Tag Archives: David Kent

Part 2 (b) of 3: Science Culture: Where Canada Stands; an expert assessment (reconstructed)

Carrying on from part 2 (a) of this commentary on the Science Culture: Where Canada Stands assessment by the Council of Canadian Academies (CAC).

One of the most intriguing aspects of this assessment was the reliance on an unpublished inventory of Canadian science outreach initiatives (informal science education) that was commissioned by the Korean Foundation for the Advancement of Science and Creativity,

The system of organizations, programs, and initiatives that supports science culture in any country is dynamic. As a result, any inventory provides only a snapshot at a single point in time, and risks quickly becoming out of date. No sustained effort has been made to track public science outreach and engagement efforts in Canada at the national or regional level. Some of the Panel’s analysis relies on data from an unpublished inventory of public science communication initiatives in Canada undertaken in 2011 by Bernard Schiele, Anik Landry, and Alexandre Schiele for the Korean Foundation for the Advancement of Science and Creativity (Schiele et al., 2011). This inventory identified over 700 programs and organizations across all provinces and regions in Canada, including over 400 initiatives related to museums, science centres, zoos, or aquariums; 64 associations or NGOs involved in public science outreach; 49 educational initiatives; 60 government policies and programs; and 27 media programs. (An update of this inventory completed by the Panel brings the total closer to 800 programs.) The inventory is used throughout the chapter [chapter five] to characterize different components of the Canadian system supporting public science outreach, communication, and engagement. (p. 130 PDF; p. 98 print)

I’m fascinated by the Korean interest and wonder if this due to perceived excellence or to budgetary considerations. The cynic in me suspects the Korean foundation was interested in the US scene but decided that information from the Canadian scene would be cheaper to acquire and the data could be extrapolated to give a perspective on the US scene.

In addition to the usual suspects (newspapers, television, radio, science centres, etc.), the Expert Panel did recognize the importance of online science sources (they would have looked foolish if they hadn’t),

Canadians are increasingly using the internet to seek out information relating to science. This activity can take the form of generalized searches about science-related issues or more targeted forms of information acquisition. For example, Canadians report using the internet to seek out information on health and medical issues an average of 47 times a year, or nearly every week. Other forms of online exposure to scientific content also appear to be common. For example, 46% of Canadians report having read a blog post or listserv related to science and technology at least once in the last three months, and 62% having watched an online video related to science and technology.

An increasing reliance on the internet as the main source of information about science and technology is consistent with the evolution of the media environment, as well as with survey data from other countries. Based on the Panel’s survey, 17% of Canadians, for example, report reading a printed newspaper daily, while 40% report reading about the news or current events online every day. (p. 13/2 PDF; p. 100/1 print)

In common with the rest of the world, Canadians are producing and enjoying science festivals,

In Canada there are two established, large-scale science festivals. Science Rendezvous [founded in 2008 as per its Wikipedia entry] takes place in about 20 cities across the country and combines a variety of programming to comprise a day-long free event (Science Rendezvous, 2013).

The annual Eureka! Festival in Montréal (see Figure 5.6 [founded in 2007 as per its program list]) has over 100 activities over three days; it attracted over 68,000 attendees in 2012 (Eureka! Festival, 2013). More science festivals have recently been created. The University of Toronto launched the Toronto Science Festival in fall 2013 (UofT, 2013), and Beakerhead, a new festival described as a “collision of art and culture, technology, and engineering,” was launched in 2013 in Calgary (Beakerhead, 2013). Two Canadian cities have also recently won bids to host STEMfest (Saskatoon in 2015 and Halifax in 2018), an international festival of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (Global STEM States, 2014). (pp. 145/6 PDF; pp. 113/4 PDF)

The assessment notes have a grand total of five radio and television programmes devoted to science: The Nature of Things, Daily Planet, Quirks and Quarks, Découverte, and Les années lumière (p. 150 PDF; p. 118 print) and a dearth of science journalism,

Dedicated science coverage is notably absent from the majority of newspapers and other print journalism in Canada. As shown in Table 5.3, none of the top 11 newspapers by weekly readership in Canada has a dedicated science section, including nationals such as The Globe and Mail and National Post. Nine of these newspapers have dedicated technology sections, which sometimes contain sub-sections with broader coverage of science or environment stories; however, story coverage tends to be dominated by technology or business (or gaming) stories. Few Canadian newspapers have dedicated science journalists on staff, and The Globe and Mail is unique among Canadian papers in having a science reporter, a medicine and health reporter, and a technology reporter. (p. 152 PDF; p. 120 print)

Not stated explicitly in the assessment is this: those science and technology stories you see in the newspaper are syndicated stories, i.e., written by reporters for the Associated Press, Reuters, and other international press organizations or simply reprinted (with credit) from another newspaper.

The report does cover science blogging with this,

Science blogs are another potential source of information about developments in science and technology. A database compiled by the Canadian Science Writers’ Association, as of March of 2013, lists 143 Canadian science blogs, covering all areas of science and other aspects of science such as science policy and science culture (CSWA, 2013). Some blogs are individually authored and administered, while others are affiliated with larger networks or other organizations (e.g., Agence Science-Presse, PLOS Blogs). Canadian science blogger Maryse de la Giroday has also published an annual round-up of Canadian science blogs on her blog (www.frogheart.ca) for the past three years, and a new aggregator of Canadian science blogs was launched in 2013 (www.scienceborealis.ca). [emphases mine]

Data from the Panel’s survey suggest that blogs are becoming a more prominent source of information about science and technology for the general public. As noted at the beginning of the chapter, 46% of Canadians report having read a blog post about science or technology at least once in the past three months. Blogs are also influencing the way that scientific research is carried out and disseminated. A technical critique in a blog post by Canadian microbiologist Rosie Redfield in 2010, for example, catalyzed a widely publicized debate on the validity of a study published in Science, exploring the ability of bacteria to incorporate arsenic into their DNA. The incident demonstrated the potential impact of blogs on mainstream scientific research. CBC highlighted the episode as the Canadian science story of the year (Strauss, 2011), and Nature magazine identified Redfield as one of its 10 newsmakers of the year in 2011 as a result of her efforts to replicate the initial study and publicly document her progress and results (Hayden, 2011).

The impact of online information sources, however, is not limited to blogs, with 42% of Canadians reporting having heard about a science and technology news story though social media sources like Twitter and Facebook in the last three months. And, as noted earlier, the internet is often used to search for information about specific science and technology topics, both for general issues such as climate change, and more personalized information on medical and health issues.(pp. 153/4 PDF; pp. 121/2 print)

Yes, I got a shout out as did Rosie Redfield. We were the only two science bloggers namechecked. (Years ago, the Guardian newspaper was developing a science blog network and the editor claimed he couldn’t find many female science bloggers after fierce criticism of its first list of bloggers. This was immediately repudiated not only by individuals but someone compiled a list of hundreds of female science bloggers.) Still, the perception persists and I’m thrilled that the panel struck out in a different direction. I was also pleased to see Science Borealis (a Canadian science blog aggregator) mentioned. Having been involved with its founding, I’m also delighted its first anniversary was celebrated in Nov. 2014.

I doubt many people know we have a science press organization in Canada, Agence Science-Presse, but perhaps this mention in the assessment will help raise awareness in Canada’s English language media,

Founded in 1978 with the motto Parce que tout le monde s’intéresse à la science (“because everyone is interested in science”), Agence Science-Presse is a not-for-profit organization in Quebec that supports media coverage of science by distributing articles on scientific research or other topical science and technology issues to media outlets in Canada and abroad. The organization also supports science promotion activities aimed at youth. For example, it currently edits and maintains an aggregation of blogs designed for young science enthusiasts and science journalists (Blogue ta science). (p. 154 PDF; p. 122)

The final chapter (the 6th) of the assessment makes five key recommendations for ‘Cultivating a strong science culture’:

  1. Support lifelong science learning
  2. Make science inclusive
  3. Adapt to new technologies
  4. Enhance science communication and engagement
  5. Provide national or regional leadership

Presumably the agriculture reference in the chapter title is tongue-in-cheek. Assuming that’s not one of my fantasies, it’s good to see a little humour.

On to the first recommendation, lifelong learning,

… Science centres and museums, science programs on radio and television, science magazines and journalism, and online resources can all help fulfil this function by providing accessible resources for adult science learning, and by anticipating emerging information needs based on topical issues.

Most informal science learning organizations already provide these opportunities to varying degrees; however, this conception of the relative roles of informal and formal science learning providers differs from the traditional understanding, which often emphasizes how informal environments can foster engagement in science (particularly among youth), thereby triggering additional interest and the later acquisition of knowledge (Miller, 2010b). [emphasis mine] Such a focus may be appropriate for youth programming, but neglects the role that these institutions can play in ongoing education for adults, who often seek out information on science based on specific, well-defined interests or needs (e.g., a medical diagnosis, a newspaper article on the threat of a viral pandemic, a new technology brought into the workplace) (Miller, 2012). [emphases mine] Informal science learning providers can take advantage of such opportunities by anticipating these needs, providing useful and accessible information, and then simultaneously building and deepening knowledge of the underlying science through additional content.

