Tag Archives: Genome Canada

Gene editing and personalized medicine: Canada

Back in the fall of 2018 I came across one of those overexcited pieces about personalized medicine and gene editing tha are out there. This one came from an unexpected source, an author who is a “PhD Scientist in Medical Science (Blood and Vasculature” (from Rick Gierczak’s LinkedIn profile).

It starts our promisingly enough although I’m beginning to dread the use of the word ‘precise’  where medicine is concerned, (from a September 17, 2018 posting on the Science Borealis blog by Rick Gierczak (Note: Links have been removed),

CRISPR-Cas9 technology was accidentally discovered in the 1980s when scientists were researching how bacteria defend themselves against viral infection. While studying bacterial DNA called clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats (CRISPR), they identified additional CRISPR-associated (Cas) protein molecules. Together, CRISPR and one of those protein molecules, termed Cas9, can locate and cut precise regions of bacterial DNA. By 2012, researchers understood that the technology could be modified and used more generally to edit the DNA of any plant or animal. In 2015, the American Association for the Advancement of Science chose CRISPR-Cas9 as science’s “Breakthrough of the Year”.

Today, CRISPR-Cas9 is a powerful and precise gene-editing tool [emphasis mine] made of two molecules: a protein that cuts DNA (Cas9) and a custom-made length of RNA that works like a GPS for locating the exact spot that needs to be edited (CRISPR). Once inside the target cell nucleus, these two molecules begin editing the DNA. After the desired changes are made, they use a repair mechanism to stitch the new DNA into place. Cas9 never changes, but the CRISPR molecule must be tailored for each new target — a relatively easy process in the lab. However, it’s not perfect, and occasionally the wrong DNA is altered [emphasis mine].

Note that Gierczak makes a point of mentioning that CRISPR/Cas9 is “not perfect.” And then, he gets excited (Note: Links have been removed),

CRISPR-Cas9 has the potential to treat serious human diseases, many of which are caused by a single “letter” mutation in the genetic code (A, C, T, or G) that could be corrected by precise editing. [emphasis mine] Some companies are taking notice of the technology. A case in point is CRISPR Therapeutics, which recently developed a treatment for sickle cell disease, a blood disorder that causes a decrease in oxygen transport in the body. The therapy targets a special gene called fetal hemoglobin that’s switched off a few months after birth. Treatment involves removing stem cells from the patient’s bone marrow and editing the gene to turn it back on using CRISPR-Cas9. These new stem cells are returned to the patient ready to produce normal red blood cells. In this case, the risk of error is eliminated because the new cells are screened for the correct edit before use.

The breakthroughs shown by companies like CRISPR Therapeutics are evidence that personalized medicine has arrived. [emphasis mine] However, these discoveries will require government regulatory approval from the countries where the treatment is going to be used. In the US, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has developed new regulations allowing somatic (i.e., non-germ) cell editing and clinical trials to proceed. [emphasis mine]

The potential treatment for sickle cell disease is exciting but Gierczak offers no evidence that this treatment or any unnamed others constitute proof that “personalized medicine has arrived.” In fact, Goldman Sachs, a US-based investment bank, makes the case that it never will .

Cost/benefit analysis

Edward Abrahams, president of the Personalized Medicine Coalition (US-based), advocates for personalized medicine while noting in passing, market forces as represented by Goldman Sachs in his May 23, 2018 piece for statnews.com (Note: A link has been removed),

One of every four new drugs approved by the Food and Drug Administration over the last four years was designed to become a personalized (or “targeted”) therapy that zeros in on the subset of patients likely to respond positively to it. That’s a sea change from the way drugs were developed and marketed 10 years ago.

Some of these new treatments have extraordinarily high list prices. But focusing solely on the cost of these therapies rather than on the value they provide threatens the future of personalized medicine.

… most policymakers are not asking the right questions about the benefits of these treatments for patients and society. Influenced by cost concerns, they assume that prices for personalized tests and treatments cannot be justified even if they make the health system more efficient and effective by delivering superior, longer-lasting clinical outcomes and increasing the percentage of patients who benefit from prescribed treatments.

Goldman Sachs, for example, issued a report titled “The Genome Revolution.” It argues that while “genome medicine” offers “tremendous value for patients and society,” curing patients may not be “a sustainable business model.” [emphasis mine] The analysis underlines that the health system is not set up to reap the benefits of new scientific discoveries and technologies. Just as we are on the precipice of an era in which gene therapies, gene-editing, and immunotherapies promise to address the root causes of disease, Goldman Sachs says that these therapies have a “very different outlook with regard to recurring revenue versus chronic therapies.”

Let’s just chew on this one (contemplate)  for a minute”curing patients may not be ‘sustainable business model’!”

Coming down to earth: policy

While I find Gierczak to be over-enthused, he, like Abrahams, emphasizes the importance of new policy, in his case, the focus is Canadian policy. From Gierczak’s September 17, 2018 posting (Note: Links have been removed),

In Canada, companies need approval from Health Canada. But a 2004 law called the Assisted Human Reproduction Act (AHR Act) states that it’s a criminal offence “to alter the genome of a human cell, or in vitroembryo, that is capable of being transmitted to descendants”. The Actis so broadly written that Canadian scientists are prohibited from using the CRISPR-Cas9 technology on even somatic cells. Today, Canada is one of the few countries in the world where treating a disease with CRISPR-Cas9 is a crime.

On the other hand, some countries provide little regulatory oversight for editing either germ or somatic cells. In China, a company often only needs to satisfy the requirements of the local hospital where the treatment is being performed. And, if germ-cell editing goes wrong, there is little recourse for the future generations affected.

The AHR Act was introduced to regulate the use of reproductive technologies like in vitrofertilization and research related to cloning human embryos during the 1980s and 1990s. Today, we live in a time when medical science, and its role in Canadian society, is rapidly changing. CRISPR-Cas9 is a powerful tool, and there are aspects of the technology that aren’t well understood and could potentially put patients at risk if we move ahead too quickly. But the potential benefits are significant. Updated legislation that acknowledges both the risks and current realities of genomic engineering [emphasis mine] would relieve the current obstacles and support a path toward the introduction of safe new therapies.

Criminal ban on human gene-editing of inheritable cells (in Canada)

I had no idea there was a criminal ban on the practice until reading this January 2017 editorial by Bartha Maria Knoppers, Rosario Isasi, Timothy Caulfield, Erika Kleiderman, Patrick Bedford, Judy Illes, Ubaka Ogbogu, Vardit Ravitsky, & Michael Rudnicki for (Nature) npj Regenerative Medicine (Note: Links have been removed),

Driven by the rapid evolution of gene editing technologies, international policy is examining which regulatory models can address the ensuing scientific, socio-ethical and legal challenges for regenerative and personalised medicine.1 Emerging gene editing technologies, including the CRISPR/Cas9 2015 scientific breakthrough,2 are powerful, relatively inexpensive, accurate, and broadly accessible research tools.3 Moreover, they are being utilised throughout the world in a wide range of research initiatives with a clear eye on potential clinical applications. Considering the implications of human gene editing for selection, modification and enhancement, it is time to re-examine policy in Canada relevant to these important advances in the history of medicine and science, and the legislative and regulatory frameworks that govern them. Given the potential human reproductive applications of these technologies, careful consideration of these possibilities, as well as ethical and regulatory scrutiny must be a priority.4

With the advent of human embryonic stem cell research in 1978, the birth of Dolly (the cloned sheep) in 1996 and the Raelian cloning hoax in 2003, the environment surrounding the enactment of Canada’s 2004 Assisted Human Reproduction Act (AHRA) was the result of a decade of polarised debate,5 fuelled by dystopian and utopian visions for future applications. Rightly or not, this led to the AHRA prohibition on a wide range of activities, including the creation of embryos (s. 5(1)(b)) or chimeras (s. 5(1)(i)) for research and in vitro and in vivo germ line alterations (s. 5(1)(f)). Sanctions range from a fine (up to $500,000) to imprisonment (up to 10 years) (s. 60 AHRA).

In Canada, the criminal ban on gene editing appears clear, the Act states that “No person shall knowingly […] alter the genome of a cell of a human being or in vitro embryo such that the alteration is capable of being transmitted to descendants;” [emphases mine] (s. 5(1)(f) AHRA). This approach is not shared worldwide as other countries such as the United Kingdom, take a more regulatory approach to gene editing research.1 Indeed, as noted by the Law Reform Commission of Canada in 1982, criminal law should be ‘an instrument of last resort’ used solely for “conduct which is culpable, seriously harmful, and generally conceived of as deserving of punishment”.6 A criminal ban is a suboptimal policy tool for science as it is inflexible, stifles public debate, and hinders responsiveness to the evolving nature of science and societal attitudes.7 In contrast, a moratorium such as the self-imposed research moratorium on human germ line editing called for by scientists in December 20158 can at least allow for a time limited pause. But like bans, they may offer the illusion of finality and safety while halting research required to move forward and validate innovation.

On October 1st, 2016, Health Canada issued a Notice of Intent to develop regulations under the AHRA but this effort is limited to safety and payment issues (i.e. gamete donation). Today, there is a need for Canada to revisit the laws and policies that address the ethical, legal and social implications of human gene editing. The goal of such a critical move in Canada’s scientific and legal history would be a discussion of the right of Canadians to benefit from the advancement of science and its applications as promulgated in article 27 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights9 and article 15(b) of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights,10 which Canada has signed and ratified. Such an approach would further ensure the freedom of scientific endeavour both as a principle of a liberal democracy and as a social good, while allowing Canada to be engaged with the international scientific community.

Even though it’s a bit old, I still recommend reading the open access editorial in full, if you have the time.

One last thing abut the paper, the acknowledgements,

Sponsored by Canada’s Stem Cell Network, the Centre of Genomics and Policy of McGill University convened a ‘think tank’ on the future of human gene editing in Canada with legal and ethics experts as well as representatives and observers from government in Ottawa (August 31, 2016). The experts were Patrick Bedford, Janetta Bijl, Timothy Caulfield, Judy Illes, Rosario Isasi, Jonathan Kimmelman, Erika Kleiderman, Bartha Maria Knoppers, Eric Meslin, Cate Murray, Ubaka Ogbogu, Vardit Ravitsky, Michael Rudnicki, Stephen Strauss, Philip Welford, and Susan Zimmerman. The observers were Geneviève Dubois-Flynn, Danika Goosney, Peter Monette, Kyle Norrie, and Anthony Ridgway.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Both McGill and the Stem Cell Network pop up again. A November 8, 2017 article about the need for new Canadian gene-editing policies by Tom Blackwell for the National Post features some familiar names (Did someone have a budget for public relations and promotion?),

It’s one of the most exciting, and controversial, areas of health science today: new technology that can alter the genetic content of cells, potentially preventing inherited disease — or creating genetically enhanced humans.

But Canada is among the few countries in the world where working with the CRISPR gene-editing system on cells whose DNA can be passed down to future generations is a criminal offence, with penalties of up to 10 years in jail.

This week, one major science group announced it wants that changed, calling on the federal government to lift the prohibition and allow researchers to alter the genome of inheritable “germ” cells and embryos.

The potential of the technology is huge and the theoretical risks like eugenics or cloning are overplayed, argued a panel of the Stem Cell Network.

The step would be a “game-changer,” said Bartha Knoppers, a health-policy expert at McGill University, in a presentation to the annual Till & McCulloch Meetings of stem-cell and regenerative-medicine researchers [These meetings were originally known as the Stem Cell Network’s Annual General Meeting {AGM}]. [emphases mine]

“I’m completely against any modification of the human genome,” said the unidentified meeting attendee. “If you open this door, you won’t ever be able to close it again.”

If the ban is kept in place, however, Canadian scientists will fall further behind colleagues in other countries, say the experts behind the statement say; they argue possible abuses can be prevented with good ethical oversight.

“It’s a human-reproduction law, it was never meant to ban and slow down and restrict research,” said Vardit Ravitsky, a University of Montreal bioethicist who was part of the panel. “It’s a sort of historical accident … and now our hands are tied.”

There are fears, as well, that CRISPR could be used to create improved humans who are genetically programmed to have certain facial or other features, or that the editing could have harmful side effects. Regardless, none of it is happening in Canada, good or bad.

In fact, the Stem Cell Network panel is arguably skirting around the most contentious applications of the technology. It says it is asking the government merely to legalize research for its own sake on embryos and germ cells — those in eggs and sperm — not genetic editing of embryos used to actually get women pregnant.

The highlighted portions in the last two paragraphs of the excerpt were written one year prior to the claims by a Chinese scientist that he had run a clinical trial resulting in gene-edited twins, Lulu and Nana. (See my my November 28, 2018 posting for a comprehensive overview of the original furor). I have yet to publish a followup posting featuring the news that the CRISPR twins may have been ‘improved’ more extensively than originally realized. The initial reports about the twins focused on an illness-related reason (making them HIV ‘immune’) but made no mention of enhanced cognitive skills a side effect of eliminating the gene that would make them HIV ‘immune’. To date, the researcher has not made the bulk of his data available for an in-depth analysis to support his claim that he successfully gene-edited the twins. As well, there were apparently seven other pregnancies coming to term as part of the researcher’s clinical trial and there has been no news about those births.

Risk analysis innovation

Before moving onto the innovation of risk analysis, I want to focus a little more on at least one of the risks that gene-editing might present. Gierczak noted that CRISPR/Cas9 is “not perfect,” which acknowledges the truth but doesn’t convey all that much information.

While the terms ‘precision’ and ‘scissors’ are used frequently when describing the CRISPR technique, scientists actually mean that the technique is significantly ‘more precise’ than other techniques but they are not referencing an engineering level of precision. As for the ‘scissors’, it’s an analogy scientists like to use but in fact CRISPR is not as efficient and precise as a pair of scissors.

Michael Le Page in a July 16, 2018 article for New Scientist lays out some of the issues (Note: A link has been removed),

A study of CRIPSR suggests we shouldn’t rush into trying out CRISPR genome editing inside people’s bodies just yet. The technique can cause big deletions or rearrangements of DNA [emphasis mine], says Allan Bradley of the Wellcome Sanger Institute in the UK, meaning some therapies based on CRISPR may not be quite as safe as we thought.

The CRISPR genome editing technique is revolutionising biology, enabling us to create new varieties of plants and animals and develop treatments for a wide range of diseases.

The CRISPR Cas9 protein works by cutting the DNA of a cell in a specific place. When the cell repairs the damage, a few DNA letters get changed at this spot – an effect that can be exploited to disable genes.

At least, that’s how it is supposed to work. But in studies of mice and human cells, Bradley’s team has found that in around a fifth of cells, CRISPR causes deletions or rearrangements more than 100 DNA letters long. These surprising changes are sometimes thousands of letters long.

“I do believe the findings are robust,” says Gaetan Burgio of the Australian National University, an expert on CRISPR who has debunked previous studies questioning the method’s safety. “This is a well-performed study and fairly significant.”

I covered the Bradley paper and the concerns in a July 17, 2018 posting ‘The CRISPR ((clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats)-CAS9 gene-editing technique may cause new genetic damage kerfuffle‘. (The ‘kerfufle’ was in reference to a report that the CRISPR market was affected by the publication of Bradley’s paper.)

Despite Health Canada not moving swiftly enough for some researchers, they have nonetheless managed to release an ‘outcome’ report about a consultation/analysis started in October 2016. Before getting to the consultation’s outcome, it’s interesting to look at how the consultation’s call for response was described (from Health Canada’s Toward a strengthened Assisted Human Reproduction Act ; A Consultation with Canadians on Key Policy Proposals webpage),

In October 2016, recognizing the need to strengthen the regulatory framework governing assisted human reproduction in Canada, Health Canada announced its intention to bring into force the dormant sections of the Assisted Human Reproduction Act  and to develop the necessary supporting regulations.

This consultation document provides an overview of the key policy proposals that will help inform the development of regulations to support bringing into force Section 10, Section 12 and Sections 45-58 of the Act. Specifically, the policy proposals describe the Department’s position on the following:

Section 10: Safety of Donor Sperm and Ova

  • Scope and application
  • Regulated parties and their regulatory obligations
  • Processing requirements, including donor suitability assessment
  • Record-keeping and traceability

Section 12: Reimbursement

  • Expenditures that may be reimbursed
  • Process for reimbursement
  • Creation and maintenance of records

Sections 45-58: Administration and Enforcement

  • Scope of the administration and enforcement framework
  • Role of inspectors designated under the Act

The purpose of the document is to provide Canadians with an opportunity to review the policy proposals and to provide feedback [emphasis mine] prior to the Department finalizing policy decisions and developing the regulations. In addition to requesting stakeholders’ general feedback on the policy proposals, the Department is also seeking input on specific questions, which are included throughout the document.

It took me a while to find the relevant section (in particular, take note of ‘Federal Regulatory Oversight’),

3.2. AHR in Canada Today

Today, an increasing number of Canadians are turning to AHR technologies to grow or build their families. A 2012 Canadian studyFootnote 1 found that infertility is on the rise in Canada, with roughly 16% of heterosexual couples experiencing infertility. In addition to rising infertility, the trend of delaying marriage and parenthood, scientific advances in cryopreserving ova, and the increasing use of AHR by LGBTQ2 couples and single parents to build a family are all contributing to an increase in the use of AHR technologies.

