Tag Archives: McGill University

Council of Canadian Academies (CCA) Appoints Expert Panel on International Science and Technology Partnerships

Now the Council of Canadian Academies (CCA) has announced its expert panel for the “International Science and Technology Partnership Opportunities” project, I offer my usual guess analysis of the connections between the members of the panle.

This project first was mentioned in my March 2, 2022 posting, scroll down to the “Council of Canadian Academies launches four projects” subhead. One comment before launching into the expert panel, the word innovation, which you’ll see in the announcement, is almost always code for commercialization, business and/or entrepreneurship.

A May 9, 2022 CCA news release (received via email) announced the members of expert panel,

CCA Appoints Expert Panel on International Science and Technology Partnerships

May 9, 2022 – Ottawa, ON

Canada has numerous opportunities to pursue beneficial international partnerships focused on science, technology, and innovation (STI), but finite resources to support them. At the request of Global Affairs Canada, the Council of Canadian Academies (CCA) has formed an Expert Panel to examine best practices and identify key elements of a rigorous, data-enabled approach to selecting international STI partnership opportunities. Monica Gattinger, Director of the Institute for Science, Society and Policy at the University of Ottawa, will serve as Chair of the Expert Panel.

“International STI partnerships can be crucial to advancing Canada’s interests, from economic growth to public health, sustainability, and security,” said Dr. Gattinger. “I look forward to leading this important assessment and working with panel members to develop clear, comprehensive and coherent approaches for evaluating partnership opportunities.”

As Chair, Dr. Gattinger will lead a multidisciplinary group with expertise in science diplomacy, global security, economics and trade, international research collaboration, and program evaluation. The Panel will answer the following question:

In a post-COVID world, how can Canadian public, private and academic organizations evaluate and prioritize STI partnership opportunities with foreign countries to achieve key national objectives, using indicators supported by objective data where possible?

“I’m delighted that an expert of Dr. Gattinger’s experience and knowledge has agreed to chair this panel,” said Eric M. Meslin, PhD, FRSC, FCAHS, President and CEO of the CCA. “I look forward to the report’s findings for informing the use of international partnerships in science, technology, and innovation.”

More information can be found here.

The Expert Panel on International Science and Technology Partnerships:

Monica Gattinger (Chair), Director of the Institute for Science, Society and Policy at the University of Ottawa

David Audretsch, Distinguished Professor; Ameritech Chair of Economic Development; Director, Institute for Development Strategies, Indiana University

Stewart Beck, Distinguished Fellow, Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada

Paul Arthur Berkman, Faculty Associate, Program on Negotiation, Harvard Law School, and Associate Director, Science Diplomacy Centre, Harvard-MIT Public Disputes Program, Harvard University; Associated Fellow, United Nations Institute for Training and Research

Karen Croteau, Partner, Goss Gilroy

Paul Dufour, Principal, PaulicyWorks

Meredith Lilly, Associate Professor, Simon Reisman Chair in International Economic Policy, Norman Paterson School of International Affairs, Carleton University [located in Ottawa]

David Perry, President, Canadian Global Affairs Institute

Peggy Van de Plassche, Managing Partner, Roar Growth

Caroline S. Wagner, Professor, John Glenn College of Public Affairs, The Ohio State University

Jennifer M. Welsh, Professor; Canada 150 Research Chair in Global Governance and Security; Director, Centre for International Peace and Security Studies, McGill University

Given the discussion of pronouns and identification, I note that the panel of 11 experts includes six names commonly associated with women and five names commonly associated with men, which suggests some of the gender imbalance (male/female) I’ve noticed in the past is not present in the makeup of this panel.

There are three ‘international’ members and all are from the US. Based on past panels, international members tend to be from the US or the UK or, occasionally, from Australia or Europe.

Geographically, we have extraordinarily high representation (Monica Gattinger, David Perry, Meredith Lilly, Paul Dufour, and Karen Croteau) from people who are linked to Ottawa, Ontario, either educated or working at the University of Ottawa or Carleton University. (Thank goodness; it’s not as if the nation’s capital dominates almost every discussion about Canada. Ottawa, represent!)

As usual, there is no Canadian representing the North. This seems a bit odd given the very high international interest in the Arctic regions.

Ottawa connections

Here are some of the links (that I’ve been able to find) to Ottawa,

Monica Gattinger (from her Institute of Governance profile page),

Dr. Gattinger is an award-winning researcher and highly sought-after speaker, adviser and media commentator in the energy and arts/cultural [emphasis mine] policy sectors….

Gattinger is Fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute, … She holds a Ph.D. in public policy from Carleton University. [emphases mine]

You’ll note David Perry is president of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute and Meredith Lilly is currently at Carleton University.

Perry is a professor at the University of Calgary where the Canadian Global Affairs Institute is headquartered (and it has offices in Ottawa). Here’s more from Perry’s institute profile page,

… He received his PhD in political science from Carleton University [emphasis mine] where his dissertation examined the link between defence budgeting and defence procurement. He is an adjunct professor at the Centre for Military and Strategic Studies at the University of Calgary and a research fellow of the Centre for the Study of Security and Development at Dalhousie University. …

Paul Dufour also has an Ottawa connection, from his 2017 CCA profile page,

Paul Dufour is a Fellow and Adjunct Professor at the Institute for Science, Society and Policy in the University of Ottawa [emphasis mine] and science policy Principal with PaulicyWorks in Gatineau, Québec. He is on the Board of Directors of the graduate student led Science Policy Exchange based in Montréal [emphasis mine], and is [a] member of the Investment Committee for Grand Challenges Canada.

Paul Dufour has been senior advisor in science policy with several Canadian agencies and organizations over the course of the past 30 years. Among these: Senior Program Specialist with the International Development Research Centre, and interim Executive Director at the former Office of the National Science Advisor to the Canadian Government advising on international S&T matters and broad questions of R&D policy directions for the country.

Born in Montréal, Mr. Dufour was educated at McGill University [emphasis mine], the Université de Montréal, and Concordia University in the history of science and science policy, …

Role: Steering Committee Member

Report: Science Policy: Considerations for Subnational Governments (April 2017)

Finally, there’s Karen Croteau a partner at Goss Gilroy. Here’s more from her LinkedIn profile page,

A seasoned management consultant professional and Credentialed Evaluator with more than 18 years experience in a variety of areas including: program evaluation, performance measurement, organizational/ resource review, benefit/cost analysis, reviews of regulatory management programs, organizational benchmarking, business case development, business process improvement, risk management, change management and project/ program management.

Experience

Partner

Goss Gilroy Inc

Jul 2019 – Present 2 years 11 months

Ottawa, Ontario [emphasis mine]

Education

Carleton University [emphasis mine]

Carleton University [emphasis mine]
Master’s Diploma Public Policy and Program Evaluation

The east coast

I think of Toronto, Ottawa, and Montréal as a kind of East Coast triangle.

Interestingly, Jennifer M. Welsh is at McGill University in Montréal where Paul Dufour was educated.

Representing the third point, Toronto, is Peggy Van de Plassche (judging by her accent in her YouTube videos, she’s from France), from her LinkedIn profile page,

I am a financial services and technology expert, corporate director, business advisor, investor, entrepreneur, and public speaker, fluent in French and English.

Prior to starting Roar Growth, I led innovation for CIBC [Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce], allocated several billions of capital to technology projects on behalf of CGI and BMO [Bank of Montreal], managed a European family office, and started 2 Fintechs.

Education

Harvard Business School [emphasis mine]

Executive Education – Investment

IÉSEG School of Management [France]

Master of Science (MSc) – Business Administration and Management, General

IÉSEG School of Management

Bachelor of Business Administration (BBA) – Accounting and Finance

I didn’t find any connections to the Ottawa or Montréal panel members but I was mildly interested to see that one of the US members Paul Arthur Berkman is from Harvard University. Otherwise, Van de Plassche stands mostly alone.

The last of my geographical comments

David Perry manages to connect Alberta via his adjunct professorship at the University of Calgary, Ottawa (as noted previously) and Nova Scotia via his fellowship at Dalhousie University.

In addition to Montréal and the ever important Québec connection, Jennifer M. Welsh could be said to connect another prairie province while adding a little more international flair to this panel (from her McGill University profile page,

Professor Jennifer M. Welsh is the Canada 150 Research Chair in Global Governance and Security at McGill University (Montreal, Canada). She was previously Professor and Chair in International Relations at the European University Institute (Florence, Italy) [emphasis mine] and Professor in International Relations at the University of Oxford, [emphasis mine] where she co-founded the Oxford Institute for Ethics, Law and Armed Conflict. From 2013-2016, she served as the Special Adviser to the UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, on the Responsibility to Protect.

… She has a BA from the University of Saskatchewan (Canada),[emphasis mine] and a Masters and Doctorate from the University of Oxford (where she studied as a Rhodes Scholar).