I’m glad to see the interest in adult informal science education although the emphasis on health/medical and workplace technology issues suggests the panel underestimates, despite the data from its own survey, Canadians’ curiosity about and interest in science and technology. The panel also underestimates the tenacity with which many gatekeepers hold to the belief that no one is interested in science. It took me two years before a local organizer would talk to me about including one science-themed meeting in his programme (the final paragraph in my April 14, 2014 post describes some of the process  and my April 18, 2014 post describes the somewhat disappointing outcome). In the end, it was great to see a science-themed ‘city conversation’ but I don’t believe the organizer found it to be a success, which means it’s likely to be a long time before there’s another one.

The next recommendation, ‘Making science inclusive’, is something that I think needs better practice. If one is going to be the change one wants to see that means getting people onto your expert panels that reflect your inclusiveness and explaining to your audience how your expert panel is inclusive.

The ‘Adapting to new technologies’ recommendation is where I expected to see some mention of the social impact of such emerging technologies as robotics, nanotechnology, synthetic biology, etc. That wasn’t the case,

Science culture in Canada and other countries is now evolving in a rapidly changing technological environment. Individuals are increasingly turning to online sources for information about science and technology, and science communicators and the media are also adapting to the new channels of communication and outreach provided over the internet. As people engage more with new forms of technology in their home and work lives, organizations may be able to identify new ways to take advantage of available technologies to support learning and foster science interest and engagement. At the same time, as noted in Chapter 2, this transition is also challenging traditional models of operation for many organizations such as science centres, museums, and science media providers, forcing them to develop new strategies.

Examples of the use of new technologies to support learning are now commonplace. Nesta, an innovation-oriented organization based in the United Kingdom, conducted a study investigating the extent to which new technologies are transforming learning among students (Luckin et al., 2012) (p. 185 PDF; p. 153 print)

Admittedly, the panel was not charged with looking too far into the future but it does seem odd that in a science culture report there isn’t much mention (other than a cursory comment in an early chapter) of these emerging technologies and the major changes they are bringing with them. If nothing else, the panel might have wanted to make mention of artificial intelligence how the increasing role of automated systems may be affecting science culture in Canada. For example, in my July 16, 2014 post I made described a deal Associated Press (AP) signed with a company that automates the process of writing sports and business stories. You may well have read a business story (AP contracted for business stories) written by an artificial intelligence system or, if you prefer the term, an algorithm.

The recommendation for ‘Enhancing science communication and engagement’ is where I believe the Expert Panel should be offered a bouquet,

… Given the significance of government science in many areas of research, government science communication constitutes an important vector for increasing public awareness and understanding about science. In Canada current policies governing how scientists working in federal departments and agencies are allowed to interact with the media and the public have come under heavy criticism in recent years …

Concerns about the federal government’s current policies on government scientists’ communication with the media have been widely reported in Canadian and international
press in recent years (e.g., Ghosh, 2012; CBC, 2013c; Gatehouse, 2013; Hume, 2013; Mancini, 2013; Munro, 2013). These concerns were also recently voiced by the editorial board of Nature (2012), which unfavourably compared Canada’s current approach with the more open policies now in place in the United States. Scientists at many U.S. federal agencies are free to speak to the media without prior departmental approval, and to
express their personal views as long as they clearly state that they are not speaking on behalf of the government. In response to such concerns, and to a formal complaint filed by the Environmental Law Clinic at the University of Victoria and Democracy Watch, on April 2, 2013 Canada’s Information Commissioner launched an investigation into whether current policies and policy instruments in seven federal departments and agencies are “restricting or prohibiting government scientists from speaking with or sharing research with the media and the Canadian public” (OICC, 2013).

Since these concerns have come to light, many current and former government scientists have discussed how these policies have affected their interactions with the media. Marley Waiser, a former scientist with Environment Canada, has spoken about how that department’s policies prevented her from discussing her research on chemical pollutants in Wascana Creek near Regina (CBC, 2013c). Dr. Kristi Miller, a geneticist with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, was reportedly prevented from speaking publicly about a study she published in Science, which investigated whether a viral infection might be the cause of declines in Sockeye salmon stocks in the Fraser River (Munro, 2011).

According to data from Statistics Canada (2012), nearly 20,000 science and technology professionals work for the federal government. The ability of these researchers to communicate with the media and the Canadian public has a clear bearing on Canada’s science culture. Properly supported, government scientists can serve as a useful conduit for informing the public about their scientific work, and engaging the public in discussions about the social relevance of their research; however, the concerns reported above raise questions about the extent to which current federal policies in Canada are limiting these opportunities for public communication and engagement. (pp. 190/1 PDF; p. 158/9 print)

Kudos for including the information and for this passage as well,

Many organizations including science centres and museums, research centres, and even governments may be perceived as having a science promotion agenda that portrays only the benefits of science. As a result, these organizations are not always seen as promoters of debate through questioning, which is a crucial part of the scientific process. Acknowledging complexity and controversy is another means to improve the quality of public engagement in science in a range of different contexts. (p. 195 PDF; p. 163 print)

One last happy note, which is about integrating the arts and design into the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics communities),

Linking Science to the Arts and Design U.S. advocates for “STEM to STEAM” call for an incorporation of the arts in discussions of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics in an effort to “achieve a synergistic balance” (Piro, 2010). They cite positive outcomes such as cognitive development, reasoning skills, and concentration abilities. Piro (2010) argues that “if creativity, collaboration, communication, and critical thinking — all touted as hallmark skills for 21st-century success — are to be cultivated, we need to ensure that STEM subjects are drawn closer to the arts.” Such approaches offer new techniques to engage both student and adult audiences in science learning and engagement opportunities.

What I find fascinating about this STEM to STEAM movement is that many of these folks don’t seem to realize is that until fairly recently the arts and sciences recently have always been closely allied.  James Clerk Maxwell was also a poet, not uncommon amongst 19th century scientists.

In Canada one example of this approach is found in the work of Michael R. Hayden, who has conducted extensive genetic research on Huntington disease. In the lead-up to the 2000 Human Genome Project World Conference, Hayden commissioned Vancouver’s Electric Company Theatre to fuse “the spheres of science and art in a play that explored the implications of the revolutionary technology of the Human Genome Project” (ECT, n.d.). This play, The Score, was later adapted into a film. Hayden believes that his play “transforms the scientific ideas explored in the world of the laboratory into universal themes of human identity, freedom and creativity, and opens up a door for a discussion between the scientific community and the public in general” (Genome Canada, 2006). (p. 196 PDF; p. 164 print)

I’m not sure why the last recommendation presents an either/or choice, ‘Providing national or regional leadership’, while the following content suggests a much more fluid state,

…  it should be recognized that establishing a national or regional vision for science culture is not solely the prerogative of government. Such a vision requires broad support and participation from the community of affected stakeholders to be effective, and can also emerge from that community in the absence of a strong governmental role.

The final chapter (the seventh) restates the points the panel has made throughout its report. Unexpectedly, part 2 got bigger, ’nuff said.

Part 2 (a) of 3: Science Culture: Where Canada Stands; an expert assessment (reconstructed)

Losing over 2000 words, i.e., part 2 of this commentary on the Science Culture: Where Canada Stands assessment by the Council of Canadian Academies (CAC) on New Year’s Eve 2014 was a bit of blow. So, here’s my attempt at reconstructing my much mourned part 2.

There was acknowledgement of Canada as a Arctic country and an acknowledgement of this country’s an extraordinary geographical relationship to the world’s marine environment,

Canada’s status as an Arctic nation also has a bearing on science and science culture. Canada’s large and ecologically diverse Arctic landscape spans a substantial part of the circumpolar Arctic, and comprises almost 40% of the country’s landmass (Statistics Canada, 2009). This has influenced the development of Canadian culture more broadly, and also created opportunities in the advancement of Arctic science. Canada’s northern inhabitants, the majority of whom are Indigenous peoples, represent a source of knowledge that contributes to scientific research in the North (CCA, 2008).

These characteristics have contributed to the exploration of many scientific questions including those related to environmental science, resource development, and the health and well-being of northern populations. Canada also has the longest coastline of any country, and these extensive coastlines and marine areas give rise to unique research opportunities in ocean science (CCA, 2013a). (p. 55 PDF; p. 23 print)

Canada’s aging population is acknowledged in a backhand way,

Like most developed countries, Canada’s population is also aging. In 2011 the median age in Canada was 39.9 years, up from 26.2 years in 1971 (Statistics Canada, n.d.). This ongoing demographic transition will have an impact on science culture in Canada in years to come. An aging population will be increasingly interested in health and medical issues. The ability to make use of this kind of information will depend in large part on the combination of access to the internet, skill in navigating it, and a conceptual toolbox that includes an understanding of genes, probability, and related constructs (Miller, 2010b). (p. 56 PDF; p. 24 print)

Yes, the only science topics of interest for an old person are health and medicine. Couldn’t they have included one sentence suggesting an aging population’s other interests and other possible impacts on science culture?

