Tag Archives: Jenara Nerenberg

Brief bit about science in Egypt and brief bit about Iran’s tech fair in Syria

I came across (via Twitter) this article  in Nature magazine about scientists in Egypt and their response to the current protests, ‘Deep fury’ of Egyptian scientists,

As the protests against President Hosni Mubarak gather pace across Egypt, the growing possibility of regime change is inspiring hope among many sectors of the population. The swelling number of protestors has seen academics add their voices to the call for change (see ‘Scientists join protests on streets of Cairo to call for political reform’).

The article goes on to recount a Q & A (Questions and Answers) session with Michael Harms of the German Academic Exchange Service offering his view from Cairo,

How would you describe Egyptian science?

There are many problems. Universities are critically under-funded and academic salaries are so low that most scientists need second jobs to be able to make a living. [emphasis mine] Tourist guides earn more money than most scientists. You just can’t expect world-class research under these circumstances. Also, Egypt has no large research facilities, such as particle accelerators. Some 750,000 students graduate each year and flood the labour market, yet few find suitable jobs – one reason for the current wave of protests.

But there are some good scientists here, particularly those who have been able to study and work abroad for a while. The Egyptian Ministry of Higher Education has started some promising initiatives. For example, in 2007 it created the Science and Technology Development Fund (STDF), a Western-style funding agency. And Egypt is quite strong in renewable energies and, at least in some universities, in cancer research and pharmaceutical research.

(Harms has more interesting comments in the article.) I must say the bit about needing 2nd jobs was an eye-opener for me.

There’s been some talk about the role that social media may or may not played in the civil unrest in Tunisia and Egypt. Jenara Nerenberg in her article, Iran Tech Expo Features Nuclear Might, Doubts, Concerns, for Fast Company, highlights comments from a Nobel Laureate who has no doubts that social media played a role in those countries and suggests the same could occur in Iran.

In fact, Iran is holding a five-day technology fair (starting this Saturday, Feb. 5, 2011) boasting its accomplishments. It has held such fairs before but for the first time Iran is holding its fair in another country, Syria. From Nerenberg’s  Feb. 3, 2011 article,

“Technological achievements” appears to be handy code words for nuclear achievements, based on recent reports and statements. [sic] But rockets, satellites, nanotechnology, and aerospace technology are all expected to be exhibited.

The event also comes at a time when there is growing use of consumer technology for political purposes, as seen in the case of Tunisia and Egypt. Nobel Laureate Shirin Ebadi, in reference to recent events in those two countries, said, “I can tell you that thanks to technology dictators can’t get a good night’s sleep. As to what is going to happen in the future it is too early to say. But I can say the people in Iran are extremely unhappy with the current situation. Iran is like the fire underneath the ashes and the ashes can suddenly make way for the fire at the slightest event.”

I present these two bits because they point to the fact that science and technology are deeply entwined in society and have social impacts that we don’t always understand very well. There have been social uprising and revolutions that owed nothing to “consumer technology”. There are many questions to be asked including, does scientific or technological change somehow foment social unrest? Perhaps we should be calling on the philosophers.

UNESCO, science, and nanotechnology?

It’s funny how you can forget that acronyms are in fact abbreviations and that UNESCO, which I associate with children and culture [ETA Nov. 29, 2010: I appear to have briefly conflated this organization with UNICEF which focuses on children], stands for United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. [emphasis mine] I was reminded of the science part of their mandate with the recent news of a new award. From the Nov. 4, 2010 news item on Azonano,

The first UNESCO Medals “For contributions to the development of nanoscience and nanotechnologies” were awarded on 2 November at Paris headquarters to two laureates: Russian Academician Zhores Ivanovich Alferov, winner of the 2000 Nobel Prize in Physics; and Chunli Bai, Professor of Chemistry at the Laboratory of Molecular Nanostructure and Nanotechnology in Beijing and Executive Vice-President of the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

The information (accompanied by a photograph featuring Irina Bokova [UNESCO Director-General] and Zhores Alferov [recipient able to attend in person])  is also available as a news item on the Nanowerk website. The reason this new medal/award has been established isn’t entirely clearly to me despite this description (from the news items),

The Medal was established at the initiative of the International Commission responsible for developing the Nanoscience and Nanotechnologies theme for the Encyclopedia of Life Support Systems (EOLSS)* published by UNESCO and EOLSS Publishers. This initiative was supported by the Russian Federation’s Permanent Delegation to UNESCO. The EOLSS constitutes one of the world’s biggest web-based archives as a trans-disciplinary science base for sustainable development.

