track and fight COVID-19. It recognizes that Canada is a global leader in the field and that genomics can improve Canadians’ health and wellbeing while also creating good jobs and economic growth. Leveraging and commercializing this advantage will give Canadian companies, researchers, and workers a competitive edge in this growing field.

… Today’s announcement included excellent news for Canada’s long-term sustainable economic growth in biomanufacturing and the life sciences, with a total of $2.2 billion over seven years going toward growing life sciences, building up Canada’s talent pipeline and research systems, and supporting life sciences organizations.
 
Genome Canada welcomes other investments that will strengthen Canada’s research, innovation and talent ecosystem and drive economic growth in sectors of the future, including:

  • $500 million over four years, starting in 2021-22, for the Canada Foundation for Innovation to support the bio-science capital and infrastructure needs of post-secondary institutions and research hospitals;
  • $250 million over four years, starting in 2021-22, for the federal research granting councils to create a new tri-council biomedical research fund;
  • $250 million over three years, starting in 2021-22, to the Canadian Institutes of Health Research to implement a new Clinical Trials Fund;
  • $92 million over four years, starting in 2021-22, for adMare to support company creation, scale up, and training activities in the life sciences sector;
  • $59.2 million over three years, starting in 2021-22, for the Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization to support the development of its vaccine candidates and expand its facility in Saskatoon;
  • $45 million over three years, starting in 2022-23, to the Stem Cell Network to support stem cell and regenerative medicine research; and
  • $708 million over five years, starting in 2021-22, to Mitacs to create at least 85,000 work-integrated learning placements that provide on-the-job learning and provide businesses with support to develop talent and grow.

The visionary support announced in Budget 2021 puts Canada on competitive footing with other G7 nations that have made major investments in research and innovation to drive high-value growth sectors, while placing bio-innovation at the heart of their COVID-19 recoveries. Genome Canada looks forward to leading the new Pan-Canadian Genomics Strategy and to working with Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada and other partners on the strategic investments announced today.   

“To solve complex global problems, such as a worldwide pandemic and climate change, we need transdisciplinary approaches. The life sciences will play significant roles within such an approach. The funding announced today will be instrumental in driving Genome Canada’s mission to be Canada’s genomics platform for future pandemic preparedness, its capacity for biomanufacturing, and its bio-economy overall.”

– Dr. Rob Annan, President and CEO, Genome Canada

Canadian business innovation, science, and innovation—oxymoron?

Navdeep Bains was Canada’s Minister of Innovation, Science and Industry (2015-January 12, 2021) and he had a few things to say as he stepped away (from an April 16, 2021 article by Kevin Carmichael for PostMedia on the SaltWire; Atlantic Canada website),

Navdeep Bains earlier this spring [2021] spoke to me about his tenure as industry minister, which inevitably led to questions about Canada’s eroding competitiveness. He said that he thought he’d done a pretty good job of creating the conditions for a more innovative economy. But the corporate elite? Not so much.

“The ball is back in business’s court,” Bains said. “Frankly, if businesses don’t do this, I think in the long run they will struggle. They have to start changing their behaviour significantly.”

How’s that for a parting shot?

Bains wasn’t the first Canadian policy-maker to get frustrated by Corporate Canada’s aversion to risky bets on research and cutting-edge technology [emphasis mine]. But it’s been a long time since anyone in Ottawa tried to coax them to keep up with the times by dangling big sacks of cash in their faces. All they had to do was demonstrate some ambition and be willing to complement the federal government’s contribution with an investment of their own.

“He [Bains] was a great cheerleader,” said Mike Wessinger, chief executive of PointClickCare Technologies Inc., a Mississauga-based developer of software that helps long-term care homes manage data. “He would always proactively reach out. It was great that he cared.”

It’s easy to dismiss the importance of cheerleading. Canada’s digitally native companies were struggling to be taken seriously in Ottawa a decade ago. Former prime minister Stephen Harper pitched in with the Obama administration to save General Motors Co. and Chrysler Group LLC in 2009, but he let Nortel Networks Corp. fail. The technology industry needed a champion, and it found one in Bains.