On the plus side, the report offers a list of selected Canadian science culture milestones,

• 1882 – Royal Society of Canada is established.
• 1916 – National Research Council is established.
• 1923 – Association canadienne-française pour l’avancement des sciences (ACFAS) is established.
• 1930 – Canadian Geographic is first published by the Royal Canadian Geographical Society.
• 1951 – Massey–Lévesque Commission calls for the creation of a national science and technology museum.
• 1959 – Canada sees its first science fairs in Winnipeg, Edmonton, Hamilton, Toronto, Montréal, and Vancouver; volunteer coordination eventually grows into Youth Science Canada.
• 1960 – CBC’s Nature of Things debuts on television; Fernand Séguin hosts “Aux frontières de la science.”
• 1962 – ACFAS creates Le Jeune scientifique, which becomes Québec Science in 1970.
• 1966 – Science Council of Canada is created to advise Parliament on science and technology issues.
• 1967 – Canada Museum of Science and Technology is created.
• 1969 – Ontario Science Centre opens its doors (the Exploratorium in San Francisco opens the same year).
• 1971 – Canadian Science Writers’ Association is formed.
• 1975 – Symons Royal Commission on Canadian Studies speaks to how understanding the role of science in society is important to understanding Canadian culture and identity.
• 1975 – Quirks and Quarks debuts on CBC Radio.
• 1976 – OWL children’s magazine begins publication.
• 1977 – Association des communicateurs scientifiques du Québec is established.
• 1978 – L’Agence Science-Presse is created.
• 1981 – Association des communicateurs scientifiques creates the Fernand-Séguin scholarship to identify promising young science journalists.
• 1982 – Les Débrouillards is launched in Quebec. (p. 58 PDF; p. 26 print)

The list spills onto the next page and into the 2000’s.

It’s a relief to see the Expert Panel give a measured response to the claims made about science culture and its various impacts, especially on the economy (in my book, some of the claims have bordered on hysteria),

The Panel found little definitive empirical evidence of causal relationships between the dimensions of science culture and higher-level social objectives like stronger economic performance or more effective public policies. As is the case with much social science research, isolating the impacts of a single variable on complex social phenomena is methodologically challenging, and few studies have attempted to establish such relationships in any detail. As noted in 1985 by the Bodmer report (a still-influential report on public understanding of science in the United Kingdom), although there is good reason prima facie to believe that improving public understanding of science has national economic benefits, empirical proof for such a link is often elusive (RS & Bodmer, 1985). This remains the case today. Nevertheless, many pieces of evidence suggest why a modern, industrialized society should cultivate a strong science culture. Literature from the domains of cognitive science, sociology, cultural studies, economics, innovation, political science, and public policy provides relevant insights. (p. 63 PDF; p. 31 print)

Intriguingly, while the panel has made extensive use of social science methods for this assessment there are some assumptions made about skill sets required for the future,

Technological innovation depends on the presence of science and technology skills in the workforce. While at one point it may have been possible for relatively low-skilled individuals to substantively contribute to technological development, in the 21st century this is no longer the case. [emphasis mine] Advanced science and technology skills are now a prerequisite for most types of technological innovation. (p. 72 PDF; p. 40 print)

Really, it’s no longer possible for relatively low-skilled individuals to contribute to technological development? Maybe the expert panel missed this bit in my March 27, 2013 post,

Getting back to Bittel’s Slate article, he mentions Foldit (here’s my first piece in an Aug. 6, 2010 posting [scroll down about 1/2 way]), a protein-folding game which has generated some very exciting science. He also notes some of that science was generated by older, ‘uneducated’ women. Bittel linked to Jeff Howe’s Feb. 27, 2012 article about Foldit and other crowdsourced science projects for Slate where I found this very intriguing bit,

“You’d think a Ph.D. in biochemistry would be very good at designing protein molecules,” says Zoran Popović, the University of Washington game designer behind Foldit. Not so. “Biochemists are good at other things. But Foldit requires a narrow, deeper expertise.”

Or as it turns out, more than one. Some gamers have a preternatural ability to recognize patterns, an innate form of spatial reasoning most of us lack. Others—often “grandmothers without a high school education,” says Popovic—exercise a particular social skill. “They’re good at getting people unstuck. They get them to approach the problem differently.” What big pharmaceutical company would have anticipated the need to hire uneducated grandmothers? (I know a few, if Eli Lilly HR is thinking of rejiggering its recruitment strategy.) [emphases mine]

It’s not the idea that technical and scientific skills are needed that concerns me; it’s the report’s hard line about ‘low skills’ (which is a term that is not defined). In addition to the notion that future jobs require only individuals with ‘high level’ skills; there’s the notion (not mentioned in this report but gaining general acceptance in the media) that we shouldn’t ever have to perform repetitive and boring activities. It’s a notion which completely ignores a certain aspect of the learning process. Very young children repeat over and over and over and over … . Apprenticeships in many skills-based crafts were designed with years of boring, repetitive work as part of the training. It seems counter-intuitive but boring, repetitive activities can lead to very high level skills such as the ability to ‘unstick’ a problem for an expert with a PhD in biochemistry.

Back to the assessment, the panel commissioned a survey, conducted in 2013, to gather data about science culture in Canada,

The Panel’s survey of Canadian science culture, designed to be comparable to surveys undertaken in other countries as well as to the 1989 Canadian survey, assessed public attitudes towards science and technology, levels and modes of public engagement in science, and public science knowledge or understanding. (The evidence reported in this chapter on the fourth dimension, science and technology skills, is drawn from other sources such as Statistics Canada and the OECD).

Conducted in April 2013, the survey relied on a combination of landline and mobile phone respondents (60%) and internet respondents (40%), randomly recruited from the general population. In analyzing the results, responses to the survey were weighted based on Statistics Canada data according to region, age, education, and gender to ensure that the sample was representative of the Canadian public. 7 A total of 2,004 survey responses were received, with regional breakdowns presented in Table 4.1. At a national level, survey results are accurate within a range of plus or minus 2.2% 19 times out of 20 (i.e., at the 95% confidence interval), and margins of error for regional results range from 3.8% to 7.1%). Three open-ended questions were also included in the survey, which were coded using protocols previously applied to these questions in other international surveys. 8 All open-ended questions were coded independently by at least three bilingual coders, and any discrepancies in coding were settled through a review by a fourth coder. (p. 79 PDF; p. 47 print)

The infographic’s data in part 1 of this commentary, What Do Canadians Think About Science and Technology (S&T)? is based on the survey and other statistical information included in the report especially Chapter four focused on measurements (pp. 77  – 127 PDF; pp. 45 – 95 print). While the survey presents a somewhat rosier picture of the Canadian science culture than the one I experience on a daily basis, the data seems to have been gathered in a thoughtful fashion. Regardless of the assessment’s findings and my opinions,  how Canadians view science became a matter of passionate debate in the Canadian science blogging community (at least parts of it) in late 2014 as per a Dec. 3, 2014 posting by the Science Borealis team on their eponymous blog (Note: Links have been removed),

The CBC’s Rick Mercer is a staunch science advocate, and his November 19th rant was no exception. He addressed the state of basic science in Canada, saying that Canadians are “passionate and curious about science.”

In response, scientist David Kent wrote a post on the Black Hole Blog in which he disagreed with Mercer, saying, “I do not believe Mr. Mercer’s idea that Canadians as a whole are interested although I, like him, would wish it to be the case.”

Kent’s post has generated some fierce discussion, both in the comments on his original post and in the comments on a Facebook post by Evidence for Democracy.

Here at Science Borealis, we rely on a keen and enthusiastic public to engage with the broad range of science-based work our bloggers share, so we decided to address some of the arguments Kent presented in his post.

Anecdotal evidence versus data

Kent says “Mr. Mercer’s claims about Canadians’ passions are anecdotal at best, and lack any evidence – indeed it is possible that Canadians don’t give a hoot about science for science’s sake.”

Unfortunately, Kent’s own argument is based on anecdotal evidence (“To me it appears that… the average Canadian adult does not particularly care about how or why something works.”).

If you’re looking for data, they’re available in a recent Council of Canadian Academies report that specifically studied science culture in Canada. Results show that Canadians are very interested in science.

You can find David Kent’s Nov. 26, 2014 post about Canadians, Rick Mercer and science here. Do take a look at the blog’s comments which feature a number of people deeply involved in promoting and producing Canadian science culture.