The growing use of reproductive technologies by Canadians to help build their families underscores the need to strengthen the AHR Act. While the approach to regulating AHR varies from country to country, Health Canada has considered international best practices and the need for regulatory alignment when developing the proposed policies set out in this document. …

3.2.1 Federal Regulatory Oversight

Although the scope of the AHR Act was significantly reduced in 2012 and some of the remaining sections have not yet been brought into force, there are many important sections of the Act that are currently administered and enforced by Health Canada, as summarized generally below:

Section 5: Prohibited Scientific and Research Procedures
Section 5 prohibits certain types of scientific research and clinical procedures that are deemed unacceptable, including: human cloning, the creation of an embryo for non-reproductive purposes, maintaining an embryo outside the human body beyond the fourteenth day, sex selection for non-medical reasons, altering the genome in a way that could be transmitted to descendants, and creating a chimera or a hybrid. [emphasis mine]

….

It almost seems as if the they were hiding the section that broached the human gene-editing question. It doesn’t seem to have worked as it appears, there are some very motivated parties determined to reframe the discussion. Health Canada’s ‘outocme’ report, published March 2019, What we heard: A summary of scanning and consultations on what’s next for health product regulation reflects the success of those efforts,

1.0 Introduction and Context

Scientific and technological advances are accelerating the pace of innovation. These advances are increasingly leading to the development of health products that are better able to predict, define, treat, and even cure human diseases. Globally, many factors are driving regulators to think about how to enable health innovation. To this end, Health Canada has been expanding beyond existing partnerships and engaging both domestically and internationally. This expanding landscape of products and services comes with a range of new challenges and opportunities.

In keeping up to date with emerging technologies and working collaboratively through strategic partnerships, Health Canada seeks to position itself as a regulator at the forefront of health innovation. Following the targeted sectoral review of the Health and Biosciences Sector Regulatory Review consultation by the Treasury Board Secretariat, Health Canada held a number of targeted meetings with a broad range of stakeholders.

This report outlines the methodologies used to look ahead at the emerging health technology environment, [emphasis mine] the potential areas of focus that resulted, and the key findings from consultations.

… the Department identified the following key drivers that are expected to shape the future of health innovation:

  1. The use of “big data” to inform decision-making: Health systems are generating more data, and becoming reliant on this data. The increasing accuracy, types, and volume of data available in real time enable automation and machine learning that can forecast activity, behaviour, or trends to support decision-making.
  2. Greater demand for citizen agency: Canadians increasingly want and have access to more information, resources, options, and platforms to manage their own health (e.g., mobile apps, direct-to-consumer services, decentralization of care).
  3. Increased precision and personalization in health care delivery: Diagnostic tools and therapies are increasingly able to target individual patients with customized therapies (e.g., individual gene therapy).
  4. Increased product complexity: Increasingly complex products do not fit well within conventional product classifications and standards (e.g., 3D printing).
  5. Evolving methods for production and distribution: In some cases, manufacturers and supply chains are becoming more distributed, challenging the current framework governing production and distribution of health products.
  6. The ways in which evidence is collected and used are changing: The processes around new drug innovation, research and development, and designing clinical trials are evolving in ways that are more flexible and adaptive.

With these key drivers in mind, the Department selected the following six emerging technologies for further investigation to better understand how the health product space is evolving:

  1. Artificial intelligence, including activities such as machine learning, neural networks, natural language processing, and robotics.
  2. Advanced cell therapies, such as individualized cell therapies tailor-made to address specific patient needs.
  3. Big data, from sources such as sensors, genetic information, and social media that are increasingly used to inform patient and health care practitioner decisions.
  4. 3D printing of health products (e.g., implants, prosthetics, cells, tissues).
  5. New ways of delivering drugs that bring together different product lines and methods (e.g., nano-carriers, implantable devices).
  6. Gene editing, including individualized gene therapies that can assist in preventing and treating certain diseases.

Next, to test the drivers identified and further investigate emerging technologies, the Department consulted key organizations and thought leaders across the country with expertise in health innovation. To this end, Health Canada held seven workshops with over 140 representatives from industry associations, small-to-medium sized enterprises and start-ups, larger multinational companies, investors, researchers, and clinicians in Ottawa, Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver. [emphases mine]

The ‘outocme’ report, ‘What we heard …’, is well worth reading in its entirety; it’s about 9 pp.

I have one comment, ‘stakeholders’ don’t seem to include anyone who isn’t “from industry associations, small-to-medium sized enterprises and start-ups, larger multinational companies, investors, researchers, and clinician” or from “Ottawa, Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver.” Aren’t the rest of us stakeholders?

Innovating risk analysis

This line in the report caught my eye (from Health Canada’s Toward a strengthened Assisted Human Reproduction Act ; A Consultation with Canadians on Key Policy Proposals webpage),

There is increasing need to enable innovation in a flexible, risk-based way, with appropriate oversight to ensure safety, quality, and efficacy. [emphases mine]

It reminded me of the 2019 federal budget (from my March 22, 2019 posting). One comment before proceeding, regulation and risk are tightly linked and, so, by innovating regulation they are by exttension alos innovating risk analysis,

… Budget 2019 introduces the first three “Regulatory Roadmaps” to specifically address stakeholder issues and irritants in these sectors, informed by over 140 responses [emphasis mine] from businesses and Canadians across the country, as well as recommendations from the Economic Strategy Tables.

Introducing Regulatory Roadmaps

These Roadmaps lay out the Government’s plans to modernize regulatory frameworks, without compromising our strong health, safety, and environmental protections. They contain proposals for legislative and regulatory amendments as well as novel regulatory approaches to accommodate emerging technologies, including the use of regulatory sandboxes and pilot projects—better aligning our regulatory frameworks with industry realities.

Budget 2019 proposes the necessary funding and legislative revisions so that regulatory departments and agencies can move forward on the Roadmaps, including providing the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, Health Canada and Transport Canada with up to $219.1 million over five years, starting in 2019–20, (with $0.5 million in remaining amortization), and $3.1 million per year on an ongoing basis.

In the coming weeks, the Government will be releasing the full Regulatory Roadmaps for each of the reviews, as well as timelines for enacting specific initiatives, which can be grouped in the following three main areas:

What Is a Regulatory Sandbox? Regulatory sandboxes are controlled “safe spaces” in which innovative products, services, business models and delivery mechanisms can be tested without immediately being subject to all of the regulatory requirements.
– European Banking Authority, 2017

Establishing a regulatory sandbox for new and innovative medical products
The regulatory approval system has not kept up with new medical technologies and processes. Health Canada proposes to modernize regulations to put in place a regulatory sandbox for new and innovative products, such as tissues developed through 3D printing, artificial intelligence, and gene therapies targeted to specific individuals. [emphasis mine]

Modernizing the regulation of clinical trials
Industry and academics have expressed concerns that regulations related to clinical trials are overly prescriptive and inconsistent. Health Canada proposes to implement a risk-based approach [emphasis mine] to clinical trials to reduce costs to industry and academics by removing unnecessary requirements for low-risk drugs and trials. The regulations will also provide the agri-food industry with the ability to carry out clinical trials within Canada on products such as food for special dietary use and novel foods.

Does the government always get 140 responses from a consultation process? Moving on, I agree with finding new approaches to regulatory processes and oversight and, by extension, new approaches to risk analysis.

Earlier in this post, I asked if someone had a budget for public relations/promotion. I wasn’t joking. My March 22, 2019 posting also included these line items in the proposed 2019 budget,

Budget 2019 proposes to make additional investments in support of the following organizations:
Stem Cell Network: Stem cell research—pioneered by two Canadians in the 1960s [James Till and Ernest McCulloch]—holds great promise for new therapies and medical treatments for respiratory and heart diseases, spinal cord injury, cancer, and many other diseases and disorders. The Stem Cell Network is a national not-for-profit organization that helps translate stem cell research into clinical applications and commercial products. To support this important work and foster Canada’s leadership in stem cell research, Budget 2019 proposes to provide the Stem Cell Network with renewed funding of $18 million over three years, starting in 2019–20.

Genome Canada: The insights derived from genomics—the study of the entire genetic information of living things encoded in their DNA and related molecules and proteins—hold the potential for breakthroughs that can improve the lives of Canadians and drive innovation and economic growth. Genome Canada is a not-for-profit organization dedicated to advancing genomics science and technology in order to create economic and social benefits for Canadians. To support Genome Canada’s operations, Budget 2019 proposes to provide Genome Canada with $100.5 million over five years, starting in 2020–21. This investment will also enable Genome Canada to launch new large-scale research competitions and projects, in collaboration with external partners, ensuring that Canada’s research community continues to have access to the resources needed to make transformative scientific breakthroughs and translate these discoveries into real-world applications.

Years ago, I managed to find a webpage with all of the proposals various organizations were submitting to a government budget committee. It was eye-opening. You can tell which organizations were able to hire someone who knew the current government buzzwords and the things that a government bureaucrat would want to hear and the organizations that didn’t.

Of course, if the government of the day is adamantly against or uninterested, no amount of persusasion will work to get your organization more money in the budget.

Finally

Reluctantly, I am inclined to explore the topic of emerging technologies such as gene-editing not only in the field of agriculture (for gene-editing of plants, fish, and animals see my November 28, 2018 posting) but also with humans. At the very least, it needs to be discussed whether we choose to participate or not.

If you are interested in the arguments against changing Canada’s prohibition against gene-editing of humans, there’s an Ocotber 2, 2017 posting on Impact Ethics by Françoise Baylis, Professor and Canada Research Chair in Bioethics and Philosophy at Dalhousie University, and Alana Cattapan, Johnson Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy at the University of Saskatchewan, which makes some compelling arguments. Of course, it was written before the CRISPR twins (my November 28, 2018 posting).

Recaliing CRISPR Therapeutics (mentioned by Gierczak), the company received permission to run clinical trials in the US in October 2018 after the FDA (US Food and Drug Administration) lifted an earlier ban on their trials according to an Oct. 10, 2018 article by Frank Vinhuan for exome,

The partners also noted that their therapy is making progress outside of the U.S. They announced that they have received regulatory clearance in “multiple countries” to begin tests of the experimental treatment in both sickle cell disease and beta thalassemia, …

It seems to me that the quotes around “multiple countries” are meant to suggest doubt of some kind. Generally speaking, company representatives make those kinds of generalizations when they’re trying to pump up their copy. E.g., 50% increase in attendance  but no whole numbers to tell you what that means. It could mean two people attended the first year and then brought a friend the next year or 100 people attended and the next year there were 150.

Despite attempts to declare personalized medicine as having arrived, I think everything is still in flux with no preordained outcome. The future has yet to be determined but it will be and I , for one, would like to have some say in the matter.

Science and the 2019 Canadian federal government budget

There’s been a lot of noise about how the 2019 Canadian federal government budget is designed to please the various constituencies that helped bring the Liberal party back into power in 2015 and which the Liberals are hoping will help re-elect them later in 2019. I don’t care about that, for me, it’s all about the science.

In general, it seems the budget excitement is a bit milder than usual and some of that possibly due to the SNC-Lavalin (a huge Canadian engineering and construction firm) scandal resulting in the loss of two cabinet ministers, Trudeau’s top personal/political advisor, and Canada’s top bureaucrat; a 3rd reshuffling of Trudeau’s cabinet in less than three months; and the kind of political theatrics from the Liberals, the Conservatives, and the NDP (New Democratic Party) that I associate more strongly with our neighbours to the south. .

(As for the SNC-Lavalin mess which includes allegations of political interference on behalf of a company accused of various offences, you might find this brief March 11, 2019 article by David Ljunggren for Reuters insightful as it reviews the response from abroad, specifically, the OECD [Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. For anyone who wants an overview and timeline of the crisis, there’s this March 10, 2019 news item on Huffington Post Canada and, for context, there’s this March 10, 2019 video report (roughly 3 mins.) on SNC-Lavalin’s long history of corruption by Daniel Tencer for Huffington Post Canada. )

In any event, it’s a been a very busy first quarter for 2019 and the science funding portion of the budget holds a few rays of light but in the main, the science funding portion suggests the government is treading water (term to describe a swimmer who is keeping their head above water and staying in place while being vertical). As for the rest of the 2019 budget, I leave to experience political pundits.

Let’s start with the sections that gladdened my heart, just a little.

Rays of light

We’re in Chapter 2 of the 2019 federal budget, in Part 5: Building a Nation of Innovators; Bringing Innovation to Regulations, and I’m happy to see this, as I think it’s absolutely essential that we become more innovative with regulations when emerging technologies pose new challenges at an ever increasing pace (Note: The formatting has been changed),

Simply put, regulations are rules that stipulate how businesses must operate. When they are effective, they contribute to the protection of health, safety, security and the environment. They also support innovation, productivity and competition by establishing the rules for fair markets and a predictable environment for businesses, reducing barriers to trade and fostering new investment. While the OECD [Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development] Regulatory Policy Outlook (2018) has again ranked Canada in the top five jurisdictions on many key measures of regulatory governance, recent reports from panels convened to advise the Government, such as the Advisory Council on Economic Growth and the Economic Strategy Tables, have called for Canada to take steps to change how we design and administer regulations. The Government is responding.

In Budget 2018, the Government announced its intention to review regulatory requirements and practices that impede innovation and growth in the following high-growth sectors:

Agri-food and aquaculture.
Health and bio-sciences.
Transportation and infrastructure.

The 2018 Fall Economic Statement continued this work, proposing additional ways to reform and modernize federal regulations, with an emphasis on making it easier for businesses to grow while continuing to protect Canadians’ health and safety and the environment. As a next step, Budget 2019 introduces the first three “Regulatory Roadmaps” to specifically address stakeholder issues and irritants in these sectors, informed by over 140 responses from businesses and Canadians across the country, as well as recommendations from the Economic Strategy Tables.

Introducing Regulatory Roadmaps

These Roadmaps lay out the Government’s plans to modernize regulatory frameworks, without compromising our strong health, safety, and environmental protections. They contain proposals for legislative and regulatory amendments as well as novel regulatory approaches to accommodate emerging technologies, including the use of regulatory sandboxes and pilot projects—better aligning our regulatory frameworks with industry realities.

Budget 2019 proposes the necessary funding and legislative revisions so that regulatory departments and agencies can move forward on the Roadmaps, including providing the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, Health Canada and Transport Canada with up to $219.1 million over five years, starting in 2019–20, (with $0.5 million in remaining amortization), and $3.1 million per year on an ongoing basis.

In the coming weeks, the Government will be releasing the full Regulatory Roadmaps for each of the reviews, as well as timelines for enacting specific initiatives, which can be grouped in the following three main areas:

What Is a Regulatory Sandbox? Regulatory sandboxes are controlled “safe spaces” in which innovative products, services, business models and delivery mechanisms can be tested without immediately being subject to all of the regulatory requirements.
– European Banking Authority, 2017

1. Creating a user-friendly regulatory system:
The Roadmaps propose a more user-friendly regulatory system, including the use of more digital services (e.g. online portals, electronic templates), and clearer guidance for industry so that innovative and safe products are available for Canadians more quickly.

2. Using novel or experimental approaches:
The Roadmaps propose greater exploration, innovation, and the use of sandboxes and pilot programs for new and innovative products. This will allow these products to be approved for use in a risk-based and flexible way—encouraging ongoing innovation while continuing to protect Canadians’ health and safety, and the environment.

3. Facilitating greater cooperation and reducing duplication:
The Roadmaps propose greater alignment and coordination within the federal government and across Canadian and international jurisdictions.

Real Improvements for Business

Digitizing Canadian Food Inspection Agency services
The Canadian Food Inspection Agency currently relies on a paper-based system for issuing export certificates. As a result, Canadian exporters are required to submit forms by mail and wait for those forms to be returned prior to exporting their products. When Canadian firms are allowed to complete the application process online and have their reviewed forms returned electronically, Canadian business owners will be able to export their products more rapidly.

Updating the Canadian grains legislative and regulatory frameworks
The Canada Grain Act has not been substantially updated in decades, and its requirements are not aligned with current market realities. A broad-based review of the Act, and of the operations of the Canadian Grain Commission, will be undertaken to address a number of issues raised by the Canadian grain industry, including redundant inspections and issues within the current grain classification process that unnecessarily restrict Canadian grain exporters.

Establishing a regulatory sandbox for new and innovative medical products
The regulatory approval system has not kept up with new medical technologies and processes. Health Canada proposes to modernize regulations to put in place a regulatory sandbox for new and innovative products, such as tissues developed through 3D printing, artificial intelligence, and gene therapies targeted to specific individuals.

Modernizing the regulation of clinical trials
Industry and academics have expressed concerns that regulations related to clinical trials are overly prescriptive and inconsistent. Health Canada proposes to implement a risk-based approach to clinical trials to reduce costs to industry and academics by removing unnecessary requirements for low-risk drugs and trials. The regulations will also provide the agri-food industry with the ability to carry out clinical trials within Canada on products such as food for special dietary use and novel foods.