Bains argued that his programs [legacy assessment] deserve more time. Industrial policy was still derided when he took over the industry department. It’s now mainstream. For now, that’s his legacy. It’s up to his former colleagues to write the final chapter.

I haven’t seen any OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) figures recently but Canada’s industrial R&D (research development) has been on a downward slide for several years compared to many ‘developed’ countries.

A few final comments

I am intrigued by the inclusion of science and technology collaboration with Israeli firms (through the Canadian International Innovation Program) in the 2021 budget. It’s the only country to be specifically identified in this budget’s science funding announcements.

In fact, I can’t recall seeing any other budget of the last 10 years or so with mention of a specific country as a focus for Canadian science and technology collaboration. Perhaps Israeli companies are especially focused on industrial R&D and risk taking and they hope some of that will rub off on Canadians?

For anyone who might be curious as to the name difference between the new Pan-Canadian Genomic Strategy and the National Quantum Strategy, it may be due to the maturity (age) associated with the research field and its business efforts.

GenomeCanada (a Canadian government-funded not-for-profit agency founded in 2000) and its regional centres are the outcome of some national strategizing in the 1990s, from the GenomeCanada 20th anniversary webpage,

In the 1990s, the Human Genome Project captivates the world. But Canada doesn’t have a coordinated national approach. A group of determined Canadian scientists convinces the federal government to make a bold investment in genomics to ensure Canada doesn’t miss out on the benefits of this breakthrough science. Genome Canada is established on February 8, 2000.

While the folks in the quantum world are more obviously competitive (if the two briefs are indicative), there is the Quantum Industry Canada consortium, which was announced on October 6, 2020 on the Cision website,

Industry Association will accelerate the commercialization of Canada’s quantum sector – a $142.4B opportunity for Canadians.

TORONTO, Oct. 6, 2020 /CNW/ – A consortium of Canada’s leading quantum technology companies announced today that they are launching Quantum Industry Canada (QIC), an industry association with a mission to ensure that Canadian quantum innovation and talent is translated into Canadian business success and economic prosperity.

The twenty-four founding members represent Canada’s most commercial-ready quantum technologies, covering applications in quantum computing, quantum sensing, quantum communications, and quantum-safe cryptography.

It’s quite possible this National Quantum Strategy will result in a national not-for-profit agency and, eventually, a pan-Canadian strategy of its own. My impression is that competition in the life sciences research and business concerns is just as intense as in the quantum research and business concerns; the difference (as suggested earlier) lies in the maturity of, as well as, cultural differences between the communities.

If you have the time, the briefs offer an fascinating albeit truncated view into the machinations behind a federal budget: Parliament of Canada website (Standing Committee on Finance; FINA) webpage for pre-budget consultations.

The inclusion of a section on intellectual property in the budget could seem peculiar. I would have thought that years ago before I learned that governments measure and compare with other government the success of their science and technology efforts by the number of patents that have been filed. There are other measures but intellectual property is very important, as far as governments are concerned. My “Billions lost to patent trolls; US White House asks for comments on intellectual property (IP) enforcement; and more on IP” June 28, 2012 posting points to some of the shortcomings, with which we still grapple.

To finally finish this off, Canadian Science Policy Centre has a call for 2021 Budget Editorial Call. (600-800 words)

ETA May 6, 2021: Ooops! This is the end: The Canadian Science Policy Centre has posted recordings of their 2021 federal budget symposium here (according to a May 6, 2021 announcement received via email).

ETA May 19, 2021: Well … here’s one more thing. If you’re interested in how basic funding for the sciences fared, check out Jim R. Woodgett’s May 8, 2021 posting on the Piece of Mind blog.

Call for papers for the 13th (2021) Canadian Science Policy Conference (CSPC)

“Building Forward Better” (sigh) is the concept for the upcoming 2021 Canadian Science Policy Conference. (I wish the theme didn’t seem derivative of “Build Back Better,” President Joe Biden’s agenda.) The deadline as it stands now is May 21, 2021 for the panel proposals and, I believe, the short talk proposals.

As usual, the conference is being held in Ottawa, which is convenient when most government science policy wonks are in Ottawa, of course, the rest of us can ‘Zoom’ attend.