Yesterday (November 10, 2010), UNESCO released its UNESCO Science Report; The Current Status of Science Around the World for 2010. This is the fifth report in the series with the next most recent report in the series being released in 2005. From the UNESCO website page for the report,

Europe, Japan and the USA (the Triad) may still dominate research and development (R&D) but they are increasingly being challenged by the emerging economies and above all by China. This is just one of the findings of the UNESCO Science Report 2010, which is being launched at UNESCO headquarters in Paris today [Nov. 10, 2010].

Written by a team of independent experts who are each covering the country or region from which they hail, the UNESCO Science Report 2010 analyses the trends and developments that have shaped scientific research, innovation and higher education over the past five years, including the impact of the current global economic recession, which has hit the Triad harder than either Brazil, China or India. The report depicts an increasingly competitive environment, one in which the flow of information, knowledge, personnel and investment has become a two-way traffic. Both China and India, for instance, are using their newfound economic might to invest in high-tech companies in Europe and elsewhere to acquire technological expertise overnight. Other large emerging economies are also spending more on research and development than before, among them Brazil, Mexico, South Africa and Turkey.

If more countries are participating in science, we are also seeing a shift in global influence. China is a hair’s breadth away from counting more researchers than either the USA or the European Union, for instance, and now publishes more scientific articles than Japan.

Even countries with a lesser scientific capacity are finding that they can acquire, adopt and sometimes even transform existing technology and thereby ‘leapfrog’ over certain costly investments, such as infrastructure like land lines for telephones. Technological progress is allowing these countries to produce more knowledge and participate more actively than before in international networks and research partnerships with countries in both North and South. This trend is fostering a democratization of science worldwide. In turn, science diplomacy is becoming a key instrument of peace-building and sustainable development in international relations.

I found the report thanks to Jenara Nerenberg’s article, USA to Soon Trail Developing Countries in R&D, Asia on the Rise: UNESCO Report, on the Fast Company website,

The United States has decreased its research and development (R&D) prowess and is increasingly threatened by the scientific capabilities and innovations of developing countries like India and China, indicates a UNESCO report released today. The UNESCO Science Report reveals that Asia has increased its global share of R&D to 32%, up from 27% in 2002, and the global share of R&D out of the EU, Japan, and the U.S. combined has decreased from 83% to 76%, though they remain the leader in number of yearly patents initiated.

The news is in line with recent Fast Company reporting about the decline of America’s competitiveness and dwindling quality of math and science education, as well as emerging “South-South” collaborations between India and African nations, especially in infrastructure development and vaccine research.The changing trends point to the ever-increasing role of India and China and to some extent South Africa in providing the world with leading scientific and technological discoveries.

Canada is also covered in the report. The author, Paul Dufour, is a Canadian science policy expert as per this contributor biography on The Mark website,

Mr. Dufour was most recently based at Natural Resources Canada, on executive interchange from the Canadian-based International Development Research Centre. He was previously the interim Executive Director at the former Office of the National Science Advisor in the federal Government advising on international S&T matters and broad questions of R&D directions for the country. He has a rich experience in addressing the interaction between science and international relations, especially in the context of research capacity with the developing world.

He has travelled extensively; he lectures regularly on science policy; he has authored numerous articles on international S&T relations and Canadian innovation policy. He is series co-editor of the Cartermill Guides to World Science and past North American editor to Outlook on Science Policy.

