Tag Archives: David Ng

Does the new Minister of State for Science and Technology Greg*** Rickford really need research experience?

Gary Goodyear,  Canada’s Minister of State for Science and Technology since 2008, was shuffled away and Greg*** Rickford, fell into his place as of July 15, 2013 in the Harper government’s latest cabinet shuffle (largely viewed as a diversionary tactic in the wake of a Senate expense scandal).

Sadly, the Goodyear/Rickford change didn’t make many waves here in Canada.The mainstream media has barely mentioned it and the Canadian Science Policy Centre (CSPC), where one would expect something, has no mention of it (as of 10:30 am PDT July 17, 2013) on their website homepage. As the CSPC is volunteer-run, I imagine this is an issue of not having enough time during the summer while being in the preparatory stages of the fall 2013 conference. Still, that particular omission does seem a bit odd.

There was, however, a mainstream media plea before the shuffle was announced. Jordan Himelfarb made his plea  in a July 12, 2013 opinion piece for the Toronto Star,

A wise next step: get rid of Gary Goodyear.

For fans of science, this will be an uncontroversial suggestion. Goodyear, the minister of state for science and technology, has presided over the most retrograde federal S&T policy in memory.

During his tenure, the government shuttered the office of the National Science Adviser, blocked asbestos from a UN hazardous chemicals list on which it clearly belongs, gutted the Fisheries Act, gutted the Navigable Waters Protection Act, set out to weaken the Species at Risk Act, killed the long-form census, eroded Environment Canada’s ability to monitor climate change, earned an international reputation for muzzling scientists and, at a great potential cost, defunded the world’s leading freshwater research centre [Experimental Lakes Ares]. (I stop there arbitrarily. The list really does go on and on.)

A change has been made but whether there will be any change is a bit of a mystery. I’ve found some coverage  and commentary about the change in the US and by Canadian science blogger, Eight Crayon Science. As the US coverage is more neutral (relatively) and general in tone, I’ll start there. Wayne Kondro in a July 15, 2013 article for Science Insider notes,

Former lawyer and nurse Greg Rickford has become Canada’s science minister as Prime Minister Stephen Harper shuffled his Cabinet on Monday. The move is an attempt to deflect attention from an expenses scandal that has rocked Harper’s Conservative government and left pundits calling for a reboot prior to the expected national elections in 2015. It has left science associations scrambling to learn a bit about the new junior minister.

…  The position reports to Industry Minister James Moore, who was promoted from the Canadian Heritage Ministry and whose new portfolio oversees all of Canada’s science agencies with the exception of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research …

David Bruggeman in his July 16, 2013 posting on the Pasco Phronesis blog put this news into an international context (Note: Links have been removed),

While the possibility of a new U.K. science minister is only rumor at the moment, the Canadian government has just reshuffled its Cabinet.  Minister for Science and Technology Gary Goodyear is out, and replacing him is Greg Rickford. Minister Rickford has previously served in ministerial positions responsible for development in northern Canada.  While he does have experience as a nurse, like his predecessor Minister Rickford does not have much research experience.

Mention of Rickford’s lack of research experience is made in Kondro’s article and by Canadian science blogger Eight Crayon Science in a July 16, 2013 posting which also details changes in other science portfolios,

We here in Canada had quite a major cabinet shuffle yesterday, precipitated in part due to the departure of a few major cabinet ministers. So, the five positions with the most sciency-ness are now held by:

  • Minister of State for Science and Technology: Greg Rickford (Kenora) replaces Gary Goodyear (Cambridge)
  • Minister of the Environment: Leona Aglukkaq (Nunavut) replaces Peter Kent (Thornhill)
  • Minister of Fisheries and Oceans: Gail Shea (Egmont) replaces Keith Ashfield (Fredericton)
  • Minister of Natural Resources: Joe Oliver (Eglington-Lawrence) remains in the position
  • Minister of Health: Rona Ambrose (Edmonton-Spruce Grove) replaces Leona Aglukkaq (Nunavut)

Let’s go one by one. I’m pleased that Goodyear is gone, because having a science minister who dances around the question of whether or not he believes in evolution is frankly embarrassing. Rickford has worked previously as a nurse (though his law degrees are more emphasized in the bios I’ve seen), which is a step in the right direction. But he’s the MP for Kenora, the riding of the Experimental Lakes Area, and he was previously a vocal proponent for closing the site. So, we’re not exactly off to a flying start.