Note: CSPC is the abbreviation for both the Canadian Science Policy Centre and the Canadian Science Policy Conference, which the Centre organizes. Confusing, eh? conference.

From the 2021 CSPC call for submissions webpage (Note formatting changes),

CSPC [Canadian Science Policy Centre] is excited to announce the themes and topics for the 13th Canadian Science Policy Conference!

As Canada focuses on the future and post-pandemic rebuilding process, the overarching message of CSPC 2021 is shaped by the concept of Building Forward Better.

PANEL DEADLINE MAY 21ST

There is no fee associated with the panel submission.

Theme 1:  Science and Policy

STI Policy frameworks

Towards holistic STI policies: Approaches that are inclusive of governments, agencies, private sector, academe

Beyond the Endless Frontier; Renegotiating the Social Contract between Science, Innovation, and Society 

The international research ecosystem/supply chain – opportunities and risks  

Policy and regulation of emerging technologies 

Indigenous knowledge:

Integration in evidence-informed decision making

Climate change:

Carbon management goals: Issues and approaches for agriculture, forestry, food production, manufacturing, and land use 

Agriculture: Production, sustainability, and life cycle; precision agriculture

Biodiversity and conservation

Indigenous communities’ engagement in managing and adapting to climate change   

Smart cities and smart infrastructure 

Theme 2: Science and Society

Public engagement

Responses to the science of COVID-19 – lessons learned

Misinformation/Disinformation 

Public trust in science, especially in the post pandemic world

Digital media

Democracy and politics in a ‘post-trust’ / ‘post-truth’ / post-pandemic era

Science and Post Pandemic Politics, Platforms and Elections 

Theme 3:  Science, Innovation and Economic Development

International

Best Global practices in commercializing new knowledge from scientific research 

Priority Sectors/Challenges 

Sustainable development and the circular resource economy 

What should be Canada’s competitive priority: Technology innovation or technology adoption? 

Assessing the impact of Disruptive Technologies on Canada’s Job Growth and Economic Development 

Theme 4:  Science and International Affairs and Security

Security of Research and Innovation:

State and non-state espionage

Cyber, and data security

International Collaboration and Security

Science diplomacy in post pandemic era

International STI developments: Implications for Canada:  

American Science Policy

Horizon Europe 

International science and technology agreements 

Social Media, international regulations, and citizen rights International knowledge and talent strategy, brain circulation

Science and Technology in an increasingly tense global order

Theme 5: Science and the Next Generation

New graduates and new realities 

Capacity building:

The next generation of Indigenous leaders

The next generation of innovative tech leaders, e.g. space, AI, cybersecurity cleantech

Indigenous led research by Indigenous for Indigenous 

Theme 6:  Grand Challenges 

Canada’s energy policies for a sustainable future

Food security 

Climate change

Climate Adaptation

Next steps to Net Zero 

Water scarcity and quality 

Oceans and sea rise 

As I’ve noted elsewhere (and frequently), much of the science policy discussion coming out of Ottawa via these conferences and the Council of Canadian Academies is Eurocentric and UScentric as can be seen in Theme 4’s International STI developments: Implications for Canada., which highlights these three topics: American Science Policy, Horizon Europe, and International science and technology agreements. No mention of China? Perhaps it will be found here in submissions for Science and Technology in an increasingly tense global order. Finally and surprisingly, there’s no mention of the Arctic in the Grand Challenges’ Climate change subgroups or elsewhere.

I have some more details from the 2021 CSPC’s Criteria for proposal selection webpage,

CSPC is a national forum, a mosaic which aims to have a balanced representation of regional, sectoral, and topical diversity; as well as to provide under-represented groups an opportunity to present their ideas. These criteria will also be factored in for the final selection of panels.

There are two streams for proposal submission this year. Please read the criteria for each stream carefully before finalizing your submission. Both streams are expected to adhere to the CSPC 2021 themes and topics to increase chances of acceptance. 

1. Panel proposals 

80 minute panels (50 minute presentation, 20-30 minutes of questions) where a diverse, multisectoral group discuss topics in science policy (see CSPC 2021 themes and topics)

2. Short talk proposals.

10 minute presentations for those individuals who do not have the means to organize a panel, in particular student and early career professionals.

Good luck!