Enhancing the road safety transfer payment program
Road safety and transportation requirements vary among Canadian provinces and territories, creating barriers and inefficiencies for businesses that transport goods by road. Transport Canada will support provinces and territories in working towards improved alignment of these requirements, including for the use of autonomous and connected vehicles. Funding would be made available to other stakeholders, such as academia and industry associations, to identify innovative road safety options, including for emerging technologies.

Introducing a regulatory sandbox for dangerous goods electronic shipping documents
Currently, shipments of dangerous goods in Canada must be accompanied by paper documentation which can be burdensome and inefficient for businesses. Under this initiative, Transport Canada would work with industry, American counterparts and provincial/territorial jurisdictions to identify options for the sharing of shipping documents by electronic means, based on existing technologies.

Removing federal barriers to the interprovincial trade of alcohol
To facilitate internal trade, the Government intends to remove the federal requirement that alcohol moving from one province to another be sold or consigned to a provincial liquor authority. Provinces and territories would continue to be able to regulate the sale and distribution of alcohol within their boundaries.

To ensure that these Roadmaps can be implemented in a timely manner, Budget 2019 proposes to provide up to $67.8 million over five years, starting in 2019–20, for Justice Canada resources. These funds will strengthen the Government’s capacity to draft the legislative and regulatory changes needed to facilitate a new approach to regulations in these sectors and others.

Harmonizing Regulations
When regulations are more consistent between jurisdictions, Canadian companies are better able to trade within Canada and beyond, while also giving Canadian consumers greater choice. The Government is working with provinces and territories to better harmonize regulations across provincial and territorial boundaries, opening up the door to more seamless internal trade. Canada also has an opportunity to harmonize regulations with its international trading partners, making Canada an even more attractive place to invest in and grow a business. The Government does this through a number of regulatory cooperation bodies, for example, the Canadian Free Trade Agreement Regulatory Reconciliation and Cooperation Table, the Canada-U.S. Regulatory Cooperation Council and the Regulatory Cooperation Forum of the Canada-European Union Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement.  

Budget 2019 proposes to provide $3.1 million per year in ongoing funding to the Treasury Board Secretariat, starting in 2020–21, to support its leadership of the Government’s regulatory cooperation priorities at home and abroad.

Modernizing Regulations
In the 2018 Fall Economic Statement, the Government announced its plan to introduce an annual modernization bill consisting of legislative amendments to various statutes to help eliminate outdated federal regulations and better keep existing regulations up to date. In Budget 2019, the Government proposes to introduce legislation to begin this work. Work also continues to identify opportunities to make regulatory efficiency and economic growth a permanent part of regulators’ mandates, while continuing to prioritize health and safety and environmental responsibilities.

As part of these ongoing efforts, the President of Treasury Board will announce shortly the establishment of an External Advisory Committee on Regulatory Competitiveness, which will bring together business leaders, academics and consumer representatives from across the country, to help identify opportunities to streamline regulations and for novel regulatory approaches as well as to advise the Government on other sectors for consideration in the next round of regulatory reviews. 

Safe Food for Canadians Regulations
A recent regulatory modernization success is related to the coming into force of the new Safe Food for Canadians Regulations in January 2019.These modern regulations apply across all sectors and have introduced an outcomes-based approach to food safety regulations.

The other ‘ray of light’ concerns high speed internet access. Interestingly, some of the text about high speed access echoes faintly echoes descriptions of Estonia’s perspective on this issue. (Note: Canada’s Treasury Board signed a memorandum of understanding with Estonia in May 2018 as per this May 29, 2018 article by Silver Tambur for estonian world (how estonians see it),

Canada and Estonia have signed a memorandum of understanding on digital cooperation, aiming to work together on joint projects.

The new partnership was signed during the Estonian prime minister, Jüri Ratas’s, visit to Ottawa on 28 May [2018]. Welcomed by his Canadian counterpart, Justin Trudeau, Ratas became the first Estonian prime minister to make an official visit to Canada.

Both countries already share a membership of Digital 7 – a network of leading digital governments, currently comprising Canada, Estonia, Israel, New Zealand, South Korea, United Kingdom and Uruguay. The group is seeking to harness digital technology and improve digital services for the benefit of its citizens.[emphasis mine]

Under the new cooperation agreement between Canada and Estonia, both countries will work together on joint projects, the exchange of experts and other ways to share good practices as well as concrete digital solutions to advance these priorities.

Of course, there’s no point to improving digital services for citizens who do not have high speed internet or much of any kind of connectivity, as the Estonians must have realized fairly early on. This excerpt from an Estonian tourist website has a scrap of text that bears a resemblance to text in the Canadian 2019 budget (from the homepage of visit estonia),

“e-Estonia”, the E is for electronic, has become the go to tag to describe Estonia’s immensely successful love affair with all things networked and digitised.

Country wide enthusiasm for the efficiency of E has enthralled both citizens and policymakers alike. Estonian programmers have been behind the creation of digital brands such as Skype, Hotmail and more recently Transferwise (a online currency converter which has attracted investment from the likes of Richard Branson). Estonia has declared internet access a human right, [emphasis mine] it has a thriving IT start up culture and has digitally streamlined an unprecedented number of public services for citizens and businesses.

The roots of this revolution began in 1991, the year of Estonian independence, Estonian policy makers were given the rare gift of a bureaucratic clean slate. Placing their faith in the burgeoning possibilities of the internet and value of innovation, they steered the country into a position where it could leapfrog to become one of the most advanced e-societies in the world.

Now, here’s what the 2019 federal budget had to say bout connectivity in Canada (from Chapter 2; Part 3: Connecting Canadians), Note: Formatting has been changed),

Access to High-Speed Internet for All Canadians

In 2019, fast and reliable internet access is no longer a luxury—it’s a necessity. [emphasis mine]

For public institutions, entrepreneurs, and businesses of all sizes, quality high-speed internet is essential to participating in the digital economy—opening doors to customers who live just down the street or on the other side of the world. It is also important in the lives of Canadians. It lets students and young people do their homework, stay in touch with their friends, and apply for their very first jobs. It helps busy families register for recreational programs, shop online and pay their bills and access essential services. For many seniors, the internet is a way to stay up on current events and stay connected to distant family members and friends.

Canadians have a strong tradition of embracing new technologies, and using them to help generate long-term economic growth and drive social progress. In recent years, Canada and Canadian companies built mobile wireless networks that are among the fastest in the world and made investments that are delivering next-generation digital technologies and services to people and communities across the country. Yet, unfortunately, many Canadians still remain without reliable, high-speed internet access. In this time in the 21st Century, this is unacceptable.

How We Will Achieve a Fully Connected Canada

Delivering universal high-speed internet to every Canadian in the quickest and most cost-effective way will require a coordinated effort involving partners in the private sector and across all levels of government. To meet this commitment, Budget 2019 is proposing a new, coordinated plan that would deliver $5 billion to $6 billion in new investments in rural broadband over the next 10 years:

Support through the Accelerated Investment Incentive to encourage greater investments in rural high-speed internet from the private sector.
Greater coordination with provinces, territories, and federal arm’s-length institutions, such as the CRTC and its $750 million rural/remote broadband fund.
Securing advanced Low Earth Orbit satellite capacity to serve the most rural and remote regions of Canada.
New investments in the Connect to Innovate program and introduction of the Government’s new Universal Broadband Fund.
New investments by the Canada Infrastructure Bank to further leverage private sector investment.

Or, you could describe internet access as a human right. Whether you like it or not, it seems, short of a planetary disaster, internet access will be almost as important as food, water, and air.

This next ‘ray of light’ is a bit of a mixed bag, from Paul Wells’s March 19, 2019 article for Maclean’s,

… There’s $2.2 billion, refreshingly free of attached strings, in “much needed infrastructure funds” right now, this year.

Why infrastructure funds would still be “much needed,” four years into the tenure of the third prime minister in a row to make infrastructure spending a personal priority, is an interesting question for another day.

I’m hoping that at least some of this money is going to address the government’s digital infrastructure and I don’t understand any more than Paul Wells does as to why we’d still be talking about infrastructure. Stephen Harper’s Conservative government was in place for almost 10 years and Trudeau’s government for almost four years now (I don’t include Paul Martin’s government as that was fairly short lived) and with both of these prime ministers touting infrastructure, what’s taking so much time?

I hope some of this money is being dedicated to replacing the government’s dangerously aging digital infrastructure. I included some excerpts from an excellent article by James Bagnall on the state of the government’s digital infrastructure in my March 19, 2019 posting (scroll down about 15% of the way), which is a commentary on the Chief Science Advisor’s Office (CSO) 2018 annual report. Bagnall’s description is shocking and when I looked at the CSO’s 2018 report and saw that approximately 80% of the digital infrastructure for government science is conducted facilities that are between 50 and 25 years old with, presumably, similarly aged hardware and software, I couldn’t help but wonder when the Canadian government digital armageddon would occur.

I dug further into the 2019 budget and in Chapter Four, Part Six: Better Government found no mention of their digital infrastructure or of monies allocated to replacing any or all of the digital infrastructure. (sigh)

More happily, there was some reference to the Phoenix payroll system debacle and attempts to rectify the situation,

Ensuring Proper Payment for Public Servants

Canada’s public servants work hard in service of all Canadians and deserve to be paid properly and on time for their important work. The Phoenix pay system for federal public servants was originally intended to save money, however, since its launch it has resulted in unacceptable pay inaccuracies—resulting in hardships for public servants across the country. Serious issues and challenges with the pay system continue, and too many of Canada’s public servants are not being properly paid, or are waiting for their pay issues to be resolved.

To continue progress on stabilizing the current pay system, Budget 2019 provides an additional $21.7 million in 2018–19 to address urgent pay administration pressures (partially sourced from existing departmental funds), and proposes to invest an additional $523.3 million over five years, starting in 2019–20, to ensure that adequate resources are dedicated to addressing payroll errors. This investment will also support system improvements, to reduce the likelihood of errors occurring in the first place.

To ensure that the Canada Revenue Agency is able to quickly and accurately process income tax reassessments for federal government employees that are required due to Phoenix pay issues, and to support related telephone enquiries, Budget 2019 proposes to provide the Agency with an additional $9.2 million in 2019–20.

While the Phoenix pay system has been underpaying some public servants, it has also been paying others too much. Under current legislation, any employee who received an overpayment in a previous year is required to pay back the gross amount of this overpayment to their employer. The employee must recover from the Canada Revenue Agency the excess income tax, Canada Pension Plan contributions and Employment Insurance premiums that were deducted by their employer when the overpayment was made. On January 15, 2019, the Government proposed legislative amendments that would allow overpaid employees working in both the public and private sectors to repay their employer only the net amount they received after these deductions. The proposed amendments are intended to alleviate the burden faced by employees who were required to make repayments larger than the amounts they received from their employer, creating uncertainty and potential financial hardship.

Moving Toward the Next Generation Pay System for the Federal Public Service

In Budget 2018, the Government announced its intention to move away from the Phoenix pay system toward one better aligned to the complexity of the Government’s pay structure and to the future needs of Canada’s world-class public service.

Working cooperatively with experts, federal public sector unions, employees, pay specialists and technology providers, the Treasury Board Secretariat (TBS) launched a process to review lessons learned, and identify options for a next-generation pay solution.

As part of this process, pay system suppliers were invited to demonstrate possible solutions, which were directly tested with users. Based on feedback from users and participating stakeholders, TBS has been able to identify options with the potential to successfully replace the Phoenix pay system. As a next step, the Government will work with suppliers and stakeholders to develop the best options, including pilot projects that will allow for further testing with select departments and agencies, while assessing the ability of suppliers to deliver.

Finally, TBS will continue to engage public servants throughout this process, to ensure that their feedback is fully reflected in any future solution.

Interestingly, at the time of James Bagnoll’s article (excerpt in my March 19, 2019 posting), the only government data centre being replaced was Revenue Canada’s. It suggests that anything else can fall to pieces but the government should always be able to collect tax.

Getting back to my more cheerful and optimistic self, on balance, it’s encouraging to see thoughtful approaches to modernizing our regulatory system.

Treading water

There’s more to the’ 2019 commitment to science (from the 2019 budget’s Chapter 2; Part 6: Building Research Excellence in Canada: Support for Science, Research and Technology Organizations),

Canada is home to world-leading non-profit organizations that undertake research and bring together experts from diverse backgrounds to make discoveries, accelerate innovation and tackle health challenges. The Government helps support these collaborative efforts with targeted investments that return real economic and social benefits for Canadians.
Budget 2019 proposes to make additional investments in support of the following organizations:
Stem Cell Network: Stem cell research—pioneered by two Canadians in the 1960s—holds great promise for new therapies and medical treatments for respiratory and heart diseases, spinal cord injury, cancer, and many other diseases and disorders. The Stem Cell Network is a national not-for-profit organization that helps translate stem cell research into clinical applications and commercial products. To support this important work and foster Canada’s leadership in stem cell research, Budget 2019 proposes to provide the Stem Cell Network with renewed funding of $18 million over three years, starting in 2019–20.
Brain Canada Foundation: The Brain Canada Foundation is a national charitable organization that raises funds to foster advances in neuroscience discovery research, with the aim of improving health care for people affected by neurological injury and disease. To help the medical community better understand the brain and brain health, Budget 2019 proposes to provide the Brain Canada Foundation’s Canada Brain Research Fund with up to $40 million over two years, starting in 2020–21. This investment will be matched by funds raised from other non-government partners of the Brain Canada Foundation.
Terry Fox Research Institute: The Terry Fox Research Institute manages the cancer research investments of the Terry Fox Foundation. Budget 2019 proposes to provide the Terry Fox Research Institute with up to $150 million over five years, starting in 2019–20, to help establish a national Marathon of Hope Cancer Centres Network. The Institute would seek matching funding through a combination of its own resources and contributions that it would seek from other organizations,, including hospital and research foundations.
Ovarian Cancer Canada: Ovarian Cancer Canada supports women living with the disease and their families, raises awareness and funds research. Budget 2019 proposes to provide Ovarian Cancer Canada with $10 million over five years beginning in 2019–20 to help address existing gaps in knowledge about effective prevention, screening, and treatment options for ovarian cancer.
Genome Canada: The insights derived from genomics—the study of the entire genetic information of living things encoded in their DNA and related molecules and proteins—hold the potential for breakthroughs that can improve the lives of Canadians and drive innovation and economic growth. Genome Canada is a not-for-profit organization dedicated to advancing genomics science and technology in order to create economic and social benefits for Canadians. To support Genome Canada’s operations, Budget 2019 proposes to provide Genome Canada with $100.5 million over five years, starting in 2020–21. This investment will also enable Genome Canada to launch new large-scale research competitions and projects, in collaboration with external partners, ensuring that Canada’s research community continues to have access to the resources needed to make transformative scientific breakthroughs and translate these discoveries into real-world applications.
Let’s Talk Science: Science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) are not just things we study in school—together, they are transforming all aspects of our lives, and redefining the skills and knowledge people need to succeed in a changing world. Let’s Talk Science engages youth in hands-on STEM activities and learning programs, such as science experiments, helping youth develop critical thinking skills and opening up doors to future study and work in these fields. It also helps ensure more girls—and other groups that are underrepresented in STEM—gain and maintain interest in STEM from an early age. Budget 2019 proposes to provide Let’s Talk Science with $10 million over two years, starting in 2020–21, to support this important work.

There’s nothing earth shattering on that list. Five of these organizations could be described as focused on medical research and I have seen at least three of them mentioned in previous federal budgets. The last organization, Let’s Talk Science (established in 1993), focused on science promotion for children and youth, is being mentioned for the first time in a budget (as far as I know).

In the next section, the budget blesses physics or more specifically, TRIUMF. From the 2019 budget’s Chapter 2; Part 6: Building Research Excellence in Canada: Strengthening Canada’s World-Class physics research,

TRIUMF is a world-class sub-atomic physics research laboratory located in British Columbia, and home to the world’s largest cyclotron particle accelerator. TRIUMF has played a leading role in many medical breakthroughs—such as developing alongside Canadian industrial partners new approaches to the medical imaging of diseases—and brings together industry partners, leading academic researchers and scientists, and graduate students from across Canada and around the world to advance medical isotope production, drug development, cancer therapy, clinical imaging, and radiopharmaceutical research.

Budget 2019 proposes to provide TRIUMF with $195.9 million over five years, starting in 2019–20, to build on its strong track record of achievements. Combined with an additional $96.8 million from the existing resources of the National Research Council, federal support for TRIUMF will total $292.7 million over this five-year period.

When are the folks at the Canadian Light Source (our synchrotron) going to get some love? Year after year it’s either TRIUMF or the Perimeter Institute getting a major infusion of cash. I exaggerate but only mildly.You can find some of my comments on the 2018 federal budget in this March 16, 2018 posting and my comments on the 2017 federal budget in this March 24, 2017 posting.

Maybe one day a ray of light?