A sort of secondary (or at least a more chronic issue than a Thing That Needs Attending To Immediately) is the continual lack of MPs with strong science backgrounds. *Lawyers and bankers and business folk of all stripes are a dime a dozen in Parliament, but doctors are rare, and scientists and engineers are even rarer. This isn’t to say that a *lawyer cannot be an excellent Minister of State for Science and Technology, but an MP with a more direct background in science — whether that’s industrial science, academic science, theoretical or applied science — will bring a more relevant perspective to the portfolio. Having worked as a scientist will likely give a Minister of Science a more tangible view of how policy set forth by their portfolio affects Canadian science, scientists, and citizens than a working as an attorney would, and I think that perspective is important.

I’m not entirely in agreement with this notion that a Science and Technology Minister needs direct experience of research as something will have to be sacrificed.  Which skill set do you want to sacrifice: research, administrative, political maneuvering, and/or social? It’s rare to get someone who’s equally good at all of these. Also, someone from outside the research community is less likely to have enemies within that community.

Personally, I’d like to see more science awareness in Parliament as per Preston Manning’s suggestion about the science community reaching out to politicians (Part 1 of an interview with Manning in a Sept. 10, 2009 posting and Part 2 of the Manning interview in a Sept. 11, 2009 posting). There are, for example, UK programmes that address this issue including one where young scientists shadow politicians (my Nov. 26, 2010 posting).

The appointment I find a bit more disturbing, at this point,  is James Moore’s to Industry Canada [ETA July 17, 2013 at 3:55 pm PDT: Science and Technology is a junior ministry included with the senior and important Industry ministry]. Moore once characterized Cory Doctorow, a science fiction writer, and others as ‘extremist radicals’ for 0pposing his (Moore’s) maximalist approach to a then upcoming piece of  copyright legislation (my June 25, 2010 posting) at a public event and later lied about the comment. Unfortunately for Moore, there was video evidence. Given the emphasis on patents in the innovation discussion, Moore’s previous comments on maximizing copyright are not comforting if one feels that even current patent regimes are hindering innovation and by extension the pursuit of science.

During Moore’s tenure as Minister of Canadian Heritage and Official Languages he expressed his displeasure with an exhibition about sex at  the Canada Science and Technology Museum in Ottawa (from my June 13, 2012 posting),

It’s time now to add sex to the mix. Canada’s Science and Technology Museum is currently hosting SEX: A Tell-all Exhibition, which has caused some consternation in our country’s capital (Ottawa), from the May 16, 2012 article by Althia Raj for the **Huffington Post (Canada),

Canada’s Science and Technology Museum has abruptly raised the age limit for a controversial sex exhibit after Heritage Minister James Moore’s office raised concerns and more than 50 individuals complained.

Moore’s office called museum president Denise Amyot to complain that Sex: A Tell-All Exhibition [sic] is completely inappropriate.

“The purpose of the Museum of Science and Technology is to foster scientific and technological literacy throughout Canada,” said Moore’s spokesperson James Maunder.

“It is clear this exhibit does not fit within that mandate. This content cannot be defended, and is insulting to taxpayers,” he said.

This show had already been run in Montréal (where it was developed by the Montréal Science Centre for children 12 years and older) and in Regina (Saskatachewan), without significant distress or insult.

Rickford is going be dealing with a boss who has some very definite ideas, is not afraid to intervene whether it’s appropriate or not, and lies under pressure.

Getting back to Goodyear, while there are many criticisms  Canadian science blogger and well known mathematician,  Nassif Ghoussoub, had good things to say about Goodyear’s ministership in a Nov. 16, 2011 posting and about Goodyear’s attitude to science in a May 17, 2012 posting on his Piece of Mind blog.

For a more extensive view and explanation of some of the concerns regarding Goodyear’s and the Harper government’s science activities, there’s this May 3, 2011 posting by David Ng (science literacy academic at the Michael Smith Laboratories of the University of British Columbia) on the Discover magazine website. H/T to Phil Plait at Slate.com for the Ng article.

* A minor typo was corrected, laywer to lawyer.

** An amusing type  was corrected, Huggington to Huffington.

*** An embarrassing mistake was corrected, Gary Rickford to Greg Rickford on Feb. 2, 2015.

ETA July 18, 2013: Earlier today, I found this July 15, 2013 article analyzing the situation with the news that the cabinet shuffle involved the ministers for Industry Canada and its junior portfolio Science and Technology written by Ivan Semeniuk for the Globe and Mail.