Online symposium (April 27 – 28, 2021) on Canada’s first federal budget in two years

The Canadian federal budget is due to be announced/revealed on April 19, 2021—the first budget we’ve seen since 2019.

The Canadian Science Policy Centre (CSPC)is hosting an April 27 -28, 2021 symposium online and the main focus will be on science and funding. Before moving onto the symposium details, I think a quick refresher is in order.

No oversight, WE Charity scandal

While the Liberal government has done much which is laudable by supporting people and businesses through this worldwide COVID-19 pandemic, there have been at least two notable missteps with regard to fiscal responsibility. This March 24, 2020 article in The Abbotsford News outlines the problem,

Conservative Finance critic Pierre Poilievre says there’s no deal yet between the Liberal government and Opposition over a proposed emergency aid bill to spend billions of dollars to fight the COVID-19 pandemic and cushion some of its damage to the economy.

The opposition parties had said they would back the $82 billion in direct spending and deferred taxes Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised to put up to prepare the country for mass illness and help Canadians cope with lost jobs and wages.

Yet a draft of the bill circulated Monday suggested it was going to give cabinet, not MPs, extraordinary power over taxes and spending, so ministers could act without Parliament’s approval for months.

The Conservatives will support every one of the aid measures contained in bill with no debate, Poilievre said. The only issue is whether the government needs to be given never before seen powers to tax and spend. [emphasis mine]

When there’s a minority government like the one Trudeau leads, the chance to bring the government down on a spending bill is what gives the opposition its power.

The government did not receive that approval in Parliament—but they tried. That was in March 2020; a few weeks later, there’s this (from the WE Charity scandal entry on Wikipedia),, Note: Links have been removed

On April 5, 2020 amidst the COVID-19 Pandemic, the Prime Minister of Canada, Justin Trudeau, and his then-Finance Minister Bill Morneau, held a telephone conversation discussing measures to financially assist the country’s student population.[14] The Finance Department was tasked with devising a series of measures to address these issues. This would begin a chain of events involving numerous governmental agencies.

Through a no-bid selection process [emphasis mine], WE Charity was chosen to administer the CSSG [Canada Student Service Grant], which would have created grants for students who volunteered during the COVID-19 pandemic.[15][13] The contract agreement was signed with WE Charity Foundation,[16] a corporation affiliated with WE Charity, on June 23, 2020. It was agreed that WE Charity, which had already begun incurring eligible expenses for the project on May 5 at their own risk,[17][18] would be paid $43.53 million[19] to administer the program; $30 million of which was paid to WE Charity Foundation on June 30, 2020.[18] This was later fully refunded.[17] A senior bureaucrat would note that “ESDC thinks that ‘WE’ might be able to be the volunteer matching third party … The mission of WE is congruent with national service and they have a massive following on social media.”[20]

Concurrent to these events, and prior to the announcement of the CSSG on June 25, 2020, WE Charity was simultaneously corresponding with the same government agencies ultimately responsible for choosing the administrator of the program.[8] WE Charity would submit numerous proposals in April, beginning on April 9, 2020, on the topic of youth volunteer award programs.[9] These were able to be reformed into what became the CSSG.[8]

On June 25, 2020 Justin Trudeau announced a series of relief measures for students. Among them was the Canada Student Service Grant program; whereby students would be eligible to receive $1000 for every 100 hours of volunteer activities, up to $5,000.[21]

The structure of the program, and the selection of WE Charity as its administrator, immediately triggered condemnation amongst the Official Opposition,[22] as well as numerous other groups, such as the Public Service Alliance of Canada,[7] Democracy Watch,[23] and Volunteer Canada[24] who argued that WE Charity:

  • Was not the only possible administrator as had been claimed
  • Had been the beneficiary of cronyism
  • Had experienced significant disruption due to the COVID-19 pandemic and required a bailout
  • Had illegally lobbied the government
  • Was unable to operate in French-speaking regions of Canada
  • Was potentially in violation of labour laws
  • Had created hundreds of volunteer positions with WE Charity itself as part of the program, doing work generally conducted by paid employees, representing a conflict of interests. …

In a July 13, 2020 article about the scandal on BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) online, it’s noted that Trudeau was about to undergo his third ethics inquiry since first becoming Prime Minister in 2015. His first ethics inquiry took place in 2017, the second in 2019, and again in 2020.