Here’s something new but I imagine you’ll quickly see what makes this an odd addition to the budget (from the 2019 budget’s Chapter 2; Part 6: Building Research Excellence in Canada: Taking a new approach With the Strategic Science Fund),

To make federal investments in third-party science and research more effective, Budget 2019 proposes to establish a new Strategic Science Fund. This new Fund will respond to recommendations that arose during consultations with third-party science and research organizations. It will operate using a principles-based framework for allocating federal funding that includes competitive, transparent processes. This will help protect and promote research excellence.

Under the Fund, the principles-based framework will be applied by an independent panel of experts, including scientists and innovators, who will provide advice for the consideration of the Government on approaches to allocating funding for third-party science and research organizations.

Budget 2019 proposes to establish and operate the Strategic Science Fund starting in 2022–23.

This Strategic Science Fund will be the Government’s key new tool to support third-party science and research organizations. Going forward, the selection of recipient organizations and corresponding level of support will be determined through the Fund’s competitive allocation process, with advice from the expert panel and informed by the Minister of Science’s overall strategy. The Minister of Science will provide more detail on the Fund over the coming months.

No money until 2022, eh? That’s interesting given that would be a year before the election (2023) after this one later in 2019. And, it’s anyone’s guess as to which government will be in power. Crossing my fingers again, I hope these good intention bear fruit in light of Daniel Banks’s (of the Canadian Neutron Beam Centre] March 21, 2019 essay (on the Canadian Science Policy Centre website) about the potential new oversight (Note: Prepare yourself for some alphabet soup; the man loves initialisms and sees no reason to include full names),

From a science policy perspective, which is about how science is managed, as well as funded, the biggest change may be one item that had no dollar amount attached.

Budget 2019 announces a “new approach” for funding so-called “third-party science and research.” The Fundamental Science Review defined “third-party science entities” as those operating outside the jurisdiction of NSERC, CIHR, SSHRC, CFI. Genome Canada, Mitacs, and Brain Canada are a few examples.

The Review raised concerns, not with the quality of these organizations’ output, but with how they are each governed as one-offs, via term-limited contribution agreements with ISED. Ad hoc governance arrangements have been needed until now because these organizations don’t fit within the existing programs of the granting councils. Lack of a suitable program required scientists to lobby for funds, rather than participate in peer-reviewed competitions. Over time, the Review warned, this approach could “allow select groups of researchers to sidestep the intensity of peer review competitions, and facilitate unchecked mission drift as third-party partner organizations shift their mandates to justify their continuation.”

The Strategic Science Fund could be a precedent for another portion of the science community that faces similar challenges: so-called Big Science, or Major Research Facilities (MRFs), such as TRIUMF, SNOLAB, Ocean Networks Canada, the Canadian Light Source, and large facilities for astronomy or neutron scattering. In the absence of a systematic means of overseeing Canada’s portfolio of these shared national resources, an array of oversight mechanisms have been created for these facilities on an ad hoc basis, much like the case for third-party research organizations. The Fundamental Science Review was the latest in a string of reports that have pointed problems with this ad hoc approach, stretching back at least 20 years.

Stewardship of Canada’s MRFs has improved following the introduction of the CFI’s Major Science Initiatives Fund in 2012, and the expansion of its mandate to include more facilities under its program in 2014. Nonetheless, there are still many facilities that are not covered by this Fund. No agency has responsibility for the entire portfolio of MRFs to allow it to plan for the creation of new MRFs as others wind-down, or provide predictable funding over the life-cycle of an MRF. Other MRFs still fall through jurisdictional cracks, where no federal agency is clearly responsible for them. Such jurisdictional cracks were one contributing factor in the loss of Canada’s neutron scattering facilities in 2018.

it’s one of the things I’ve found most difficult about following the Canadian science scene, it’s very scattered. In his essay, Banks explains, in part, why this situation exists.Let’s hope that one government or another addresses it.

On balance, it’s encouraging to see thoughtful approaches to modernizing our regulatory system and to better integrating the various agencies that serve our science initiatives. As for infrastructure and the Strategic Science Fund, I have, as previously noted, my fingers crossed. Let’s hope they manage it this time.

The Hedy Lamarr of international research: Canada’s Third assessment of The State of Science and Technology and Industrial Research and Development in Canada (2 of 2)

Taking up from where I left off with my comments on Competing in a Global Innovation Economy: The Current State of R and D in Canada or as I prefer to call it the Third assessment of Canadas S&T (science and technology) and R&D (research and development). (Part 1 for anyone who missed it).

Is it possible to get past Hedy?

Interestingly (to me anyway), one of our R&D strengths, the visual and performing arts, features sectors where a preponderance of people are dedicated to creating culture in Canada and don’t spend a lot of time trying to make money so they can retire before the age of 40 as so many of our start-up founders do. (Retiring before the age of 40 just reminded me of Hollywood actresses {Hedy] who found and still do find that work was/is hard to come by after that age. You may be able but I’m not sure I can get past Hedy.) Perhaps our business people (start-up founders) could take a leaf out of the visual and performing arts handbook? Or, not. There is another question.

Does it matter if we continue to be a ‘branch plant’ economy? Somebody once posed that question to me when I was grumbling that our start-ups never led to larger businesses and acted more like incubators (which could describe our R&D as well),. He noted that Canadians have a pretty good standard of living and we’ve been running things this way for over a century and it seems to work for us. Is it that bad? I didn’t have an  answer for him then and I don’t have one now but I think it’s a useful question to ask and no one on this (2018) expert panel or the previous expert panel (2013) seems to have asked.

I appreciate that the panel was constrained by the questions given by the government but given how they snuck in a few items that technically speaking were not part of their remit, I’m thinking they might have gone just a bit further. The problem with answering the questions as asked is that if you’ve got the wrong questions, your answers will be garbage (GIGO; garbage in, garbage out) or, as is said, where science is concerned, it’s the quality of your questions.

On that note, I would have liked to know more about the survey of top-cited researchers. I think looking at the questions could have been quite illuminating and I would have liked some information on from where (geographically and area of specialization) they got most of their answers. In keeping with past practice (2012 assessment published in 2013), there is no additional information offered about the survey questions or results. Still, there was this (from the report released April 10, 2018; Note: There may be some difference between the formatting seen here and that seen in the document),

3.1.2 International Perceptions of Canadian Research
As with the 2012 S&T report, the CCA commissioned a survey of top-cited researchers’ perceptions of Canada’s research strength in their field or subfield relative to that of other countries (Section 1.3.2). Researchers were asked to identify the top five countries in their field and subfield of expertise: 36% of respondents (compared with 37% in the 2012 survey) from across all fields of research rated Canada in the top five countries in their field (Figure B.1 and Table B.1 in the appendix). Canada ranks fourth out of all countries, behind the United States, United Kingdom, and Germany, and ahead of France. This represents a change of about 1 percentage point from the overall results of the 2012 S&T survey. There was a 4 percentage point decrease in how often France is ranked among the top five countries; the ordering of the top five countries, however, remains the same.

When asked to rate Canada’s research strength among other advanced countries in their field of expertise, 72% (4,005) of respondents rated Canadian research as “strong” (corresponding to a score of 5 or higher on a 7-point scale) compared with 68% in the 2012 S&T survey (Table 3.4). [pp. 40-41 Print; pp. 78-70 PDF]

Before I forget, there was mention of the international research scene,

Growth in research output, as estimated by number of publications, varies considerably for the 20 top countries. Brazil, China, India, Iran, and South Korea have had the most significant increases in publication output over the last 10 years. [emphases mine] In particular, the dramatic increase in China’s output means that it is closing the gap with the United States. In 2014, China’s output was 95% of that of the United States, compared with 26% in 2003. [emphasis mine]

Table 3.2 shows the Growth Index (GI), a measure of the rate at which the research output for a given country changed between 2003 and 2014, normalized by the world growth rate. If a country’s growth in research output is higher than the world average, the GI score is greater than 1.0. For example, between 2003 and 2014, China’s GI score was 1.50 (i.e., 50% greater than the world average) compared with 0.88 and 0.80 for Canada and the United States, respectively. Note that the dramatic increase in publication production of emerging economies such as China and India has had a negative impact on Canada’s rank and GI score (see CCA, 2016).

As long as I’ve been blogging (10 years), the international research community (in particular the US) has been looking over its shoulder at China.

Patents and intellectual property

As an inventor, Hedy got more than one patent. Much has been made of the fact that  despite an agreement, the US Navy did not pay her or her partner (George Antheil) for work that would lead to significant military use (apparently, it was instrumental in the Bay of Pigs incident, for those familiar with that bit of history), GPS, WiFi, Bluetooth, and more.

Some comments about patents. They are meant to encourage more innovation by ensuring that creators/inventors get paid for their efforts .This is true for a set time period and when it’s over, other people get access and can innovate further. It’s not intended to be a lifelong (or inheritable) source of income. The issue in Lamarr’s case is that the navy developed the technology during the patent’s term without telling either her or her partner so, of course, they didn’t need to compensate them despite the original agreement. They really should have paid her and Antheil.

The current patent situation, particularly in the US, is vastly different from the original vision. These days patents are often used as weapons designed to halt innovation. One item that should be noted is that the Canadian federal budget indirectly addressed their misuse (from my March 16, 2018 posting),

Surprisingly, no one else seems to have mentioned a new (?) intellectual property strategy introduced in the document (from Chapter 2: Progress; scroll down about 80% of the way, Note: The formatting has been changed),

Budget 2018 proposes measures in support of a new Intellectual Property Strategy to help Canadian entrepreneurs better understand and protect intellectual property, and get better access to shared intellectual property.

What Is a Patent Collective?
A Patent Collective is a way for firms to share, generate, and license or purchase intellectual property. The collective approach is intended to help Canadian firms ensure a global “freedom to operate”, mitigate the risk of infringing a patent, and aid in the defence of a patent infringement suit.

Budget 2018 proposes to invest $85.3 million over five years, starting in 2018–19, with $10 million per year ongoing, in support of the strategy. The Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development will bring forward the full details of the strategy in the coming months, including the following initiatives to increase the intellectual property literacy of Canadian entrepreneurs, and to reduce costs and create incentives for Canadian businesses to leverage their intellectual property:

  • To better enable firms to access and share intellectual property, the Government proposes to provide $30 million in 2019–20 to pilot a Patent Collective. This collective will work with Canada’s entrepreneurs to pool patents, so that small and medium-sized firms have better access to the critical intellectual property they need to grow their businesses.
  • To support the development of intellectual property expertise and legal advice for Canada’s innovation community, the Government proposes to provide $21.5 million over five years, starting in 2018–19, to Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada. This funding will improve access for Canadian entrepreneurs to intellectual property legal clinics at universities. It will also enable the creation of a team in the federal government to work with Canadian entrepreneurs to help them develop tailored strategies for using their intellectual property and expanding into international markets.
  • To support strategic intellectual property tools that enable economic growth, Budget 2018 also proposes to provide $33.8 million over five years, starting in 2018–19, to Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada, including $4.5 million for the creation of an intellectual property marketplace. This marketplace will be a one-stop, online listing of public sector-owned intellectual property available for licensing or sale to reduce transaction costs for businesses and researchers, and to improve Canadian entrepreneurs’ access to public sector-owned intellectual property.

The Government will also consider further measures, including through legislation, in support of the new intellectual property strategy.

Helping All Canadians Harness Intellectual Property
Intellectual property is one of our most valuable resources, and every Canadian business owner should understand how to protect and use it.

To better understand what groups of Canadians are benefiting the most from intellectual property, Budget 2018 proposes to provide Statistics Canada with $2 million over three years to conduct an intellectual property awareness and use survey. This survey will help identify how Canadians understand and use intellectual property, including groups that have traditionally been less likely to use intellectual property, such as women and Indigenous entrepreneurs. The results of the survey should help the Government better meet the needs of these groups through education and awareness initiatives.

The Canadian Intellectual Property Office will also increase the number of education and awareness initiatives that are delivered in partnership with business, intermediaries and academia to ensure Canadians better understand, integrate and take advantage of intellectual property when building their business strategies. This will include targeted initiatives to support underrepresented groups.

Finally, Budget 2018 also proposes to invest $1 million over five years to enable representatives of Canada’s Indigenous Peoples to participate in discussions at the World Intellectual Property Organization related to traditional knowledge and traditional cultural expressions, an important form of intellectual property.

It’s not wholly clear what they mean by ‘intellectual property’. The focus seems to be on  patents as they are the only intellectual property (as opposed to copyright and trademarks) singled out in the budget. As for how the ‘patent collective’ is going to meet all its objectives, this budget supplies no clarity on the matter. On the plus side, I’m glad to see that indigenous peoples’ knowledge is being acknowledged as “an important form of intellectual property” and I hope the discussions at the World Intellectual Property Organization are fruitful.

As for the patent situation in Canada (from the report released April 10, 2018),

Over the past decade, the Canadian patent flow in all technical sectors has consistently decreased. Patent flow provides a partial picture of how patents in Canada are exploited. A negative flow represents a deficit of patented inventions owned by Canadian assignees versus the number of patented inventions created by Canadian inventors. The patent flow for all Canadian patents decreased from about −0.04 in 2003 to −0.26 in 2014 (Figure 4.7). This means that there is an overall deficit of 26% of patent ownership in Canada. In other words, fewer patents were owned by Canadian institutions than were invented in Canada.

This is a significant change from 2003 when the deficit was only 4%. The drop is consistent across all technical sectors in the past 10 years, with Mechanical Engineering falling the least, and Electrical Engineering the most (Figure 4.7). At the technical field level, the patent flow dropped significantly in Digital Communication and Telecommunications. For example, the Digital Communication patent flow fell from 0.6 in 2003 to −0.2 in 2014. This fall could be partially linked to Nortel’s US$4.5 billion patent sale [emphasis mine] to the Rockstar consortium (which included Apple, BlackBerry, Ericsson, Microsoft, and Sony) (Brickley, 2011). Food Chemistry and Microstructural [?] and Nanotechnology both also showed a significant drop in patent flow. [p. 83 Print; p. 121 PDF]

Despite a fall in the number of parents for ‘Digital Communication’, we’re still doing well according to statistics elsewhere in this report. Is it possible that patents aren’t that big a deal? Of course, it’s also possible that we are enjoying the benefits of past work and will miss out on future work. (Note: A video of the April 10, 2018 report presentation by Max Blouw features him saying something like that.)

One last note, Nortel died many years ago. Disconcertingly, this report, despite more than one reference to Nortel, never mentions the company’s demise.

Boxed text

While the expert panel wasn’t tasked to answer certain types of questions, as I’ve noted earlier they managed to sneak in a few items.  One of the strategies they used was putting special inserts into text boxes including this (from the report released April 10, 2018),

Box 4.2
The FinTech Revolution

Financial services is a key industry in Canada. In 2015, the industry accounted for 4.4%

of Canadia jobs and about 7% of Canadian GDP (Burt, 2016). Toronto is the second largest financial services hub in North America and one of the most vibrant research hubs in FinTech. Since 2010, more than 100 start-up companies have been founded in Canada, attracting more than $1 billion in investment (Moffatt, 2016). In 2016 alone, venture-backed investment in Canadian financial technology companies grew by 35% to $137.7 million (Ho, 2017). The Toronto Financial Services Alliance estimates that there are approximately 40,000 ICT specialists working in financial services in Toronto alone.

AI, blockchain, [emphasis mine] and other results of ICT research provide the basis for several transformative FinTech innovations including, for example, decentralized transaction ledgers, cryptocurrencies (e.g., bitcoin), and AI-based risk assessment and fraud detection. These innovations offer opportunities to develop new markets for established financial services firms, but also provide entry points for technology firms to develop competing service offerings, increasing competition in the financial services industry. In response, many financial services companies are increasing their investments in FinTech companies (Breznitz et al., 2015). By their own account, the big five banks invest more than $1 billion annually in R&D of advanced software solutions, including AI-based innovations (J. Thompson, personal communication, 2016). The banks are also increasingly investing in university research and collaboration with start-up companies. For instance, together with several large insurance and financial management firms, all big five banks have invested in the Vector Institute for Artificial Intelligence (Kolm, 2017).

I’m glad to see the mention of blockchain while AI (artificial intelligence) is an area where we have innovated (from the report released April 10, 2018),

AI has attracted researchers and funding since the 1960s; however, there were periods of stagnation in the 1970s and 1980s, sometimes referred to as the “AI winter.” During this period, the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research (CIFAR), under the direction of Fraser Mustard, started supporting AI research with a decade-long program called Artificial Intelligence, Robotics and Society, [emphasis mine] which was active from 1983 to 1994. In 2004, a new program called Neural Computation and Adaptive Perception was initiated and renewed twice in 2008 and 2014 under the title, Learning in Machines and Brains. Through these programs, the government provided long-term, predictable support for high- risk research that propelled Canadian researchers to the forefront of global AI development. In the 1990s and early 2000s, Canadian research output and impact on AI were second only to that of the United States (CIFAR, 2016). NSERC has also been an early supporter of AI. According to its searchable grant database, NSERC has given funding to research projects on AI since at least 1991–1992 (the earliest searchable year) (NSERC, 2017a).

