Tag Archives: Margaret Munro

Hummingbirds and ‘nano’ spy cameras

Hummingbird-inspired spy cameras have come a long way since the research featured in this Aug. 12, 2011 posting which includes a video of a robot camera designed to look like a hummingbird and mimic some of its extraordinary flying abilities. These days (2014) the emphasis appears to be on mimicking the abilities to a finer degree if Margaret Munro’s July 29, 2014 article for Canada.com is to be believed,

Tiny, high-end military drones are catching up with one of nature’s great engineering masterpieces.

A side-by-side comparison has found a “remarkably similar” aerodynamic performance between hummingbirds and the Black Hornet, the most sophisticated nano spycam yet.

“(The) Average Joe hummingbird” is about on par with the tiny helicopter that is so small it can fit in a pocket, says engineering professor David Lentink, at Stanford University. He led a team from Canada [University of British Columbia], the U.S. and the Netherlands [Wageningen University and Eindhoven University of Technology] that compared the birds and the machine for a study released Tuesday [July 29, 2014].

For a visual comparison with the latest nano spycam (Black Hornet), here’s the ‘hummingbird’ featured in the 2011 posting,

The  Nano Hummingbird, a drone from AeroVironment designed for the US Pentagon, would fit into any or all of those categories.

And, here’s this 2013 image of a Black Hornet Nano Helicopter inspired by hummingbirds,

Black Hornet Nano Helicopter UAVView licenseview terms Richard Watt - Photo http://www.defenceimagery.mod.uk/fotoweb/fwbin/download.dll/45153802.jpgCourtesy: Wikipedia

Black Hornet Nano Helicopter UAVView licenseview terms
Richard Watt – Photo http://www.defenceimagery.mod.uk/fotoweb/fwbin/download.dll/45153802.jpg Courtesy: Wikipedia

A July 30, 2014 Stanford University news release by Bjorn Carey provides more details about this latest research into hummingbirds and their flying ways,

More than 42 million years of natural selection have turned hummingbirds into some of the world’s most energetically efficient flyers, particularly when it comes to hovering in place.

Humans, however, are gaining ground quickly. A new study led by David Lentink, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at Stanford, reveals that the spinning blades of micro-helicopters are about as efficient at hovering as the average hummingbird.

The experiment involved spinning hummingbird wings – sourced from a pre-existing museum collection – of 12 different species on an apparatus designed to test the aerodynamics of helicopter blades. The researchers used cameras to visualize airflow around the wings, and sensitive load cells to measure the drag and the lift force they exerted, at different speeds and angles.

Lentink and his colleagues then replicated the experiment using the blades from a ProxDynamics Black Hornet autonomous microhelicopter. The Black Hornet is the most sophisticated microcopter available – the United Kingdom’s army uses it in Afghanistan – and is itself about the size of a hummingbird.

Even spinning like a helicopter, rather than flapping, the hummingbird wings excelled: If hummingbirds were able to spin their wings to hover, it would cost them roughly half as much energy as flapping. The microcopter’s wings kept pace with the middle-of-the-pack hummingbird wings, but the topflight wings – those of Anna’s hummingbird, a species common throughout the West Coast – were still about 27 percent more efficient than engineered blades.

Hummingbirds acing the test didn’t particularly surprise Lentink – previous studies had indicated hummingbirds were incredibly efficient – but he was impressed with the helicopter.

“The technology is at the level of an average Joe hummingbird,” Lentink said. “A helicopter is really the most efficient hovering device that we can build. The best hummingbirds are still better, but I think it’s amazing that we’re getting closer. It’s not easy to match their performance, but if we build better wings with better shapes, we might approximate hummingbirds.”

Based on the measurements of Anna’s hummingbirds, Lentink said there is potential to improve microcopter rotor power by up to 27 percent.

The high-fidelity experiment also provided an opportunity to refine previous rough estimates of muscle power. Lentink’s team learned that hummingbirds’ muscles produce a surprising 130 watts of energy per kilogram; the average for other birds, and across most vertebrates, is roughly 100 watts/kg.

Although the current study revealed several details of how a hummingbird hovers in one place, the birds still hold many secrets. For instance, Lentink said, we don’t know how hummingbirds maintain their flight in a strong gust, how they navigate through branches and other clutter, or how they change direction so quickly during aerial “dogfights.”

He also thinks great strides could be made by studying wing aspect ratios, the ratio of wing length to wing width. The aspect ratios of all the hummingbirds’ wings remarkably converged around 3.9. The aspect ratios of most wings used in aviation measure much higher; the Black Hornet’s aspect ratio was 4.7.

“I want to understand if aspect ratio is special, and whether the amount of variation has an effect on performance,” Lentink said. Understanding and replicating these abilities and characteristics could be a boon for robotics and will be the focus of future experiments.

“Those are the things we don’t know right now, and they could be incredibly useful. But I don’t mind it, actually,” Lentink said. “I think it’s nice that there are still a few things about hummingbirds that we don’t know.”