None of this has anything to do with science funding (as far as I know) but it does set the stage for questions about how science funding is determined and who will be getting it. There are already systems in place for science funding through various agencies but the federal budget often sets special priorities such as the 2017 Pan-Canadian Artificial Intelligence Strategy with its attendant $125M. As well,Prime Minister Justin Trudeau likes to use science as a means of enhancing his appeal. See my March 16, 2018 posting for a sample of this, scroll down to the “Sunny ways: a discussion between Justin Trudeau and Bill Nye” subhead.

Federal Budget 2021 Symposium

From the CSPC’s Federal Budget 2021 Symposium event page, Note: Minor changes have been made due to my formatting skills, or lack thereof,

Keynote talk by David Watters entitled: “Canada’s Performance in R&D and Innovation Ecosystem in the Context of Health and Economic Impact of COVID-19 and Investments in the Budget“ [sic]

Tentative Event Schedule

Tuesday April 27
12:00 – 4:30 pm EDT

12:00 – 1:00 Session I: Keynote Address: The Impact of Budget 2021 on the Performance of Canada’s National R&D/Innovation Ecosystem 

David Watters, President & CEO, Global Advantage Consulting

1:15 – 1:45 Session II: Critical Analysis 

Robert Asselin, Senior Vice President, Policy, Business Council of Canada
Irene Sterian, Founder, President & CEO, REMAP (Refined Manufacturing Acceleration Process); Director, Technology & Innovation, Celestica
David Wolfe, Professor of Political Science, UTM [University of Toronto Mississauga], Innovation Policy Lab, Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy

2:00 – 3:00 Session III: Superclusters 

Bill Greuel, CEO, Protein Industries Canada
Kendra MacDonald, CEO, Canada’s Ocean Supercluster
Angela Mondou, President & CEO, TECHNATION
Jayson Myers, CEO, Next Generation Manufacturing Canada (NGen)

3:30 – 4:30 Session IV: Business & Industry 3:30 – 4:30

Namir Anani, President & CEO, Information and Communications Technology Council [ICTC]
Karl Blackburn, President & CEO, Conseil du patronat du Québec
Tabatha Bull, President & CEO, Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business [CCAB]
Karen Churchill, President & CEO, Ag-West Bio Inc.
Karimah Es Sabar, CEO & Partner of Quark Venture LP; Chair, Health/Biosciences Economic Strategy Table

Wednesday April 28
2:00 – 4:30 pm EDT

2:00 – 3:00 Session V: Universities and Colleges

Steven Liss, Vice-President, Research and Innovation & Professor of Chemistry and Biology, Faculty of Science, Ryerson University
Madison Rilling, Project Manager, Optonique, Québec’s Optics & Photonics Cluster; Youth Council Member, Office of the Chief Science Advisor of Canada

3:30 – 4:30 Session VI: Non-Governmental Organizations 

Genesa M. Greening, President & CEO, BC Women’s Health Foundation
Maya Roy, CEO, YWCA Canada
Gisèle Yasmeen, Executive Director, Food Secure Canada
Jayson Myers, CEO, Next Generation Manufacturing Canada (NGen)

Register Here

Enjoy!

PS: I expect the guests at the Canadian Science Policy Centre’s (CSPC) April 27 – 28, 2021 Federal Budget Symposium to offer at least some commentary that boils down to ‘we love getting more money’ or ‘we’re not getting enough money’ or a bit of both.

I also expect the usual moaning over our failure to support industrial research and/or home grown companies E.g., Element AI (Canadian artificial intelligence company formerly headquartered in Montréal) was sold to a US company in November 2020 (see the Wikipedia entry). The US company doesn’t seem to have kept any of the employees but it seems to have acquired the intellectual property.

Wilson Center and artificial intelligence (a Dec. 3, 2020 event, an internship, and more [including some Canadian content])

The Wilson Center (also known as the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars) in Washington, DC is hosting a live webcast tomorrow on Dec. 3, 2020 and a call for applications for an internship (deadline; Dec. 18, 2020) and all of it concerns artificial intelligence (AI).

