Tag Archives: Mona Nemer

Not a pretty picture: Canada and a patent rights waiver for COVID-19 vaccines

At about 7:15 am PT this morning , May 13, 2021, I saw Dr. Mona Nemer’s (Canada’s Chief Science Advisor) tweet (Note: I’m sorry the formatting isn’t better,

Maryse de la Giroday@frogheart Does this mean Canada will support a waiver on patent rights for COVID-19 vaccines?

7:18 AM · May 13, 2021

Dr. Mona Nemer@ChiefSciCanThe global health crisis of the past year has underscored the critical importance of openly sharing scientific information. We are one step closer to making #openscience a reality around the world. So pleased that my office was part of these discussions. http://webcast.unesco.org/events/2021-05-OS-IGM/ Quote Tweet

Canada at UNESCO@Canada2UNESCO · May 6@Canada2UNESCO is partaking in negotiations today on the draft recommendation on #OpenScience The benefits of #science and #technology to health, the #economy and #development should be available to all.6:40 AM · May 13, 2021·Twitter Web App

No reply. No surprise

Brief summary of Canada’s COVID-19 patent rights nonwaiver

You’ll find more about the UNESCO meeting on open science in last week’s May 7, 2021 posting (Listen in on a UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) meeting [about Open Science]).

At the time, I noted a disparity in Canada’s policies centering on open science and patents; scroll down to the “Comments on open science and intellectual property in Canada” subsection for a more nuanced analysis. For those who don’t have the patience and/or the time, it boils down to this:

  1. Canada is happily participating in a UNESCO meeting on open science,
  2. the 2021 Canadian federal budget just dedicated a big chunk of money to augmenting Canada’s national patent strategy, and
  3. Canada is “willing to discuss” a waiver at the World Trade Organization (WTO) meetings.

I predicted UNESCO would see our representative’s enthusiastic participation while our representative at the WTO meeting would dance around the topic without committing. to anything. Sadly, it’s starting to look like I was right.

Leigh Beadon in a May 12, 2021 posting on Techdirt reveals the situation is worse than I thought (Note: Links have been removed),

Few things illustrate the broken state of our global intellectual property system better than the fact that, well over a year into this devastating pandemic and in the face of a strong IP waiver push by some of the hardest hit countries, patents are still holding back the production of life-saving vaccines. And of all the countries opposing a waiver at the WTO (or withholding support for it, which is functionally the same thing), Canada might be the most frustrating [emphasis mine].

Canada is the biggest hoarder [emphasis mine] of vaccine pre-orders, having secured enough to vaccinate the population five times over. Despite this, it has constantly run into supply problems and lagged behind comparable countries when it comes to administering the vaccines on a per capita basis. In response to criticism of its hoarding, the government continues to focus on its plans to donate all surplus doses to the COVAX vaccine sharing program — but these promises were somewhat more convincing before Canada became the only G7 country to withdraw doses from COVAX. Despite all this, and despite pressure from experts who explain how vaccine hoarding will prolong the pandemic for everyone, the country has continually refused to voice its support for a TRIPS patent waiver at the WTO.

Momentum for changing Canada’s position on a COVID-19 vaccine patent right waivers?

Maclean’s magazine has a May 10, 2021 open letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau,

Dear Prime Minister Trudeau,

The only way to combat this pandemic successfully is through a massive global vaccination campaign on a scale and timeline never before undertaken. This requires the production of effective tools and technologies to fight COVID-19 at scale and coordinated global distribution efforts.

The Trade-Related Aspect of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) agreement at the World Trade Organization (WTO) is leading to the opposite outcome. Vaccine production is hindered by granting pharmaceutical companies monopoly power through protection of intellectual property rights, industrial designs and trade secrets. Pharmaceutical companies’ refusal to engage in health technology knowledge transfer makes large-scale, global vaccine production in (and for) low- and middle-income countries all but impossible. The current distribution of vaccines globally speaks to these obstacles.