I promised disturbing statistics in the head for this posting and here they are in the second paragraph,

Canadian students perform well in PISA [Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s (OECD) Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA)] , with relatively high scores on all three of the major components of the assessment (reading, science, and mathematics) compared with students in other countries (Table 4.4). In 2012 only seven countries or regions had mean scores on the science assessment higher than Canada on a statistically significant basis: Shanghai–China, Hong Kong–China, Singapore, Japan, Finland, Estonia, and Korea (Brochu et al., 2013). A similar pattern holds for mathematics scores, where nine countries had mean scores higher than Canada on a statistically significant basis: Shanghai–China, Singapore, Hong Kong–China, Chinese Taipei, Korea, Macao–China, Japan, Lichtenstein, and Switzerland (Brochu et al., 2013). Regions scoring higher than Canada are concentrated in East Asia, and tend to be densely populated, urban areas. Among G8 countries, Canada ranks second on mean science and mathematics scores, behind Japan.

However, the 2012 PISA results also show statistically significant declines in Canada’s scores on both the mathematics and science components. Canada’s science score declined by nine points from its peak in 2006 (with a fall in ranking from 3rd to 10th), and the math score declined by 14 points since first assessed in 2003 (a fall from 7th to 13th) (Brochu et al., 2013). Changes in Canada’s standing relative to other countries reflect both the addition of new countries or regions over time (i.e., the addition of regions such as Hong Kong–China and Chinese Taipei in 2006, and of Shanghai–China in 2009) and statistically significant declines in mean scores.

My Oct. 9, 2013 post discusses the scores in more detail and as the Expert Panel notes, the drop is disconcerting and disturbing. Hopefully, it doesn’t indicate a trend.

Part 2 (b) follows immediately.

Science Borealis (new Cdn. science blog aggregator) and intellectual property sessions at the 5th Canadian Science Policy Conference

Science Borealis, a Canadian science blogging aggregator, being launched at the 2013 (5th annual) Canadian Science Policy Conference (CSPC) in Toronto, Ontario (from Nov. 20 – 22, 2013). Mike Spear will be giving a preview of sorts at today’s luncheon and later there will a panel session about science blogger where Sarah Boon (one of the founding members) will officially launch the aggregator. Here’s more from the Nov. 21, 2013 Science Boreaiis news release (full disclosure: I am a member of the founding team),

Science Blogging Discussion Marks the Launch of Science Borealis

Science Borealis plans to feature up to 150 Canadian science blogs

Calgary and Toronto, November 21, 2013 – After months in the making, a new chapter in Canadian science communication will launch tomorrow at the Canadian Science Policy Conference at Toronto’s Allstream Centre.

The community-driven Science Borealis blogging network will grow Canada’s science communication community, while raising awareness of – and support for – Canadian science.  After a group of bloggers started talking about the idea in late 2012, the not-for-profit organizations Canadian Science Publishing and Genome Alberta added their support, funding, and time, and Science Borealis is now ready to move out of the developer’s lab and into the forefront of Canadian science communication.

Join us tomorrow (Friday) from 1:30p – 3:00p at the Allstream Centre in Toronto for a special panel presentation on science blogging that is part of CSPC 2013. You’ll hear a discussion covering the challenges facing science blogging in Canada, find out the success stories, and meet some of Canada’s science bloggers. The Science Borealis members will be easily recognizable by their distinctive t-shirts and will be pleased to answer your questions.

The panel, ‘Science blogging in Canada: Making use of a valuable resource’ will be moderated by Genome Alberta’s Mike Spear and feature speakers:

  • Rees Kassen, Associate Professor and University Research Chair, University of Ottawa
  • Sarah Boon, Associate Professor of Environmental Science, University of Lethbridge
  • Kennedy Stewart, Member of Parliament (NDP), Burnaby-Douglas
  • David Kent, Research Associate, University of Cambridge, UK
  • Lisa Willemse, Director of Communications, Stem Cell Network

Visit Science Borealis on the web at http://scienceborealis.ca , follow @ScienceBorealis on Twitter, or check out the #cancomm hashtag on Twitter.

Here’s more about the CSPC 2013 science blogging session from the conference’s P22: Science blogging in Canada: Making use of a valuable resource webpage,,

This session will take you into the revealing, thought-provoking and sometimes wild world of science blogs. They’re out there, they’re more numerous than you might think and they have impact. They validate successful science and challenge weak conclusions. And, in today’s climate, in which research has been shadowed and/or kept silent, and traditional print media is in decline, science blogs have emerged as an increasingly important tool for providing valuable context and understanding of research via an open and public forum that encourages debate. Searching the online world for credible information is not without its challenges. The Internet is often a source of misinformation, and blogs still suffer under an outdated perception that they are simply a place for writers and ideas that can’t get published anywhere else. But this has changed dramatically in the past 10 years as powerhouse media entities such as National Geographic, Scientific American and Nature have drawn high-profile science bloggers to their staff ranks to report and comment on scientific discoveries. Many professional researchers have also turned to blogging as a way to bring avid followers, both within and outside of academia, to the front lines of research, addressing current outcomes, methods and challenges within their scientific communities. There are numerous talented science bloggers in Canada, representing both the science reporting and documentary approaches. The proposed panel will address how science blogs can be useful for policy making, and present some upcoming initiatives designed to make blogs more accessible to government, the broader scientific community, industry and the public. The session will look at traditional methods of communicating science to policymakers and identify the role of online resources that, as a new and younger generation joins the political ranks, is increasingly relied upon as a primary source of information. It will outline the emergence of science blogs, and present specific examples of their impact on both the advancement of science and public perception of science. The panel will provide some strategies for how blogs can be used by parliamentarians, advisors and policy makers. The final speaker will take stock of science blogging resources in Canada and present the Canadian science blog network.

Here’s a list of the speakers along with their bios. (from the 2013 CSPC panel webpage),

Rees Kassen
Co-Chair
Global Young Academy

Dr. Rees Kassen is professor and University Research Chair in Experimental Evolution at the University of Ottawa. He is also co-chair of the Global Young Academy (www.globalyoungacademy.net), an international organization of early-career researchers acting as the voice of young scientists around the world and past chair of the Partnership Group for Science and Engineering (PAGSE; www.pagse.org), an association of 26 professional and scientific organizations acting on behalf of over 50,000 members from academia, industry and government in Canada. Dr Kassen completed his PhD at McGill University and then went on to an NSERC Postdoctoral Fellowship and Elizabeth Wordsworth Research Fellowship at St Hugh’s College, Oxford. He is known internationally for his integrative approach to the study of biodiversity and pioneering work using microbes to study evolutionary and ecological processes in the laboratory. He was awarded an NSERC Steacie Fellowship in 2010 and was a World Economic Forum/IAP Young Scientist in 2010 and 2011.

Sarah Boon
Associate Professor of Environmental Science
University of Lethbridge

Sarah Boon is an Associate Professor of Environmental Science at the University of Lethbridge. She has worked in the Arctic and the western Cordillera on topics ranging from mountain pine beetle effects on snow processes, to stream temperature and salmonids. She’s also a science writer and editor, and blogs at Watershed Moments. A hydrologist by training, Sarah has written opinion pieces on both science policy and science communication. She is part of a team developing a Canadian science blog aggregator, to build Canadian science communication networks.

Kennedy Stewart
Member of Parliament (NDP)

Kennedy Stewart was elected to the riding of Burnaby-Douglas for the New Democratic Party in May 2011. He is the Official Opposition Critic for Science and Technology, and member of the Standing Committee on Industry, Science and Technology. Kennedy holds a Ph.D. in Government from the London School of Economics and is a tenured associate professor on leave from Simon Fraser University’s School of Public Policy. While at SFU, Kennedy authored numerous refereed publications and was awarded grants from the Social Sciences and Humanities Council of Canada and other organizations as principal investigator and was joint investigator on a $2.5 Million SSHRC Major Collaborative Research Initiative on Multilevel Governance and Public Policy in Canadian Municipalities. Before coming to SFU in 2002, Kennedy held a number of positions at Canadian and UK universities and was Director of the Public Policy and Management Master’s Program at Birkbeck College, University of London. He has served as a referee for various academic journals including British Columbia Studies, Canadian Journal of Political Science, Canadian Journal of Sociology, Canadian Political Science Review, Canadian Journal of Urban Research, Thomson/Nelson Press and has been reviewed grants for the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. As an academic, Kennedy frequently provided commentary on on local, national and international issues and was a regular guest columnist for the Vancouver Sun. He served as policy advisor to the British Columbia Local Government Elections Task Force, City of Vancouver Electoral Reform Commission, British Columbia Citizens’ Assembly, British Columbia Ministry of Municipal Affairs, Abu Dhabi Urban Planning Council, the Great Bear Rainforest Solutions Project, City of Vancouver Mayor’s Office, City of Calgary, and the Vancouver Public Library. His latest co-authored book, Local Government in Canada, was published in 2012 by Nelson. Kennedy is married to Jeanette Ashe, a political science instructor at Douglas College completing her Ph.D. in politics at the University of London.