Assessing the AI Agenda: a Dec. 3, 2020 event

This looks like there could be some very interesting discussion about policy and AI, which could be applicable to other countries, as well as, the US. From a Dec. 2, 2020 Wilson Center announcements (received via email),

Assessing the AI Agenda: Policy Opportunities and Challenges in the 117th Congress

Thursday
Dec. 3, 2020
11:00am – 12:30pm ET

Artificial intelligence (AI) technologies occupy a growing share of the legislative agenda and pose a number of policy opportunities and challenges. Please join The Wilson Center’s Science and Technology Innovation Program (STIP) for a conversation with Senate and House staff from the AI Caucuses, as they discuss current policy proposals on artificial intelligence and what to expect — including oversight measures–in the next Congress. The public event will take place on Thursday, December 3 [2020] from 11am to 12:30pm EDT, and will be hosted virtually on the Wilson Center’s website. RSVP today.

Speakers:

  • Sam Mulopulos, Legislative Assistant, Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH)
  • Sean Duggan, Military Legislative Assistant, Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-NM)
  • Dahlia Sokolov, Staff Director, Subcommittee on Research and Technology, House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology
  • Mike Richards, Deputy Chief of Staff, Rep. Pete Olson (R-TX)

Moderator:

Meg King, Director, Science and Technology Innovation Program, The Wilson Center

We hope you will join us for this critical conversation. To watch, please RSVP and bookmark the webpage. Tune in at the start of the event (you may need to refresh once the event begins) on December 3. Questions about this event can be directed to the Science and Technology Program through email at stip@wilsoncenter.org or Twitter @WilsonSTIP using the hashtag #AICaucus.

Wilson Center’s AI Lab

This initiative brings to mind some of the science programmes that the UK government hosts for the members of Parliament. From the Wilson Center’s Artificial Intelligence Lab webpage,

Artificial Intelligence issues occupy a growing share of the Legislative and Executive Branch agendas; every day, Congressional aides advise their Members and Executive Branch staff encounter policy challenges pertaining to the transformative set of technologies collectively known as artificial intelligence. It is critically important that both lawmakers and government officials be well-versed in the complex subjects at hand.

What the Congressional and Executive Branch Labs Offer

Similar to the Wilson Center’s other technology training programs (e.g. the Congressional Cybersecurity Lab and the Foreign Policy Fellowship Program), the core of the Lab is a six-week seminar series that introduces participants to foundational topics in AI: what is machine learning; how do neural networks work; what are the current and future applications of autonomous intelligent systems; who are currently the main players in AI; and what will AI mean for the nation’s national security. Each seminar is led by top technologists and scholars drawn from the private, public, and non-profit sectors and a critical component of the Lab is an interactive exercise, in which participants are given an opportunity to take a hands-on role on computers to work through some of the major questions surrounding artificial intelligence. Due to COVID-19, these sessions are offered virtually. When health guidance permits, these sessions will return in-person at the Wilson Center.

Who Should Apply

The Wilson Center invites mid- to senior-level Congressional and Executive Branch staff to participate in the Lab; the program is also open to exceptional rising leaders with a keen interest in AI. Applicants should possess a strong understanding of the legislative or Executive Branch governing process and aspire to a career shaping national security policy.

….

Side trip: Science Meets (Canadian) Parliament

Briefly, here’s a bit about a programme in Canada, ‘Science Meets Parliament’ from the Canadian Science Policy Centre (CSPC); a not-for-profit, and the Canadian Office of the Chief Science Advisor (OCSA); a position with the Canadian federal government. Here’s a description of the programme from the Science Meets Parliament application webpage,

The objective of this initiative is to strengthen the connections between Canada’s scientific and political communities, enable a two-way dialogue, and promote mutual understanding. This initiative aims to help scientists become familiar with policy making at the political level, and for parliamentarians to explore using scientific evidence in policy making. [emphases mine] This initiative is not meant to be an advocacy exercise, and will not include any discussion of science funding or other forms of advocacy.

The Science Meets Parliament model is adapted from the successful Australian program held annually since 1999. Similar initiatives exist in the EU, the UK and Spain.