Agreed, it’s nice to know there are still a few mysteries left. You can watch the ‘mysterious’ hummingbird in this video courtesy of the Rivers Ingersoll Lentink Lab at Stanford University,

High speed video of Anna’s hummingbird at Stanford Arizona Cactus Garden.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper, H/T to Nancy Owano’s article on phys.org for alerting me to this story.

Hummingbird wing efficacy depends on aspect ratio and compares with helicopter rotors by Jan W. Kruyt, Elsa M. Quicazán-Rubio, GertJan F. van Heijst, Douglas L. Altshuler, and David Lentink.  J. R. Soc. Interface 6 October 2014 vol. 11 no. 99 20140585 doi: 10.1098/​rsif.2014.0585 Published [online] 30 July 2014

This is an open access paper.

Despite Munro’s reference to the Black Hornet as a ‘nano’ spycam, the ‘microhelicopter’ description in the news release places the device at the microscale (/1,000,000,000). Still, I don’t understand what makes it microscale since it’s visible to the naked eye. In any case, it is small.

Silence of the Labs (exposé) a Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) television event scheduled for January 10, 2014

I’ve perhaps overstated the case by calling the upcoming telecast ‘Silence of the Labs’ an event,. For many people in the Canadian science community, it will be an event but for most of the television audience it’s simply the first new episode of the Fifth Estate’s 2014 schedule. (For anyone unfamiliar with the Fifth Estate, it’s the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s [CBC] longest running, 39th season, and most prestigious investigative journalism television programme.)

Assuming there are some people who haven’t been following this story about the ‘silencing’ of Canada’s scientists or censorship as it has been called, here’s a précis (and if you’ve been following it more closely than I have and note any errors or have any additions, please do use the commenting option (Note: Due to spam issues, I moderate comments so it may take a few hours or more [I don’t usually check the blog on the weekends]  before your comments appear.)

I think my earliest mention of the topic was in 2009 (Sept. 21, 2009; scroll down to the last paragraph). At this point, the Conservative government  had put a ‘muzzle’ on government scientists working for Environment Canada not allowing them to speak directly to media representatives about their work. All questions were to be directed to ministry communications officers. In fact, the muzzle was first discussed in a National Post Jan. 31, 200-8 article by Margaret Munro (which predates this blog’s existence by a few months). In a Sept. 16, 2013 posting, I featured the then recent muzzling of Natural Resources Canada, a story which was first covered by Margaret Munro. My understanding is that Health Canada had also been ‘muzzled’ but that was done earlier by the Liberal government when it was in power.

My colleague, David Bruggemen (Pasco Phronesis blog) disagrees with the contention by many in the Canadian science community that these ‘muzzles’ constitute a form of censorship. In addition to the postings he has made on his blog he also commented on my March 7, 2012 posting (I linked to one of David’s postings on the topic and included an excerpt from it) where I discussed my failure to get answers to questions from an institution located on the University of British Columbia lands and linked it to the ‘muzzle’. In that context,, I mused about censorship.

Since 2012 the focus seems to have shifted from media representatives being able to get direct and uninhibited access to scientists to the public’s right to know and attempts to ‘shut down’ scientific inquiry. In July 2012, there was a rally in Ottawa called Death of Evidence (discussed in both my July 10, 2012 posting and my July 13, 2012 posting followed by a 2013 cross Canada event, Stand up for Science described in my Oct. 4, 2013 posting. As I noted in that posting, most of the science being ‘censored’ or ‘attacked’ is environmental. Institutions such as the Perimeter Institute (theoretical physics)  in Ontario and TRIUMF, Canada’s National Laboratory for Particle and Nuclear Physics in British Columbia have done very well under the Conservative government.

with all that, here’s a preview (51 seconds) of the Silence of the Labs,

You can find out more about the episode here and, if you should miss the telecast, you’ll probably be able to watch later on the Fifth Estate’s CBC  Player webpage. As for the ‘Silence of the Labs” (hat off for the pun), I believe it will be broadcast at 9 pm regardless of timezone on the local CBC channel across most of the country; I assume that as usual Newfoundland will enjoy the telecast at 9:30 pm.

Science communication strategies and muzzles on Canadian scientists

A friend of mine phoned to tell me about Mark Hume’s Jan. 23, 2012 column (for the Globe and Mail) about science writers and the Canadian government’s policy of not allowing the writers to communicate directly with their scientists. I searched for the piece since I wondered if I’d missed any news about the situation since last summer.

I agree with a great deal of what Hume has to say about it all. He discusses some of the problems writers have encountered since these policies have been instituted and mentions Kathryn O’Hara’s 2010 letter protesting the situation on behalf of the Canadian Science Writers’ Association (CSWA). From the Jan. 23, 2012 column by Hume,

The CSWA represents more than 500 science journalists, publicists and authors in Canada. Ms. O’Hara recounted a series of incidents that occurred during the year leading up to her letter in which requests for interviews with researchers had been bluntly refused by public affairs handlers, or thwarted by them through endless bureaucratic delays.

The most egregious incident that I’ve come across was the one with Kristina (Kristi) Miller, a Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) scientist. From Hume’s Jan. 23, 2012 column,

The government’s stifling of Dr. Miller was so extreme that she was even told by DFO officials not to attend workshops at which experts were discussing salmon issues, out of fear media might attend and hear what she had to say.