Thoughts on the Canadian science blogging scene and on the FrogHeart blog

I thought the timing was right for a review of the Canadian science blogging scene. At this point there seems to be about 12 of us. I found 4 new (to me) blogs this year:

  • The Bubble Chamber which is maintained by the History of Science programme students at the University of Toronto. As you might expect, it’s very academic at times. You might find a recent posting, How to pursue science from the humanities, an interesting read.
  • CMBR is maintained by Colin Schultz. He’s a science journalist. I haven’t read it often enough to be able to comment on it although I am intrigued by an item he has about science and the movies.
  • PARS3C is maintained by Elizabeth Lowell, a science journalist and editor. She focuses on space exploration (not a very strong interest of mine). Here’s her profile of Rocket Scientista, a PhD student in astrophysics who discusses, amongst other things,  why she thinks science blogging is important.
  • Nicole Arbour, a science and innovation officer in the UK’s Foreign Office in Ottawa, blogs about the science in Ottawa and in Canada regularly on a site maintained by the UK Foreign & Commonwealth Office. One of her latest is titled, Science Policy in Canada, and features a video of Mehrdad Hariri, Chair of the Canada Science Policy Conference, talking about plans to create a science policy centre in Canada.

Colleagues that have stimulated my thinking and opened new vistas include,

  • Rob Annan on a blog that seems to have changed its name recently (glory halleluiah!) to Researcher Forum. (Rob, I will change my blog roll soon.) It was a blog developed as a consequence of a protest letter written to Stephen Harper’s Conservative government a few years back when science budgets were affected. Months after its inception, Rob Annan was asked to take on the job of blogging regularly. His writing on Canadian science policy is always thoughtful and thought-provoking. Here’s his latest one on innovation in Canada and some of the problems. And, here’s one of my favourites from June 29, 2010, Public has a right to influence research policy. It’s about multiple sclerosis and the ‘surgery cure’ that has excited an enormous amount of interest.
  • The Black Hole is a blog about what happens once you graduate from university. It’s mostly aimed at those who have PhDs or Masters degrees although I think anyone could benefit from the insights that Beth Snow and David Kent provide. They certainly opened my eyes up to some of the issues in ways I couldn’t have anticipated. There’s a very interesting and humourous response to a current discussion taking place about whether or not there are too many people getting doctoral degrees, Professionals in High Demand. They ran a series during the summer about work that graduate students can aspire to and that doesn’t involve becoming a professor at a university.
  • Gregor Wolbring, a professor at the University of Calgary, maintains probably one of the longest-running and well-known Canadian science blogs, Nano and Nano- Bio, Info, Cogno, Neuro, Synbio, Geo, Chem…. He doesn’t blog that frequently these days; his site biography indicates that he must be screamingly busy. It’s worth taking a look at his blog as he often features material that no one else does.

Strictly speaking these aren’t science blogs as I think of them but this is a review of the ‘scene’ as much as anything else and these blogs definitely contribute,

  • Jeff Sharom maintains the Science Canada blog whose goal “is to highlight science policy issues in Canada’s political arena and media.” He doesn’t offer any commentary so this site functions more as an aggregator or reader but he picks up just about everything on Canadian science policy and it’s definitely worth a look if you want to know about the latest news.
  • RRResearch is maintained by Rosie Redfield at the University of British Columbia. As she notes, “This is a research blog, not a conventional science blog. Most posts are not about published research or science in the public domain, but about my lab’s day-to-day research into the mechanism, function and evolution of DNA uptake by Haemophilus influenzae and other bacteria.” She’s probably best known for her response to a recent science controversy over arsenic and bacteria.

The rest of these are blogs that haven’t been updated for a few months or more or don’t fit easily into the notion of being a Canadian science blog.

  • Je vote pour la science has been maintained by Pascal Lapointe and his colleague, Josée Nadia Drouin. There hasn’t been a new podcast (yes, a Canadian science podcast blog) since May 2010. These are expensive and time-consuming and both Pascal and his colleague work for Agence Science-Presse (which is being kept current). If you do have the French language skills I do encourage you to check out both sites.
  • David Ng is a professor at the University of British Columbia and he is a member of a group blog (his two partners are both from the US).  One of Dr. Ng’s most recent postings at The World’s Fair was titled, Crickets chirping and Collider Whales. There’s more about Dr. Ng and his various projects here.
  • Jay Ingram, co-host of Discovery Planet, maintained a blog , which featured podcasts, until Oct. 2008. I wonder if he will start it up again now that he’s retiring from Discovery Planet.