The University of Toronto, the University of Alberta, and the Université de Montréal have emerged as international centres for research in neural networks and deep learning, with leading experts such as Geoffrey Hinton and Yoshua Bengio. Recently, these locations have expanded into vibrant hubs for research in AI applications with a diverse mix of specialized research institutes, accelerators, and start-up companies, and growing investment by major international players in AI development, such as Microsoft, Google, and Facebook. Many highly influential AI researchers today are either from Canada or have at some point in their careers worked at a Canadian institution or with Canadian scholars.

As international opportunities in AI research and the ICT industry have grown, many of Canada’s AI pioneers have been drawn to research institutions and companies outside of Canada. According to the OECD, Canada’s share of patents in AI declined from 2.4% in 2000 to 2005 to 2% in 2010 to 2015. Although Canada is the sixth largest producer of top-cited scientific publications related to machine learning, firms headquartered in Canada accounted for only 0.9% of all AI-related inventions from 2012 to 2014 (OECD, 2017c). Canadian AI researchers, however, remain involved in the core nodes of an expanding international network of AI researchers, most of whom continue to maintain ties with their home institutions. Compared with their international peers, Canadian AI researchers are engaged in international collaborations far more often than would be expected by Canada’s level of research output, with Canada ranking fifth in collaboration. [p. 97-98 Print; p. 135-136 PDF]

The only mention of robotics seems to be here in this section and it’s only in passing. This is a bit surprising given its global importance. I wonder if robotics has been somehow hidden inside the term artificial intelligence, although sometimes it’s vice versa with robot being used to describe artificial intelligence. I’m noticing this trend of assuming the terms are synonymous or interchangeable not just in Canadian publications but elsewhere too.  ’nuff said.

Getting back to the matter at hand, t he report does note that patenting (technometric data) is problematic (from the report released April 10, 2018),

The limitations of technometric data stem largely from their restricted applicability across areas of R&D. Patenting, as a strategy for IP management, is similarly limited in not being equally relevant across industries. Trends in patenting can also reflect commercial pressures unrelated to R&D activities, such as defensive or strategic patenting practices. Finally, taxonomies for assessing patents are not aligned with bibliometric taxonomies, though links can be drawn to research publications through the analysis of patent citations. [p. 105 Print; p. 143 PDF]

It’s interesting to me that they make reference to many of the same issues that I mention but they seem to forget and don’t use that information in their conclusions.

There is one other piece of boxed text I want to highlight (from the report released April 10, 2018),

Box 6.3
Open Science: An Emerging Approach to Create New Linkages

Open Science is an umbrella term to describe collaborative and open approaches to
undertaking science, which can be powerful catalysts of innovation. This includes
the development of open collaborative networks among research performers, such
as the private sector, and the wider distribution of research that usually results when
restrictions on use are removed. Such an approach triggers faster translation of ideas
among research partners and moves the boundaries of pre-competitive research to
later, applied stages of research. With research results freely accessible, companies
can focus on developing new products and processes that can be commercialized.

Two Canadian organizations exemplify the development of such models. In June
2017, Genome Canada, the Ontario government, and pharmaceutical companies
invested $33 million in the Structural Genomics Consortium (SGC) (Genome Canada,
2017). Formed in 2004, the SGC is at the forefront of the Canadian open science
movement and has contributed to many key research advancements towards new
treatments (SGC, 2018). McGill University’s Montréal Neurological Institute and
Hospital has also embraced the principles of open science. Since 2016, it has been
sharing its research results with the scientific community without restriction, with
the objective of expanding “the impact of brain research and accelerat[ing] the
discovery of ground-breaking therapies to treat patients suffering from a wide range
of devastating neurological diseases” (neuro, n.d.).

This is exciting stuff and I’m happy the panel featured it. (I wrote about the Montréal Neurological Institute initiative in a Jan. 22, 2016 posting.)

More than once, the report notes the difficulties with using bibliometric and technometric data as measures of scientific achievement and progress and open science (along with its cousins, open data and open access) are contributing to the difficulties as James Somers notes in his April 5, 2018 article ‘The Scientific Paper is Obsolete’ for The Atlantic (Note: Links have been removed),

The scientific paper—the actual form of it—was one of the enabling inventions of modernity. Before it was developed in the 1600s, results were communicated privately in letters, ephemerally in lectures, or all at once in books. There was no public forum for incremental advances. By making room for reports of single experiments or minor technical advances, journals made the chaos of science accretive. Scientists from that point forward became like the social insects: They made their progress steadily, as a buzzing mass.

The earliest papers were in some ways more readable than papers are today. They were less specialized, more direct, shorter, and far less formal. Calculus had only just been invented. Entire data sets could fit in a table on a single page. What little “computation” contributed to the results was done by hand and could be verified in the same way.

The more sophisticated science becomes, the harder it is to communicate results. Papers today are longer than ever and full of jargon and symbols. They depend on chains of computer programs that generate data, and clean up data, and plot data, and run statistical models on data. These programs tend to be both so sloppily written and so central to the results that it’s [sic] contributed to a replication crisis, or put another way, a failure of the paper to perform its most basic task: to report what you’ve actually discovered, clearly enough that someone else can discover it for themselves.

Perhaps the paper itself is to blame. Scientific methods evolve now at the speed of software; the skill most in demand among physicists, biologists, chemists, geologists, even anthropologists and research psychologists, is facility with programming languages and “data science” packages. And yet the basic means of communicating scientific results hasn’t changed for 400 years. Papers may be posted online, but they’re still text and pictures on a page.

What would you get if you designed the scientific paper from scratch today? A little while ago I spoke to Bret Victor, a researcher who worked at Apple on early user-interface prototypes for the iPad and now runs his own lab in Oakland, California, that studies the future of computing. Victor has long been convinced that scientists haven’t yet taken full advantage of the computer. “It’s not that different than looking at the printing press, and the evolution of the book,” he said. After Gutenberg, the printing press was mostly used to mimic the calligraphy in bibles. It took nearly 100 years of technical and conceptual improvements to invent the modern book. “There was this entire period where they had the new technology of printing, but they were just using it to emulate the old media.”Victor gestured at what might be possible when he redesigned a journal article by Duncan Watts and Steven Strogatz, “Collective dynamics of ‘small-world’ networks.” He chose it both because it’s one of the most highly cited papers in all of science and because it’s a model of clear exposition. (Strogatz is best known for writing the beloved “Elements of Math” column for The New York Times.)

The Watts-Strogatz paper described its key findings the way most papers do, with text, pictures, and mathematical symbols. And like most papers, these findings were still hard to swallow, despite the lucid prose. The hardest parts were the ones that described procedures or algorithms, because these required the reader to “play computer” in their head, as Victor put it, that is, to strain to maintain a fragile mental picture of what was happening with each step of the algorithm.Victor’s redesign interleaved the explanatory text with little interactive diagrams that illustrated each step. In his version, you could see the algorithm at work on an example. You could even control it yourself….

For anyone interested in the evolution of how science is conducted and communicated, Somers’ article is a fascinating and in depth look at future possibilities.

Subregional R&D

I didn’t find this quite as compelling as the last time and that may be due to the fact that there’s less information and I think the 2012 report was the first to examine the Canadian R&D scene with a subregional (in their case, provinces) lens. On a high note, this report also covers cities (!) and regions, as well as, provinces.

Here’s the conclusion (from the report released April 10, 2018),

Ontario leads Canada in R&D investment and performance. The province accounts for almost half of R&D investment and personnel, research publications and collaborations, and patents. R&D activity in Ontario produces high-quality publications in each of Canada’s five R&D strengths, reflecting both the quantity and quality of universities in the province. Quebec lags Ontario in total investment, publications, and patents, but performs as well (citations) or better (R&D intensity) by some measures. Much like Ontario, Quebec researchers produce impactful publications across most of Canada’s five R&D strengths. Although it invests an amount similar to that of Alberta, British Columbia does so at a significantly higher intensity. British Columbia also produces more highly cited publications and patents, and is involved in more international research collaborations. R&D in British Columbia and Alberta clusters around Vancouver and Calgary in areas such as physics and ICT and in clinical medicine and energy, respectively. [emphasis mine] Smaller but vibrant R&D communities exist in the Prairies and Atlantic Canada [also referred to as the Maritime provinces or Maritimes] (and, to a lesser extent, in the Territories) in natural resource industries.

Globally, as urban populations expand exponentially, cities are likely to drive innovation and wealth creation at an increasing rate in the future. In Canada, R&D activity clusters around five large cities: Toronto, Montréal, Vancouver, Ottawa, and Calgary. These five cities create patents and high-tech companies at nearly twice the rate of other Canadian cities. They also account for half of clusters in the services sector, and many in advanced manufacturing.

Many clusters relate to natural resources and long-standing areas of economic and research strength. Natural resource clusters have emerged around the location of resources, such as forestry in British Columbia, oil and gas in Alberta, agriculture in Ontario, mining in Quebec, and maritime resources in Atlantic Canada. The automotive, plastics, and steel industries have the most individual clusters as a result of their economic success in Windsor, Hamilton, and Oshawa. Advanced manufacturing industries tend to be more concentrated, often located near specialized research universities. Strong connections between academia and industry are often associated with these clusters. R&D activity is distributed across the country, varying both between and within regions. It is critical to avoid drawing the wrong conclusion from this fact. This distribution does not imply the existence of a problem that needs to be remedied. Rather, it signals the benefits of diverse innovation systems, with differentiation driven by the needs of and resources available in each province. [pp.  132-133 Print; pp. 170-171 PDF]

Intriguingly, there’s no mention that in British Columbia (BC), there are leading areas of research: Visual & Performing Arts, Psychology & Cognitive Sciences, and Clinical Medicine (according to the table on p. 117 Print, p. 153 PDF).

As I said and hinted earlier, we’ve got brains; they’re just not the kind of brains that command respect.

Final comments

My hat’s off to the expert panel and staff of the Council of Canadian Academies. Combining two previous reports into one could not have been easy. As well, kudos to their attempts to broaden the discussion by mentioning initiative such as open science and for emphasizing the problems with bibliometrics, technometrics, and other measures. I have covered only parts of this assessment, (Competing in a Global Innovation Economy: The Current State of R&D in Canada), there’s a lot more to it including a substantive list of reference materials (bibliography).

While I have argued that perhaps the situation isn’t quite as bad as the headlines and statistics may suggest, there are some concerning trends for Canadians but we have to acknowledge that many countries have stepped up their research game and that’s good for all of us. You don’t get better at anything unless you work with and play with others who are better than you are. For example, both India and Italy surpassed us in numbers of published research papers. We slipped from 7th place to 9th. Thank you, Italy and India. (And, Happy ‘Italian Research in the World Day’ on April 15, 2018, the day’s inaugural year. In Italian: Piano Straordinario “Vivere all’Italiana” – Giornata della ricerca Italiana nel mondo.)

Unfortunately, the reading is harder going than previous R&D assessments in the CCA catalogue. And in the end, I can’t help thinking we’re just a little bit like Hedy Lamarr. Not really appreciated in all of our complexities although the expert panel and staff did try from time to time. Perhaps the government needs to find better ways of asking the questions.

***ETA April 12, 2018 at 1500 PDT: Talking about missing the obvious! I’ve been ranting on about how research strength in visual and performing arts and in philosophy and theology, etc. is perfectly fine and could lead to ‘traditional’ science breakthroughs without underlining the point by noting that Antheil was a musician, Lamarr was as an actress and they set the foundation for work by electrical engineers (or people with that specialty) for their signature work leading to WiFi, etc.***

There is, by the way, a Hedy-Canada connection. In 1998, she sued Canadian software company Corel, for its unauthorized use of her image on their Corel Draw 8 product packaging. She won.

More stuff

For those who’d like to see and hear the April 10, 2017 launch for “Competing in a Global Innovation Economy: The Current State of R&D in Canada” or the Third Assessment as I think of it, go here.

The report can be found here.

For anyone curious about ‘Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story’ to be broadcast on May 18, 2018 as part of PBS’s American Masters series, there’s this trailer,

For the curious, I did find out more about the Hedy Lamarr and Corel Draw. John Lettice’s December 2, 1998 article The Rgister describes the suit and her subsequent victory in less than admiring terms,

Our picture doesn’t show glamorous actress Hedy Lamarr, who yesterday [Dec. 1, 1998] came to a settlement with Corel over the use of her image on Corel’s packaging. But we suppose that following the settlement we could have used a picture of Corel’s packaging. Lamarr sued Corel earlier this year over its use of a CorelDraw image of her. The picture had been produced by John Corkery, who was 1996 Best of Show winner of the Corel World Design Contest. Corel now seems to have come to an undisclosed settlement with her, which includes a five-year exclusive (oops — maybe we can’t use the pack-shot then) licence to use “the lifelike vector illustration of Hedy Lamarr on Corel’s graphic software packaging”. Lamarr, bless ‘er, says she’s looking forward to the continued success of Corel Corporation,  …

There’s this excerpt from a Sept. 21, 2015 posting (a pictorial essay of Lamarr’s life) by Shahebaz Khan on The Blaze Blog,

6. CorelDRAW:
For several years beginning in 1997, the boxes of Corel DRAW’s software suites were graced by a large Corel-drawn image of Lamarr. The picture won Corel DRAW’s yearly software suite cover design contest in 1996. Lamarr sued Corel for using the image without her permission. Corel countered that she did not own rights to the image. The parties reached an undisclosed settlement in 1998.

There’s also a Nov. 23, 1998 Corel Draw 8 product review by Mike Gorman on mymac.com, which includes a screenshot of the packaging that precipitated the lawsuit. Once they settled, it seems Corel used her image at least one more time.

2017 proceedings for the Canadian Science Policy Conference

I received (via email) a December 11, 2017 notice from the Canadian Science Policy Centre that the 2017 Proceedings for the ninth annual conference (Nov. 1 – 3, 2017 in Ottawa, Canada) can now be accessed,

The Canadian Science Policy Centre is pleased to present you the Proceedings of CSPC 2017. Check out the reports and takeaways for each panel session, which have been carefully drafted by a group of professional writers. You can also listen to the audio recordings and watch the available videos. The proceedings page will provide you with the opportunity to immerse yourself in all of the discussions at the conference. Feel free to share the ones you like! Also, check out the CSPC 2017 reports, analyses, and stats in the proceedings.

Click here for the CSPC 2017 Proceedings

CSPC 2017 Interviews

Take a look at the 70+ one-on-one interviews with prominent figures of science policy. The interviews were conducted by the great team of CSPC 2017 volunteers. The interviews feature in-depth perspectives about the conference, panels, and new up and coming projects.

Click here for the CSPC 2017 interviews

Amongst many others, you can find a video of Governor General Julie Payette’s notorious remarks made at the opening ceremonies and which I highlighted in my November 3, 2017 posting about this year’s conference.

The proceedings are organized by day with links to individual pages for each session held that day. Here’s a sample of what is offered on Day 1: Artificial Intelligence and Discovery Science: Playing to Canada’s Strengths,

Artificial Intelligence and Discovery Science: Playing to Canada’s Strengths

Conference Day:
Day 1 – November 1st 2017

Organized by: Friends of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research

Keynote: Alan Bernstein, President and CEO, CIFAR, 2017 Henry G. Friesen International Prizewinner

Speakers: Brenda Andrews, Director, Andrew’s Lab, University of Toronto; Doina Precup, Associate Professor, McGill University; Dr Rémi Quirion, Chief Scientist of Quebec; Linda Rabeneck, Vice President, Prevention and Cancer Control, Cancer Care Ontario; Peter Zandstra, Director, School of Biomedical Engineering, University of British Columbia

Discussants: Henry Friesen, Professor Emeritus, University of Manitoba; Roderick McInnes, Acting President, Canadian Institutes of Health Research and Director, Lady Davis Institute, Jewish General Hospital, McGill University; Duncan J. Stewart, CEO and Scientific Director, Ottawa Hospital Research Institute; Vivek Goel, Vice President, Research and Innovation, University of Toronto

Moderators: Eric Meslin, President & CEO, Council of Canadian Academies; André Picard, Health Reporter and Columnist, The Globe and Mail

Takeaways and recommendations:

The opportunity for Canada

  • The potential impact of artificial intelligence (AI) could be as significant as the industrial revolution of the 19th century.
  • Canada’s global advantage in deep learning (a subset of machine learning) stems from the pioneering work of Geoffrey Hinton and early support from CIFAR and NSERC.
  • AI could mark a turning point in Canada’s innovation performance, fueled by the highest levels of venture capital financing in nearly a decade, and underpinned by publicly funded research at the federal, provincial and institutional levels.
  • The Canadian AI advantage can only be fully realized by developing and importing skilled talent, accessible markets, capital and companies willing to adopt new technologies into existing industries.
  • Canada leads in the combination of functional genomics and machine learning which is proving effective for predicting the functional variation in genomes.
  • AI promises advances in biomedical engineering by connecting chronic diseases – the largest health burden in Canada – to gene regulatory networks by understanding how stem cells make decisions.
  • AI can be effectively deployed to evaluate health and health systems in the general population.