I did mention the incident with Miller in an Aug. 19, 2011 posting (scroll down approximately 2/3 of the way) where I was giving an overview of scientific integrity policies in the US.

Briefly, Miller’s work was being read in that month’s issue of Science magazine, which is published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), and she was getting interview requests which were declined by the Privy Council Office. (For anyone unfamiliar with Privy Council Office, it supports the Prime Minister’s Office, in this case, Stephen Harper’s office.)

That big kerfuffle was six months ago (July 2011 was when Margaret Munro broke the story) and O’Hara’s letter was first published in Nature, Sept. 29, 2010. Why is Hume writing about this situation now?

There is no fresh incident to set off further discussion. Naturally, one expects that science writers are still upset given they deal with these policies on a daily basis but frustrations of this order are usually not considered worthy of news or column space.

I wonder if this is the beginning of a campaign by the CSWA being timed to coincide with the AAAS (American Association for the Advancement of Science) 2012 meeting.

2011 Scientific integrity processes: the US and Canada

Given recent scientific misconduct  (July is science scandal month [July 25 2011] post at The Prodigal Academic blog) and a very slow news month this August,  I thought I’d take a look at scientific integrity in the US and in Canada.

First, here’s a little history. March 9, 2009 US President Barack Obama issued a Presidential Memorandum on Scientific Integrity (excerpted),

Science and the scientific process must inform and guide decisions of my Administration on a wide range of issues, including improvement of public health, protection of the environment, increased efficiency in the use of energy and other resources, mitigation of the threat of climate change, and protection of national security.

The public must be able to trust the science and scientific process informing public policy decisions.  Political officials should not suppress or alter scientific or technological findings and conclusions.  If scientific and technological information is developed and used by the Federal Government, it should ordinarily be made available to the public.  To the extent permitted by law, there should be transparency in the preparation, identification, and use of scientific and technological information in policymaking.  The selection of scientists and technology professionals for positions in the executive branch should be based on their scientific and technological knowledge, credentials, experience, and integrity.

December 17, 2010 John P. Holdren, Assistant to the President for Science and Technology and Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy,  issued his own memorandum requesting compliance with the President’s order (from the Dec. 17, 2010 posting on The White House blog),

Today, in response to the President’s request, I am issuing a Memorandum to the Heads of Departments and Agencies that provides further guidance to Executive Branch leaders as they implement Administration policies on scientific integrity. The new memorandum describes the minimum standards expected as departments and agencies craft scientific integrity rules appropriate for their particular missions and cultures, including a clear prohibition on political interference in scientific processes and expanded assurances of transparency. It requires that department and agency heads report to me on their progress toward completing those rules within 120 days.

Here’s my edited version (I removed fluff, i.e. material along these lines: scientific integrity is of utmost importance …) of the list Holdren provided,

Foundations

  1. Ensure a culture of scientific integrity.
  2. Strengthen the actual and perceived credibility of Government research. Of particular importance are (a) ensuring that selection of candidates for scientific positions in executive branch is based primarily on their scientific and technological knowledge, credentials, experience, and integrity, (b) ensuring that data and research used to support policy decisions undergo independent peer review by qualified experts where feasibly and appropriate, and consistent with law, (c) setting clear standards governing conflicts, and (d) adopting appropriate whistleblower protections.
  3. Facilitate the free flow of scientific and technological information, consistent with privacy and classification standards. … Consistent with the Administration’s Open Government Initiative, agencies should expand and promote access to scientific and technological information by making it available  online in open formats. Where appropriate, this should include data and models underlying regulatory proposals and policy decisions.
  4. Establish principles for conveying scientific and technological information to the public. … Agencies should communicate scientific and technological findings by including a clear explication of underlying assumptions; accurate contextualization of uncertainties; and a description of the probabilities associated with optimistic and pessimistic projections, including best-case and worst-case scenarios where appropriate.

Public communication

  1. In response to media interview requests about the scientific and technological dimensions of their work, agencies will offer articulate and knowledgeable spokespersons who can, in an objective and nonpartisan fashion, describe and explain these dimension to the media and the American people.
  2. Federal scientists may speak to the media and the public about scientific and technological matters based on their official work, with appropriate coordination with their immediate supervisor and their public affairs office. In no circumstance may public affairs officers ask or direct Federal scientists to alter scientific findings.
  3. Mechanisms are in place to resolve disputes that arise from decisions to proceed or not to proceed  with proposed interviews or other public information-related activities. …

(The sections on Federal Advisory Committees and professional development were less relevant to this posting, so I haven’t included them here.)

It seems to have taken the agencies a little longer than the 120 day deadline that John Holdren gave them but all (or many of the agencies) have complied according to an August 15, 2011 posting by David J. Hanson on the Chemical & Engineering News (C&EN) website,

OSTP director John P. Holdren issued the call for the policies on May 5 in response to a 2009 Presidential memorandum (C&EN, Jan. 10, page 28). [emphasis mine] The memorandum was a response to concerns about politicization of science during the George W. Bush Administration.