Stewart Beck seems to be located in Vancouver, Canada which gives the panel one West Coast connection, here’s more from his LinkedIn profile page,

As a diplomat, a trade commissioner, and a policy expert, I’ve spent the last 40 years as one of the foremost advocates of Canada’s interests in the U.S. and Asia. From 2014 to 2021 (August), I was the President and CEO of the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada [APF] [emphasis mine], Canada’s leading research institution on Asia. Under my leadership, the organization added stakeholder value through applied research and as a principal convener on Asia topics, a builder of enviable networks of public and private sector stakeholders, and a leader of conversations on crucial regional issues. Before joining APF Canada, I led a distinguished 30+ year career with Canada’s diplomatic corps. With postings in the U.S. and Asia, culminating with an assignment as Canada’s High Commissioner to India (Ambassador) [emphasis mine], I gained the knowledge and experience to be one of Canada’s recognized experts on Asia and innovation policy. Along the way, I also served in many senior foreign policy and trade positions, including as Canada’s most senior trade and investment development official, Consul General to Shanghai [emphasis mine]and Consul General to San Francisco. Today, Asia is vitally critical to Canada’s economic security, both financially and technologically. Applying my understanding and navigating the challenging geopolitical, economic, and trade environment is the value I bring to strategic conversations on the region. An established network of senior private and public sector officials in Canada and Asia complements the experience I’ve gained over the many years living and working in Asia.

He completed undergraduate and graduate degrees at Queen’s University in Ontario and, given his career in diplomacy, I expect there are many Ottawa connections.

David Audretsch and Caroline S. Wagner of Indiana University and Ohio State University, respectively, are a little unusual. Most of the time, US members are from the East Coast or the West Coast not from one of the Midwest states.

One last comment about Paul Arthur Berkman, his profile page on the Harvard University website reveals unexpected polar connections,

Fulbright Arctic Chair [emphasis mine] 2021-2022, United States Department of State and Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs

Paul Arthur Berkman is science diplomat, polar explorer and global thought leader applying international, interdisciplinary and inclusive processes with informed decisionmaking to balance national interests and common interests for the benefit of all on Earth across generations. Paul wintered in Antarctica [emphasis mine] when he was twenty-two, SCUBA diving throughout the year under the ice, and then taught a course on science into policy as a Visiting Professor at the University of California Los Angeles the following year, visiting all seven continents before the age of thirty.

Hidden diversity

While the panel is somewhat Ottawa-centric with a strong bias towards the US and Europe, there are some encouraging signs.

Beck’s experience in Asia and Berkman’s in the polar regions is good to see. Dufour has written the Canada chapter in two (2015 and 2021) UNESCO Science Reports and offers an excellent overview of the Canadian situation within a global context in the 2021 edition (I haven’t had the time to view the 2015 report).

Economist Audretsch and FinTech entrepreneur Van de Plassche, offer academic and practical perspectives for ‘innovation’ while Perry and Welsh both offer badly needed (Canada has been especially poor in this area; see below) security perspectives.

The rest of the panel offers what you’d expect, extensive science policy experience. I hope Gattinger’s experience with arts/cultural policy will enhance this project.

This CCA project comes at a time when Canada is looking at establishing closer links to the European Union’s science programmes as per my May 11, 2022 posting: Canada’s exploratory talks about joining the European Union’s science funding programme (Horizon Europe).

This project also comes at about the same time the Canadian federal government announced in its 2022 federal budget (covered in my April 19, 2022 posting, scroll down about 25% of the way; you’ll recognize the subhead) a new Canadian investment and Innovation Agency.

Notes on security

Canada has stumbled more than once in this area.The current war waged by Russia in Ukraine offers one of the latest examples of how state actors can wage damage not just in the obvious physical sense but also with cyberattacks. The US suffered a notable attack in May 2021 which forced the shutdown of a major gas pipeline (May 9, 2021 NBC news report).

As for Canada, there is a July 9, 2014 Canadian Broadcasting Corporation news report about a cyberattack on the National Research Council (NRC),

A “highly sophisticated Chinese state-sponsored actor” recently managed to hack into the computer systems at Canada’s National Research Council, according to Canada’s chief information officer, Corinne Charette.

For its part, the NRC says in a statement released Tuesday morning that it is now attempting to rebuild its computer infrastructure and this could take as much a year.

The NRC works with private businesses to advance and develop technological innovations through science and research.

This is not the first time the Canadian government has fallen victim to a cyberattack that seems to have originated in China — but it is the first time the Canadian government has unequivocally blamed China for the attack.

In September 2021 an announcement was made about a new security alliance where Canada was not included (from my September 17, 2021 posting),

Wednesday, September 15, 2021 an announcement of a new alliance in the Indo-Pacific region, the Three Eyes (Australia, UK, and US or AUKUS) was made.

Interestingly all three are part of the Five Eyes intelligence alliance comprised of Australia, Canada, New Zealand, UK, and US. Hmmm … Canada and New Zealand both border the Pacific and last I heard, the UK is still in Europe.

I mention other security breaches such as the Cameron Ortis situation and the Winnipeg-based National Microbiology Lab (NML), the only level 4 lab in Canada in the September 17, 2021 posting under the ‘What is public safety?’ subheading.

It seems like there might be some federal movement on the issues assuming funding for “Securing Canada’s Research from Foreign Threats” in the 2022 federal budget actually appears. It’s in my April 19, 2022 posting about 45% of the way down under the subheading Research security.

I wish the panel good luck.

Flexible glass inspired by seashells and by ancient Rome

In the same way that grass is considered strong because it bends, scientists are trying to make glass stronger by making it flexible. A September 28, 2021 news item on phys.org announces research on biomimicry for creating flexible glass from McGill University (Montréal, Canada), Note: Links have been removed,

Scientists from McGill University develop stronger and tougher glass, inspired by the inner layer of mollusk shells. Instead of shattering upon impact, the new material has the resiliency of plastic and could be used to improve cell phone screens in the future, among other applications.

While techniques like tempering and laminating can help reinforce glass, they are costly and no longer work once the surface is damaged. “Until now there were trade-offs between high strength, toughness, and transparency. Our new material is not only three times stronger than the normal glass, but also more than five times more fracture resistant,” says Allen Ehrlicher, an Associate Professor in the Department of Bioengineering at McGill University.

A September 28, 2021 McGill University news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, discusses biomimicry (or inspiration by nature) and how ancient Rome also inspired this latest work,

Nature as master of design

Drawing inspiration from nature, the scientist created a new glass and acrylic composite material that mimics nacre or mother of pearl. “Nature is a master of design. Studying the structure of biological materials and understanding how they work offers inspiration, and sometimes blueprints, for new materials,” says Ehrlicher.

“Amazingly, nacre has the rigidity of a stiff material and durability of a soft material, giving it the best of both worlds,” he explains. “It’s made of stiff pieces of chalk-like matter that are layered with soft proteins that are highly elastic. This structure produces exceptional strength, making it 3000 times tougher than the materials that compose it.”

The scientists took the architecture of nacre and replicated it with layers of glass flakes and acrylic, yielding an exceptionally strong yet opaque material that can be produced easily and inexpensively. They then went a step further to make the composite optically transparent. “By tuning the refractive index of the acrylic, we made it seamlessly blend with the glass to make a truly transparent composite,” says lead author Ali Amini, a Postdoctoral Researcher at McGill. As next steps, they plan to improve it by incorporating smart technology allowing the glass to change its properties, such as colour, mechanics, and conductivity.

Lost invention of flexible glass

Flexible glass is supposedly a lost invention from the time of the reign of the Roman Emperor Tiberius Caesar. According to popular historical accounts by Roman authors Gaius Plinius Secundus and Petronius, the inventor brought a drinking bowl made of the material before the Emperor. When the bowl was put to the test to break it, it only dented instead of shattering.

After the inventor swore he was the only person who knew how to produce the material, Tiberius had the man executed, fearing that the glass would devalue gold and silver because it might be more valuable.

“When I think about the story of Tiberius, I’m glad that our material innovation leads to publication rather than execution,” says Ehrlicher.

The humour is a nice touch.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Centrifugation and index-matching yields a strong and transparent bioinspired nacreous composite by Ali Amini, Adele Khavari, François Barthelat, and Allen J. Ehrlicher. Science 10 Sep 2021 Vol 373 Issue 6560 pp. 1229-1234 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1126/science.abf0277

This paper is behind a paywall.

4th International Conference on Science Advice to Governments (INGSA2021) August 30 – September 2, 2021

What I find most exciting about this conference is the range of countries being represented. At first glance, I’ve found Argentina, Thailand, Senegal, Ivory Coast, Costa Rica and more in a science meeting being held in Canada. Thank you to the organizers and to the organization International Network for Government Science Advice (INGSA)

As I’ve noted many times here in discussing the science advice we (Canadians) get through the Council of Canadian Academies (CCA), there’s far too much dependence on the same old, same old countries for international expertise. Let’s hope this meeting changes things.