The challenges

  • AI brings potential ethical and economic perils and requires a watchdog to oversee standards, engage in fact-based debate and prepare for the potential backlash over job losses to robots.
  • The ethical, environmental, economic, legal and social (GEL3S) aspects of genomics have been largely marginalized and it’s important not to make the same mistake with AI.
  • AI’s rapid scientific development makes it difficult to keep pace with safeguards and standards.
  • The fields of AI’s and pattern recognition are strongly connected but here is room for improvement.
  • Self-learning algorithms such as Alphaville could lead to the invention of new things that humans currently don’t know how to do. The field is developing rapidly, leading to some concern over the deployment of such systems.

Training future AI professionals

  • Young researchers must be given the oxygen to excel at AI if its potential is to be realized.
  • Students appreciate the breadth of training and additional resources they receive from researchers with ties to both academia and industry.
  • The importance of continuing fundamental research in AI is being challenged by companies such as Facebook, Google and Amazon which are hiring away key talent.
  • The explosion of AI is a powerful illustration of how the importance of fundamental research may only be recognized and exploited after 20 or 30 years. As a result, support for fundamental research, and the students working in areas related to AI, must continue.

A couple comments

To my knowledge, this is the first year the proceedings have been made so easily accessible. In fact, I can’t remember another year where they have been open access. Thank you!

Of course, I have to make a comment about the Day 2 session titled: Does Canada have a Science Culture? The answer is yes and it’s in the province of Ontario. Just take a look at the panel,

Organized by: Kirsten Vanstone, Royal Canadian Institute for Science and Reinhart Reithmeier, Professor, University of Toronto [in Ontario]

Speakers: Chantal Barriault, Director, Science Communication Graduate Program, Laurentian University [in Ontario] and Science North [in Ontario]; Maurice Bitran, CEO, Ontario Science Centre [take a wild guess as to where this institution is located?]; Kelly Bronson, Assistant Professor, Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Ottawa [in Ontario]; Marc LePage, President and CEO, Genome Canada [in Ontario]

Moderator: Ivan Semeniuk, Science Reporter, The Globe and Mail [in Ontario]

In fact, all of the institutions are in southern Ontario, even, the oddly named Science North.

I know from bitter experience it’s hard to put together panels but couldn’t someone from another province have participated?

Ah well, here’s hoping for 2018 and for a new location. After Ottawa as the CSPC site for three years in a row, please don’t make it a fourth year in a row.

Canadian science policy news and doings (also: some US science envoy news)

I have a couple of notices from the Canadian Science Policy Centre (CSPC), a twitter feed, and an article in online magazine to thank for this bumper crop of news.

 Canadian Science Policy Centre: the conference

The 2017 Canadian Science Policy Conference to be held Nov. 1 – 3, 2017 in Ottawa, Ontario for the third year in a row has a super saver rate available until Sept. 3, 2017 according to an August 14, 2017 announcement (received via email).

Time is running out, you have until September 3rd until prices go up from the SuperSaver rate.

Savings off the regular price with the SuperSaver rate:
Up to 26% for General admission
Up to 29% for Academic/Non-Profit Organizations
Up to 40% for Students and Post-Docs

Before giving you the link to the registration page and assuming that you might want to check out what is on offer at the conference, here’s a link to the programme. They don’t seem to have any events celebrating Canada’s 150th anniversary although they do have a session titled, ‘The Next 150 years of Science in Canada: Embedding Equity, Delivering Diversity/Les 150 prochaine années de sciences au Canada:  Intégrer l’équité, promouvoir la diversité‘,

Enhancing equity, diversity, and inclusivity (EDI) in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) has been described as being a human rights issue and an economic development issue by various individuals and organizations (e.g. OECD). Recent federal policy initiatives in Canada have focused on increasing participation of women (a designated under-represented group) in science through increased reporting, program changes, and institutional accountability. However, the Employment Equity Act requires employers to act to ensure the full representation of the three other designated groups: Aboriginal peoples, persons with disabilities and members of visible minorities. Significant structural and systemic barriers to full participation and employment in STEM for members of these groups still exist in Canadian institutions. Since data support the positive role of diversity in promoting innovation and economic development, failure to capture the full intellectual capacity of a diverse population limits provincial and national potential and progress in many areas. A diverse international panel of experts from designated groups will speak to the issue of accessibility and inclusion in STEM. In addition, the discussion will focus on evidence-based recommendations for policy initiatives that will promote full EDI in science in Canada to ensure local and national prosperity and progress for Canada over the next 150 years.

There’s also this list of speakers . Curiously, I don’t see Kirsty Duncan, Canada’s Minister of Science on the list, nor do I see any other politicians in the banner for their conference website  This divergence from the CSPC’s usual approach to promoting the conference is interesting.

Moving onto the conference, the organizers have added two panels to the programme (from the announcement received via email),

Friday, November 3, 2017
10:30AM-12:00PM
Open Science and Innovation
Organizer: Tiberius Brastaviceanu
Organization: ACES-CAKE

10:30AM- 12:00PM
The Scientific and Economic Benefits of Open Science
Organizer: Arij Al Chawaf
Organization: Structural Genomics

I think this is the first time there’s been a ‘Tiberius’ on this blog and teamed with the organization’s name, well, I just had to include it.

Finally, here’s the link to the registration page and a page that details travel deals.

Canadian Science Policy Conference: a compendium of documents and articles on Canada’s Chief Science Advisor and Ontario’s Chief Scientist and the pre-2018 budget submissions

The deadline for applications for the Chief Science Advisor position was extended to Feb. 2017 and so far, there’s no word as to whom it might be. Perhaps Minister of Science Kirsty Duncan wants to make a splash with a surprise announcement at the CSPC’s 2017 conference? As for Ontario’s Chief Scientist, this move will make province the third (?) to have a chief scientist, after Québec and Alberta. There is apparently one in Alberta but there doesn’t seem to be a government webpage and his LinkedIn profile doesn’t include this title. In any event, Dr. Fred Wrona is mentioned as the Alberta’s Chief Scientist in a May 31, 2017 Alberta government announcement. *ETA Aug. 25, 2017: I missed the Yukon, which has a Senior Science Advisor. The position is currently held by Dr. Aynslie Ogden.*

Getting back to the compendium, here’s the CSPC’s A Comprehensive Collection of Publications Regarding Canada’s Federal Chief Science Advisor and Ontario’s Chief Scientist webpage. Here’s a little background provided on the page,

On June 2nd, 2017, the House of Commons Standing Committee on Finance commenced the pre-budget consultation process for the 2018 Canadian Budget. These consultations provide Canadians the opportunity to communicate their priorities with a focus on Canadian productivity in the workplace and community in addition to entrepreneurial competitiveness. Organizations from across the country submitted their priorities on August 4th, 2017 to be selected as witness for the pre-budget hearings before the Committee in September 2017. The process will result in a report to be presented to the House of Commons in December 2017 and considered by the Minister of Finance in the 2018 Federal Budget.

NEWS & ANNOUNCEMENT

House of Commons- PRE-BUDGET CONSULTATIONS IN ADVANCE OF THE 2018 BUDGET

https://www.ourcommons.ca/Committees/en/FINA/StudyActivity?studyActivityId=9571255

CANADIANS ARE INVITED TO SHARE THEIR PRIORITIES FOR THE 2018 FEDERAL BUDGET

https://www.ourcommons.ca/DocumentViewer/en/42-1/FINA/news-release/9002784

The deadline for pre-2018 budget submissions was Aug. 4, 2017 and they haven’t yet scheduled any meetings although they are to be held in September. (People can meet with the Standing Committee on Finance in various locations across Canada to discuss their submissions.) I’m not sure where the CSPC got their list of ‘science’ submissions but it’s definitely worth checking as there are some odd omissions such as TRIUMF (Canada’s National Laboratory for Particle and Nuclear Physics)), Genome Canada, the Pan-Canadian Artificial Intelligence Strategy, CIFAR (Canadian Institute for Advanced Research), the Perimeter Institute, Canadian Light Source, etc.

Twitter and the Naylor Report under a microscope

This news came from University of British Columbia President Santa Ono’s twitter feed,

 I will join Jon [sic] Borrows and Janet Rossant on Sept 19 in Ottawa at a Mindshare event to discuss the importance of the Naylor Report

The Mindshare event Ono is referring to is being organized by Universities Canada (formerly the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada) and the Institute for Research on Public Policy. It is titled, ‘The Naylor report under the microscope’. Here’s more from the event webpage,

Join Universities Canada and Policy Options for a lively discussion moderated by editor-in-chief Jennifer Ditchburn on the report from the Fundamental Science Review Panel and why research matters to Canadians.

Moderator

Jennifer Ditchburn, editor, Policy Options.

Jennifer Ditchburn

Editor-in-chief, Policy Options

Jennifer Ditchburn is the editor-in-chief of Policy Options, the online policy forum of the Institute for Research on Public Policy.  An award-winning parliamentary correspondent, Jennifer began her journalism career at the Canadian Press in Montreal as a reporter-editor during the lead-up to the 1995 referendum.  From 2001 and 2006 she was a national reporter with CBC TV on Parliament Hill, and in 2006 she returned to the Canadian Press.  She is a three-time winner of a National Newspaper Award:  twice in the politics category, and once in the breaking news category. In 2015 she was awarded the prestigious Charles Lynch Award for outstanding coverage of national issues. Jennifer has been a frequent contributor to television and radio public affairs programs, including CBC’s Power and Politics, the “At Issue” panel, and The Current. She holds a bachelor of arts from Concordia University, and a master of journalism from Carleton University.

@jenditchburn

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

 12-2 pm

Fairmont Château Laurier,  Laurier  Room
 1 Rideau Street, Ottawa

 rsvp@univcan.ca

I can’t tell if they’re offering lunch or if there is a cost associated with this event so you may want to contact the organizers.

As for the Naylor report, I posted a three-part series on June 8, 2017, which features my comments and the other comments I was able to find on the report:

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

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

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

One piece not mentioned in my three-part series is Paul Wells’ provocatively titled June 29, 2017 article for MacLean’s magazine, Why Canadian scientists aren’t happy (Note: Links have been removed),

Much hubbub this morning over two interviews Kirsty Duncan, the science minister, has given the papers. The subject is Canada’s Fundamental Science Review, commonly called the Naylor Report after David Naylor, the former University of Toronto president who was its main author.

Other authors include BlackBerry founder Mike Lazaridis, who has bankrolled much of the Waterloo renaissance, and Canadian Nobel physicist Arthur McDonald. It’s as blue-chip as a blue-chip panel could be.

Duncan appointed the panel a year ago. It’s her panel, delivered by her experts. Why does it not seem to be… getting anywhere? Why does it seem to have no champion in government? Therein lies a tale.

Note, first, that Duncan’s interviews—her first substantive comment on the report’s recommendations!—come nearly three months after its April release, which in turn came four months after Duncan asked Naylor to deliver his report, last December. (By March I had started to make fun of the Trudeau government in print for dragging its heels on the report’s release. That column was not widely appreciated in the government, I’m told.)

Anyway, the report was released, at an event attended by no representative of the Canadian government. Here’s the gist of what I wrote at the time:

 

Naylor’s “single most important recommendation” is a “rapid increase” in federal spending on “independent investigator-led research” instead of the “priority-driven targeted research” that two successive federal governments, Trudeau’s and Stephen Harper’s, have preferred in the last 8 or 10 federal budgets.

In English: Trudeau has imitated Harper in favouring high-profile, highly targeted research projects, on areas of study selected by political staffers in Ottawa, that are designed to attract star researchers from outside Canada so they can bolster the image of Canada as a research destination.

That’d be great if it wasn’t achieved by pruning budgets for the less spectacular research that most scientists do.

Naylor has numbers. “Between 2007-08 and 2015-16, the inflation-adjusted budgetary envelope for investigator-led research fell by 3 per cent while that for priority-driven research rose by 35 per cent,” he and his colleagues write. “As the number of researchers grew during this period, the real resources available per active researcher to do investigator-led research declined by about 35 per cent.”

And that’s not even taking into account the way two new programs—the $10-million-per-recipient Canada Excellence Research Chairs and the $1.5 billion Canada First Research Excellence Fund—are “further concentrating resources in the hands of smaller numbers of individuals and institutions.”

That’s the context for Duncan’s remarks. In the Globe, she says she agrees with Naylor on “the need for a research system that promotes equity and diversity, provides a better entry for early career researchers and is nimble in response to new scientific opportunities.” But she also “disagreed” with the call for a national advisory council that would give expert advice on the government’s entire science, research and innovation policy.

This is an asinine statement. When taking three months to read a report, it’s a good idea to read it. There is not a single line in Naylor’s overlong report that calls for the new body to make funding decisions. Its proposed name is NACRI, for National Advisory Council on Research and Innovation. A for Advisory. Its responsibilities, listed on Page 19 if you’re reading along at home, are restricted to “advice… evaluation… public reporting… advice… advice.”

Duncan also didn’t promise to meet Naylor’s requested funding levels: $386 million for research in the first year, growing to $1.3 billion in new money in the fourth year. That’s a big concern for researchers, who have been warning for a decade that two successive government’s—Harper’s and Trudeau’s—have been more interested in building new labs than in ensuring there’s money to do research in them.

The minister has talking points. She gave the same answer to both reporters about whether Naylor’s recommendations will be implemented in time for the next federal budget. “It takes time to turn the Queen Mary around,” she said. Twice. I’ll say it does: She’s reacting three days before Canada Day to a report that was written before Christmas. Which makes me worry when she says elected officials should be in charge of being nimble.

Here’s what’s going on.

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

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

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

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

A government that consistently buys into the market for intellectual capital at the very top of the price curve is a factory for producing white elephants. But don’t take my word for it. Ask Geoffrey Hinton [University of Toronto’s Geoffrey Hinton, a Canadian leader in machine learning].

“There is a lot of pressure to make things more applied; I think it’s a big mistake,” he said in 2015. “In the long run, curiosity-driven research just works better… Real breakthroughs come from people focusing on what they’re excited about.”

I keep saying this, like a broken record. If you want the science that changes the world, ask the scientists who’ve changed it how it gets made. This government claims to be interested in what scientists think. We’ll see.

Incisive and acerbic,  you may want to make time to read this article in its entirety.

Getting back to the ‘The Naylor report under the microscope’ event, I wonder if anyone will be as tough and direct as Wells. Going back even further, I wonder if this is why there’s no mention of Duncan as a speaker at the conference. It could go either way: surprise announcement of a Chief Science Advisor, as I first suggested, or avoidance of a potentially angry audience.

For anyone curious about Geoffrey Hinton, there’s more here in my March 31, 2017 post (scroll down about 20% of the way) and for more about the 2017 budget and allocations for targeted science projects there’s my March 24, 2017 post.

US science envoy quits

An Aug. 23, 2017article by Matthew Rosza for salon.com notes the resignation of one of the US science envoys,

President Donald Trump’s infamous response to the Charlottesville riots — namely, saying that both sides were to blame and that there were “very fine people” marching as white supremacists — has prompted yet another high profile resignation from his administration.

Daniel M. Kammen, who served as a science envoy for the State Department and focused on renewable energy development in the Middle East and Northern Africa, submitted a letter of resignation on Wednesday. Notably, he began the first letter of each paragraph with letters that spelled out I-M-P-E-A-C-H. That followed a letter earlier this month by writer Jhumpa Lahiri and actor Kal Penn to similarly spell R-E-S-I-S-T in their joint letter of resignation from the President’s Committee on Arts and Humanities.

Jeremy Berke’s Aug. 23, 2017 article for BusinessInsider.com provides a little more detail (Note: Links have been removed),

A State Department climate science envoy resigned Wednesday in a public letter posted on Twitter over what he says is President Donald Trump’s “attacks on the core values” of the United States with his response to violence in Charlottesville, Virginia.

“My decision to resign is in response to your attacks on the core values of the United States,” wrote Daniel Kammen, a professor of energy at the University of California, Berkeley, who was appointed as one five science envoys in 2016. “Your failure to condemn white supremacists and neo-Nazis has domestic and international ramifications.”

“Your actions to date have, sadly, harmed the quality of life in the United States, our standing abroad, and the sustainability of the planet,” Kammen writes.

Science envoys work with the State Department to establish and develop energy programs in countries around the world. Kammen specifically focused on renewable energy development in the Middle East and North Africa.

That’s it.

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

This is the final commentary on the report titled,(INVESTING IN CANADA’S FUTURE; Strengthening the Foundations of Canadian Research). Part 1 of my commentary having provided some introductory material and first thoughts about the report, Part 2 offering more detailed thoughts; this part singles out ‘special cases’, sums up* my thoughts (circling back to ideas introduced in the first part), and offers link to other commentaries.

Special cases

Not all of the science funding in Canada is funneled through the four agencies designed for that purpose, (The Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC), Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC), Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) are known collectively as the tri-council funding agencies and are focused on disbursement of research funds received from the federal government. The fourth ‘pillar’ agency, the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI) is focused on funding for infrastructure and, technically speaking, is a 3rd party organization along with MITACS, CANARIE, the Perimeter Institute, and others.