The submitted integrity plans include 14 draft policies and five final policies. The final policies are from the National Aeronautics & Space Administration, the Director of National Intelligences for the intelligence agencies, and the Departments of Commerce, Justice, and Interior.

Draft integrity policies are in hand from the Departments of Agriculture, Defense, Education, Energy, Homeland Security, Health & Human Services, Labor, and Transportation and from the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration, National Science Foundation, Environmental Protection Agency, Social Security Administrations, OSTP, and Veterans Administration.

The drafts still under review are from the Department of State, the Agency for International Development, and the National Institute of Standards & Technology.

The dates in this posting don’t match up with what I’ve found but it’s possible that the original deadline was moved to better accommodate the various reporting agencies. In any event, David Bruggeman at his Pasco Phronesis blog has commented on this initiative in a number of posts including this August 10, 2011 posting,

… I’m happy to see something out there at all, given the paltry public response from most of the government.  Comments are open until September 6.Regrettably, the EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] policy falls into a trap that is all too common.  The support of scientific integrity is all too often narrowly assumed to simply mean that agency (or agency-funded) scientists need to behave, and there will be consequences for demonstrated bad behavior.

But there is a serious problem of interference from non-scientific agency staff that would go beyond reasonable needs for crafting the public message.

David goes on to discuss a lack of clarity in this policy and in the Dept. of the Interior’s policy.

His August 11, 2011 posting notes the OSTP claims that 19 departments/agencies have submitted draft or final policies,

… Not only does the OSTP blog post not include draft or finalized policies submitted to their office, it fails to mention any timeframe for making them publicly available.  Even more concerning, there is no mention of those policies that have been publicly released.  That is, regrettably, consistent with past practice. While the progress report notes that OSTP will create a policy for its own activities, and that OSTP is working with the Office of Management and Budget on a policy for all of the Executive Office of the President, there’s no discussion of a government-wide policy.

In the last one of his recent series, the August 12, 2011 posting focuses on a Dept. of Commerce memo (Note: The US Dept. of Commerce includes the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Institute of Standards and Technology),

“This memorandum confirms that DAO 219-1 [a Commerce Department order concerning scientific communications] allows scientists to engage in oral fundamental research communications (based on their official work) with the media and the public without notification or prior approval to their supervisor or to the Office of Public Affairs. [emphasis David Bruggeman] Electronic communications with the media related to fundamental research that are the equivalent of a dialogue are considered to be oral communications; thus, prior approval is not required for  scientist to engage in online discussions or email with the media about fundamental research, subject to restrictions on protected nonpublic information as set forth in 219-1.”

I find the exercise rather interesting especially in light of Margaret Munro’s July 27, 2011 article, Feds silence scientist over salmon study, for Postmedia,

Top bureaucrats in Ottawa have muzzled a leading fisheries scientist whose discovery could help explain why salmon stocks have been crashing off Canada’s West Coast, according to documents obtained by Postmedia News.

The documents show the Privy Council Office, which supports the Prime Minister’s Office, stopped Kristi Miller from talking about one of the most significant discoveries to come out of a federal fisheries lab in years.

Science, one of the world’s top research journals, published Miller’s findings in January. The journal considered the work so significant it notified “over 7,400” journalists worldwide about Miller’s “Suffering Salmon” study.

The documents show major media outlets were soon lining up to speak with Miller, but the Privy Council Office said no to the interviews.

In a Twitter conversation with me, David Bruggeman did note that the Science paywall also acts as a kind of muzzle.

I was originally going to end the posting with that last paragraph but I made a discovery, quite by accident. Canada’s Tri-Agency Funding Councils opened a consultation with stakeholders on Ethics and Integrity for Institutions, Applicants, and Award Holders on August 15, 2011 which will run until September 30, 2011. (This differs somewhat from the US exercise which is solely focussed on science as practiced in various government agencies.  The equivalent in Canada would be if Stephen Harper requested scientific integrity guidelines from the Ministries of Environment, Natural Resources, Health, Industry, etc.) From the NSERC Ethics and Integrity Guidelines page,

Upcoming Consultation on the Draft Tri-Agency Framework: Responsible Conduct of Research

The Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC), and NSERC (the tri-agencies) continue to work on improving their policy framework for research and scholarly integrity, and financial accountability. From August 15 to September 30, 2011, the three agencies are consulting with a wide range of stakeholders in the research community on the draft consultation document, Tri-Agency Framework: Responsible Conduct of Research.

I found the answers to these two questions in the FAQs particularly interesting,

  • What are some of the new elements in this draft Framework?

The draft Framework introduces new elements, including the following:

A strengthened Tri-Agency Research Integrity Policy
The draft Framework includes a strengthened Tri-Agency Research Integrity Policy that clarifies the responsibilities of the researcher.

‘Umbrella’ approach to RCR
The draft Framework provides an overview of all applicable research policies, including those related to the ethical conduct of research involving humans and financial management, as well as research integrity. It also clarifies the roles and responsibilities of researchers, institutions and Agencies in responding to all types of alleged breaches of Agency policies, for example, misuse of funds, unethical conduct of research involving human participants or plagiarism.