David Kent
Research Associate
University of Cambridge, UK

Dr. David Kent is a research associate at the University of Cambridge, UK. In 2009 he created The Black Hole website which provides analysis of issues related to the education and training of scientists in Canada. He also writes for Signals blog, a leading source of commentary on stem cells and regenerative medicine. Previously, Dr. Kent served as joint coordinator for the UBC branch of the Let’s Talk Science Partnership Program (2004-07), an award winning national science outreach program. Dr. Kent grew up in St. John’s, NL, obtained a B.Sc. in Genetics and English Literature at the University of Western Ontario and completed his Ph.D. in blood stem cell biology at the University of British Columbia. He has been awarded scholarships or fellowships from the CIHR, NSERC, the Canadian Stem Cell Network, the Michael Smith Foundation for Health Research, and the Lady Tata Memorial Trust. His current laboratory research focuses on normal blood stem cells and how changes in their regulation lead to cancers. He also sits on the executive of the Canadian Association of Postdoctoral Scholars.

Lisa Willemse
Director of Communications
Stem Cell Network

Lisa Willemse has worked within government-funded research networks for the past 13 years as a project manager and communications specialist. She is currently the Director of Communications for the Stem Cell Network, one of Canada’s Networks of Centres of Excellence, a position she has held since 2008. In addition to more traditional forms of communications, such as the creation of two science exhibitions, Lisa was an early adopter of new media and has used social media platforms such as Twitter to establish the Stem Cell Network as a leader among its peers. In 2008, she began developing a blog dedicated to sharing findings and commentary related to stem cell research that would also serve as a training/mentorship platform for young scientists interested in acquiring science communications skills. She serves as the blog’s editor in chief and an occasional contributor. This blog, Signals, is widely regarded as one of the best in the stem cell field and enjoys a robust following by readers from across the globe.

Mike Spear
Director of Corporate Communications
Genome Alberta

Mike Spear is currently Director of Corporate Communications for Genome Alberta, a non-profit genetic research funding organization based in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. Prior to that much of his career was spent as a Producer, Executive Producer, and Program Manager with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. While there he received a CBC President’s award, a Farm Writer’s Award and his newsrooms and current affairs programs received several CBC Peer Awards and RTNDA Awards. He has worked in broadcast news, current affairs, music and drama and was a media trainer with the National Democratic Institute in Croatia. He has launched the conservative world of biotechnology communications into the 21st century with the creation of GenOmics, a news aggregator based on an Open Source platform Genome Alberta has supported with U.S. based partners. He and Genome Alberta are heavily involved in the Fall 2013 launch of Science Borealis, a new Canadian Science blogging network.

I would prefer a little more description, in each précis, about what the individuals will be discussing. I could do with a little less biography. For example, congratulations to Kennedy Steward for being married but I don’t find the information pertinent here. Also, I would have liked to have seen a little more information about the panel members’ blogs, although it seems only Sarah Boon and David Kent write on a blog(s).

One other session caught my attention and that was the one concerning intellectual property (patents) which was held on Nov. 21, 2013. The session was organized by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada. From the P9: Courting Confusion: the Patent Act, legal decisions, and impacts on Canada’s science and innovation landscape webpage,,

“Canada’s Patent Act exists to encourage progress in science and the useful arts. It achieves this by securing inventors’ property rights in their inventions, thus establishing a market-based regime of incentives to foster innovation. Securing a patent is based on following logical, sound principles, unchanged in two centuries. The Patent Act itself establishes an order of steps that, if correctly followed, would resolve many controversial issues.

Under the act, a patentable invention must satisfy four main criteria: patent-eligible subject-matter; novelty; utility, and; non-obviousness. Novelty means new anywhere in the world. Utility is met where a person of ordinary skill, reading the specification, would understand the utility of the claimed invention. Non-obviousness requires that a persons of ordinary skill would not have been led to the claimed invention directly by the earlier teachings of others.

Recently, the scope of patent-eligible subject-matter has been controversial in pharmaceuticals, the life sciences; and in business methods, particularly involving computer software.

However, in the past few years, Canadian courts, including the Supreme Court of Canada (SCC), have issued rulings which may be seen as inconsistent or confusing in areas of patent-eligibility, novelty, utility, and non-obviousness . Canada does not have a specialized patent court, and the volume of litigation is insufficient to yield a finely developed body of law. Few judges have a technical or scientific background; fewer still have a background in patents.

This session will discuss how these issues have played out in several recent high profile cases and their implications for Canada’s science and innovation landscape.

In a modern agricultural context, the patenting of higher life forms is controversial, and has been the subject of two high-profile SCC decisions: Harvard College v. Canada (Commissioner of Patents) (the “Harvard Mouse” case), and Monsanto Canada Inc. v. Schmeiser (2004), which centered on patent infringement for genetically-engineered (GE) canola.

The 5-4 decision in the Schmeiser case led to concerns amongst anti-GE and some civil society and consumer groups about the ability to patent “the genes of life” and quasi-related unease about corporate concentration in the agriculture and food sectors. However, stakeholders in the agricultural biotechnology sector received the decision positively, as it affirmed the validity of their gene and cell patents and demonstrated that they could successfully seek redress for infringement.

In the Amazon.com case, the Federal Court of Appeal faced the issue of patent-eligibility of business methods, particularly those implemented by software applications. Although there had been hope that the Amazon.com case would bring clarity to the law, the outcome has been enigmatic. The patenting of business methods was also the subject of considerable debate in submissions before the House of Commons Standing Committee on Industry, Science and Technology for their March 2013 report on the Intellectual Property Regime in Canada.

Recently, the courts have had difficulty with utility. Odd decisions in the pharmaceutical field are now yielding equally surprising results in other business sectors. These cases and other practice changes have altered the balance between inventors and the public, and their effects now working their way through the economy.”

The moderator and the panelists are (from the session webpage),

Albert L. Abaunza
Co-founder
Abaunza McLeod LLP – Intellectual Property Law Canada

Albert L. Abaunza graduated from Université de Montréal in 2006 with a B.Sc. in biomedical science. During his undergraduate studies, Albert worked as a research assistant in pharmacology and biochemistry, where he studied the effects of reactive oxygen species (ROS) on the catalytic activity of the hepatic cytochrome P450 and participated in a high-throughput screening project for protein-protein interactions in a yeast model by using Protein-fragment complementation assay.

While studying biomedical science, Albert became involved in the planning and orchestration of the McGill Bioethics Conference for two consecutive years as VP Administration and VP External

After graduating in 2006, Albert decided to pursue his law studies at the Université de Sherbrooke and at Queen’s University where he was admitted to the national joint program and was granted a dual law degree; a Bachelors of laws (LL.B.) and a Juris Doctor (J.D.), in 2009 and 2010, consecutively.

During his last year of law school, Albert was concurrently focused on a specialization in health technology assessment and management. After having successfully completed the international program in four different cities; Barcelona, Rome, Montréal and Toronto, Albert was granted a M.Sc. degree in health technology assessment from Université de Montréal in 2012.

In 2013, Albert joined forces with Dr. Mark C. McLeod and co-founded Abaunza McLeod LLP – Intellectual Property Law Canada, where together and with the support of other well-seasoned IP practitioners, they provide a full spectrum of intellectual property law services in English, French and Spanish.

Ken Bousfield
Partner
Bereskin and Parr

Mr. Bousfield has significant experience in the railroad industry and has also obtained protection for consumer goods, oil field equipment, and a wide variety of mechanical and electro-mechanical other devices. He is a member of the Intellectual Property Institute of Canada’s (IPIC) Information Technology Committee.

Prior to being admitted to the bar, Mr. Bousfield obtained significant industry experience working as a designer and test engineer for an electronic equipment manufacturer and for an aircraft company.

Brian Gray
Senior Partner
Norton Rose

Brian Gray’s practice at Norton Rose focuses on litigation and dispute resolution in patent, copyright, trade-mark and advertising matters. He provides strategic advice concerning intellectual property matters and advises on the intellectual property and technology aspects of transactions.
Mr. Gray has taught patent and trade-mark law at the University of Toronto and has taught copyright law at McGill University. Mr. Gray has authored numerous papers on patent, trade-mark, trade secret, copyright and technology transfer.

He is on the editorial board of World Intellectual Property Report, Federated Press Intellectual Property Quarterly and of World E-Commerce Report and has also served on the editorial board of the Trade-Mark Reporter.

From 1989 to 1999 Mr. Gray was a member of Canada’s National Biotechnology Advisory Committee, appointed by the Minister of Industry to advise on science policy. He has also served as counsel for the intervener – Canadian Banking Association and the Canadian Life and Health Insurance Association – in the Amazon case.

Richard Gold
James McGill Professor
McGill University – Faculty of Law

Dr. Richard Gold is a James McGill Professor at McGill University’s Faculty of Law where he was the founding Director of the Centre for Intellectual Property Policy. He is also an Associate Member of the Department of Human Genetics at McGill’s Faculty of Medicine. He teaches in the area of intellectual property and innovation. His research centres on the nexus between innovation systems and intellectual property,with an emphasis on the life sciences.