In any event, there are also major research facilities and science initiatives which may receive direct funding from the federal government bypassing the funding agencies and, it would seem, peer review. For example, I featured this in my April 28, 2015 posting about the 2015 federal budget,

The $45 million announced for TRIUMF will support the laboratory’s role in accelerating science in Canada, an important investment in discovery research.

While the news about the CFI seems to have delighted a number of observers, it should be noted (as per Woodgett’s piece) that the $1.3B is to be paid out over six years ($220M per year, more or less) and the money won’t be disbursed until the 2017/18 fiscal year. As for the $45M designated for TRIUMF (Canada’s National Laboratory for Particle and Nuclear Physics), this is exciting news for the lab which seems to have bypassed the usual channels, as it has before, to receive its funding directly from the federal government. [emphases mine]

The Naylor report made this recommendation for Canada’s major research facilities, (MRF)

We heard from many who recommended that the federal government should manage its investments in “Big Science” in a more coordinated manner, with a cradle-to-grave perspective. The Panel agrees. Consistent with NACRI’s overall mandate, it should work closely with the CSA [Chief Science Advisor] in establishing a Standing Committee on Major Research Facilities (MRFs).

CFI defines a national research facility in the following way:

We define a national research facility as one that addresses the needs of a community of Canadian researchers representing a critical mass of users distributed across the country. This is done by providing shared access to substantial and advanced specialized equipment, services, resources, and scientific and technical personnel. The facility supports leading-edge research and technology development, and promotes the mobilization of knowledge and transfer of technology to society. A national research facility requires resource commitments well beyond the capacity of any one institution. A national research facility, whether single-sited, distributed or virtual, is specifically identified or recognized as serving pan-Canadian needs and its governance and management structures reflect this mandate.8

We accept this definition as appropriate for national research facilities to be considered by the Standing Committee on MRFs, but add that the committee should:

• define a capital investment or operating cost level above which such facilities are considered “major” and thus require oversight by this committee (e.g., defined so as to include the national MRFs proposed in Section 6.3: Compute Canada, Canadian Light Source, Canada’s National Design Network, Canadian Research Icebreaker Amundsen, International Vaccine Centre, Ocean Networks Canada, Ocean Tracking Network, and SNOLAB plus the TRIUMF facility); and

• consider international MRFs in which Canada has a significant role, such as astronomical telescopes of global significance.

The structure and function of this Special Standing Committee would closely track the proposal made in 2006 by former NSA [National Science Advisor] Dr Arthur Carty. We return to this topic in Chapter 6. For now, we observe that this approach would involve:

• a peer-reviewed decision on beginning an investment;

• a funded plan for the construction and operation of the facility, with continuing oversight by a peer specialist/agency review group for the specific facility;

• a plan for decommissioning; and

• a regular review scheduled to consider whether the facility still serves current needs.

We suggest that the committee have 10 members, with an eminent scientist as Chair. The members should include the CSA, two representatives from NACRI for liaison, and seven others. The other members should include Canadian and international scientists from a broad range of disciplines and experts on the construction, operation, and administration of MRFs. Consideration should be given to inviting the presidents of NRC [National Research Council of Canada] and CFI to serve as ex-officio members. The committee should be convened by the CSA, have access to the Secretariat associated with the CSA and NACRI, and report regularly to NACRI. (pp. 66-7 print; pp. 100-1 PDF)

I have the impression there’s been some ill feeling over the years regarding some of the major chunks of money given for ‘big science’. At a guess, direct appeals to a federal government that has no official mechanism for assessing the proposed ‘big science’ whether that means a major research facility (e.g., TRIUMF) or major science initiative (e.g., Pan Canadian Artificial Intelligence Strategy [keep reading to find out how I got the concept of a major science initiative wrong]) or 3rd party (MITACS) has seemed unfair to those who have to submit funding applications and go through vetting processes. This recommendation would seem to be an attempt to redress some of the issues.

Moving onto the third-party delivery and matching programs,

Three bodies in particular are the largest of these third-party organizations and illustrate the challenges of evaluating contribution agreements: Genome Canada, Mitacs, and Brain Canada. Genome Canada was created in 2000 at a time when many national genomics initiatives were being developed in the wake of the Human Genome Project. It emerged from a “bottom-up” design process driven by genomic scientists to complement existing programs by focusing on large-scale projects and technology platforms. Its funding model emphasized partnerships and matching funds to leverage federal commitments with the objective of rapidly ramping up genomics research in Canada.

This approach has been successful: Genome Canada has received $1.1 billion from the Government of Canada since its creation in 2000, and has raised over $1.6 billion through co-funding commitments, for a total investment in excess of $2.7 billion.34 The scale of Genome Canada’s funding programs allows it to support large-scale genomics research that the granting councils might otherwise not be able to fund. Genome Canada also supports a network of genomics technology and innovation centres with an emphasis on knowledge translation and has built domestic and international strategic partnerships. While its primary focus has been human health, it has also invested extensively in agriculture, forestry, fisheries, environment, and, more recently, oil and gas and mining— all with a view to the application and commercialization of genomic biotechnology.

Mitacs attracts, trains, and retains HQP [highly qualified personnel] in the Canadian research enterprise. Founded in 1999 as an NCE [Network Centre for Excellence], it was developed at a time when enrolments in graduate programs had flat-lined, and links between mathematics and industry were rare. Independent since 2011, Mitacs has focused on providing industrial research internships and postdoctoral fellowships, branching out beyond mathematics to all disciplines. It has leveraged funding effectively from the federal and provincial governments, industry, and not-for-profit organizations. It has also expanded internationally, providing two-way research mobility. Budget 2015 made Mitacs the single mechanism of federal support for postsecondary research internships with a total federal investment of $135.4 million over the next five years. This led to the wind-down of NSERC’s Industrial Postgraduate Scholarships Program. With matching from multiple other sources, Mitacs’ average annual budget is now $75 to $80 million. The organization aims to more than double the number of internships it funds to 10,000 per year by 2020.35

Finally, Brain Canada was created in 1998 (originally called NeuroScience Canada) to increase the scale of brain research funding in Canada and widen its scope with a view to encouraging interdisciplinary collaboration. In 2011 the federal government established the Canada Brain Research Fund to expand Brain Canada’s work, committing $100 million in new public investment for brain research to be matched 1:1 through contributions raised by Brain Canada. According to the STIC ‘State of the Nation’ 2014 report, Canada’s investment in neuroscience research is only about 40 per cent of that in the U.S. after adjusting for the size of the U.S. economy.36 Brain Canada may be filling a void left by declining success rates and flat funding at CIHR.

Recommendation and Elaboration

The Panel noted that, in general, third-party organizations for delivering research funding are particularly effective in leveraging funding from external partners. They fill important gaps in research funding and complement the work of the granting councils and CFI. At the same time, we questioned the overall efficiency of directing federal research funding through third-party organizations, noting that our consultations solicited mixed reactions. Some respondents favoured more overall funding concentrated in the agencies rather than diverting the funding to third-party entities. Others strongly supported the business models of these organizations.

We have indicated elsewhere that a system-wide review panel such as ours is not well-suited to examine these and other organizations subject to third-party agreements. We recommended instead in Chapter 4 that a new oversight body, NACRI, be created to provide expert advice and guidance on when a new entity might reasonably be supported by such an agreement. Here we make the case for enlisting NACRI in determining not just the desirability of initiating a new entity, but also whether contribution agreements should continue and, if so, on what terms.

The preceding sketches of three diverse organizations subject to contribution agreements help illustrate the rationale for this proposal. To underscore the challenges of adjudication, we elaborate briefly. Submissions highlighted that funding from Genome Canada has enabled fundamental discoveries to be made and important knowledge to be disseminated to the Canadian and international research communities. However, other experts suggested a bifurcation with CIHR or NSERC funding research-intensive development of novel technologies, while Genome Canada would focus on application (e.g., large-scale whole genome studies) and commercialization of existing technologies. From the Panel’s standpoint, these observations underscore the subtleties of determining where and how Genome Canada’s mandate overlaps and departs from that of CIHR and NSERC as well as CFI. Added to the complexity of any assessment is Genome Canada’s meaningful role in providing large-scale infrastructure grants and its commercialization program. Mitacs, even more than Genome Canada, bridges beyond academe to the private and non-profit sectors, again highlighting the advantage of having any review overseen by a body with representatives from both spheres. Finally, as did the other two entities, Brain Canada won plaudits, but some interchanges saw discussants ask when and whether it might be more efficient to flow this type of funding on a programmatic basis through CIHR.

We emphasize that the Panel’s intent here is neither to signal agreement nor disagreement with any of these submissions or discussions. We simply wish to highlight that decisions about ongoing funding will involve expert judgments informed by deep expertise in the relevant research areas and, in two of these examples, an ability to bridge from research to innovation and from extramural independent research to the private and non-profit sectors. Under current arrangements, management consulting firms and public servants drive the review and decision-making processes. Our position is that oversight by NACRI and stronger reliance on advice from content experts would be prudent given the sums involved and the nature of the issues. (pp. 102-4 print; pp. 136-8 PDF)

I wasn’t able to find anything other than this about major science initiatives (MSIs),

Big Science facilities, such as MSIs, have had particular challenges in securing ongoing stable operating support. Such facilities often have national or international missions. We termed them “major research facilities” (MRFs) xi in Chapter 4, and proposed an improved oversight mechanism that would provide lifecycle stewardship of these national science resources, starting with the decision to build them in the first instance. (p. 132 print; p. 166 PDF)

So, an MSI is an MRF? (head shaking) Why two terms for the same thing? And, how does the newly announced Pan Canadian Artificial Intelligence Strategy fit into the grand scheme of things?

The last ‘special case’ I’m featuring is the ‘Programme for Research Chairs for Excellent Scholars and Scientists’. Here’s what the report had to say about the state of affairs,

The major sources of federal funding for researcher salary support are the CRC [Canada Research Chair]and CERC [Canada Excellence Reseach Chair] programs. While some salary support is provided through council-specific programs, these investments have been declining over time. The Panel supports program simplification but, as noted in Chapter 5, we are concerned about the gaps created by the elimination of these personnel awards. While we focus here on the CRC and CERC programs because of their size, profile, and impact, our recommendations will reflect these concerns.

The CRC program was launched in 2000 and remains the Government of Canada’s flagship initiative to keep Canada among the world’s leading countries in higher education R&D. The program has created 2,000 research professorships across Canada with the stated aim “to attract and retain some of the world’s most accomplished and promising minds”5 as part of an effort to curtail the potential academic brain drain to the U.S. and elsewhere. The program is a tri-council initiative with most Chairs allocated to eligible institutions based on the national proportion of total research grant funding they receive from the three granting councils. The vast majority of Chairs are distributed based on area of research, of which 45 per cent align with NSERC, 35 per cent with CIHR, and 20 per cent with SSHRC; an additional special allocation of 120 Chairs can be used in the area of research chosen by the universities receiving the Chairs. There are two types of Chairs: Tier 1 Chairs are intended for outstanding researchers who are recognized as world leaders in their fields and are renewable; Tier 2 Chairs are targeted at exceptional emerging researchers with the potential to become leaders in their field and can be renewed once. Awards are paid directly to the universities and are valued at $200,000 annually for seven years (Tier 1) or $100,000 annually for five years (Tier 2). The program notes that Tier 2 Chairs are not meant to be a feeder group for Tier 1 Chairs; rather, universities are expected to develop a succession plan for their Tier 2 Chairs.

The CERC program was established in 2008 with the expressed aim of “support[ing] Canadian universities in their efforts to build on Canada’s growing reputation as a global leader in research and innovation.”6 The program aims to award world-renowned researchers and their teams with up to $10 million over seven years to establish ambitious research programs at Canadian universities, making these awards among the most prestigious and generous available internationally. There are currently 27 CERCs with funding available to support up to 30 Chairs, which are awarded in the priority areas established by the federal government. The awards, which are not renewable, require 1:1 matching funds from the host institution, and all degree-granting institutions that receive tri-council funding are eligible to compete. Both the CERC and CRC programs are open to Canadians and foreign citizens. However, until the most recent round, the CERCs have been constrained to the government’s STEM-related priorities; this has limited their availability to scholars and scientists from SSHRC-related disciplines. As well, even though Canadian-based researchers are eligible for CERC awards, the practice has clearly been to use them for international recruitment with every award to date going to researchers from abroad.

Similar to research training support, the funding for salary support to researchers and scholars is a significant proportion of total federal research investments, but relatively small with respect to the research ecosystem as a whole. There are more than 45,000 professors and teaching staff at Canada’s universities7 and a very small fraction hold these awards. Nevertheless, the programs can support research excellence by repatriating top Canadian talent from abroad and by recruiting and retaining top international talent in Canada.

The programs can also lead by example in promoting equity and diversity in the research enterprise. Unfortunately, both the CRC and CERC programs suffer from serious challenges regarding equity and diversity, as described in Chapter 5. Both programs have been criticized in particular for under-recruitment of women.

While the CERC program has recruited exclusively from outside Canada, the CRC program has shown declining performance in that regard. A 2016 evaluation of the CRC program8  observed that a rising number of chairholders were held by nominees who originated from within the host institution (57.5 per cent), and another 14.4 per cent had been recruited from other Canadian institutions. The Panel acknowledges that some of these awards may be important to retaining Canadian talent. However, we were also advised in our consultations that CRCs are being used with some frequency to offset salaries as part of regular faculty complement planning.

The evaluation further found that 28.1 per cent of current chairholders had been recruited from abroad, a decline from 32 per cent in the 2010 evaluation. That decline appears set to continue. The evaluation reported that “foreign nominees accounted, on average, for 13 per cent and 15 per cent respectively of new Tier 1 and Tier 2 nominees over the five-year period 2010 to 2014”, terming it a “large decrease” from 2005 to 2009 when the averages respectively were 32 per cent and 31 per cent. As well, between 2010-11 and 2014-15, the attrition rate for chairholders recruited from abroad was 75 per cent higher than for Canadian chairholders, indicating that the program is also falling short in its ability to retain international talent.9

One important factor here appears to be the value of the CRC awards. While they were generous in 2000, their value has remained unchanged for some 17 years, making it increasingly difficult to offer the level of support that world-leading research professors require. The diminishing real value of the awards also means that Chair positions are becoming less distinguishable from regular faculty positions, threatening the program’s relevance and effectiveness. To rejuvenate this program and make it relevant for recruitment and retention of top talent, it seems logical to take two steps:

• ask the granting councils and the Chairs Secretariat to work with universities in developing a plan to restore the effectiveness of these awards; and

• once that plan is approved, increase the award values by 35 per cent, thereby restoring the awards to their original value and making them internationally competitive once again.

In addition, the Panel observes that the original goal was for the program to fund 2,000 Chairs. Due to turnover and delays in filling Chair positions, approximately 10 to 15 per cent of them are unoccupied at any one time.i As a result, the program budget was reduced by $35 million in 2012. However, the occupancy rate has continued to decline since then, with an all-time low of only 1,612 Chair positions (80.6 per cent) filled as of December 2016. The Panel is dismayed by this inefficiency, especially at a time when Tier 2 Chairs remain one of the only external sources of salary support for ECRs [early career researchers]—a group that represents the future of Canadian research and scholarship. (pp. 142-4 print; pp. 176-8 PDF)

I think what you can see as a partial subtext in this report and which I’m attempting to highlight here in ‘special cases’ is a balancing act between supporting a broad range of research inquiries and focusing or pouring huge sums of money into ‘important’ research inquiries for high impact outcomes.

Final comments

There are many things to commend this report including the writing style. The notion that more coordination is needed amongst the various granting agencies, that greater recognition (i.e,, encouragement and funding opportunities) should be given to boundary-crossing research, and that we need to do more interprovincial collaboration is welcome. And yes, they want more money too. (That request is perfectly predictable. When was the last time a report suggested less funding?) Perhaps more tellingly, the request for money is buttressed with a plea to make it partisan-proof. In short, that funding doesn’t keep changing with the political tides.

One area that was not specifically mentioned, except when discussing prizes, was mathematics. I found that a bit surprising given how important the field of mathematics is to  to virtually all the ‘sciences’. A 2013 report, Spotlight on Science, suggests there’s a problem(as noted my Oct. 9, 2013 posting about that report,  (I also mention Canada’s PISA scores [Programme for International Student Assessment] by the OECD [Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development], which consistently show Canadian students at the age of 15 [grade 10] do well) ,

… it appears that we have high drop out rates in the sciences and maths, from an Oct. 8, 2013 news item on the CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) website,

… Canadians are paying a heavy price for the fact that less than 50 per cent of Canadian high school students graduate with senior courses in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) at a time when 70 per cent of Canada’s top jobs require an education in those fields, said report released by the science education advocacy group Let’s Talk Science and the pharmaceutical company Amgen Canada.

Spotlight on Science Learning 2013 compiles publicly available information about individual and societal costs of students dropping out STEM courses early.