A definition of a policy breach
The draft Framework clarifies what constitutes a breach of an Agency policy.

Disclosure
The draft Framework requires researchers to disclose, at the time of application, whether they have ever been found to have breached any Canadian or other research policies, regardless of the source of funds that supported the research and whether or not the findings originated in Canada or abroad.

The Agencies are currently seeking advice from privacy experts on the scope of the information to be requested.

Institutional Investigations
The Agencies currently specify that institutional investigation committee membership must exclude those in conflict of interest. The draft Framework stipulates also that an investigation committee must include at least one member external to the Institution, and that an Agency may conduct its own review or compliance audit, or require the Institution to conduct an independent review/audit.

Timeliness of investigation
Currently, it is up to institutions to set timelines for investigations. The draft Framework states that inquiry and investigation reports are to be submitted to the relevant Agency within two and seven months, respectively, following receipt of the allegation by the institution.

  • Who is being consulted?

The Agencies have targeted their consultation to individual researchers, post-secondary institutions and other eligible organizations that apply for and receive Agency funding.

As far as I can tell, there is no mention of ethical issues where the government has interfered in the dissemination of scientific information; it seems there is an assumption that almost all ethical misbehaviour is on that part of the individual researcher or a problem with an institution following policy. There is one section devoted breaches by institutions (all two paragraphs of it),

5 Breaches of Agency Policies by Institutions

In accordance with the MOU signed by the Agencies and each Institution, the Agencies require that each Institution complies with Agency policies as a condition of eligibility to apply for and administer Agency funds.

The process followed by the Agencies to address an allegation of a breach of an Agency policy by an Institution, and the recourse that the Agencies may exercise, commensurate with the severity of a confirmed breach, are outlined in the MOU.

My criticism of this is similar to the one that David Bruggeman made of the US policies in that the focus is primarily on the individual.

One more muzzle for Canadian government scientists

It’s a wee bit puzzling as to why government scientist (Natural Resources Canada), Scott Dallimore had to get permission from the minister before talking to journalists about his co-authored study featuring a flood in northern Canada that took place 13,000 years ago. From the article by Margaret Munro for PostMedia News on canada.com (ETA Jan. 6, 2014: Munro’s article seems to have been removed for all the news sites but it  can be found on her own blog here.)

NRCan [Natural Resources Canada] scientist Scott Dallimore co-authored the study, published in the journal Nature on April 1, about a colossal flood that swept across northern Canada 13,000 years ago, when massive ice dams gave way at the end of the last ice age.

The study was considered so newsworthy that two British universities issued releases to alert the international media.

It was, however, deemed so sensitive in Ottawa that Dallimore, who works at NRCan’s laboratories outside Victoria, was told he had to wait for clearance from the minister’s office.

Dallimore tried to tell the department’s communications managers the flood study was anything but politically sensitive. “This is a blue sky science paper,” he said in one email, noting: “There are no anticipated links to minerals, energy or anthropogenic climate change.”

But the bureaucrats in Ottawa insisted. “We will have to get the minister’s office approval before going ahead with this interview,” Patti Robson, the department’s media relations manager, wrote in an email after a reporter from Postmedia News (then Canwest News Service) approached Dallimore.

Robson asked Dallimore to provide the reporter’s questions and “the proposed responses,” saying: “We will send it up to MO (minister’s office) for approval.” Robson said interviews about the flood study needed ministerial approval for two reasons: the inquiring reporter represented a “national news outlet” and the “subject has wide-ranging implications.”

At this point Environment Canada and Health Canada have similar rules in place for their scientists and any potential media interviews. I have commented on a similar situation previously in my Sept. 21 2009 posting, which includes a link to an earlier story by Margaret Munro about Environment Canada and its gag order.

I gather the scientists can discuss the gag order without recourse to the ‘Minister’s Office’, they just can’t discuss their own work. That seems rather odd especially in light of a government that loves to trumpet its investment in science. If the public never gets to hear about the exciting discoveries that our publicly funded scientists are making, how can the government expect to get support for its science spending policies?

Canada and synthetic biology in the wake of the first ‘synthetic’ bacteria

Margaret Munro’s excellent article on Craig Venter’s recently published synthetic biology achievement provides some Canadian perspective on the field as a whole. Titled as Synthetic genome inspires both awe and apprehension in the Vancouver Sun’s (it was titled elsewise in other CanWest publications), May 21, 2010 edition, the article offers,

“It is a remarkable technological feat,” said University of Toronto bioengineer Elizabeth Edwards.

“It’s paradigm-shifting,” said University of Calgary bioethicist and biochemist Gregor Wolbring, adding the fast-moving field of synthetic biology is ushering in “cyber” cells and life.

It could be as “transformative” as the computer revolution, said Andrew Hessel, of the Pink Army Cooperative, an Albertabased initiative promoting doit-yourself bioengineering.

Hessel said Venter deserves the Nobel Prize for his pioneering work in creating “a new branch on the evolutionary tree” — one where humans shape and control new species.

Munro also provides a strongly cautionary position from Pat Roy Mooney of the ETC Group (a civil society or, as I sometimes say, activist group) as well as a good explanation for what all the excitement is about.