Professor Gold has provided advice to Health Canada, Industry Canada, the Canadian Biotechnology Advisory Committee, the Ontario Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (where he was the lead author of the OECD Guidelines on the Licensing of Genetic Inventions and a report on Collaborative Mechanisms in Life Science Intellectual Property), the World Intellectual Property Organization, the World Health Organization and UNITAID.

His research has been published in high-impact journals in science, law, philosophy, international relations including Nature Biotechnology, The Lancet, PLoS Medicine, the McGill Law Journal, Public Affairs Quarterly and the European Journal for International Relations.

Giuliano Tolusso
Senior Policy Officer
Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada

Giuliano Tolusso is a senior policy officer with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada in Ottawa. He has spent most of the past decade at AAFC working on biotechnology and emerging technology issues from a number of perspectives including communications and issues management, intellectual property policy and international trade policy. Prior to joining AAFC in 2001, Giuliano was a marketing and communications executive for a number of trade and professional associations in Toronto. He holds a Bachelor of Journalism degree from Carleton University in Ottawa.

At last year’s CSPC, he organized and moderated a provocative panel discussion entitled Talking to Canadians about Biotechnology: Should we wake up the neighbourhood

Anyone who has read this blog with any frequency knows I’m not a maximalist where intellectual property is concerned. Further, I have observed that most lawyers seem interested in having more patents rather than fewer patents. After all, that’s how they make their money.

Getting back to the panel, it can’t escape anyone’s notice that it is almost entirely made up of lawyers with two exceptions being a policy officer from the agency listed as the session organizer and an academic lawyer. The whole thing seems odd as it is a discussion on points of law and would appear to be of interest to lawyers only. How would attending this session help a ‘would be’ scientist innovator/inventor/entrepreneur? Perhaps it’s meant for policy makers but if that’s the case, wouldn’t a comprehensive discussion about patents and their utility be more useful than a  discussion about specific legal decisions? (They say they will discuss more general points but first they’ll have to describe the cases pertaining to the specific decisions under discussion which will take up much of the time allotted for the session.)

Given the 2013 CSPC conference theme: ScienceNext: Incubating Innovation and Ingenuity, I would have thought that perhaps an opinion from potential investors or successful entrepreneurs might be of interest in a discussion about patents. For example, Mike Masnick writes in his Nov. 14, 2013 posting for Techdirt about research which suggests venture capitalists find the current US patent regime problematic (Canadians and others file many of their patents in the US),

… The idea that patents are what drive investments definitely does not appear to be the case.

The related bit of information is a new research study, done by Robin Feldman, looking at the view of patents from the venture capital perspective, surveying around 200 venture capitalists and their portfolio companies about their views on patents — which are decidedly negative:

Both the companies and the venture capitalists overwhelming believe that patent demands have a negative impact on the venture-backed community, with all or most of those assertions coming from entities whose core activity involves licensing or litigating patents. These impacts are described in terms of the specific costs expended by the companies and by the distraction to management, engineers, and other employees. Most important, participants described the human toll that patent demands have had on entrepreneurs. In addition, when making funding decisions, the vast majority of venture capitalists do not consider the potential for selling to assertion entities if the company fails. On the flip side, 100% of venture capitalists indicated that if a company had an existing patent demand against it, it could potentially be a major deterrent in deciding whether to invest.

In other words: having patents does not significantly impact the decision to invest, but being the target of patent trolls has significant consequences for entrepreneurs, and makes investors less willing to invest in important innovations.

In any event, I hope the science blogging panel is a huge success and for anyone who’s curious about an outside perspective on the 2013 CSPC, there’s David Bruggeman’s Nov. 19, 2013 posting on his Pasco Phronesis blog (where he regularly comments on science policy).

Science attitude kicks in by 10 years old

There’s a lot of talk these days about STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) in the field of education. It seems that every country that has produced materials about innovation, economic well being, etc.  in English and I’m guessing all the other countries too (I just can’t read their materia]s) want more children/young people studying STEM subjects.

One of the research efforts in the UK is the ASPIRES research project at King’s College London (KCL), which is examining children’s attitudes to science and future careers. Their latest report, Ten Science Facts and Fictions: the case for early education about STEM careers (PDF), is profiled in a Jan. 11, 2012 news item on physorg.com (from the news item),

Professor Archer [Louise Archer, Professor of Sociology of Education at King’s] said: “Children and their parents hold quite complex views of science and scientists and at age 10 or 11 these views are largely positive. The vast majority of children at this age enjoy science at school, have parents who are supportive of them studying science and even undertake science-related activities in their spare time. They associate scientists with important work, such as finding medical cures, and with work that is well paid.

“Nevertheless, less than 17 per cent aspire to a career in science. These positive impressions seem to lead to the perception that science offers only a very limited range of careers, for example doctor, scientist or science teacher. It appears that this positive stereotype is also problematic in that it can lead people to view science as out of reach for many, only for exceptional or clever people, and ‘not for me’.

Professor Archer says the findings indicate that engaging young people in science is not therefore simply a case of making it more interesting or more fun. She said: “There is a disconnect between interest and aspirations. Our research shows that young people’s ambitions are strongly influenced by their social backgrounds – ethnicity, social class and gender – and by family contexts. [emphases mine]

I was particularly struck by the fact that attitudes are positive but, by age 10, researchers are already observing that children are concluding ‘it’s not for me’.

Here’s a little more about the ASPIRES project,

The ASPIRES research team, led by Louise Archer, Professor of Sociology of Education at King’s, is tracking children’s science and career aspirations over five years, from ages 10 to 14. To date they have surveyed over 9000 primary school children and carried out more than 170 interviews of parents and children. After the age of 10 or 11 children’s attitudes towards science often start to decline, suggesting that there is a critical period in which schools and parents can do much to educate the next generation of the options available to them. [emphasis mine]

As for the report ‘Ten Science Facts and Fictions’, you may be in for a surprise if you’re expecting a standard academic study. It’s very colourful and illustrated with cartoons; each fact/fiction has its own page and only one; it summarizes and aggregates other research; and the whole report is 16 pp.  It’s easy reading and the reference notes mean you can follow up and read the research studies yourself.

On a note related to the conclusions made the ASPIRES researchers, I came across a Jan. 27, 2012 news item on Medical Xpress about a US study where researchers attempted an intervention designed to encourage more teens to study science,

In a different intervention study aimed at changing teen behavior in math and science, researchers did not target the students themselves but rather their parents. The goal was to increase students’ interest in taking courses in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). “We focus on the potential role of parents in motivating their teens to take more STEM courses, because we feel that they have been an untapped resource,” says Judith Harackiewicz of the University of Wisconsin, Madison. [emphasis mine]

The participants consisted of 188 U.S. high school students and their parents from the longitudinal Wisconsin Study of Families and Work. Harackiewicz and her colleague Janet Hyde found that a relatively simple intervention aimed at parents – two brochures mailed to parents and a website that all highlight the usefulness of STEM courses – led their children to take on average nearly one semester more of science and mathematics in the last two years of high school, compared with the control group. “Our indirect intervention,” funded by the National Science Foundation, “changed the way that parents interacted with their teens, leading to a significant and important change in their teens’ course-taking behavior,” Harackiewicz says.

Given Dr. David Kent’s panel at the 2011 Canadian Science Policy Conference (David’s interview about the panel is in my Oct. 24, 2011 posting) where he noted we have too many science graduates and not enough jobs, I’m wondering if we’re going to see a Canadian effort to encourage more study in STEM subjects. It wouldn’t surprise me; I have seen policy disconnects before. For example, there’s a big effort to get more children and teens to study science while graduate students from the universities have difficulty finding employment because the policy didn’t take the end result (the sector [e.g. universities] that needed people [science professors] when the policy was instituted had already started to shrink and 10 years later no one needs these graduates) into account.

2011 roundup and thoughts on the Canadian science blogging scene

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Education and training of scientists panel at the 2011 Canadian Science Policy Conference

On the heels of my last posting which featured Science magazine’s 2011 Dance Your Ph.D. contest, it seems like a good idea to follow up with another science student-themed posting.

Dr. David Kent who will be moderating the Education and training panel at the 2011 Canadian Science Policy Conference (CSPC) being held in Ottawa, Canada from Nov. 16 – 18, 2011 has enthusiastically granted me an interview. (My Oct. 19, 2011 posting featured a description of the 2011 CSPC conference and highlighted some of the events.)