The conference (with the theme Build Back Wiser: Knowledge, Policy and Publics in Dialogue) started on Monday, August 30, 2021 and is set to run for four days in Montréal, Québec. and as an online event The Premier of Québec, François Legault, and Mayor of Montréal, Valérie Plante (along with Peter Gluckman, Chair of INGSA and Rémi Quirion, Chief Scientist of Québec; this is the only province with a chief scientist) are there to welcome those who are present in person.

You can find a PDF of the four day programme here or go to the INGSA 2021 website for the programme and more. Here’s a sample from the programme of what excited me, from Day 1 (August 30, 2021),

8:45 | Plenary | Roundtable: Reflections from Covid-19: Where to from here?

Moderator:
Mona Nemer – Chief Science Advisor of Canada

Speakers:
Joanne Liu – Professor, School of Population and Global Health, McGill University, Quebec, Canada
Chor Pharn Lee – Principal Foresight Strategist at Centre for Strategic Futures, Prime Minister’s Office, Singapore
Andrea Ammon – Director of the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, Sweden
Rafael Radi – President of the National Academy of Sciences; Coordinator of Scientific Honorary Advisory Group to the President on Covid-19, Uruguay

9:45 | Panel: Science advice during COVID-19: What factors made the difference?

Moderator:

Romain Murenzi – Executive Director, The World Academy of Sciences (TWAS), Italy

Speakers:

Stephen Quest – Director-General, European Commission’s Joint Research Centre (JRC), Belgium
Yuxi Zhang – Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Blavatnik School of Government, University of Oxford, United Kingdom
Amadou Sall – Director, Pasteur Institute of Dakar, Senegal
Inaya Rakhmani – Director, Asia Research Centre, Universitas Indonesia

One last excerpt, from Day 2 (August 31, 2021),

Studio Session | Panel: Science advice for complex risk assessment: dealing with complex, new, and interacting threats

Moderator:
Eeva Hellström – Senior Lead, Strategy and Foresight, Finnish Innovation Fund Sitra, Finland

Speakers:
Albert van Jaarsveld – Director General and Chief Executive Officer, International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis, Austria
Abdoulaye Gounou – Head, Benin’s Office for the Evaluation of Public Policies and Analysis of Government Action
Catherine Mei Ling Wong – Sociologist, LRF Institute for the Public Understanding of Risk, National University of Singapore
Andria Grosvenor – Deputy Executive Director (Ag), Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency, Barbados

Studio Session | Innovations in Science Advice – Science Diplomacy driving evidence for policymaking

Moderator:
Mehrdad Hariri – CEO and President of the Canadian Science Policy Centre, Canada

Speakers:
Primal Silva – Canadian Food Inspection Agency’s Chief Science Operating Officer, Canada
Zakri bin Abdul Hamid – Chair of the South-East Asia Science Advice Network (SEA SAN); Pro-Chancellor of Multimedia University in Malaysia
Christian Arnault Emini – Senior Economic Adviser to the Prime Minister’s Office in Cameroon
Florence Gauzy Krieger and Sebastian Goers – RLS-Sciences Network [See more about RLS-Sciences below]
Elke Dall and Angela Schindler-Daniels – European Union Science Diplomacy Alliance
Alexis Roig – CEO, SciTech DiploHub – Barcelona Science and Technology Diplomacy Hub, Spain

RLS-Sciences (RLS-Sciences Network) has this description for itself on the About/Background webpage,

RLS-Sciences works under the framework of the Regional Leaders Summit. The Regional Leaders Summit (RLS) is a forum comprising seven regional governments (state, federal state, or provincial), which together represent approximately one hundred eighty million people across five continents, and a collective GDP of three trillion USD. The regions are: Bavaria (Germany), Georgia (USA), Québec (Canada), São Paulo (Brazil), Shandong (China), Upper Austria (Austria), and Western Cape (South Africa). Since 2002, the heads of government for these regions have met every two years for a political summit. These summits offer the RLS regions an opportunity for political dialogue.

Getting back to the main topic of this post, INGSA has some satellite events on offer, including this on Open Science,

Open Science: Science for the 21st century |

Science ouverte : la science au XXIe siècle

Thursday September 9, 2021; 11am-2pm EST |
Jeudi 9 septembre 2021, 11 h à 14 h (HNE).

Places Limited – Registrations Required – Click to register now

This event will be in English and French (using simultaneous translation)  | 
Cet événement se déroulera en anglais et en français (traduction simultanée)

In the past 18 months we have seen an unprecedented level of sharing as medical scientists worked collaboratively and shared data to find solutions to the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic has accelerated the ongoing cultural shift in research practices towards open science. 

This acceleration of the discovery/research process presents opportunities for institutions and governments to develop infrastructure, tools, funding, policies, and training to support, promote, and reward open science efforts. It also presents new opportunities to accelerate progress towards the UN Agenda 2030 Sustainable Development Goals through international scientific cooperation.

At the same time, it presents new challenges: rapid developments in open science often outpace national open science policies, funding, and infrastructure frameworks. Moreover, the development of international standard setting instruments, such as the future UNESCO Recommendation on Open Science, requires international harmonization of national policies, the establishment of frameworks to ensure equitable participation, and education, training, and professional development.

This 3-hour satellite event brings together international and national policy makers, funders, and experts in open science infrastructure to discuss these issues. 

The outcome of the satellite event will be a summary report with recommendations for open science policy alignment at institutional, national, and international levels.

The event will be hosted on an events platform, with simultaneous interpretation in English and French.  Participants will be able to choose which concurrent session they participate in upon registration. Registration is free but will be closed when capacity is reached.

This satellite event takes place in time for an interesting anniversary. The Montreal Neurological Institute (MNI), also known as Montreal Neuro, declared itself as Open Science in 2016, the first academic research institute (as far as we know) to do so in the world (see my January 22, 2016 posting for details about their open science initiative and my December 19, 2016 posting for more about their open science and their decision to not pursue patents for a five year period).

The Open Science satellite event is organized by:

The Canadian Commission for UNESCO [United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization],

The Neuro (Montreal Neurological Institute-Hospital),

The Knowledge Equity Lab [Note: A University of Toronto initiative with Leslie Chan as director, this website is currently under maintenance]

That’s all folks (for now)!

Listen in on a UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) meeting (about Open Science)

If you are intrigued* by the idea of sitting in on a UNESCO meeting, in this case, the Intergovernmental special committee meeting (Category II) related to the draft UNESCO Recommendation on Open Science, there is an opportunity.

Before getting to the opportunity, I want to comment on how smart the UNESCO communications/press office has been. Interest in relaxing COVID-19 vaccine patent rules is gaining momentum (May 6, 2021 Associated Press news item on Canadian Broadcasting Corporation [CBC]) and a decision was made in the press office (?) to capitalize on this momentum as a series of UNESCO meetings about open science are taking place. Well done!

Later in this post, I have a few comments about the intellectual property scene and open science in Canada.

UNESCO’s open meeting

According to the May 7, 2021 UNESCO press release no. 42 (received via email),

UNESCO welcomes move to lift the patent on the vaccines and pushes for
Open Science

Paris, 7 May [2021] -“The decision of the United States and many other
countries to call for the lifting of patent protection for coronavirus
vaccines could save millions of lives and serve as a blueprint for the
future of scientific cooperation. COVID-19 does not respect borders. No
country will be safe until the people of every country have access to
the vaccine,” said UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay.

This growing momentum comes in response to the joint appeal made by
UNESCO, the WHO [World Health Organization] and the UNHCR [United Nations Commission on Human Rights] to open up science and boost scientific
cooperation in October 2020. Early in the pandemic last spring, UNESCO
mobilized over 122 countries to promote Open Science and reinforced
international cooperation.

The pandemic triggered strong support for Open Science among Member
States for this agenda. Chinese scientists sequenced the genome of the
new coronavirus on 11 January 2020 and posted it online, enabling German
scientists to develop a screening test, which was then shared by the
World Health Organization with governments everywhere. 

Since the outbreak of COVID-19, the world has embarked on a new era of
scientific research, forcing all countries to construct the shared rules
and common norms we need to work more effectively in these changing
times.

The recent announcements of countries in favor of lifting patents show
the growing support for open scientific cooperation. They also coincide
with the five-day meeting of UNESCO Member States to define a global
standard-setting framework on Open Science, which aims to develop new
models for the circulation of scientific knowledge and its benefits,
including global commons.

The outcomes of the meeting will lead to a Global Recommendation on Open
Science to be adopted by UNESCO’s 193 Member States at the
Organization’s General Conference in November 2021. This
Recommendation aims to be a driver for shared global access to data,
publications, patents, software, educational resources and technological
innovations and to reengage all of society in science.