Even though most provinces only require math and science courses until Grade 10, the report [Spotlight on Science published by Let’s Talk Science and pharmaceutical company Amgen Canada) found students without Grade 12 math could expect to be excluded from 40 to 75 per cent of programs at Canadian universities, and students without Grade 11 could expect to be excluded from half of community college programs. [emphasis mine]

While I realize that education wasn’t the panel’s mandate they do reference the topic  elsewhere and while secondary education is a provincial responsibility there is a direct relationship between it and postsecondary education.

On the lack of imagination front, there was some mention of our aging population but not much planning or discussion about integrating older researchers into the grand scheme of things. It’s all very well to talk about the aging population but shouldn’t we start introducing these ideas into more of our discussions on such topics as research rather than only those discussions focused on aging?

Continuing on with the lack of  imagination and lack of forethought, I was not able to find any mention of independent scholars. The assumption, as always, is that one is affiliated with an institution. Given the ways in which our work world is changing with fewer jobs at the institutional level, it seems the panel was not focused on important and fra reaching trends. Also, there was no mention of technologies, such as artificial intelligence, that could affect basic research. One other thing from my wish list, which didn’t get mentioned, art/science or SciArt. Although that really would have been reaching.

Weirdly, one of the topics the panel did note, the pitiifull lack of interprovincial scientific collaboration, was completely ignored when it came time for recommendations.

Should you spot any errors in this commentary, please do drop me a comment.

Other responses to the report:

Nassif Ghoussoub (Piece of Mind blog; he’s a professor mathematics at the University of British Columbia; he attended one of the roundtable discussions held by the panel). As you might expect, he focuses on the money end of things in his May 1, 2017 posting.

You can find a series of essays about the report here under the title Response to Naylor Panel Report ** on the Canadian Science Policy Centre website.

There’s also this May 31, 2017 opinion piece by Jamie Cassels for The Vancouver Sun exhorting us to go forth collaborate internationally, presumably with added funding for the University of Victoria of which Cassels is the president and vice-chancellor. He seems not to have noticed that Canadian do much more poorly with interprovincial collaboration.

*ETA June 21, 2017: I’ve just stumbled across Ivan Semeniuk’s April 10, 2017 analysis (Globe and Mail newspaper) of the report. It’s substantive and well worth checking out.*

Again, here’s a link to the other parts:

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

Part 1

Part 2

*’up’ added on June 8, 2017 at 15:10 hours PDT.

**’Science Funding Review Panel Repor’t was changed to ‘Responses to Naylor Panel Report’ on June 22, 2017.

Council of Canadian Academies and science policy for Alberta

The Council of Canadian Academies (CCA) has expanded its approach from assembling expert panels to report on questions posed by various Canadian government agencies (assessments) to special reports from a three-member panel and, now, to a workshop on the province of Alberta’s science policy ideas. From an Oct. 27, 2016 CCA news release (received via email),

The Council of Canadian Academies (CCA) is pleased to announce that it is undertaking an expert panel workshop on science policy ideas under development in Alberta. The workshop will engage national and international experts to explore various dimensions of sub-national science systems and the role of sub-national science policy.

“We are pleased to undertake this project,” said Eric M. Meslin, PhD, FCAHS, President and CEO of the CCA. “It is an assessment that could discuss strategies that have applications in Alberta, across Canada, and elsewhere.”

A two-day workshop, to be undertaken in November 2016, will bring together a multidisciplinary and multi-sectoral group of leading Canadian and international experts to review, validate, and advance work being done on science policy in Alberta. The workshop will explore the necessary considerations when creating science policy at the sub-national level. Specifically it will:

  • Debate and validate the main outcomes of a sub-national science enterprise, particularly in relation to knowledge, human, and social capital.
  • Identify the key elements and characteristics of a successful science enterprise (e.g., funding, trust, capacity, science culture, supporting interconnections and relationships) with a particular focus at a sub-national level.
  • Explore potential intents of a sub-national science policy, important features of such a policy, and the role of the policy in informing investment decisions.

To lead the design of the workshop, complete the necessary background research, and develop the workshop summary report, the CCA has appointed a five member Workshop Steering Committee, chaired by Joy Johnson, FCAHS, Vice President, Research, Simon Fraser University. The other Steering Committee members are: Paul Dufour, Adjunct Professor, Institute for Science, Society and Policy; University of Ottawa, Principal, Paulicy Works; Janet Halliwell, Principal, J.E. Halliwell Associates, Inc.; Kaye Husbands Fealing, Chair and Professor, School of Public Policy, Georgia Tech; and Marc LePage, President and CEO, Genome Canada.

The CCA, under the guidance of its Scientific Advisory Committee, and in collaboration with the Workshop Steering Committee, is now assembling a multidisciplinary, multi-sectoral, group of experts to participate in the two-day workshop. The CCA’s Member Academies – the Royal Society of Canada, the Canadian Academy of Engineering, and the Canadian Academy of Health Sciences – are a key source of membership for expert panels. Many experts are also Fellows of the Academies.

The workshop results will be published in a final summary report in spring 2017. This workshop assessment is supported by a grant from the Government of Alberta.

By comparison with the CCA’s last assessment mentioned here in a July 1, 2016 posting (The State of Science and Technology and Industrial Research and Development in Canada), this workshop has a better balance. The expert panel is being chaired by a woman (the first time I’ve seen that in a few years) and enough female members to add up to 60% representation. No representation from Québec (perhaps not a surprise given this is Alberta) but there is 40% from the western provinces given there is representation from both BC and Alberta. Business can boast 30% (?) with Paul Dufour doing double duty as both academic and business owner. It’s good to see international representation and one day I hope to see it from somewhere other than the US, the UK, and/or the Europe Union. Maybe Asia?

You can find contact information on the CCA’s Towards a Science Policy in Alberta webpage.

One comment, I find the lack of a specific date for the workshop interesting. It suggests either they were having difficulty scheduling or they wanted to keep the ‘unwashed’ away.

Synthetic Aesthetics update and an informal Canadian synthetic biology roundup

Amanda Ruggeri has written a very good introduction to synthetic biology for nonexperts in her May 20, 2015 Globe and Mail article about ‘Designing for the Sixth Extinction’, an exhibit showcasing designs and thought experiments focused on synthetic biology ,

In a corner of Istanbul’s Design Biennial late last year [2014], photographs of bizarre creatures sat alongside more conventional displays of product design and typefaces. Diaphanous globes, like transparent balloons, clung to the mossy trunk of an oak tree. Rust-coloured patterns ran across green leaves, as if the foliage had been decorated with henna. On the forest floor, a slug-like creature slithered, its back dotted with gold markings; in another photograph, what looked like a porcupine without a head crawled over the dirt, its quills tipped blood-red.

But as strange as the creatures looked, what they actually are is even stranger. Not quite living things, not quite machines, these imagined prototypes inhabit a dystopic, future world – a world in which they had been created to solve the problems of the living. The porcupine, for example, is an Autonomous Seed Disperser, described as a device that would collect and disperse seeds to increase biodiversity. The slug would be programmed to seek out acidic soils and neutralize them by dispersing an alkali hygroscopic fluid.

They are the designs – and thought experiments – of London-based Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg, designer, artist and lead author of the book Synthetic Aesthetics: Investigating Synthetic Biology’s Designs on Nature. In her project Designing for the Sixth Extinction, which after Istanbul is now on display at the Design Museum in London, Ginsberg imagines what a synthetic biology-designed world would look like – and whether it’s desirable. “

I have a couple of comments. First, the ‘Synthetic Aesthetics: Investigating Synthetic Biology’s Designs on Nature’ book launch last year was covered here in a May 5, 2014 post. where you’ll notice a number of the academics included in Ruggeri’s article are contributors to the book (but not mentioned as such). Second, I cannot find ‘Design for the Sixth Extinction’ listed as an exhibition on London’s Design Museum website.

Getting back to the matter at hand, not all of the projects mentioned in Ruggeri’s article are ‘art’ projects, there is also this rather practical and controversial initiative,

Designing even more complex organisms is the inevitable, and controversial, next step. And those designs have already begun. The British company Oxitec has designed a sterile male mosquito. When the bugs are released into nature and mate, no offspring result, reducing the population or eliminating it altogether. This could be a solution to dengue fever, a mosquito-carried disease that infects more than 50 million people each year: In field trials in Cayman, Panama and Brazil, the wild population of the dengue-carrying mosquito species was reduced by 90 per cent. Yet, as a genetically engineered solution, it also makes some skittish. The consequences of such manipulations remain unforeseen, they say. Proponents counter that the solution is more elegant, and safer, than the current practice of spraying chemicals.

Even so, the engineered mosquito leads to overarching questions: What are the dangers of tinkering with life? Could this cause a slide toward eugenics? Currently, the field doesn’t have an established ethics oversight process, something some critics are pushing to change.

It’s a surprising piece for the Globe and Mail newspaper to run since it doesn’t have a Canadian angle to it and the Globe and Mail doesn’t specialize in science (not withstanding Ivan Semeniuk’s science articles) or art/science or synthetic biology writing, for that matter. Perhaps it bodes an interest and more pieces on emerging science and technology and on art/science projects?

In any event, it seems like a good time to review some of the synthetic biology work or the centres of activity in Canada.  I believe the last time I tackled this particular topic was in a May 24, 2010 post titled, Canada and synthetic biology in the wake of the first ‘synthetic’ bacteria.

After a brief search, I found three centres for research:

Concordia [University] Centre for Applied Synthetic Biology (CASB)

[University of Toronto] The Synthetic Biology and Cellular Control Lab

[University of British Columbia] Centre for High-Throughput Biology (CHiBi)

Following an Oct. 27 – 28, 2014 UK-Canada Synthetic Biology Workshop held at Concordia University, Rémi Quirion, Vincent Martin, Pierre Meulien and Marc LePage co-wrote a Nov. 4, 2014 Concordia University post titled, How Canada is poised to revolutionize synthetic biology,

Rémi Quirion is the Chief Scientist of Québec, Fonds de recherche du Québec. Vincent Martin is Canada Research Chair in Microbial Genomics and Engineering and a professor in the Department of Biology at Concordia University in Montreal. Pierre Meulien is President and CEO of Genome Canada. Marc LePage is the President and CEO of Génome Québec.

Canada’s research and business communities have an opportunity to become world leaders in a burgeoning field that is fast shaping how we deal with everything from climate change to global food security and the production of lifesaving medications. The science of synthetic biology has the transformative capacity to equip us with novel technology tools and products to build a more sustainable society, while creating new business and employment opportunities for the economy of tomorrow.

We can now decipher the code of life for any organism faster and less expensively than ever before. Canadian scientists are producing anti-malarial drugs from organic materials that increase the availability and decrease the cost of lifesaving medicines. They are also developing energy efficient biofuels to dramatically reduce environmental and manufacturing costs, helping Canadian industry to thrive in the global marketplace.

The groundwork has also been laid for a Canadian revolution in the field. Canada’s scientific community is internationally recognized for its leadership in genomics research and strong partnerships with key industries. Since 2000, Genome Canada and partners have invested more than $2.3 billion in deciphering the genomes of economically important plants, animals and microbes in order to understand how they function. A significant proportion of these funds has been invested in building the technological toolkits that can be applied to synthetic biology.

But science cannot do it alone. Innovation on this scale requires multiple forms of expertise in order to be successful. Research in law, business, social sciences and humanities is vital to addressing questions of ethics, supply chain management, social innovation and cultural adaptation to new technologies. Industry knowledge and investments, as well as the capacity to incentivize entrepreneurship, are key to devising business models that will enable new products to thrive. Governments and funding agencies also need to do their part by supporting multidisciplinary research, training and infrastructure.

It’s a bit ‘hype happy’ for my taste but it does provide some fascinating insight in what seems to be a male activity in Canada.

Counterbalancing that impression is an Oct. 6, 2013 article by Ivan Semeniuk for the Globe and Mail about a University of Lethbridge team winning the top prize in a synthetic biology contest,

If you want to succeed in the scientific revolution of the future, it helps to think about life as a computer program.

That strategy helped University of Lethbridge students walk away with the top prize in a synthetic biology competition Sunday. Often touted as the genetic equivalent of the personal computer revolution, synthetic biology involves thinking about cells as programmable machines that can be designed and built to suit a particular need – whether it’s mass producing a vaccine or breaking down a hazardous chemical in the environment.

The five member Lethbridge team came up with a way to modify how cells translate genetic information into proteins. Rather than one bit of DNA carrying the information to make one protein – the usual way cells go about their business – the method involves inserting a genetic command that jiggles a cell’s translational machinery while it’s in mid-operation, coaxing it to produce two proteins out of the same DNA input.

“We started off with a computer analogy – kind of like zipping your files together – so you’d zip two protein sequences together and therefore save space,” said Jenna Friedt, a graduate student in biochemistry at Lethbridge. [emphasis mine]

There are concerns other than gender issues, chief amongst them, ethics. The Canadian Biotechnology Action Network maintains an information page on Synthetic Biology which boasts this as its latest update,

October 2014: In a unanimous decision of 194 countries, the United Nation’s Convention on Biological Diversity formally urged countries to regulate synthetic biology, a new extreme form of genetic engineering. The landmark decision follows ten days of hard-fought negotiations between developing countries and a small group of wealthy biotech-friendly economies. Until now, synthetic organisms have been developed and commercialized without international regulations. …

Finally, there’s a June 2014 synthetic biology timeline from the University of Ottawa’s Institute for Science, Society, and Policy (ISSP) which contextualizes Canadian research, policy and regulation with Australia, the European Union, the UK, and the US.

(On a closely related note, there’s my May 14, 2015 post about genetic engineering and newly raised concerns.)

2013 (5th annual) Canadian Science Policy Conference announces some new (for this year) initiatives

An Oct. 29, 2013  announcement highlights some of the speakers you can expect at the 2013 (5th annual) Canadian Science Policy Conference (CSPC) being held in Toronto, Ontario from Nov. 20 – 22, 2013. The conference whose overarching theme is ScienceNext: Incubating Innovation and Ingenuity features (Note: I have bolded this year’s new initiatives),,

CSPC 2013 Welcomes Minister Rickford:
We are thrilled to announce that the Honourable Greg Rickford, [Canada’s] Minister of State (Science and Technology, and Federal Economic Development Initiative for Northern Ontario) will speak at CSPC 2013, more details to follow. Be sure not to miss it, register now!

Are you the next Rick Mercer? Bill Nye?
CSPC presents its first ever humorous speech contest, Whose Science is it Anyway? Thursday, November 21st at 9pm. To enter, send your name, contact info and 2-3 lines about your story to aanchal.kamra@gmail.com. Attractive prizes to be won! Deadline: 5pm, Friday, Nov. 15 (Finalists will be notified Monday, Nov. 18)

CSPC is now Accepting Donations:
We are quite pleased to announce that with the generous support from Ryerson University, CSPC can issue charitable tax receipts for donations. If you wish to donate please contact us or visit cspc2013.ca for more details. www.cspc2013.ca

> CONFERENCE HIGHLIGHTS

• 600+ participants, 28 panel sessions, 150+ speakers including:

– Hon. Reza Moridi, MPP,Ontario Minister of Research and Innovation

– John Knubley, Deputy Minister, Industry Canada

– Robert Hardt, President and CEO, Siemens Canada Limited

– Wendy Cukier, Vice President of Research and Innovation, Ryerson University

– Pierre Meulien, President and CEO, Genome Canada

– Paul Young, Vice President Research, University of Toronto

More exciting names are being added to the Program.

Inauguration of the Awards of Excellence in Science Policy – a first in Canada

• 3 pre conference full day workshops/symposiums

– Science Policy Nuts and Bolts
– Science Diplomacy
– Communication of Science

> CONFERENCE HONORARY CO-CHAIRS

• The Honourable Michael H. Wilson, Chairman, Barclays Capital Canada Inc. and Chancellor, University of Toronto

• Mandy Shapansky, President and Chief Executive Officer, Xerox Canada Ltd.

> CSPC 2013 CONFERENCE THEMES

• Private Sector R&D and Innovation: New Realities and New Models

• Emerging Trends: Science & Technology in International Trade and Diplomacy

• Science and Technology Communication

• Graduate Studies and Research Training: Prospects in a Changing Environment

• Emerging Issues in Canadian Science Policy

A couple of comments. I notice that Member of Parliament (NDP) Kennedy Stewart,, the Official Opposition Critic for Science and Technology, and member of the Standing Committee on Industry, Science and Technology, is included as a feature speaker this year. Last year (2012), he held an impromptu, after official conference presentation hours sessions on science policy. Good to see that he’s been included in the official programme for 2013. Perhaps next year (2014) will see the Liberal critic for Science and Technology. Ted Hsu as a speaker.

Pierre Lapointe is another speaker whose name caught my attention as he is the President and Chief Executive Officer of FPInnovations, one of the partners behind CelluForce (the other partner is Domtar), the Canadian nanocrystalline cellulose (NCC, aka, cellulose nanocrystals, CNC) initiative. In my Oct. 3, 2013 posting,  I noted that CelluForce had stopped producing NCC as they had a stockpile of the product. Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like there’ll be any mention of the stockpile since Lapointe is on a panel organized by Genome Canada and titled: The complexity of driving the bio-economy: Genomics, Canada’s natural resources and private-public collaborations.