Hundreds of civil society groups, the World Health Organization (WHO), and the elected governments of over 100 countries, including India, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka have come together and stated that current intellectual property protections reduce the availability of vaccines for protecting their people. On May 5, 2021 the United States also announced its intention to support a temporary waiver for vaccines at the WTO.

We are writing to ask our Canadian government to demonstrate its commitment to an equitable global pandemic response by supporting a temporary waiver of the TRIPS agreement. But clearly that is a necessary but not a sufficient first step. We recognize that scaling up vaccine production requires more than just a waiver of intellectual property rights, so we further request that our government support the WHO’s COVID-19 Technology Access Pool (C-TAP) to facilitate knowledge sharing and work with the WTO to address the supply chain and export constraints currently impeding vaccine production. Finally, because vaccines must be rolled out as part of an integrated strategy to end the acute phase of the epidemic, we request that Canada support the full scope of the TRIPS waiver, which extends to all essential COVID-19 products and technologies, including vaccines, diagnostics and therapeutics.

The status quo is clearly not working fast enough to end the acute phase of the pandemic globally. This waiver respects global intellectual property frameworks and takes advantage of existing provisions for exceptions during emergencies, as enshrined in the TRIPS agreement. Empowering countries to take measures to protect their own people is fundamental to bringing this pandemic to an end.

Anand Giridharadas (author of the 2018 book, Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World) also makes the case for a patent rights waiver in his May 11, 2021 posting on The Ink, Note: A link has been removed,

Patents are temporary monopolies granted to inventors, to reward invention and thus encourage more of it. But what happens when you invent a drug that people around the world require to stay alive? What happens when, furthermore, that drug was built in part on technology the public paid for? Are there limits to intellectual property?

For years, activists have pressured the United States government to break or suspend patents in particular cases, as with HIV/Aids. They have had little luck. Indeed, the United States has often fought developing countries when they try to break patents to do right by their citizens, choosing American drug companies over dying people.

So it was a dramatic swerve when, last week, the Biden administration announced that it supported a waiver of the patents for Covid vaccines.

Not long afterward, I reached out to several leading activists for vaccine access to understand the significance of the announcement and where we go from here.

in all this talk about patents and social justice and, whether it’s directly referenced or not, money, the only numbers of I’ve seen,until recently, have been numbers of doses and aggregate costs.

How much does a single vaccine dose cost?

A Sunday, April 11, 2021 article by Krassen Nikolov for EURACTIV provides an answer about the cost in one region, the European Union,

“Pfizer cost €12, then €15.50. The Commission now signs contracts for €19,50”, Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov revealed on Sunday [April 11, 2021].

The European Commission is in talks with Pfizer for the supply of COVID-19 vaccines in 2022 and 2023. Borissov said the contracts provide for €19.50 per dose.

Under an agreement with the vaccine producing companies, the European Commission has so far refused to reveal the price of vaccines. However, last December Belgian Secretary of State Eva De Bleeker shared on Twitter the vaccine prices negotiated by the Commission, as well as the number of doses purchased by her government. Then, it became known that the AstraZeneca jab costs €1.78 compared to €12 for Pfizer-BioNTech.

€12 to €19,50, that’s an increase of over 50%. I wonder how Pfizer is justifying such a hefty increase?

According to a March 16, 2021 article by Swikar Oli for the National Post (a Canadian newspaper), these prices are a cheap pandemic special prices,

A top Pfizer executive told shareholders the company is looking at a “significant opportunity” to raise the price of its Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine.

While addressing investors at the virtual Barclays Global Healthcare Conference last week, Pfizer CFO Frank D’Amelio noted they could raise prices when the virus becomes endemic, meaning it’s regularly found in clusters around the globe, according to a transcript of the conference posted on Pfizer’s website.

Current vaccine pricing models are pandemic-related, D’Amelio explained. After the pandemic is defeated and “normal market conditions” arrive, he noted the window would open for a “significant opportunity…from a pricing perspective.”