More Information on UNESCO’s Open Science meeting:
https://events.unesco.org/event?id=1907937890&lang=1033 [1]

After clicking on UNESCO’s events link (in the above), you’ll be sent to a page where you’ll be invited to link to a live webcast (it’s live if there’s a session taking place and there will be on May 10, May 11, and May 12, 2021). If you’re on the West Coast of Canada or the US, add nine hours since the meeting is likely taking place on Paris (France) time (so at 2 pm PT, you’re not likely to hear anything), where UNESCO is headquartered. When you get to the page hosting the live webcast, click on the tab listing the current day’s date.

I managed to listen to some of the meeting this morning (May 7, 2021) at about 8 am my time; for the participants, it was a meeting that ran late. The thrill is being able to attend or listen in. From a content perspective, you probably need to be serious about open science and the language used to define it and make recommendations about it.

Comments on open science and intellectual property in Canada

Mentioned earlier was the rising momentum for relaxing COVID-19 vaccine patent rules, I looked carefully at the May 6, 2021 Associated Press news item on CBC] and couldn’t find any evidence that Canada is actively supporting the idea. However, the Canadian government has indicated a willingness to discuss relaxing the rules,

France joined the United States on Thursday [May 6, 2021] in supporting an easing of patent protections on COVID-19 vaccines that could help poorer countries get more doses and speed the end of the pandemic. While the backing from two countries with major drugmakers is important, many obstacles remain.

The United States’ support for waiving the protections marked a dramatic shift in its position. Still, even just one country voting against such a waiver would be enough to block efforts at the World Trade Organization [WTO].

With the Biden administration’s announcement on Wednesday [May 5, 2021], the U.S. became the first country in the developed world with big vaccine manufacturing to publicly support the waiver idea floated by India and South Africa last October at the WTO.

“I completely favour this opening up of the intellectual property,” French President Emmanuel Macron said Thursday [May 6, 2021] on a visit to a vaccine centre.

Many other leaders chimed in — though few expressed direct support. Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio wrote on Facebook that the U.S. announcement was “a very important signal” and that the world needs “free access” to patents for the vaccines.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison called the U.S. position “great news” but did not directly respond to a question about whether his country would support a waiver.

Canada’s International Trade Minister Mary Ng told the House of Commons on Thursday that the federal government will “actively participate” in talks to waive the global rules that protect vaccine trade secrets. [emphases mine]

[Canada’s] International Development Minister Karina Gould said the U.S. support for waiving patents is “a really important step in this conversation.” [emphases mine]

Big difference between supporting something and talking about it, eh?

Open science in Canada

Back in 2016, the Montreal Neurological Institute (MNI or Montreal Neuro) in Québec, Canada was the first academic institution in the world to embrace an open science policy. Here’s the relevant excerpt from my January 22, 2016 posting (the posting describes the place that Montreal Neuro occupies historically in Canada and on the global stage),

.. David Bruggeman tells the story in a Jan. 21, 2016 posting on his Pasco Phronesis blog (Note: Links have been removed),

The Montreal Neurological Institute (MNI) at McGill University announced that it will be the first academic research institute to become what it calls ‘Open Science.’  As Science is reporting, the MNI will make available all research results and research data at the time of publication.  Additionally it will not seek patents on any of the discoveries made on research at the Institute. [emphasis mine]

Will this catch on?  I have no idea if this particular combination of open access research data and results with no patents will spread to other university research institutes.  But I do believe that those elements will continue to spread.  More universities and federal agencies are pursuing open access options for research they support.  Elon Musk has opted to not pursue patent litigation for any of Tesla Motors’ patents, and has not pursued patents for SpaceX technology (though it has pursued litigation over patents in rocket technology). …

What about intellectual property (IP) and the 2021 federal budget?

Interestingly, the 2021 Canadian federal budget, released April 19, 2021, (see my May 4, 2021 posting) has announced more investments in intellectual property initiatives,

“Promoting Canadian Intellectual Property

As the most highly educated country in the OECD [Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development], Canada is full of innovative and entrepreneurial people with great ideas. Those ideas are valuable intellectual property that are the seeds of huge growth opportunities. Building on the National Intellectual Property Strategy announced in Budget 2018, the government proposes to further support Canadian innovators, start-ups, and technology-intensive businesses. Budget 2021 proposes:

  • $90 million, over two years, starting in 2022-23, to create ElevateIP, a program to help accelerators and incubators provide start-ups with access to expert intellectual property services.
  • $75 million over three years, starting in 2021-22, for the National Research Council’s Industrial Research Assistance Program to provide high-growth client firms with access to expert intellectual property services.

These direct investments would be complemented by a Strategic Intellectual Property Program Review that will be launched. It is intended as a broad assessment of intellectual property provisions in Canada’s innovation and science programming, from basic research to near-commercial projects. This work will make sure Canada and Canadians fully benefit from innovations and intellectual property.”

Now, it’s back to me and the usual formatting for an upcoming excerpt. As for Canada’s National Intellectual Property Strategy, here’s more from the April 26, 2018 Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada news release,

Canada’s IP Strategy will help Canadian entrepreneurs better understand and protect intellectual property and also get better access to shared intellectual property. Canada is a leader in research, science, creation and invention, but it can do more when it comes to commercializing innovations.

The IP Strategy will help give businesses the information and confidence they need to grow their business and take risks.

The IP Strategy will make changes in three key areas:

LEGISLATION

The IP Strategy will amend key IP laws to ensure that we remove barriers to innovation, particularly any loopholes that allow those seeking to use IP in bad faith to stall innovation for their own gain.

The IP Strategy will create an independent body to oversee patent and trademark agents, which will ensure that professional and ethical standards are maintained, and will support the provision of quality advice from IP professionals.

LITERACY AND ADVICE

As part of the IP Strategy, the Canadian Intellectual Property Office will launch a suite of programs to help improve IP literacy among Canadians.

The IP Strategy includes support for domestic and international engagement between Indigenous people and decision makers as well as for research activities and capacity building.

The IP Strategy will also support training for federal employees who deal with IP governance.

TOOLS

The IP Strategy will provide tools to support Canadian businesses as they learn about IP and pursue their own IP strategies.

The government is creating a patent collective to bring together businesses to facilitate better IP outcomes for members. The patent collective is the coming together of firms to share in IP expertise and strategy, including gaining access to a larger collection of patents and IP. 

I’m guessing what the government wants is more patents; at the same time, it does not want to get caught up in patent thickets and the patent troll wars often seen in the US. The desire for more patents isn’t simply ‘protection’ for Canadian businesses, it’s born also from a desire to brag (from “A few final comments subsection” in my May 4, 2021 posting on the Canadian federal budget),

The inclusion of a section on intellectual property in the budget could seem peculiar. I would have thought that years ago before I learned that governments measure and compare with other government the success of their science and technology efforts by the number of patents that have been filed. [new emphasis mine] There are other measures but intellectual property is very important, as far as governments are concerned. My “Billions lost to patent trolls; US White House asks for comments on intellectual property (IP) enforcement; and more on IP” June 28, 2012 posting points to some of the shortcomings, with which we still grapple.

Not just a Canadian conundrum

IP (patents, trademarks, and copyright) has a long history and my understanding of patents and copyright (not sure about trademarks) is that they were initially intended to guarantee inventors and creators a fixed period of time in which to make money from their inventions and/or creations. IP was intended to encourage competition not stifle it as happens so often these days. Here’s more about patents from the Origin of Patents: Everything You Need to Know webpage on the upcounsel.com website (Note: Links have been removed),

Origins of Patent Law and the Incentive Theory

It is possible to trace the idea of patent law as far back as the 9th century B.C. in ancient Greece.  However, one of the most vital pieces of legislation in the history of patents is the English Statute of Monopolies. The Parliament passed the Statute of Monopolies to end monopolies, which stifled competition. 

However, for about a decade, the Statute issued “letters patent” to allow for limited monopolies. This measure was seen as a way of balancing the importance of providing incentives for inventions with the distaste for monopolies. [emphasis mine] While monopolies usually don’t offer any innovative benefits, inventors need to have an incentive to create innovations that benefit society.

Changes?

As you can see in the ‘Origins of Patent Law’ excerpt , there’s a tension between ensuring profitability and spurring innovation. It certainly seems that our current approach to the problem is no longer successful.

There has been an appetite for change in how science is pursued, shared, and commercialized. Listening in on UNESCO’s Open Science meeting:
https://events.unesco.org/event?id=1907937890&lang=1033 [1] (May 10 -12, 2021) is an opportunity to see how this movement could develop. Sadly, I don’t think the World Trade Organization is going to afford anyone the opportunity to tune in to discussions about relaxing COVDI-19 vaccine patent rules. (sigh)

As for the Canadian government’s ‘willingness to talk’ I expect the Canadian representative at the UNESCO will be very happy to adopt open science while the Canadian representative at the WTO will dance around without committing.