First, here’s a little bit about David (from the 2011 CSPC conference website),

Dr. David Kent is a CIHR [Canadian Institutes of Health Research] postdoctoral fellow at the University of Cambridge, UK. He currently sits on the executive of the Canadian Association of Postdoctoral Scholars and created the website The Black Hole which provides information on and analysis of issues related to science trainees in Canada. Previously, Dr. Kent served as joint coordinator for the UBC branch of the Let’s Talk Science Partnership Program (2004-07), an award winning national science outreach program. Dr. Kent grew up in St. John’s, NL, obtained a B.Sc. in Genetics and English Literature at the University of Western Ontario and completed his Ph.D. in blood stem cell biology at the University of British Columbia. He has been awarded scholarships or fellowships from the CIHR, NSERC, the Canadian Stem Cell Network, the Michael Smith Foundation for Health Research, and the Lady Tata Memorial Trust. His current laboratory research focuses on normal blood stem cells and how changes in their regulation lead to cancers.

Here’s the description of the panel (Education and training of scientists) David will be moderating,

Over the past 15 years, there has been an enormous shift in the human resources performing scientific research. The training period has lengthened significantly and adjustments must be made to address the growing concerns of young scientists. Many individuals, who do not have permanent positions, share a unique set of experiences and challenges that need to be better addressed in order to avoid wasting the substantial resources invested in their education and training.

This panel aims to address two main themes:

  1. Are we producing too many biomedical research trainees?
  2. What careers will the large majority of highly specialized PhDs undertake and who should facilitate these transitions?

Presentations and discussion from Alan Bernstein (Founding Director of CIHR), Angela Crawley (Canadian Association of Postdoctoral Scholars), Suzanne Fortier (President of NSERC), and Olga Stachova (COO, MITACS) will be introduced and moderated by David Kent (University of Cambridge and founder of http://scienceadvocacy.org, aka The Black Hole).

Here’s  the interview,

  • I’m intrigued by the description for this panel which asks a highly specific question (Are there too many biomedical research trainees?) and a much more general question (What careers will the majority of highly specialized PhD undertake and who should facilitate the transition?). Assuming that you proposed the panel, how did you arrive at these two questions in particular?

The first question definitely has its origins in Jeff Sharom’s piece in Hypothesis Journal (http://www.hypothesisjournal.com/pdfs/vol6num1/17.pdf) who queried whether we were producing too many biomedical trainees.  It is also a great way to capture a large issue under a simple title, but by no means would I consider it specific and I think just about anybody you ask would have the answer “it depends…” followed by discussions ranging from the demands of a knowledge-based economy to keeping young people out of the workforce for a few more years.

As for the second question, I see this one having a much more straightforward answer as it is really an attempt to assign responsibility to a sector of society to help deal with the problem – I’d like the panel and delegates to help steer future advocacy efforts to address the fundamental issues.

  • Given that you are currently working as a postdoc at the University of Cambridge, would you be asking these same questions on a UK panel and if not, why not?

The UK is a very different beast, but I think there is still overlap – in particular, the challenges facing those seeking an academic post and those debating whether or not to leave the academy.  The one thing that is very different in the UK – and I’m torn as to whether or not it’s a good thing or a bad thing – is that time-to-degree is substantially shorter with PhD programs lasting 3-4 years.  If you’re equipping people to go off into other careers, this is brilliant because they don’t get stuck in a very long PhD, but rather come out with the nuts and bolts of a PhD training.  However, this sort of system also tends to lead to what I would call “safe” projects that will yield results in the limited time frame and leave little room for exploring risky projects.  We talk about this in an old entry on the Black Hole called “The Rise of the Cookie-cutter PhD” (http://scienceadvocacy.org/Blog/2009/11/17/science-is-like-baking-the-rise-of-the-cookie-cutter-phd/)

  • Will you be acting as a moderator only or will you also speak to the questions? If you do speak to the questions, could you give a preview of your presentation?

I will introduce the panel and in doing so will try to set the stage for the audience – chart the change in demographics, highlight the issue of career stasis in academic labs, etc.  Much of my presentation will draw from entries on the Black Hole such as the Changing Human Resources in AcademiaSay no to the second Postdoc, and Professionals in High Demand.  Briefly, I’ll show statistics on the longer training times and summarize the unrest in academic labs.  In the moderation of the panel discussion, I’ll include some resources on how some universities have started to tackle the issues and some innovative programs that are helping young academics make choices sooner.

  • What do you hope will be the outcome(s) of having this panel at the 2011 CSPC?

For me, the biggest mission is awareness – I want policy makers, granting councils, and industry leaders to recognize the growth in highly trained scientists and the immense number of talented people that often finds themselves “stuck”.  These are people who have trained for nearly a decade and only a fraction of them can end up on the path they have been trained for (unlike doctors, lawyers, accounts)

A complete bonus would be to get some strategies for unsticking these people and some guidance on where to broach the issue.  We’ll see how it goes!

  • Is there anything you would like to add?

The only final thing I would suggest is for young scientists who have any sort of inclination toward or interest in science policy to get out there early – two or three days at a conference like the CSPC can be career changing or it could simply allow you to better understand the machinery that ends up impacting how you will be funded, how your trainees will be trained, and how research gets (or doesn’t get) incorporated into government policy.  Take off the blinders once in a while and try something new.

Thank you for taking the time to provide some insight into your topic and your presentation. I wish you and your panel the best of luck at the conference.

ETA Nov. 9, 2011: For Twitter purposes I decided to call this panel the ‘Kill all your darlings/science grads” panel. “Kill all your darlings” is a phrase I came across that describes what writers sometimes have to do when they edit a piece and must cut a wonderful sentence or phrase because it doesn’t fit. I gather that there is a problem (not only in Canada) with fitting science grads into the larger science enterprise.

2011 Canadian Science Policy Conference

It’s the third year for the Canadian Science Policy Conference. The first two were held in Toronto and Montréal, respectively. For a refreshing change of pace, they’re holding this year’s conference in Ottawa. (For anyone not familiar with Canadian geography, these locations are all relatively close to each other and this type of scheduling is the source of much grumbling from those of us in the ‘other’ provinces and the territories.)

You’ll be happy to know that the theme for the 2011 conference is: Building Bridges for the Future of Science Policy in Canada. Being held from Nov. 16 – 18, 2011, the conference features a keynote address from three speakers, Rémi Quirion, OC, Ph.D., CQ, FRSC, Chairman of the Board of Directors, Fonds de recherche du Québec; Ian Chubb, Chief Scientist for Australia; and R. Peter MacKinnon, President and Vice-Chancellor, University of Saskatchewan. Unfortunately, there is no information about what they might discuss although one imagines they will focus on the theme for the conference. (Note: One cannot always depend on one’s speakers to keep to the theme. I know this from bittersweet [it’s funny afterwards] experience.)

I’m a little more interested in the talk which ushers in the first full day of the conference. Scheduled for 8:40 am on Thursday, November 17, 2011 the talk is titled, Building Stronger Communities Through Innovation. Here’s a preview from the 2011 CSPC agenda page,

How do we build innovative communities? This is a central challenge for Canada in the 21st century since innovative communities form the foundation of a prosperous country. As more than a decade of research on industry clusters has shown, a robust innovation system can have a profoundly positive impact on local communities when it translates into high quality jobs, industrial growth, new enterprises, improved public infrastructure and services and a cleaner, healthier environment.

But building innovation into our communities takes the involvement of individuals and institutions across the spectrum of society. Universities, colleges, research hospitals, private companies, governments and non-profit agencies, along with the talented, creative people that work in these organizations, must be free to work together and share their knowledge and ideas.

Yet fostering collaboration and knowledge exchange between different organizations, with different interests and capacities can be challenging. Successful collaboration requires time, resources, communication, shared goals, commitment and risk-taking.

A panel of leading Canadian thinkers in inter-sectoral and inter-organizational collaboration will discuss how university and college researchers can work with local businesses to translate new knowledge into new creative products and beneficial services. They will look at the role of research hospitals in contributing to both the health and wealth of local communities. And they will discuss best practices in overcoming the institutional and cultural barriers to collaboration.

The speakers for this session are:

Gilles G. Patry, Ph.D, President and CEO,Canada Foundation for Innovation; Chad Gaffield,, Ph.D, President, Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council; Dr. Kevin Smith, President and CEO, St. Joseph’s Healthcare Hamilton, St Joseph’s Lifecare Centre Brantford; Fred Morley, Executive VP & Chief Economist, Greater Halifax Partnership; Fassi Kafyeke Director, Strategic Technology,Bombardier Aerospace; Hon. Mike Harcourt, Lawyer, Community Activist, and former BC Premier

Given that the report of the Review of Federal Support to R&D has just been released (my posting will be out later today), it would be nice if they mention the report and its likely impact on the science community. It’s probably too late but it would be fabulous if someone from the expert panel could be persuaded to give a talk.

I’m mentioning these two panels simply because I know a speaker on each. David Kent ( CIHR Postdoctoral, University of Cambridge) is moderating the Education and Training of Scientists panel. David is 1/2 of the blogging team for The Black Hole; Science in Canada Issues Affecting Science Trainees blog (Beth Swan is the other 1/2). You can find out more about the conference and David’s latest panel doings in his Oct. 18, 2011 posting. The other panelist is Tim Meyer (Head of Strategic Planning & Communications, TRIUMF) who’s on the Reaching out with Big Science panel. Are they going to talk about blogging and social media or are they going to focus primarily on mainstream media. Given that two of the other speakers are Penny Park (Science Media Centre of Canada) and Jay Ingram (until recently a host for the Daily Planet programme on the Discovery Channel and author), I’m guessing the focus will be mainstream media.