I have glanced through the report and it notes that Canada provides excellent support and gets correspondingly good results for academic science and that the practice of science research in the industrial sector is poorly supported by Canadian business interests (sometimes termed as a lack of business innovation). Happily, he does discuss the poverty of ‘science culture’  in Canada, albeit briefly,

Developing a science culture

In addition to the pursuit of priority-setting and the examination of its appropriate place in shaping future public policy and investment in innovation and R&D, other debates are emerging. These are centred on improving the science culture and outreach in the country, including by augmenting the participation of women and the Aboriginal population in the knowledge society (Dufour, 2009). Women account for 47% of the labour force and 57% of university graduates but only 20% of doctoral degrees awarded in science and engineering. Some of the responsibility for Canada’s deteriorating appreciation of the value of knowledge centres on its lack of a science culture in its widest form, both in the political realm and among certain segments of the population and research community. There is an antagonism here between what some have termed a ‘politically clueless research community versus a scientifically illiterate political class’. A Science Media Centre has been proposed to improve science communication within the media. Efforts are also under way at various science centres and museums across the country to strengthen public understanding. Events include a National Science and Technology Week and a major physics festival organized by the Perimeter Institute. Some provinces, especially in Quebec, have long-standing traditions and tools in support of science outreach, given the promotion of science in the French language. Overall, however, the science culture gap remains. The scientific communities must share some of the responsibility for this. Often poorly organized, with limited means of outreach and inadequate communication tools, the research lobbies are increasingly faced with having to make a better case for why the future of the country lies with more, rather than less, research and technology – innovation in its broadest sense.

The private sector is also struggling to be more effective in articulating its own needs and concerns over the lack of necessary resources and strategic vision. (p. 74, print & PDF)

I have a few nits to pick but not the time to do it. If you are interested, this chapter on Canada’s science provides a good overview of the national situation and how that compares globally.

Canadian R & D funding review and intellectual property as the Coalition for Action on Innovation in Canada

Rob Annan at the Don’t leave Canada behind blog has issued kudos along with some measured comments about the government’s Oct. 14, 2010 announcement of an expert panel to discuss ideas for greater Canadian business innovation and to review Canada’s research and development (R&D) funding for business,

“Through this panel, our government is taking action to improve its support for innovation and to ensure that investments are effective for Canadian businesses and workers,” said Minister of State Goodyear. “We are committed to helping Canadian businesses acquire the tools they need to grow and create new jobs; this panel will help achieve that goal.”

“Canadian business spends less per capita on research and development, innovation and commercialization than most other industrialized countries, despite the Government of Canada investing more than $7 billion annually to encourage business R&D,” said Minister Blackburn [Jean-Pierre Blackburn, Minister of Veteran Affairs and Minister of State Agriculture (Quebec)]. “This review will help provide recommendations on how the government can bolster Canadian businesses, create jobs and bring new ideas into the market place for the benefit of all Canadians.”

The panel will conduct a comprehensive review of all existing federal support for business R&D to see how this support could be enhanced to make sure federal investments are effective and delivering maximum results for Canadians.

The Research and Development Review Expert Panel is composed of six eminent Canadians chosen for their experience in business, academia and government as well as their knowledge of R&D and innovation practices and policies.

The panel’s chair, Thomas Jenkins, is Executive Chairman and Chief Strategy Officer of Open Text. The other panel members are Dr. Bev Dahlby of the University of Alberta, Dr. Arvind Gupta of the University of British Columbia, Mrs. Monique F. Leroux of the Desjardins Group, Dr. David Naylor of the University of Toronto and Mrs. Nobina Robinson of Polytechnics Canada.

I’m not familiar with anyone on the panel although I have heard of Open Text and the Desjardins Group.

Rob notes, a type of research which has been excluded from the review, in his Oct. 15, 2010 posting,

So, basic research funding through the tricouncil will be untouched by the review. Which is good, since that isn’t where the problems in our innovation pipeline are to be found (there may well be all sorts of problems with basic research funding, but that’s a task for another panel…). It’s in effective knowledge transfer and business R&D where the problems seem to lie. [emphases mine]

As per Don’t leave Canada behind, a group of business people headed up by John Manley and Paul Lucas, Coalition for Action on Innovation in Canada, announced on October 14, 2010 (the same day as the expert panel was announced) a plan with recommendations to achieve the same goals. (You can download the plan from here.) From Rob’s posting,

A coalition of Canadian business leaders and high-profile academic administrators is working to frame the discussion. The blue-chip membership released a set of recommendations yesterday (the timing not coincidental) for how it wants the government to act. My sense is that their plan includes too much of “more of the same” recommendations – expanding SRED, expanding tax credits for innovation investment – rather than any really innovative ideas.