If you are inclined, please do share your thoughts on either of the meetings or on the move towards open science.

*’intrigues’ changed to ‘intrigued’ on May 13, 2021.

ISEA (International Symposium on Electronic Arts) 2020: Why Sentience? still in October 2020 but virtually in Montréal, Québec

I wonder what happens to geography and time when you hold your conference virtually? Part of the excitement of a conference or other meetings is the promise of the destination with new people and new adventures. Whether 2020 is a pause between in-person meetings, a moment when everything changed, or some combination is yet to be determined but perhaps ISEA2020 will be a harbinger.

I received a June 10, 2020 notice (via email) with the latest news about ISEA2020,

Montreal, June 10, 2020    ISEA2020 from October 13 to 18, 2020 goes entirely digital, with an innovative experiential format.

The worldwide COVID-19 outbreak has forced ISEA2020 in Montreal to be postponed to October 13 to 18. The physical distancing measures put in place in many countries and the travel restrictions imposed to prevent the spread of the pandemic mean that we cannot all be physically present in Montreal. Montreal Digital Spring (Printemps numérique) – the organizers of ISEA2020 –  have thus decided to make the symposium a 100% online event. Our team is currently working on the platform that will allow us to come together, connect, and exchange knowledge and practices, despite the physical distance. We worked with our partners and collaborators, experts in art, design, science and technology to (if only begin to) reinvent the format of academic interdisciplinary conferencing! 

Our main strategies for ISEA2020 Online:

Programming: ISEA2020 is a full week of research and creation, 100% online, with more than 300 international speakers and artists from over 40 countries.

Connecting: We are working on the online platform to ensure we meet ISEA’s core values of encouraging and promoting creative exchanges between diverse groups; of creating opportunities for networking and informal meetings, in addition to ensuring the good flow of panel sessions.

Programming for all the time-zones: From October 13 to 16, conference presentations will unfold over 16 consecutive hours each day, in order to include participants in all the time zones, from East Asia to the west Americas.

Reduced registration fee: The registration fee has been reduced. In addition to saving travel costs, ISEA2020 Online is accessible at a significantly reduced fee, hoping it will attract a larger number of participants, including more students and independent artists. 

Live Q&A: All presentation sessions, including keynote sessions, will include live Q&A periods, mediated by invited delegates.

Art Programming:  We are working with artists and partners on strategies to showcase the selected projects and special programming.

While we regret not seeing you in Montreal, the new format will make ISEA2020 accessible to a larger number and will certainly contribute to a broader discussion on how to produce and transfer knowledge and showcase art through connected digital communication platforms. Our team is committed to ensuring the high standard of creative and academic contributions that is paramount to ISEA.

We look forward to seeing you online this fall!

REGISTRATION FEE

You can now purchase your ISEA2020 Online Pass at the Early Bird rates of CAD $99 (regular) and CAD $69 (students), offer valid until August 13 [2020].

NEW DEADLINE TO REGISTER (for presenters)

The deadline to register, to upload the camera-ready papers, and to fill in the Zone Festival form is July 27 at 11:59 pm (GMT-5). 

CONTACT

We updated our website. Please refer to the Frequently Asked Questions – FAQ page. If you have a specific question, please contact: isea.academic@printempsnumerique.ca for academic presentations / isea.artistic@printempsnumerique.ca for artworks / ISEA2020@printempsnumerique.ca for general questions/registration. 

 LIRE LE COMMUNIQUÉ EN FRANÇAIS

How we got here

The academic chairs have written this statement,

ISEA2020 ONLINE: WHY SENTIENCE?
OCTOBER 13-18, 2020

The academic chairs’ statements regarding the ISEA2020 online turn:

Since last August [2019] when we established the ISEA2020 theme of “Why Sentience?”, life on Earth has been dramatically transformed. Our belief in concepts like proximity, justice, equality, indeed, the very concept of the future itself, has been radically uprooted. As cultural organizations worldwide scramble to adapt, the ISEA2020 team has decided to reimagine the event for the anytime/anyplace zone of digital space and to transform it into an online experience. But we have also realized that there is no need to adjust the theme to make it more “responsive” to our current conditions. Despite their almost cataclysmic impact on the political-economic-social-cultural-ecological fabric of the world, the triumvirate forces of the coronavirus pandemic, its disastrous economic consequences, as well as systemic racial injustice have now acutely amplified ISEA2020s question: “Why Sentience?” These conditions sharpen the need to stop, pause and re-examine what it means to be sentient, “the ability to feel or perceive.” They help us reformulate our notions of what the world is with us and beyond us. They give us a front seat perspective on the corporeal and ecological entanglements between power and knowledge, animals and humans, machines and environment, oppression and liberation. They pointedly demonstrate that difference—social-economic-cultural—resonates through the sentient world. The virus—a 120-160 nm in diameter entity that is invisible to our human senses and considered neither living nor dead but ontologically somewhere in between [emphasis mine]—is thus perversely a great teacher and provides us lessons on how the modern splitting up of the sentient and inanimate worlds increasingly makes no sense.

ISEA’s mission aims to foster interdisciplinary academic discourse and exchange among culturally diverse organizations and individuals working with art, science and technology. As we write, ISEA2020 should have already passed into history. The new digital space of ISEA2020 will link the local community in Montreal with the international one beyond so that we can collectively rethink the form of such an event. The new platform will also allow us to examine close up these new and, at the same time, ongoing historical set of conditions; conditions that demand a response if we are to live in the coming (post)-pandemic world. 

Christine Ross – McGill University (Montreal, Canada)

Chris Salter – Concordia University/Hexagram (Montreal, Canada)

2020 Trailers

There is a conference trailer for this new ‘virtual’ version of the 2020 conference,

Montreal Digital Spring (Printemps numérique) produced both the English language version and this one in French***, Note: Video [credit]: Guillaume Guardia,

I’m not sure why the French language version is so much shorter*** (maybe I found an abridged version?), in any case, the content is quite different and you may want to check out both trailers.

***ETA June 22, 2020 at 1550 PDT: The answer to my question as to why one trailer was shorter? Two different (but this year related) events. I failed to note that the second trailer was for “MTL Connect.” Here is Manuelle Freire’s description (academic programme manager of ISEA2020, Printemps numerique) of MTL Connect,

The latter is an annual event organised in Montreal by Printemps numérique, consisting of different thematic pavilion. This year ISEA2020 is the art and creativity pavilion of MTL Connect, so part of a larger endeavour that is affected by this online turn in its entirety.

As for MTL Connect, there’s this from the homepage,

BRINGING TOGETHER DIGITAL MINDS, DIGITALLY

6 DAYS OF PROGRAMMING • +400 SPEAKERS • 50 COUNTRIES REPRESENTED • +10,000 ATTENDEES • THOUSANDS OF OPPORTUNITIES FOR INTERACTION

That’s it for the correction. ***

Meeting technology, cyber security, and local involvement

I emailed (Friday, June 19, 2020) a couple of questions to the organizers which they have kindly answered.

  1. Are you going to be using Zoom as the technology for virtual
    attendance? Will there be security measures for attendees?
  2. [A]re there going to be any local (Vancouver, BC) virtual or in-person get-togethers? By October it might be possible to have small groups (with appropriate precautions) meet in person for ISEA2020 discussions/participation in virtual events held elsewhere. (Just a thought)

They responded by Sunday, June 21, 2020). That is quickly. The short answer to both questions is: “We don’t know yet.”

More specifically, Manuelle Freire (Printemps numerique) had this to say,

I will have to forward your first question regarding the technology of the platform, specifically cybersecurity, to the platform development project manager. Cybersecurity is an important matter that we have discussed internally and will be included in the FAQ and the IEA2020, as soon as we have stabilized the different features of the platform and we are ready to release.

As for the second question,

In what comes to small groups meeting in person. It is indeed possible that groups [might] be able to meet in October [2020], but at this stage, with social distancing and travel restrictions in place, we are still facing degrees of uncertainty. While we regret not meeting everyone in Montréal, moving the symposium 100% online seemed the only safe and certain solution. No in-person activities are scheduled for now.

The questions were also sent to Philippe Pasquier, a locally based (Vancouver, BC) member of the ISEA2020 academic committee and he had this to say about the possibility of local, in-person get-togethers,

As for (2), this is a good idea. Let’s wait and see what will be possible and revisit this idea closer to the date. 

The responses have made me happy. Hearing that they take cybersecurity seriously is downright musical and learning that they are open to local, small, in person get-togethers is spirit-lifting.

Final words

In 2009, I attended an ISEA being held in Northern Ireland and Ireland and asked one of the organizers if any of their symposia had been held in Canada. Yes! Montréal, my source raved at length, hosted a great meeting.