“So the one price that we published is the price with the U.S. of $19.50 per dose. Obviously, that’s not a normal price like we typically get for a vaccine, $150, $175 [emphasis mine] per dose,” he said, “So pandemic pricing.”

If I remember it rightly, as you increase production, you lower costs per unit. In other words, it’s cheaper to produce one dozen than one, which is why your bakery charges you less money per bun or cake if you purchase by the dozen.

During this pandemic, Pfizer has been producing huge amounts of vaccine, which they would not expect to do should the disease become endemic. As Pfizer has increased production, I would think the price should be dropping but according to the Bulgarian prime minister, it’s not.

They don’t seem to be changing the vaccine as new variants arrive. So, raising the prices doesn’t seem to be linked to research issues and as for the new production facilities, surely those didn’t cost billions.

Canada and COVID-19 money

Talking about money, Canada has a COVDI-19 billionaire according to a December 23, 2020 article (Meet The 50 Doctors, Scientists And Healthcare Entrepreneurs Who Became Pandemic Billionaires In 2020) by Giacomo Tognini for Forbes.

I have a bit more about Carl Hansen (COVID-19 billionaire) and his company, AbCellera, in my December 30, 2020 posting.

I wonder how much the Canadian life sciences community has to do with Canada’s hesitancy over a COVID-19 vaccine patent rights waiver.

Science and technology, the 2019 Canadian federal government, and the Phoenix Pay System

This posting will focus on science, technology, the tragic consequence of bureaucratic and political bungling (the technology disaster that is is the Phoenix payroll system), and the puzzling lack of concern about some of the biggest upcoming technological and scientific changes in government and society in decades or more.

Setting the scene

After getting enough Liberal party members elected to the Canadian Parliament’s House of Commons to form a minority government in October 2019, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced a new cabinet and some changes to the ‘science’ portfolios in November 2019. You can read more about the overall cabinet announcement in this November 20, 2019 news item by Peter Zimonjic on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) website, my focus will be the science and technology. (Note: For those who don’t know, there is already much discussion about how long this Liberal minority government will last. All i takes is a ‘loss of confidence’ motion and a majority of the official opposition and other parties to vote ‘no confidence’ and Canada will back into the throes of an election. Mitigating against a speedy new federal election,, the Conservative party [official opposition] needs to choose a new leader and the other parties may not have the financial resources for another federal election so soon after the last one.)

Getting back to now and the most recent Cabinet announcements, it seems this time around, there’s significantly less interest in science. Concerns about this were noted in a November 22, 2019 article by Ivan Semeniuk for the Globe and Mail,

Canadian researchers are raising concerns that the loss of a dedicated science minister signals a reduced voice for their agenda around the federal cabinet table.

“People are wondering if the government thinks its science agenda is done,” said Marie Franquin, a doctoral student in neuroscience and co-president of Science and Policy Exchange, a student-led research-advocacy group. “There’s still a lot of work to do.”

While not a powerful player within cabinet, Ms. Duncan [Kirsty Duncan] proved to be an ardent booster of Canada’s research community and engaged with its issues, including the muzzling of federal scientists by the former Harper government and the need to improve gender equity in the research ecosystem.

Among Ms. Duncan’s accomplishments was the appointment of a federal chief science adviser [sic] and the commissioning of a landmark review of Ottawa’s support for fundamental research, chaired by former University of Toronto president David Naylor

… He [Andre Albinati, managing principal with Earnscliffe Strategy Group] added the role of science in government is now further bolstered by chief science adviser [sic] Mona Nemer and a growing network of departmental science advisers [sic]. .

Mehrdad Hariri, president of the Canadian Science Policy Centre …, cautioned that the chief science adviser’s [sic] role was best described as “science for policy,” meaning the use of science advice in decision-making. He added that the government still needed a separate role like that filled by Ms. Duncan … to champion “policy for science,” meaning decisions that optimize Canada’s research enterprise.

There’s one other commentary (by CresoSá) but I’m saving it for later.