Wolbring (quoted in Munro’s article) has long commented on issues around nanotechnology, human enhancement, synthetic biology and more. His blog is here and his Twitter feed is here.

Andrew Hessel’s Pink Army Cooperative can be found here. If you go, you will find that the organization’s aim is,

A new approach to developing breast cancer treatments. Pink Army is a community-driven, member owned Cooperative operating by open source principles. Using synthetic biology and virotherapy to bring individualized treatments tailored to each patient’s DNA and cancer, faster and cheaper than ever before.

The ETC Group has written a news release on this latest synthetic biology event,

As Craig Venter announces lab-made life, ETC Group calls for Global Moratorium on Synthetic Biology.

In a paper published today in the journal Science, the J. Craig Venter Institute and Synthetic Genomics Inc announced the laboratory creation of the world’s first self-reproducing organism whose entire genome was built from scratch by a machine.(1) The construction of this synthetic organism, anticipated and dubbed “Synthia” by the ETC Group three years ago, will stir a firestorm of controversy over the ethics of building artificial life and the implications of the largely unknown field of synthetic biology.

As for the state of synthetic biology research in Canada, that might be available in an international agency’s publication. As far as I’m aware, there is no national research agency although I did (recently) find this mention on the National Institute of Nanotechnology’s Nano Life Sciences page,

The Nano Life Sciences researchers investigate the fields of synthetic biology, computational biology, protein structure, intermolecular membrane dynamics and microfluidics devices for biological analysis. [emphasis mine]

I will continue digging and come back to this topic (synthetic biology in Canada) as I find out more.

A few comments about the UK National Nanotechnologies Strategy; NSERC and the naughty nanoscientist; Vancouver’s first NightHawk Festival

As I noted yesterday, the UK National Nanotechnologies Strategy has been released by the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills. (More about the strategy report here from the government website.) Andrew Maynard (2020 Science) has been quick off the mark with his very insightful analysis. A few tidbits from Andrew’s comments,

… there is no specific emphasis on exploratory science. The implicit assumption is that the machinery of knowledge generation – funding for exploratory research, and the expertise to generate new knowledge – is in place.  But this is a very rash assumption indeed.  Without strategic investment in funding exploratory nanoscale science, especially at the interface between disciplines, the UK is likely to loose out to other countries that recognize the need to drive innovation through knowledge creation.  The US and China in particular are steaming ahead here – without a clear research strategy, the UK is destined to become marginalized.

There are a number of places in the report where the data are suspect – especially in the section dealing with business, industry and innovation.  At the least, I would expect a Government-level report to get the facts right.  For instance, it is claimed that the UK is fourth in the world in terms of the number of nanotechnology patents applied for, after the US, Japan and Germany.  Yet the latest figures – published last year [abstract only, article is behind a paywall]– show the UK ranking 11th in terms of the number of patents filed in the country (in 2008, 68 nanotechnology patents were filed in the UK, compared to 3,729 in the US and 5,030 in China.  That’s around 0.5% of all nanotechnology patents filed in 2008).

While I have some doubts about using patents as a measure for scientific progress/leadership, I quite agree that one’s data should be accurate as possible.

Andrew also comments on the prophylactic quality of the public engagement they are recommending as well as many other aspects of the report. (my past posts on a similar concern from Jan. 14, 2009, Jan. 15, 2009, Jan. 16, 2009 and Jan. 19, 2009)

I have looked at the first few pages and will likely read on but am not able to offer the comprehensive and informed critique that Andrew (and his commenters) offer. I do have one quick comment of my own, the definition for nanotechnology on p. 6 of the report seems to suggest that milk is a nanotechnology product.

A nanometre is one-billionth of a metre,
or around 80,000 times smaller than the
diameter of a human hair.

Nanoparticles exist in nature. For example,
milk contains nanoscale droplets of fat and
every cell in your body relies on nanosized
protein complexes to function.

One definition of a nanomaterial is a
material with at least one dimension in the
nanoscale (between 1-100nm). They can be
particulate in nature, for example nano
titanium dioxide, fibre-like, for example
carbon nanotubes or sheet-like, for example
graphene. Nanomaterials can also be defined
in terms of their functionality, as opposed to
relying strictly on their size alone.

Nanotechnologies can be thought of as
any technology which either incorporates or
employs nanomaterials or involves processes
performed at the nanoscale.

If nanotechnology “incorporates or employs nanomaterials or involved processes performed at the nanoscale”, and milk contains nanoscale droplets of fat (employing a nanomaterial) then milk is a nanotechnology product. Defining nanotechnology is a bit of a problem and I think what happened here is that they were trying to be succinct. The other and larger problem is that there doesn’t appear to be a universal standard definition yet.

Last week featured a widely distributed article by Margaret Munro about Canada’s Natural Sciences and Engineering Council (NSERC) banning a researcher (Daniel Kwok) from receiving funding due to alleged malfeasance. The brilliant engineer made international headlines (2003) with his colleague, Larry Kostiuk, when they developed a device that produces electricity from water. Over the years, this nanotechnology engineer has received almost $2M in funding from various federal agencies. Unfortunately, he appears to have used some of his grant monies for personal use. Since he has been found out he has returned over $24,500.