The next Canadian ISEA host was Vancouver in 2015 and guess what? Someone in a lineup was raving about the Montréal meeting. It seems that 1995 meeting has taken on a legendary glow.

It was a privilege being able to attend two meetings in person. Legendary, problematic, or good, the meetings bring together exciting talent and disturbing and/or mind-expanding ideas and experiences. Given the circumstances, the organizers find themselves dealing with, I wish them the best of luck although I’m confident that despite all the obstacles, ISEA2020 will be an extraordinary affair.

On a practical note, the $99 (or less) fee for the online pass is a good deal. (I know because I had to pay for mine when they were here in Vancouver in 2015. By the way, I’ve never regretted a penny of it.)

Canadian and Italian researchers go beyond graphene with 2D polymers

According to a May 20,2020 McGill University news release (also on EurkekAltert), a team of Canadian and Italian researchers has broken new ground in materials science (Note: There’s a press release I found a bit more accessible and therefore informative coming up after this one),

A study by a team of researchers from Canada and Italy recently published in Nature Materials could usher in a revolutionary development in materials science, leading to big changes in the way companies create modern electronics.

The goal was to develop two-dimensional materials, which are a single atomic layer thick, with added functionality to extend the revolutionary developments in materials science that started with the discovery of graphene in 2004.

In total, 19 authors worked on this paper from INRS [Institut National de la Recherche Scientifique], McGill {University], Lakehead [University], and Consiglio Nazionale delle Ricerche, the national research council in Italy.

This work opens exciting new directions, both theoretical and experimental. The integration of this system into a device (e.g. transistors) may lead to outstanding performances. In addition, these results will foster more studies on a wide range of two-dimensional conjugated polymers with different lattice symmetries, thereby gaining further insights into the structure vs. properties of these systems.

The Italian/Canadian team demonstrated the synthesis of large-scale two-dimensional conjugated polymers, also thoroughly characterizing their electronic properties. They achieved success by combining the complementary expertise of organic chemists and surface scientists.

“This work represents an exciting development in the realization of functional two-dimensional materials beyond graphene,” said Mark Gallagher, a Physics professor at Lakehead University.

“I found it particularly rewarding to participate in this collaboration, which allowed us to combine our expertise in organic chemistry, condensed matter physics, and materials science to achieve our goals.”

Dmytro Perepichka, a professor and chair of Chemistry at McGill University, said they have been working on this research for a long time.

“Structurally reconfigurable two-dimensional conjugated polymers can give a new breadth to applications of two-dimensional materials in electronics,” Perepichka said.

“We started dreaming of them more than 15 years ago. It’s only through this four-way collaboration, across the country and between the continents, that this dream has become the reality.”

Federico Rosei, a professor at the Énergie Matériaux Télécommunications Research Centre of the Institut National de la Recherche Scientifique (INRS) in Varennes who holds the Canada Research Chair in Nanostructured Materials since 2016, said they are excited about the results of this collaboration.

“These results provide new insights into mechanisms of surface reactions at a fundamental level and simultaneously yield a novel material with outstanding properties, whose existence had only been predicted theoretically until now,” he said.

About this study

Synthesis of mesoscale ordered two-dimensional π-conjugated polymers with semiconducting properties” by G. Galeotti et al. was published in Nature Materials.

This research was partially supported by a project Grande Rilevanza Italy-Quebec of the Italian Ministero degli Affari Esteri e della Cooperazione Internazionale, Direzione Generale per la Promozione del Sistema Paese, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, the Fonds Québécois de la recherche sur la nature et les technologies and a US Army Research Office. Federico Rosei is also grateful to the Canada Research Chairs program for funding and partial salary support.

About McGill University

Founded in Montreal, Quebec, in 1821, McGill is a leading Canadian post-secondary institution. It has two campuses, 11 faculties, 13 professional schools, 300 programs of study and over 40,000 students, including more than 10,200 graduate students. McGill attracts students from over 150 countries around the world, its 12,800 international students making up 31% per cent of the student body. Over half of McGill students claim a first language other than English, including approximately 19% of our students who say French is their mother tongue.

About the INRS
The Institut National de la Recherche Scientifique (INRS) is the only institution in Québec dedicated exclusively to graduate level university research and training. The impacts of its faculty and students are felt around the world. INRS proudly contributes to societal progress in partnership with industry and community stakeholders, both through its discoveries and by training new researchers and technicians to deliver scientific, social, and technological breakthroughs in the future.

Lakehead University
Lakehead University is a fully comprehensive university with approximately 9,700 full-time equivalent students and over 2,000 faculty and staff at two campuses in Orillia and Thunder Bay, Ontario. Lakehead has 10 faculties, including Business Administration, Education, Engineering, Graduate Studies, Health & Behavioural Sciences, Law, Natural Resources Management, the Northern Ontario School of Medicine, Science & Environmental Studies, and Social Sciences & Humanities. In 2019, Maclean’s 2020 University Rankings, once again, included Lakehead University among Canada’s Top 10 primarily undergraduate universities, while Research Infosource named Lakehead ‘Research University of the Year’ in its category for the fifth consecutive year. Visit www.lakeheadu.ca

I’m a little surprised there wasn’t a quote from one of the Italian researchers in the McGill news release but then there isn’t a quote in this slightly more accessible May 18, 2020 Consiglio Nazionale delle Ricerche press release either,

Graphene’s isolation took the world by surprise and was meant to revolutionize modern electronics. However, it was soon realized that its intrinsic properties limit the utilization in our daily electronic devices. When a concept of Mathematics, namely Topology, met the field of on-surface chemistry, new materials with exotic features were theoretically discovered. Topological materials exhibit technological relevant properties such as quantum hall conductivity that are protected by a concept similar to the comparison of a coffee mug and a donut.  These structures can be synthesized by the versatile molecular engineering toolbox that surface reactions provide. Nevertheless, the realization of such a material yields access to properties that suit the figure of merits for modern electronic application and could eventually for example lead to solve the ever-increasing heat conflict in chip design. However, problems such as low crystallinity and defect rich structures prevented the experimental observation and kept it for more than a decade a playground only investigated theoretically.

An international team of scientists from Institut National de la Recherche Scientifique (Centre Energie, Matériaux et Télécommunications), McGill University and Lakehead University, both located in Canada, and the SAMOS laboratory of the Istituto di Struttura della Materia (Cnr), led by Giorgio Contini, demonstrates, in a recent publication on Nature Materials, that the synthesis of two-dimensional π-conjugated polymers with topological Dirac cone and flats bands became a reality allowing a sneak peek into the world of organic topological materials.

Complementary work of organic chemists and surface scientists lead to two-dimensional polymers on a mesoscopic scale and granted access to their electronic properties. The band structure of the topological polymer reveals both flat bands and a Dirac cone confirming the prediction of theory. The observed coexistence of both structures is of particular interest, since whereas Dirac cones yield massless charge carriers (a band velocity of the same order of magnitude of graphene has been obtained), necessary for technological applications, flat bands quench the kinetic energy of charge carriers and could give rise to intriguing phenomena such as the anomalous Hall effect, surface superconductivity or superfluid transport.

This work paths multiple new roads – both theoretical and experimental nature. The integration of this topological polymer into a device such as transistors possibly reveals immense performance. On the other hand, it will foster many researchers to explore a wide range of two-dimensional polymers with different lattice symmetries, obtaining insight into the relationship between geometrical and electrical topology, which would in return be beneficial to fine tune a-priori theoretical studies. These materials – beyond graphene – could be then used for both their intrinsic properties as well as their interplay in new heterostructure designs.

The authors are currently exploring the practical use of the realized material trying to integrate it into transistors, pushing toward a complete designing of artificial topological lattices.

This work was partially supported by a project Grande Rilevanza Italy-Quebec of the Italian Ministero degli Affari Esteri e della Cooperazione Internazionale (MAECI), Direzione Generale per la Promozione del Sistema Paese.

The Italians also included an image to accompany their press release,

Image of the synthesized material and its band structure Courtesy: Consiglio Nazionale delle Ricerche

My heart sank when I saw the number of authors for this paper (WordPress no longer [since their Christmas 2018 update] makes it easy to add the author’s names quickly to the ‘tags field’). Regardless and in keeping with my practice, here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Synthesis of mesoscale ordered two-dimensional π-conjugated polymers with semiconducting properties by G. Galeotti, F. De Marchi, E. Hamzehpoor, O. MacLean, M. Rajeswara Rao, Y. Chen, L. V. Besteiro, D. Dettmann, L. Ferrari, F. Frezza, P. M. Sheverdyaeva, R. Liu, A. K. Kundu, P. Moras, M. Ebrahimi, M. C. Gallagher, F. Rosei, D. F. Perepichka & G. Contini. Nature Materials (2020) DOI: https://doi.org/10.1038/s41563-020-0682-z Published 18 May 2020

This paper is behind a paywall.