As for FrogHeart, I had a banner year bloggingwise. January 2010 statistics (AW stats. package) show the site as have 4225 visits in total and this month the site has clocked over 25,000 visits.That’s an increase of over 600%. In fact, FrogHeart consistently showed over 20,000 visits per month in the last quarter.  Based on this data, I’m going to make the claim that as far as I know,  FrogHeart is the largest, independent Canadian science blog.

Nanocrystalline cellulose is the most searched topic on my blog this year. It may not be the top search in every month but it’s consistently in my top 10. I want to thank Peter Julian, Rainer Becker, Charles McGovern, Richard Berry, Forrest H Bennett III, Leon Chua, Blaise Mouttet, Fern Wickson, Betty J. Morris, and Teri W. Odom who kindly provided answers to my questions (some were full length interviews while others were quick e-mail questions).

Please do contact me if I’ve missed something or someone or got something wrong.

I think 2010 was a better year for Canadian science blogging if you consider the addition of a couple new blogs as evidence (and I do). Many of the bloggers are independent, i.e., they self-fund their blogs and that suggests a big commitment.

I think at this point I’d like to highlight a December 28, 2010 article from the Calgary Herald on  how to pour champagne by Tom Spears (from the article),

It took six French scientists and a lot of free samples to prove this, but the official word says you should pour Champagne down the side of a tall glass to preserve the fizz and the flavour.

Bubbles also last longer when your Champagne is really cold — about 4 C.

I wish a great 2011 for everyone and an even more active year for Canadian science blogging.

ETA Jan.19.11: I found another Canadian science blogger: Nassif Ghoussou, a professor of mathematics at the University of British Columbia. His blog is called Piece of Mind. Thanks to Rob Annan’s blog, Researcher Forum, for this find.

ETA Jan. 24.11: This is great. I found Cool Science today. The blogger, a science communicator and parent located in Ontario,  focuses on something called ‘science parenting.  From the blog’s About page,

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.

Are there any other Canadian science bloggers I can add to this list? Please, do let me know.

Phylo and crowdsourcing science by Canadian researchers

Alex Kawrykow and Gary Roumanis from McGill University (Montréal, Québec) have launched Phylo, a genetics game that anyone can play but is actually genetic research. From the article by Neal Ungerleider at the Fast Company website,

The new project, Phylo, was launched by a team at Montreal’s McGill University on November 29. Players are allowed to recognize and sort human genetic code that’s displayed in a Tetris-like format. Phylo, which runs in Flash, allows users to parse random genetic codes or to tackle DNA patterns related to real diseases. In a random game, a user found himself assigned to DNA portions linked to exudative vitreoretinopathy 4 and vesicoureteral reflux 2.

Players choose from a variety of categories such as digestive system diseases, heart diseases, brain diseases and cancer. All the DNA portions in the game are linked to different diseases. Once completed, they are analyzed and stored in a database; McGill intends to use players’ results in the game to optimize future genetic research.

This reminds me of Foldit (mentioned in my Aug. 6, 2010 posting) another multiplayer online biology-type game; that time the focus was protein folding. As Ungerleider notes in his article, gaming is being used in education, advertising, and media. I’ll add this,  it’s also being used for military training.

I was interested to note that the McGill game was made possible by these agencies,

* Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada
* McGill School of Computer Science
* McGill Centre for Bioinformatics
* McGill Computational Structural Biology Group

On a side note, there’s another biology-type game called Phylo, it’s a trading card game designed by David Ng, a professor at the University of British Columbia. From the Phylo, trade card game About page,

What is this phylo thing? (Some interesting but relatively specific FAQs here)

Well, it’s an online initiative aimed at creating a Pokemon card type resource but with real creatures on display in full “artistic” wonder. Not only that – but we plan to have the scientific community weigh in to determine the content on such cards, as well as folks who love gaming to try and design interesting ways to use the cards. Then to top it all off, members of the teacher community will participate to see whether these cards have educational merit. Best of all, the hope is that this will all occur in a non-commercial-open-access-open-source-because-basically-this-is-good-for-you-your-children-and-your-planet sort of way.

The Phylo, trading card game is in Beta (for those not familiar with the term beta, it means the game is still being tested, so there may be ‘bugs’).

It’s nice to be able to report on some innovative Canadian crowdsourcing science.