By 2005, the researcher’s ethics breaches came to light and then the case was turned over to the RCMP (Royal Canadian Mounted Police) in 2006.  The researcher was banned from further funding in 2009. (There have also been accusations of plagiarism but no details are offered in Munro’s article due to the officials’ refusal to elaborate.) From the article in the Montréal Gazette,

The documents point to major problems with oversight of Canada’s multibillion-dollar research system — holes so glaring that one leading ethics expert says he hopes the case will jolt federal politicians into giving “marching orders” to Canada’s research councils and universities to get their act together.

“There is a public accountability here that is just missing,” says Michael McDonald, founding director of the centre for applied ethics at the University of British Columbia.

I’m never thrilled when I hear about people taking advantage of or cheating the system but, realistically, it happens. I’m not sure why McDonald is jumping up and down so hard. All institutions take forever to respond to breaches, assuming they do respond. They are as slow to pursue serious breaches of trust as they are to correct their own mistakes (I”m thinking of the Revenue Canada Agency and some of their well documented errors leading to the destruction of some people’s livelihood).

Before anyone starts developing new oversight policies, I think some questions need to be asked. Exactly what is the nature of the problem? Is there widespread malfeasance or is this a rare case? If it’s a rare occurrence, then what is the problem? One has to assume that things go wrong occasionally so what would be the point of burdening the system with additional red tape? Is the problem that it took NSERC too long to respond? Then design a response system that is timely without being precipitous, after all this someone’s career and livelihood at stake.

Unfortunately, I think the bureaucrats will respond in an hysterical fashion, developing new policies that make the grant application process more onerous than ever while likely not improving their own response issues.

To leave on a more cheerful note, Vancouver’s first Nighthawk Festival is on Sunday, March 21, 2010 at Crab Park (Vancouver), 2-9 pm. From the news release,

Welcome to the 1st Annual Nighthawk Aboriginal Arts & Music Festival.

The Nighthawk Aboriginal Arts & Music Festival is a project of the Downtown Eastside Centre For The Arts and will take place on Sunday March 21 at Crab Park, 2-9pm and is for and about community.

The intention of this festival is, at a grass- roots level, to share and celebrate our traditions and culture with the broader Lower Mainland community.

The NightHawk Aboriginal Arts & Music Festival will feature:

…traditional drummers …contemporary musicians/youth/adults

…traditional food …artisans from various disciplines

…a children’s teepee

We believe that this event is timely in its creation as our community continues to rebuild and strengthen; well-known aboriginal artists continue to receive increased recognition; youth continue to create innovative and new ways to communicate through the arts, and new young artists continue to develop their crafts – whether it be through performance or other disciplines.

Performers include:

INEZ, Murray Porter Band, Starmakerz featuring

HellnBack, Dalannah Gail Bowen & Straight-Up, Buffalo Spirit Drum, children’s performer Dennis Lakusta, Shakti Hayes & Buffalo Thompson, First Ladies Crew and Iskwew and more.

Vancouver, we invite you to join us as we launch the 1st Annual NightHawk Aboriginal Arts & Music Festival!

Happy weekend!

Science communication in Canada (part 3)

We have  a lot of science communication programmes and activities in Canada but a huge percentage of them are aimed at children. Once you leave high school you don’t learn much about science any more. Yes, you can read an article in a newspaper or catch a science programme on tv but as I noted in my Friday (Sept. 18, 2009) posting, the media don’t cover  the sciences very often. (I’ll see if I can dig up some data on science coverage in the media.)

There is another issue with science coverage which has an impact on  the media’s willingness to run science stories, legal suits for defamation.  There’s an article on Techdirt, UK Libel Laws, Scientific Criticism, Chilling Effects, Bloggers and The Streisand Effect, which presents the interesting case of Simon Singh (physicist and author of books such as Fermat’s Last Theorem, aka Fermat’s Enigma: The Epic Quest to Solve the Word’s Greatest Mathematical Problem, Big Bang and others) who’s being sued for criticising the evidence for claims by the British Chiropractic Association (BCA) about diseases that chiropractors can cure. The BCA filed a defamation suit against Singh, which is having a chilling effect on science journalism not only in the UK but also in the US (I haven’t found any Canadian commentary). You can find links to other articles on the topic including one from the New York Times in the Techdirt article. Meanwhile, I think this comment from the British Humanist Association (BHA) summarises the issues best,

BHA Chief Executive Hanne Stinson said today, “We’re proud to re-publish Simon’s article here on our website. This is not just an issue about freedom of speech, although that is important in itself. But if legitimate scientific criticism ever leads to a successful libel action, that will not only prevent people speaking out about false claims, it actually threatens scientific progress. Scientific advances almost always involve disagreement and criticism, and scientists have to able to express their views robustly without fear of prosecution. If our courts interpret one ambiguous phrase in a piece labelled ‘Comment’ as defamation, with the result that the writer loses a huge sum of money, then there is something very wrong in the balance between libel and freedom of speech.”