The science minister disappears

There is no longer a separate position for Science. Kirsty Duncan was moved from her ‘junior’ position as Minister of Science (and Sport) to Deputy Leader of the government. Duncan’s science portfolio has been moved over to Navdeep Bains whose portfolio evolved from Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development (yes, there were two ‘ministers of science’) to Minister of Innovation, Science and Industry. (It doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. Sadly, nobody from the Prime Minister’s team called to ask for my input on the matter.)

Science (and technology) have to be found elsewhere

There’s the Natural Resources (i.e., energy, minerals and metals, forests, earth sciences, mapping, etc.) portfolio which was led by Catherine McKenna who’s been moved over to Infrastructure and Communities. There have been mumblings that she was considered ‘too combative’ in her efforts. Her replacement in Natural Resources is Seamus O’Regan. No word yet on whether or not, he might also be ‘too combative’. Of course, it’s much easier if you’re female to gain that label. (You can read about the spray-painted slurs found on the windows of McKenna’s campaign offices after she was successfully re-elected. See: Mike Blanchfield’s October 24, 2019 article for Huffington Post and Brigitte Pellerin’s October 31, 2019 article for the Ottawa Citizen.)

There are other portfolios which can also be said to include science such as Environment and Climate Change which welcomes a new minister, Jonathan Wilkinson moving over from his previous science portfolio, Fisheries, Oceans, and Canadian Coast Guard where Bernadette Jordan has moved into place. Patti Hajdu takes over at Heath Canada (which despite all of the talk about science muzzles being lifted still has its muzzle in place). While it’s not typically considered a ‘science’ portfolio in Canada, the military establishment regardless of country has long been considered a source of science innovation; Harjit Sajjan has retained his Minister of National Defence portfolio.

Plus there are at least half a dozen other portfolios that can be described as having significant science and/or technology elements folded into their portfolios, e.g., Transport Canada, Agriculture and Agri-Food, Safety and Emergency Preparedness, etc.

As I tend to focus on emerging science and technology, most of these portfolios are not ones I follow even on an irregular basis meaning I have nothing more to add about them in this posting. Mixing science and technology together in this posting is a reflection of how tightly the two are linked together. For example, university research into artificial intelligence is taking place on theoretical levels (science) and as applied in business and government (technology). Apologies to the mathematicians but this explanation is already complicated and I don’t think I can do justice to their importance.

Moving onto technology with a strong science link, this next portfolio received even less attention than the ‘science’ portfolios and I believe that’s undeserved.

The Minister of Digital Government and a bureaucratic débacle

These days people tend to take the digital nature of daily life for granted and that may be why this portfolio has escaped much notice. When the ministerial posting was first introduced, it was an addition to Scott Brison’s responsibilities as head of the Treasury Board. It continued to be linked to the Treasury Board when Joyce Murray* inherited Brison’s position, after his departure from politics. As of the latest announcement in November 2019, Digital Government and the Treasury Board are no longer tended to by the same cabinet member.

The new head of the Treasury Board is Jean-Yves Duclos while Joyce Murray has held on to the Minister of Digital Government designation. I’m not sure if the separation from the Treasury Board is indicative of the esteem the Prime Minister has for digital government or if this has been done to appease someone or some group, which means the digital government portfolio could well disappear in the future just as the ‘junior’ science portfolio did.

Regardless, here’s some evidence as to why I think ‘digital government’ is unfairly overlooked, from the minister’s December 13, 2019 Mandate Letter from the Prime Minister (Note: All of the emphases are mine],

I will expect you to work with your colleagues and through established legislative, regulatory and Cabinet processes to deliver on your top priorities. In particular, you will:

  • Lead work across government to transition to a more digital government in order to improve citizen service.
  • Oversee the Chief Information Officer and the Canadian Digital Service as they work with departments to develop solutions that will benefit Canadians and enhance the capacity to use modern tools and methodologies across Government.
  • Lead work to analyze and improve the delivery of information technology (IT) within government. This work will include identifying all core and at-risk IT systems and platforms. You will lead the renewal of SSC [Shared Services Canada which provides ‘modern, secure and reliable IT services so federal organizations can deliver digital programs and services to meet Canadians’ needs’] so that it is properly resourced and aligned to deliver common IT infrastructure that is reliable and secure.
  • Lead work to create a centre of expertise that brings together the necessary skills to effectively implement major transformation projects across government, including technical, procurement and legal expertise.
  • Support the Minister of Innovation, Science and Industry in continuing work on the ethical use of data and digital tools like artificial intelligence for better government.
  • With the support of the President of the Treasury Board and the Minister of Families, Children and Social Development, accelerate progress on a new Government of Canada service strategy that aims to create a single online window for all government services with new performance standards.
  • Support the Minister of Families, Children and Social Development in expanding and improving the services provided by Service Canada.
  • Support the Minister of National Revenue on additional steps required to meaningfully improve the satisfaction of Canadians with the quality, timeliness and accuracy of services they receive from the Canada Revenue Agency.
  • Support the Minister of Public Services and Procurement in eliminating the backlog of outstanding pay issues for public servants as a result of the Phoenix Pay System.
  • Lead work on the Next Generation Human Resources and Pay System to replace the Phoenix Pay System and support the President of the Treasury Board as he actively engages Canada’s major public sector unions.
  • Support the Minister of Families, Children and Social Development and the Minister of National Revenue to implement a voluntary, real-time e-payroll system with an initial focus on small businesses.
  • Fully implement lessons learned from previous information technology project challenges and failures [e,g, the Phoenix Payroll System], particularly around sunk costs and major multi-year contracts. Act transparently by sharing identified successes and difficulties within government, with the aim of constantly improving the delivery of projects large and small.
  • Encourage the use and development of open source products and open data, allowing for experimentation within existing policy directives and building an inventory of validated and secure applications that can be used by government to share knowledge and expertise to support innovation.

To be clear, the Minister of Digital Government is responsible (more or less) for helping to clean up a débacle, i.e., the implementation of the federal government’s Phoenix Payroll System and drive even more digitization and modernization of government data and processes.

They’ve been trying to fix the Phoenix problems since the day it was implemented in early 2016.That’s right, it will be four years in Spring 2020 when the Liberal government chose to implement a digital payroll system that had been largely untested and despite its supplier’s concerns.

The Phoenix Pay System and a great sadness

The Public Service Alliance of Canada (the largest union for federal employees; PSAC) has a separate space for Phoneix on its website, which features this video,

That video was posted on September 24, 2018 (on YouTube) and, to my knowledge, the situation has not changed appreciably. A November 8, 2019 article by Tom Spears for the Ottawa Citizen details a very personal story about what can only be described as a failure on just about every level you can imagine,

Linda Deschâtelets’s death by suicide might have been prevented if the flawed Phoenix pay system hadn’t led her to emotional and financial ruin, a Quebec coroner has found.

Deschâtelets died in December of 2017, at age 52. At the time she was struggling with chronic pain and massive mortgage payments.

The fear of losing her home weighed heavily on her. In her final text message to one of her sons she said she had run out of energy and wanted to die before she lost her house in Val des Monts.

But Deschâtelets might have lived, says a report from coroner Pascale Boulay, if her employer, the Canada Revenue Agency, had shown a little empathy.

“During the final months before her death, she experienced serious financial troubles linked to the federal government’s pay system, Phoenix, which cut off her pay in a significant way, making her fear she would lose her house,” said Boulay’s report.

“A thorough analysis of this case strongly suggests that this death could have been avoided if a search for a solution to the current financial, psychological and medical situation had been made.”

Boulay found “there is no indication that management sought to meet Ms. Deschâtelets to offer her options. In addition, the lack of prompt follow-up in the processing of requests for information indicates a distressing lack of empathy for an employee who is experiencing real financial insecurity.”

Pay records “indeed show that she was living through serious financial problems and that she received irregular payments since the beginning of October 2017,” the coroner wrote.