CSPC’s program aims to benefit the parliamentarians, the scientific community and, indirectly, the Canadian public.

This seems to be a training programme designed to teach scientists how to influence policy and to teach politicians to base their decisions on scientific evidence or, perhaps, lean on scientific experts that they met in ‘Science Meets Parliament’?

I hope they add some critical thinking to this programme so that politicians can make assessments of the advice they’re being given. Scientists have their blind spots too.

Here’s more from the Science Meets Parliament application webpage, about the latest edition,

CSPC and OCSA are pleased to offer this program in 2021 to help strengthen the connection between the science and policy communities. The program provides an excellent opportunity for researchers to learn about the inclusion of scientific evidence in policy making in Parliament.

The application deadline is January 4th, 2021

APPLYING FOR SCIENCE MEETS PARLIAMENT 2021 – ENGLISH

APPLYING FOR SCIENCE MEETS PARLIAMENT 2021 – FRENCH

You can find out more about benefits, eligibility, etc. on the application page.

Paid Graduate Research Internship: AI & Facial Recognition

Getting back to the Wilson Center, there’s this opportunity (from a Dec. 1, 2020 notice received by email),

New policy is on the horizon for facial recognition technologies (FRT). Many current proposals, including The Facial Recognition and Biometric Technology Moratorium Act of 2020 and The Ethical Use of Artificial Intelligence Act, either target the use of FRT in areas such as criminal justice or propose general moratoria until guidelines can be put in place. But these approaches are limited by their focus on negative impacts. Effective planning requires a proactive approach that considers broader opportunities as well as limitations and includes consumers, along with federal, state and local government uses.

More research is required to get us there. The Wilson Center seeks to better understand a wide range of opportunities and limitations, with a focus on one critically underrepresented group: consumers. The Science and Technology Innovation Program (STIP) is seeking an intern for Spring 2021 to support a new research project on understanding FRT from the consumer perspective.

A successful candidate will:

  • Have a demonstrated track record of work on policy and ethical issues related to Artificial Intelligence (AI) generally, Facial Recognition specifically, or other emerging technologies.
  • Be able to work remotely.
  • Be enrolled in a degree program, recently graduated (within the last year) and/or have been accepted to enter an advanced degree program within the next year.

Interested applicants should submit:

  • Cover letter explaining your general interest in STIP and specific interest in this topic, including dates and availability.
  • CV / Resume
  • Two brief writing samples (formal and/or informal), ideally demonstrating your work in science and technology research.

Applications are due Friday, December 18th [2020]. Please email all application materials as a single PDF to Erin Rohn, erin.rohn@wilsoncenter.org. Questions on this role can be directed to Anne Bowser, anne.bowser@wilsoncenter.org.

Good luck!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References used for op-ed

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

Statistics for previous pandemics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Statistics supporting my projections

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Laissez-faire script

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

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

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

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

Unintended consequences (the good and the bad)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ETC.

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

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

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

Brute force analysis and tools for broader consultation

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

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

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

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

Albert Einstein

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

Canadian Science Policy Conference 2020: changes

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

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

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

New Deadline for Panel Submission: June 12th, 2020

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

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

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

What to expect from a virtual conference:

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

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

CSPC 2020 Call for Panel Proposals

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

Call for 2020 Canadian Science Policy Conference panel submissions

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

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

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

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

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

CSPC 2020 Themes and Topics:

List of the themes and topics

CSPC 2020 Special theme: Grand Challenges

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

Science and Society

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

Science and Policy

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

Science, Innovation and Economic Developmennt

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

Science and International Affairs and Security

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

Science and the Next Generation

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

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

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

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

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

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

How could the public be engaged in addressing this challenge?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Setting the scene

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The science minister disappears

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

Science (and technology) have to be found elsewhere

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

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

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

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

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

The Minister of Digital Government and a bureaucratic débacle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Phoenix Pay System and a great sadness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Money troubles kept getting worse.

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

That email came eight days before her death.

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

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

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

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

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

Canada’s Senate reports back on Phoenix

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PSAC will continue pressing for enough funding and urgent action:

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

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

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

More digital for federal workers and the Canadian public

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Open government, eh?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The other science commentary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Finally

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

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

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

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

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

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

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