Like Rob, I too took a very quick look at the plan. I agree that there’s a lot of the ‘same old, same old’ recommendations and what popped out for me was the insistence on this,

Adopt the world’s strongest intellectual property regime.

A robust climate for innovation is only possible if Canada’s regulatory processes encourage the development and launch of innovative products and if our laws ensure that inventors and those who invest in their ideas can fairly reap the rewards of their work. Canada should aim for a reputation as the best place in the world in which to research, develop and bring to market new products and processes. To achieve that goal, it is imperative that Canada seize current opportunities to improve its protection of intellectual property and thereby create a more attractive environment for investment in innovation. Beyond legal and regulatory changes, businesses need consistent, timely and relevant treatment of intellectual property developed at post-secondary institutions. IP policies at institutions and granting agencies, including those dealing with disclosure and licensing, must facilitate collaborative research and encourage innovation. The business and academic sectors should launch a national dialogue aimed at creating a clear and consistent framework for IP agreements between individual companies and institutions.

The word ‘strongest’ in these contexts tends to be a synonym for control by whichever interest holds the patent. Heavy (strong?) control over IP (intellectual property) will mean less innovation and competition. Take for example India and its anti-retroviral drugs (my posting of Oct. 1, 2010 featuring an excerpt from Jenara Nerenberg’s article on the Fast Company website),

… The massive, low-cost ARV [anti-retrovirus] production industry in India has been made possible by the country’s patent laws. “Indian laws did not grant patents on a product, but only on a process to make it, which helped its drug firms to make cheaper versions and improved formulations using alternative methods,” SciDev.net reports.

But not everyone in the world sees those laissez faire patent laws as a good thing. India is in ongoing discussions with the World Trade Organization and the EU, but there is fear that increased patent requirements may dismantle the country’s thriving ARV production industry.

Note the difference between ‘strong’ and ‘laissez faire’ and the results in India. Personally, I’d like to see the world’s most balanced and flexible IP regime.  If you have ideas about what you’d like to see considered in the review or recommendations of your own, check out Rob’s blog and contribute to his comments section where you’ll find some of my comments (once they’re moderated).

Patents and innovation; should Canada take its cue from India?

Anti-retroviral drugs are invaluable therapy for  AIDS patients and the world is dependent on India for a cheap supply of the drugs. According to an article (Indian Trade Agreements Could Choke AIDS Drug Lifeline) by Jenara Nerenberg on the Fast Company website, this access could be jeopardized,

India is the primary supplier of anti-retroviral (ARVs) AIDS drugs in middle and low-income countries. And a report from the Journal of the International AIDS Society reveals just how catastrophic it would be if somehow that supply were to get cut off due to political, trade, or disaster-related causes: In some countries, up to 90% of children with AIDS are dependent on India’s cheap, generic drugs.

… The massive, low-cost ARV production industry in India has been made possible by the country’s patent laws. “Indian laws did not grant patents on a product, but only on a process to make it, which helped its drug firms to make cheaper versions and improved formulations using alternative methods,” SciDev.net reports. [emphasis mine]

But not everyone in the world sees those laissez faire patent laws as a good thing. India is in ongoing discussions with the World Trade Organization and the EU, but there is fear that increased patent requirements may dismantle the country’s thriving ARV production industry.

Interesting that a demand to patent products would mean less competition. If India’s experience with anti-retroviral drugs is any indicator, while patenting products gives you more patents (handy when countries are comparing scientific leadership by measuring the number of patents [amongst other criteria] that have been filed) patenting a process leads to more competition or should we call it innovation.