As well, “her numerous online applications using the form for a compensation problem, in which she expresses her fear of not being able to make her mortgage payments and says that she wants a detailed statement of account, remain unanswered.”

On top of that, she had chronic back pain and sciatica and had been missing work. She was scheduled to get an ergonomically designed work area, but this change was never made even though she waited for months.

Money troubles kept getting worse.

She ran out of paid sick leave, and her department sent her an email to explain that she had automatically been docked pay for taking sick days. “In this same email, she was also advised that in the event that she missed additional days, other amounts would be deducted. No further follow-up with her was done,” the coroner wrote.

That email came eight days before her death.

Deschâtelets was also taking cocaine but this did not alter the fact that she genuinely risked losing her home over her financial problems, the coroner wrote.

“Given the circumstances, it is highly likely that Ms. Deschâtelets felt trapped” and ended her life “because of her belief that she would lose the house anyway. It was only a matter of time.”

The situation is “even more sad” because CRA had advisers on site who dealt with Phoenix issues, and could meet with employees, Boulay wrote.

“The federal government does a lot of promotion of workplace wellness. Surprisingly, these wellness measures are silent on the subject of financial insecurity at work,” Boulay wrote.

I feel sad for the family and indignant that there doesn’t seem to have been enough done to mitigate the hardships due to an astoundingly ill-advised decision to implement an untested payroll system for the federal government’s 280,000 or more civil servants.

Canada’s Senate reports back on Phoenix

I’m highlighting the Senate report here although there are also two reports from the Auditor General should you care to chase them down. From an August 1, 2018 article by Brian Jackson for IT World Canada,

In February 2016, in anticipation of the start of the Phoenix system rolling out, the government laid off 2,700 payroll clerks serving 120,000 employees. [I’m guessing the discrepancy in numbers of employees may be due to how the clerks were laid off, i.e., if they were load off in groups scheduled to be made redundant at different intervals.]

As soon as Phoenix was launched, problems began. By May 2018 there were 60,000 pay requests backlogged. Now the government has dedicated resources to explaining to affected employees the best way to avoid pay-related problems, and to file grievances related to the system.

“The causes of the failure are multiple, including, failing to manage the pay system in an integrated fashion with human resources processes, not conducting a pilot project, removing essential processing functions to stay on budget, laying off experienced compensation advisors, and implementing a pay system that wasn’t ready,” the Senate report states. “We are dismayed that this project proceeded with minimal independent oversight, including from central agencies, and that no one has accepted responsibility for the failure of Phoenix or has been held to account. We believe that there is an underlying cultural problem that needs to be addressed. The government needs to move away from a culture that plays down bad news and avoids responsibility, [emphasis mine] to one that encourages employee engagement, feedback and collaboration.”

There is at least one estimate that the Phoenix failure will cost $2.2 billion but I’m reasonably certain that figure does not include the costs of suicide, substance abuse, counseling, marriage breakdown, etc. (Of course, how do you really estimate the cost of a suicide or a marriage breakdown or the impact that financial woes have on children?)

Also concerning the Senate report, there is a July 31, 2018 news item on CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) news online,

“We are not confident that this problem has been solved, that the lessons have all been learned,” said Sen. André Pratte, deputy chair of the committee. [emphases mine]

I haven’t seen much coverage about the Phoenix Pay System recently in the mainstream media but according to a December 4, 2019 PSAC update,

The Parliamentary Budget Officer has said the Phoenix situation could continue until 2023, yet government funding commitments so far have fallen significantly short of what is needed to end the Phoenix nightmare. 

PSAC will continue pressing for enough funding and urgent action:

  • eliminate the over 200,000 cases in the pay issues backlog
  • compensate workers for their many hardships
  • stabilize Phoenix
  • properly develop, test and launch a new pay system

2023 would mean the débacle had a seven year lifespan, assuming everything has been made better by then.