McGill University team gets better understanding of nonribosomal peptide synthetases (NRPSs) also described as nanomachines

This research from McGill University (Montréal, Canada) focuses on enzymes and their possible utility as nanomachines for producing drugs. (For the uninitiated, nano means billionth, which, in turn, means these enzymes are measured at the nanoscale.)

An April 30, 2020 McGill University news release (also on EurekAlert) describes the work,

Many of the drugs and medicines that we rely on today are natural products taken from microbes like bacteria and fungi. Within these microbes, the drugs are made by tiny natural machines – mega-enzymes known as nonribosomal peptide synthetases (NRPSs). A research team led by McGill University has gained a better understanding of the structures of NRPSs and the processes by which they work. This improved understanding of NRPSs could potentially allow bacteria and fungi to be leveraged for the production of desired new compounds and lead to the creation of new potent antibiotics, immunosuppressants and other modern drugs.

“NRPSs are really fantastic enzymes that take small molecules like amino acids or other similar sized building blocks and assemble them into natural, biologically active, potent compounds, many of which are drugs,” said Martin Schmeing, Associate Professor in the Department of Biochemistry at McGill University, and corresponding author on the article that was recently published in Nature Chemical Biology. “An NRPS works like a factory assembly line that consists of a series of robotic workstations. Each station has multi-step workflows and moving parts that allow it to add one building block substrate to the growing drug, elongating and modifying it, and then passing it off to the next little workstation, all on the same huge enzyme.”

Ultra-intensive light beam allows scientists to see proteins

n their paper featured on the cover of the May 2020 issue of Nature Chemical Biology, the team reports visualizing an NRPS mechanical system by using the CMCF beamline at the Canadian Light Source (CLS). The CLS is a Canadian national lab [these types of labs are sometimes called synchrotrons] that produces the ultra-intense beams of X-rays required to image proteins, as even mega-enzymes are too small to see with any light microscope.

“Scientists have long been excited about the potential of bioengineering NRPSs by identifying the order of building blocks and reorganizing the workstations in the enzyme to create new drugs, but the effort has rarely been successful,” said Schmeing. “This is the first time anyone has seen how these enzymes transform keto acids into a building block that can be put into a peptide drug. This helps us understand how the NRPSs can use so very many building blocks to make the many different compounds and therapeutics.”

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Structural basis of keto acid utilization in nonribosomal depsipeptide synthesis by Diego A. Alonzo, Clarisse Chiche-Lapierre, Michael J. Tarry, Jimin Wang & T. Martin Schmeing. Nature Chemical Biology volume 16, pages493–496(2020) Published: 17 February 2020

This paper is behind a paywall.

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.

Democratizing science .. neuroscience that is

What is going on with the neuroscience folks? First it was Montreal Neuro opening up its science  as featured in my January 22, 2016 posting,

The Montreal Neurological Institute (MNI) in Québec, Canada, known informally and widely as Montreal Neuro, has ‘opened’ its science research to the world. David Bruggeman tells the story in a Jan. 21, 2016 posting on his Pasco Phronesis blog (Note: Links have been removed),

The Montreal Neurological Institute (MNI) at McGill University announced that it will be the first academic research institute to become what it calls ‘Open Science.’  As Science is reporting, the MNI will make available all research results and research data at the time of publication.  Additionally it will not seek patents on any of the discoveries made on research at the Institute.

Will this catch on?  I have no idea if this particular combination of open access research data and results with no patents will spread to other university research institutes.  But I do believe that those elements will continue to spread.  More universities and federal agencies are pursuing open access options for research they support.  Elon Musk has opted to not pursue patent litigation for any of Tesla Motors’ patents, and has not pursued patents for SpaceX technology (though it has pursued litigation over patents in rocket technology). …

Whether or not they were inspired by the MNI, the scientists at the University of Washington (UW [state]) have found their own unique way of opening up science. From a March 15, 2018 UW news blog posting (also on EurekAlert) by James Urton, Note: Links have been removed,

Over the past few years, scientists have faced a problem: They often cannot reproduce the results of experiments done by themselves or their peers.

This “replication crisis” plagues fields from medicine to physics, and likely has many causes. But one is undoubtedly the difficulty of sharing the vast amounts of data collected and analyses performed in so-called “big data” studies. The volume and complexity of the information also can make these scientific endeavors unwieldy when it comes time for researchers to share their data and findings with peers and the public.

Researchers at the University of Washington have developed a set of tools to make one critical area of big data research — that of our central nervous system — easier to share. In a paper published online March 5 [2018] in Nature Communications, the UW team describes an open-access browser they developed to display, analyze and share neurological data collected through a type of magnetic resonance imaging study known as diffusion-weighted MRI.

“There has been a lot of talk among researchers about the replication crisis,” said lead author Jason Yeatman. “But we wanted a tool — ready, widely available and easy to use — that would actually help fight the replication crisis.”

Yeatman — who is an assistant professor in the UW Department of Speech & Hearing Sciences and the Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences (I-LABS) — is describing AFQ-Browser. This web browser-based tool, freely available online, is a platform for uploading, visualizing, analyzing and sharing diffusion MRI data in a format that is publicly accessible, improving transparency and data-sharing methods for neurological studies. In addition, since it runs in the web browser, AFQ-Browser is portable — requiring no additional software package or equipment beyond a computer and an internet connection.

“One major barrier to data transparency in neuroscience is that so much data collection, storage and analysis occurs on local computers with special software packages,” said senior author Ariel Rokem, a senior data scientist in the UW eScience Institute. “But using AFQ-Browser, we eliminate those requirements and make uploading, sharing and analyzing diffusion-weighted MRI data a simple, straightforward process.”

Diffusion-weighted MRI measures the movement of fluid in the brain and spinal cord, revealing the structure and function of white-matter tracts. These are the connections of the central nervous system, tissue that are made up primarily of axons that transmit long-range signals between neural circuits. Diffusion MRI research on brain connectivity has fundamentally changed the way neuroscientists understand human brain function: The state, organization and layout of white matter tracts are at the core of cognitive functions such as memory, learning and other capabilities. Data collected using diffusion-weighted MRI can be used to diagnose complex neurological conditions such as multiple sclerosis (MS) and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). Researchers also use diffusion-weighted MRI data to study the neurological underpinnings of conditions such as dyslexia and learning disabilities.

“This is a widely-used technique in neuroscience research, and it is particularly amenable to the benefits that can be gleaned from big data, so it became a logical starting point for developing browser-based, open-access tools for the field,” said Yeatman.

The AFQ-Browser — the AFQ stands for Automated Fiber-tract Quantification — can receive diffusion-weighted MRI data and perform tract analysis for each individual subject. The analyses occur via a remote server, again eliminating technical and financial barriers for researchers. The AFQ-Browser also contains interactive tools to display data for multiple subjects — allowing a researcher to easily visualize how white matter tracts might be similar or different among subjects, identify trends in the data and generate hypotheses for future experiments. Researchers also can insert additional code to analyze the data, as well as save, upload and share data instantly with fellow researchers.

“We wanted this tool to be as generalizable as possible, regardless of research goals,” said Rokem. “In addition, the format is easy for scientists from a variety of backgrounds to use and understand — so that neuroscientists, statisticians and other researchers can collaborate, view data and share methods toward greater reproducibility.”

The idea for the AFQ-Browser came out of a UW course on data visualization, and the researchers worked with several graduate students to develop and perfect the browser. They tested it on existing diffusion-weighted MRI datasets, including research subjects with ALS and MS. In the future, they hope that the AFQ-Browser can be improved to do automated analyses — and possibly even diagnoses — based on diffusion-weighted MRI data.

“AFQ-Browser is really just the start of what could be a number of tools for sharing neuroscience data and experiments,” said Yeatman. “Our goal here is greater reproducibility and transparency, and a more robust scientific process.”

Here are a couple of images the researchers have used to illustrate their work,

AFQ-Browser.Jason Yeatman/Ariel Rokem Courtesy: University of Washington

Depiction of the left hemisphere of the human brain. Colored regions are selected white matter regions that could be measured using diffusion-weighted MRI: Corticospinal tract (orange), arcuate fasciculus (blue) and cingulum (green).Jason Yeatman/Ariel Rokem

You can find an embedded version of the AFQ-Browser here: http://www.washington.edu/news/2018/03/15/democratizing-science-researchers-make-neuroscience-experiments-easier-to-share-reproduce/ (scroll down about 50 – 55% of the way).

As for the paper, here’s a link and a citation,

A browser-based tool for visualization and analysis of diffusion MRI data by Jason D. Yeatman, Adam Richie-Halford, Josh K. Smith, Anisha Keshavan, & Ariel Rokem. Nature Communicationsvolume 9, Article number: 940 (2018) doi:10.1038/s41467-018-03297-7 Published online: 05 March 2018

Fittingly, this paper is open access.