If there’s interest in innovation/competition (something the Canadian politicians and government agencies are very concerned about stimulating) then, I think Canada should look to India and its experience with anti-retroviral drugs for inspiration.

Ask a museum curator today, Sept. 1, 2010

There’s a special Twitter event called, Ask a museum curator. From the article on the Fast Company website by Jenara Nerenberg,

“The inspiration is really a frustration I guess; in the museum world you have a movement towards more open and engaging museums which is often referred to as Museum 2.0 — the idea that a museum can evolve and get better by interacting and involving the public,” says [Jim] Richardson [Sumo design company], whose design firm works mostly in the arts and creative sciences.

“In too many institutions social media is seen only as a marketing tool, and people like curators don’t seem to be given the chance or want to use this kind of digital tool to engage with the public. With Ask a Curator we are, on mass, taking Twitter out of the marketing department and putting it in the hands of curators, and at the same time giving the public the chance to hear about interesting subjects from these passionate individuals,” he continues.

Richardson has pulled together all kinds of museums (art, science, health, police, etc.) from around the world  for today.  You visit the Ask a Curator website here or if you want to view the conversations you can go here.  You do have to be a member (or join) to participate in the conversations.

ETA: Took a quick look at the convo, not too excited right now but maybe it will pick up. I was surprised at the amount of obscenity but then I wasn’t expecting to see any on this type of a feed. Who knew?

Scientists as thieves

The movies tend to portray scientists as naïve fools/hapless pawns or villains. There is a little bit of truth in these portrayals, at least for the villains, as Sarah Rose’s new book about Robert Fortune, For All the Tea in China, makes clear.

Previewed in an article by Jenara Nerenberg on Fast Company, the book lays out the means by which the British government got its hands on the tea plant and secret to producing to tea. From the article,

Sarah Rose is the author of For All the Tea in China, which tells the true story of how tea and industrial espionage fueled the great expansion of the British Empire and the East India Company in the 1800s. The book focuses on one central character, Robert Fortune, who was a scientist sent by the British government to literally steal the secret of tea production from China, plant the Chinese tea in Darjeeling, and thus make the British Empire less reliant on trade with the Chinese and more self-sufficient by harvesting its own tea in colonial India.

Rose, in response to a question about contemporary as opposed to 19th century industrial espionage had this to say (from the article),

The vast majority the microchips for computers in America are manufactured in China–including those for the U.S. military. This creates a ridiculously high risk of espionage. Those circuits are just too small for us to know how really bad it might be, but from what I understand from the defense and trade communities, it’s a top worry. Meanwhile, the US’s relationship with China is thoroughly interdependent, as was Britain’s in the 19th Century. China owns a lot of our debt, so it loans us the money to buy the stuff China needs to export as it manufactures its way out of the poverty cycle. The two countries don’t necessarily like each other, but they need each other. When each player is so suspicious, it multiplies the competitive advantages of espionage and secrecy.

Most of the article is about tea and Robert Fortune who apparently dressed up as a Chinese Mandarin and fought off pirates in his pursuit of the plant. The focus for the book is on an adventure story and I haven’t seen any mention yet of the ramifications this theft might have had on China’s (nor for that matter India’s) economy and subsequent history.

The Wikipedia essay on Robert Fortune offers a far less colourful story,

Robert Fortune (16 September 1812 – 13 April 1880) was a Scottish botanist and traveller best known for introducing tea plants from China to India.

While the essay goes on to mention his exploits and makes it clear that he obtained the tea plants illegally, it stops short of accusing the British government and Fortune of theft and industrial espionage.

If you’re interested in Rose’s book, there’s a video trailer where she describes the story,

There’s more at Rose’s website.

This all reminds me of a course about technology transfer taught by Pat Howard (Simon Fraser University, Vancouver, Canada). We spent a fair amount of time talking about agriculture and seeds which surprised me mightily as I expected to be talking about computers and stuff.

Amongst other tasty tidbits, Pat mentioned that the Dutch burned out islands they didn’t own so they could destroy specific species of plants and retain control of the trade in spices that grew in their own territories.