Note Oct. 20, 2011: A few minor grammatical changes made in a bid to make this piece readable. We’ll see how that works.

ETA Oct. 24, 2011: I can’t believe missed this panel (Science Culture, Organized and Prioritized: Three National and International Initiatives) which features another person I’ve had the pleasure of encountering, Denise Amyot, President and Chief Executive Office of the Canada Science and Technology Museums Corporation (CSTMC). In order to make up for my oversight I’m including a description here,

Culture is big: annually, some 290 million citizens actively participate in the exhibitions, programs, events and outreach initiatives organized by 2,400 science centres worldwide. Other types of institutions, radio, internet, and film build further on that reach. This session will examine three recent initiatives that seek to organize, define, and take strategic advantage of the work of hundreds of diverse science engagement and knowledge creation organisations nationally and internationally. Increasingly, strategic focus among this diverse set of content and communication partners is bringing new attention to science engagement for the benefit of national and global society.

This session will examine Inspiring Australia, an initiative of the Australian government to create regional networks of diverse engagement organizations and connect them effectively with the science knowledge creators in order to better execute science engagement in that country. We will also examine an initiative to benchmark “science culture” in order to better measure future progress . And finally we will examine a global initiative by science centres to use science engagement in a truly global context.

Well, the first initiative is clearly from Australia (perhaps this explains Ian Chubb’s role as one of the conference’s opening keynote speakers and as one of three speakers on this panel) and the third initiative is coming from the science centres (one of the panelists is from the Ontario Science Centre) so perhaps the second initiative is coming from the CSTMC?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From Beth’s July 12, 2011 posting,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sick and tired of the ‘social media is changing how science is practiced’ narrative

The whole ‘social media is changing ______’ puzzles me. You can fill in the blank with science/government/social relationships/etc. It’s always the same notion. Somehow social media is engendering changes the like of which we’ve never seen before.

  • The February 2011 overthrow of Mubarak in Egypt was all due to social media, as is the current social unrest in many Middle Eastern Countries.
  • Social relationships are being negatively impacted (nobody talks to anybody else anymore or it’s opening new avenues for relationships)
  • The practice of science is being changed by the use of social media.
  • etc.

Mostly I’m concerned with the one about science since I recently ended up on a panel where the discussion turned on this topic. I think there are a lot of things having an impact on how science is practiced and trying to establish the role social media is playing, if any, is a little premature.

We had Rosie Redfield on the panel. Rosie is a professor at the University of British Columbia who was part of the ‘arsenic life’ story that took the internet by a storm in late November/early December 2010. (Confession: I got caught up in the excitement in my Dec. 6, 2010 posting and recanted in my Dec. 8, 2010 posting.) Recently, there’s been a story about ‘arsenic life’ by Carl Zimmer for Slate magazine titled, How #arseniclife changed science. Here’s Zimmer’s set up (from the Slate article),

On November 29, NASA announced that it would soon hold a press conference to “discuss an astrobiology finding that will impact the search for evidence of extraterrestrial life.” Wild speculation ran amok—perhaps scientists had found living things on one of Saturn’s moons. At the press conference, the scientists did not unveil an actual extraterrestrial, but they did have big news. A new paper had just been published in the journal Science, they said, which described bacteria that seemed able to build their own DNA from arsenic. If that were true, it would be an historic discovery, because no such ability has ever been found among Earth’s life-forms.

The paper was published online in late November and attracted a great deal of discussion and criticism almost immediately on blogs (Rosie Redfield’s RRResearch amongst them) and on twitter via the hash tag topic, #arseniclife. The print version of the paper, along with critical letters, will appear in the June 3, 2011 issue of Science.

Here’s Zimmer’s take on what makes this particular scientific dust-up different,

For those of us who have been tracking #arseniclife since last Thanksgiving, however, today comes as an anticlimax. There’s not much in the letters to Science that we haven’t read before. In the past, scientists might have kept their thoughts to themselves, waiting for journals to decide when and how they could debate the merits of a study. But this time, they started talking right away, airing their criticisms on the Internet. In fact, the true significance of the aliens-that-weren’t will be how it helped change the way scientists do science.

Zimmer goes on to describe this new practice,

Redfield and her colleagues are starting to carry out a new way of doing science, known as post-publication peer review. Rather than leaving the evaluation of new studies to a few anonymous scientists, researchers now debate the merit of papers after they have been published. The collective decision they come to stays open to revision.

Post-publication peer review—and open science in general—is attracting a growing number of followers in the scientific community. But some critics have argued that it’s been more successful in theory than in practice. The #arseniclife affair is one of the first cases in which the scientific community openly vetted a high-profile paper, and influenced how the public at large thought about it.

Post-publication peer review existed before social media as per ‘cold fusion’ (Wikipedia essay). I remember it because I wasn’t particularly interested in science at the time but this was everywhere and it went on for months. There was the initial excitement and enthusiasm (the ‘cold fusion’ scientists were featured on the cover of Times or Newsweek or maybe both in the days when those magazines were powerhouse publications). Then, as the initial enthusiasm died down, the storm of scientific criticism started (those other scientists may not have had social media but they made themselves felt). The story took place over eight to 10 months and achieved public awareness in a way that scientists can only fantasize about these days.  By comparison, the arsenic story blew up and disappeared from public consciousness within roughly two weeks, if that.

Social media may yet change how science is practiced but I wouldn’t use Zimmer’s story about #arsencilife to support that belief, in fact, I think it could support another idea altogether.

The ‘arsenic’ story was, by comparison, with ‘cold fusion’ greatly truncated and most members of the public never really heard about it and, as a consequence, were not exposed to the furious debate and discussion as they were with  ‘cold fusion’.  They did not get exposed to how science ‘really works and therein lies a problem because they did not see the uncertainties, the mistakes, and revised ideas.

As for what factors may be having an impact on scientific practice, I’d suggest reading Identifying good scientists and keeping them honest on The Black Hole blog by David Kent. Here’s an excerpt,

In a February 2011 interview with Lab Times, Cambridge scientist Peter Lawrence1 reflects on his own career and complains that “the heart of research is sick” as he charts the changes in the way in which science is pursued.  Briefly, he cites impact factors and the increased need to assign metrics to scientists (# of publications, H-index, etc) as main drivers of producing low quality research and unfairly squeezing out some good scientists who do not publish simply for the sake of publishing.  Impact factor fever runs deep throughout laboratories but, most damagingly, exists at the funding agency and university administrative level as well.

ETA June 17, 2011: For anyone who’d like to read some updated and contrasting discussion about the #arseniclife aftermath for scientific practice and science education there are two June 16, 2011 guest posts for Scientific American, one from Rosie Redfield and the other from Marie-Claire Shanahan. Plus, if you are interested in more details about the cold fusion story and the role electronic communication played, check out Marie-Claire Shanahan’s post,  Arsenic, cold fusion and the legitimacy of online critique, on the Boundary Vision blog.

FrogHeart on science blogging panel at Northern Voice 2011 Conference

Friday, May 13, 2011 is the date for what I believe is a first anywhere: a panel about Canadian science blogging. It’s going to be held at the 2011 Northern Voice Personal Blogging and Social Media Conference (May 13 – 14, 2011) at the University of British Columbia’s Life Sciences Centre.

FrogHeart (aka Maryse de la Giroday) will be on the panel titled: The Naked Truth: Canadian Science Blogging Scene. My fellow panelists will be:

Rosie Redfield of RRResearch and author of the post that raised a storm of interest in the science blogosphere by bringing into question some research published by NASA (US National Aeronautics and Space Administration) scientists in Science magazine;

Beth Snow of The Black Hole (co-written with David Kent) where she writes about what happens after you get your graduate science degree and other issues of interest to science trainees; and

Eric Michael Johnson, The Primate Diaries in Exile, who writes about evolutionary biology and its relationship to politics;

and moi.

Our moderator is Lisa Johnson, a CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Coroporation) reporter who specializes in science and environmental issues.

Here’s the description for the session:

Bloggers are changing what was the tightly controlled world of science communications — dominated by peer-reviewed journals and mainstream media — into a two-way street.

Join four popular science bloggers to hear how social media lets them tell their stories without compromise. The panelists will tell you about political science and apes during the 2011 federal Canadian election; about what you do after you get your graduate science degrees and start developing your post-school career; about running a science lab and writing one of the most incendiary science blog posts of 2010; about the very well kept secret that is the Canadian nanotechnology community. We anticipate a lively (rowdy) interactive session with lots of questions from the audience to the panel and from the panel to the audience.

The panel will be on from 1:45 pm to 2:30 pm.