Finally, there seems to be one other minister tasked with the Phoenix Pay System ‘fix’ (December 13, 2019 mandate letter) and that is the Minister of Public Services and Procurement, Anita Anand. She is apparently a rookie MP (member of Parliament), which would make her a ‘cabinet rookie’ as well. Interesting choice.

More digital for federal workers and the Canadian public

Despite all that has gone before, the government is continuing in its drive to digitize itself as can be seen in the Minister of Digital Government’s mandate letter (excerpted above in ‘The Minister of Digital Government and some …’ subsection) and on the government’s Digital Government webspace,

Our digital shift to becoming more agile, open, and user-focused. We’re working on tomorrow’s Canada today.

I don’t find that particularly reassuring in light of the Phoenix Payroll System situation. However, on the plus side, Canada has a Digital Charter with 10 principles which include universal access, safety and security, control and consent, etc. Oddly, it looks like it’s the Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada, the Minister of Canadian Heritage and the Minister of Innovation, Science and Industry who are tasked with enhancing and advancing the charter. Shouldn’t this group also include the Minister of Digital Government?

The Minister of Digital Government, Joyce Murray, does not oversee a ministry and I think that makes this a ‘junior’ position in much the same way the Minister of Science was a junior position. It suggests a mindset where some of the biggest changes to come for both employees and the Canadian public are being overseen by someone without the resources to do the work effectively or the bureaucratic weight and importance to ensure the changes are done properly.

It’s all very well to have a section on the Responsible use of artificial intelligence (AI) on your Digital Government webspace but there is no mention of ways and means to fix problems. For example, what happens to people who somehow run into an issue that the AI system can’t fix or even respond to because the algorithm wasn’t designed that way. Ever gotten caught in an automated telephone system? Or perhaps more saliently, what about the people who died in two different airplane accidents due to the pilots’ poor training and an AI system? (For a more informed view of the Boeing 737 Max, AI, and two fatal plane crashes see: a June 2, 2019 article by Rachel Kraus for Mashable.)

The only other minister whose mandate letter includes AI is the Minister of Innovation, Science and Industry, Navdeep Bains (from his December 13, 2019 mandate letter),

  • With the support of the Minister of Digital Government, continue work on the ethical use of data and digital tools like artificial intelligence for better government.

So, the Minister of Digital Government, Joyce Murray, is supporting the Minister of Innovation, Science and Industry, Navdeep Bains. That would suggest a ‘junior’ position wouldn’t it? If you look closely at the Minister of Digital Services’ mandate letter, you’ll see the Minister is almost always supporting another minister.

Where the Phoenix Pay System is concerned, the Minister of Digital Services is supporting the Minister of Public Services and Procurement, the previously mentioned rookie MP and rookie Cabinet member, Anita Anand. Interestingly, the employees’ union, PSAC, has decided (as of a November 20, 2019 news release) to ramp up its ad campaign regarding the Phoenix Pay System and its bargaining issues by targeting the Prime Minister and the new President of the Treasury Board, Jean-Yves Duclos. Guess whose mandate letter makes no mention of Phoenix (December 13, 2019 mandate letter for the President of the Treasury Board).

Open government, eh?

Putting a gift bow on a pile of manure doesn’t turn it into a gift (for most people, anyway) and calling your government open and/or transparent doesn’t necessarily make it so even when you amend your Access to Information Act to make it more accessible (August 22, 2019 Digital Government news release by Ruth Naylor).

One of the Liberal government’s most heavily publicized ‘open’ initiatives was the lifting of the muzzles put on federal scientists in the Environment and Natural Resources ministries. Those muzzles were put into place by a Conservative government and the 2015 Liberal government gained a lot of political capital from its actions. No one seemed to remember that Health Canada also had been muzzled. That muzzle had been put into place by one of the Liberal governments preceding the Conservative one. To date there is no word as to whether or not that muzzle has ever been lifted.