AI fairytale and April 25, 2018 AI event at Canada Science and Technology Museum*** in Ottawa

These days it’s all about artificial intelligence (AI) or robots and often, it’s both. They’re everywhere and they will take everyone’s jobs, or not, depending on how you view them. Today, I’ve got two artificial intelligence items, the first of which may provoke writers’ anxieties.

Fairytales

The Princess and the Fox is a new fairytale by the Brothers Grimm or rather, their artificially intelligent surrogate according to an April 18, 2018 article on the British Broadcasting Corporation’s online news website,

It was recently reported that the meditation app Calm had published a “new” fairytale by the Brothers Grimm.

However, The Princess and the Fox was written not by the brothers, who died over 150 years ago, but by humans using an artificial intelligence (AI) tool.

It’s the first fairy tale written by an AI, claims Calm, and is the result of a collaboration with Botnik Studios – a community of writers, artists and developers. Calm says the technique could be referred to as “literary cloning”.

Botnik employees used a predictive-text program to generate words and phrases that might be found in the original Grimm fairytales. Human writers then pieced together sentences to form “the rough shape of a story”, according to Jamie Brew, chief executive of Botnik.

The full version is available to paying customers of Calm, but here’s a short extract:

“Once upon a time, there was a golden horse with a golden saddle and a beautiful purple flower in its hair. The horse would carry the flower to the village where the princess danced for joy at the thought of looking so beautiful and good.

Advertising for a meditation app?

Of course, it’s advertising and it’s ‘smart’ advertising (wordplay intended). Here’s a preview/trailer,

Blair Marnell’s April 18, 2018 article for SyFy Wire provides a bit more detail,

“You might call it a form of literary cloning,” said Calm co-founder Michael Acton Smith. Calm commissioned Botnik to use its predictive text program, Voicebox, to create a new Brothers Grimm story. But first, Voicebox was given the entire collected works of the Brothers Grimm to analyze, before it suggested phrases and sentences based upon those stories. Of course, human writers gave the program an assist when it came to laying out the plot. …

“The Brothers Grimm definitely have a reputation for darkness and many of their best-known tales are undoubtedly scary,” Peter Freedman told SYFY WIRE. Freedman is a spokesperson for Calm who was a part of the team behind the creation of this story. “In the process of machine-human collaboration that generated The Princess and The Fox, we did gently steer the story towards something with a more soothing, calm plot and vibe, that would make it work both as a new Grimm fairy tale and simultaneously as a Sleep Story on Calm.” [emphasis mine]

….

If Marnell’s article is to be believed, Peter Freedman doesn’t hold much hope for writers in the long-term future although we don’t need to start ‘battening down the hatches’ yet.

You can find Calm here.

You can find Botnik  here and Botnik Studios here.

 

AI at Ingenium [Canada Science and Technology Museum] on April 25, 2018

Formerly known (I believe) [*Read the comments for the clarification] as the Canada Science and Technology Museum, Ingenium is hosting a ‘sold out but there will be a livestream’ Google event. From Ingenium’s ‘Curiosity on Stage Evening Edition with Google – The AI Revolution‘ event page,

Join Google, Inc. and the Canada Science and Technology Museum for an evening of thought-provoking discussions about artificial intelligence.

[April 25, 2018
7:00 p.m. – 10:00 p.m. {ET}
Fees: Free]

Invited speakers from industry leaders Google, Facebook, Element AI and Deepmind will explore the intersection of artificial intelligence with robotics, arts, social impact and healthcare. The session will end with a panel discussion and question-and-answer period. Following the event, there will be a reception along with light refreshments and networking opportunities.

The event will be simultaneously translated into both official languages as well as available via livestream from the Museum’s YouTube channel.

Seating is limited

THIS EVENT IS NOW SOLD OUT. Please join us for the livestream from the Museum’s YouTube channel. https://www.youtube.com/cstmweb *** April 25, 2018: I received corrective information about the link for the livestream: https://youtu.be/jG84BIno5J4 from someone at Ingenium.***

Speakers

David Usher (Moderator)

David Usher is an artist, best-selling author, entrepreneur and keynote speaker. As a musician he has sold more than 1.4 million albums, won 4 Junos and has had #1 singles singing in English, French and Thai. When David is not making music, he is equally passionate about his other life, as a Geek. He is the founder of Reimagine AI, an artificial intelligence creative studio working at the intersection of art and artificial intelligence. David is also the founder and creative director of the non-profit, the Human Impact Lab at Concordia University [located in Montréal, Québec]. The Lab uses interactive storytelling to revisualize the story of climate change. David is the co-creator, with Dr. Damon Matthews, of the Climate Clock. Climate Clock has been presented all over the world including the United Nations COP 23 Climate Conference and is presently on a three-year tour with the Canada Museum of Science and Innovation’s Climate Change Exhibit.

Joelle Pineau (Facebook)

The AI Revolution:  From Ideas and Models to Building Smart Robots
Joelle Pineau is head of the Facebook AI Research Lab Montreal, and an Associate Professor and William Dawson Scholar at McGill University. Dr. Pineau’s research focuses on developing new models and algorithms for automatic planning and learning in partially-observable domains. She also applies these algorithms to complex problems in robotics, health-care, games and conversational agents. She serves on the editorial board of the Journal of Artificial Intelligence Research and the Journal of Machine Learning Research and is currently President of the International Machine Learning Society. She is a AAAI Fellow, a Senior Fellow of the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research (CIFAR) and in 2016 was named a member of the College of New Scholars, Artists and Scientists by the Royal Society of Canada.

Pablo Samuel Castro (Google)

Building an Intelligent Assistant for Music Creators
Pablo was born and raised in Quito, Ecuador, and moved to Montreal after high school to study at McGill. He stayed in Montreal for the next 10 years, finished his bachelors, worked at a flight simulator company, and then eventually obtained his masters and PhD at McGill, focusing on Reinforcement Learning. After his PhD Pablo did a 10-month postdoc in Paris before moving to Pittsburgh to join Google. He has worked at Google for almost 6 years, and is currently a research Software Engineer in Google Brain in Montreal, focusing on fundamental Reinforcement Learning research, as well as Machine Learning and Music. Aside from his interest in coding/AI/math, Pablo is an active musician (https://www.psctrio.com), loves running (5 marathons so far, including Boston!), and discussing politics and activism.

Philippe Beaudoin (Element AI)

Concrete AI-for-Good initiatives at Element AI
Philippe cofounded Element AI in 2016 and currently leads its applied lab and AI-for-Good initiatives. His team has helped tackle some of the biggest and most interesting business challenges using machine learning. Philippe holds a Ph.D in Computer Science and taught virtual bipeds to walk by themselves during his postdoc at UBC. He spent five years at Google as a Senior Developer and Technical Lead Manager, partly with the Chrome Machine Learning team. Philippe also founded ArcBees, specializing in cloud-based development. Prior to that he worked in the videogame and graphics hardware industries. When he has some free time, Philippe likes to invent new boardgames — the kind of games where he can still beat the AI!

Doina Precup (Deepmind)

Challenges and opportunities for the AI revolution in health care
Doina Precup splits her time between McGill University, where she co-directs the Reasoning and Learning Lab in the School of Computer Science, and DeepMind Montreal, where she leads the newly formed research team since October 2017.  She got her BSc degree in computer science form the Technical University Cluj-Napoca, Romania, and her MSc and PhD degrees from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, where she was a Fulbright fellow. Her research interests are in the areas of reinforcement learning, deep learning, time series analysis, and diverse applications of machine learning in health care, automated control and other fields. She became a senior member of AAAI in 2015, a Canada Research Chair in Machine Learning in 2016 and a Senior Fellow of CIFAR in 2017.

Interesting, oui? Not a single expert from Ottawa or Toronto. Well, Element AI has an office in Toronto. Still, I wonder why this singular focus on AI in Montréal. After all, one of the current darlings of AI, machine learning, was developed at the University of Toronto which houses the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research (CIFAR),  the institution in charge of the Pan-Canadian Artificial Intelligence Strategy and the Vector Institutes (more about that in my March 31,2017 posting).

Enough with my musing: For those of us on the West Coast, there’s an opportunity to attend via livestream from 4 pm to 7 pm on April 25, 2018 on xxxxxxxxx. *** April 25, 2018: I received corrective information about the link for the livestream: https://youtu.be/jG84BIno5J4 and clarification as the relationship between Ingenium and the Canada Science and Technology Museum from someone at Ingenium.***

For more about Element AI, go here; for more about DeepMind, go here for information about parent company in the UK and the most I dug up about their Montréal office was this job posting; and, finally , Reimagine.AI is here.