I found Singh’s edited (of allegedly libellous comments, apparently Singh used the word ‘bogus’ to describe some of the claims) article on the BHA site and even though I’m late to the party (there was a July 29, 2009 worldwide posting of the article, organized by Sense about Science, I’m going to post it now.

Beware the spinal trap

Some practitioners claim it is a cure-all, but the research suggests chiropractic therapy has mixed results – and can even be lethal, says Simon Singh.

You might be surprised to know that the founder of chiropractic therapy, Daniel David Palmer, wrote that “99% of all diseases are caused by displaced vertebrae”. In the 1860s, Palmer began to develop his theory that the spine was involved in almost every illness because the spinal cord connects the brain to the rest of the body. Therefore any misalignment could cause a problem in distant parts of the body.

In fact, Palmer’s first chiropractic intervention supposedly cured a man who had been profoundly deaf for 17 years. His second treatment was equally strange, because he claimed that he treated a patient with heart trouble by correcting a displaced vertebra.

You might think that modern chiropractors restrict themselves to treating back problems, but in fact some still possess quite wacky ideas. The fundamentalists argue that they can cure anything, including helping treat children with colic, sleeping and feeding problems, frequent ear infections, asthma and prolonged crying – even though there is not a jot of evidence.

I can confidently label these assertions as utter nonsense because I have co-authored a book about alternative medicine with the world’s first professor of complementary medicine, Edzard Ernst. He learned chiropractic techniques himself and used them as a doctor. This is when he began to see the need for some critical evaluation. Among other projects, he examined the evidence from 70 trials exploring the benefits of chiropractic therapy in conditions unrelated to the back. He found no evidence to suggest that chiropractors could treat any such conditions.

But what about chiropractic in the context of treating back problems? Manipulating the spine can cure some problems, but results are mixed. To be fair, conventional approaches, such as physiotherapy, also struggle to treat back problems with any consistency. Nevertheless, conventional therapy is still preferable because of the serious dangers associated with chiropractic.

In 2001, a systematic review of five studies revealed that roughly half of all chiropractic patients experience temporary adverse effects, such as pain, numbness, stiffness, dizziness and headaches. These are relatively minor effects, but the frequency is very high, and this has to be weighed against the limited benefit offered by chiropractors.

More worryingly, the hallmark technique of the chiropractor, known as high-velocity, low-amplitude thrust, carries much more significant risks. This involves pushing joints beyond their natural range of motion by applying a short, sharp force. Although this is a safe procedure for most patients, others can suffer dislocations and fractures.

Worse still, manipulation of the neck can damage the vertebral arteries, which supply blood to the brain. So-called vertebral dissection can ultimately cut off the blood supply, which in turn can lead to a stroke and even death. Because there is usually a delay between the vertebral dissection and the blockage of blood to the brain, the link between chiropractic and strokes went unnoticed for many years. Recently, however, it has been possible to identify cases where spinal manipulation has certainly been the cause of vertebral dissection.

Laurie Mathiason was a 20-year-old Canadian waitress who visited a chiropractor 21 times between 1997 and 1998 to relieve her low-back pain. On her penultimate visit she complained of stiffness in her neck. That evening she began dropping plates at the restaurant, so she returned to the chiropractor. As the chiropractor manipulated her neck, Mathiason began to cry, her eyes started to roll, she foamed at the mouth and her body began to convulse. She was rushed to hospital, slipped into a coma and died three days later. At the inquest, the coroner declared: “Laurie died of a ruptured vertebral artery, which occurred in association with a chiropractic manipulation of the neck.”

This case is not unique. In Canada alone there have been several other women who have died after receiving chiropractic therapy, and Edzard Ernst has identified about 700 cases of serious complications among the medical literature. This should be a major concern for health officials, particularly as under-reporting will mean that the actual number of cases is much higher.
If spinal manipulation were a drug with such serious adverse effects and so little demonstrable benefit, then it would almost certainly have been taken off the market.

Simon Singh is a science writer in London and the co-author, with Edzard Ernst, of Trick or Treatment? Alternative Medicine on Trial. This is an edited version of an article published in The Guardian for which Singh is being personally sued for libel by the British Chiropractic Association.

Personally, I have gone to chiropractors for spinal manipulations and like any other profession (including writing), there’s the good, the bad, the competent, and the mediocre. I also know people who get good results and others for whom chiropractic adjustments do nothing. I think, in common with many others, that the BHA (correction: this should be BCA for British Chiropractic Association) should have responded with evidence and not with a legal suit complaining that they were being criticised.

As for whether or not this legal suit has had any impact on science journalism in Canada, I have no evidence, other than the absence of any discussion in the Canadian media, to back the assertion that follows. Taking into account the federal government’s relatively recent dictum (gag order) that scientists in Environment Canada are not allowed to speak to journalists unless they had received permission from the ministry’s communication department (National Post, Jan. 31, 2008, article by Margaret Munro, other articles can be found via search engines) and our close ties to UK jurisprudence, there is a big chill taking place here that affects both scientists and journalists.

Tomorrow I expect to be looking at public relations/marketing and science.