However, even in the ministries where the muzzles were lifted, it seems scientists didn’t feel free to speak even many months later (from a Feb 21, 2018 article by Brian Owens for Science),

More than half of government scientists in Canada—53%—do not feel they can speak freely to the media about their work, even after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government eased restrictions on what they can say publicly, according to a survey released today by a union that represents more than 16,000 federal scientists.

That union—the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada (PIPSC) based in Ottawa—conducted the survey last summer, a little more than a year and a half into the Trudeau government. It followed up on a similar survey the union released in 2013 at the height of the controversy over the then-Conservative government’s reported muzzling of scientists by preventing media interviews and curtailing travel to scientific conferences. The new survey found the situation much improved—in 2013, 90% of scientists felt unable to speak about their work. But the union says more work needs to be done. “The work needs to be done at the department level,” where civil servants may have been slow to implement political directives, PIPSC President Debi Daviau said. ”We need a culture change that promotes what we have heard from ministers.”

I found this a little chilling (from the PIPSC Defrosting Public Science; a 2017 survey of federal scientists webpage),

To better illustrate this concern, in 2013, The Big Chill revealed that 86% of respondents feared censorship or retaliation from their department or agency if they spoke out about a departmental decision or action that, based on their scientific knowledge, could bring harm to the public interest. In 2017, when asked the same question, 73% of respondents said they would not be able to do so without fear of censorship or retaliation – a mere 13% drop.

It’s possible things have improved but while the 2018 Senate report did not focus on scientists, it did highlight issues with the government’s openness and transparency or in their words: “… a culture that plays down bad news and avoids responsibility.” It seems the Senate is not the only group with concerns about government culture; so do the government’s employees (the scientists, anyway).

The other science commentary

I can’t find any commentary or editorials about the latest ministerial changes or the mandate letters on the Canadian Science Policy Centre website so was doubly pleased to find this December 6, 2019 commentary by Creso Sá for University Affairs,

The recently announced Liberal cabinet brings what appear to be cosmetic changes to the science file. Former Science Minister Kirsty Duncan is no longer in it, which sparked confusion among casual observers who believed that the elimination of her position signalled the termination of the science ministry or the downgrading of the science agenda. In reality, science was and remains part of the renamed Ministry of Innovation, Science, and (now) Industry (rather than Economic Development), where Minister Navdeep Bains continues at the helm.

Arguably, these reactions show that appearances have been central [emphasis mine] to the modus operandi of this government. Minister Duncan was an active, and generally well-liked, champion for the Trudeau government’s science platform. She carried the torch of team science over the last four years, becoming vividly associated with the launch of initiatives such as the Fundamental Science Review, the creation of the chief science advisor position, and the introduction of equity provisions in the Canada Research Chairs program. She talked a good talk, but her role did not in fact give her much authority to change the course of science policy in the country. From the start, her mandate was mostly defined around building bridges with members of cabinet, which was likely good experience for her new role of deputy house leader.

Upon the announcement of the new cabinet, Minister Bains took to Twitter to thank Dr. Duncan for her dedication to placing science in “its rightful place back at the centre of everything our government does.” He indicated that he will take over her responsibilities, which he was already formally responsible for. Presumably, he will now make time to place science at the centre of everything the government does.

This kind of sloganeering has been common [emphasis mine] since the 2015 campaign, which seems to be the strategic moment the Liberals can’t get out of. Such was the real and perceived hostility of the Harper Conservatives to science that the Liberals embraced the role of enlightened advocates. Perhaps the lowest hanging fruit their predecessors left behind was the sheer absence of any intelligible articulation of where they stood on the science file, which the Liberals seized upon with gusto. Virtue signalling [emphasis mine] became a first line of response.

When asked about her main accomplishments over the past year as chief science advisor at the recent Canadian Science Policy Conference in Ottawa, Mona Nemer started with the creation of a network of science advisors across government departments. Over the past four years, the government has indeed not been shy about increasing the number of appointments with “science” in their job titles. That is not a bad thing. We just do not hear much about how “science is at the centre of everything the government does.” Things get much fuzzier when the conversation turns to the bold promises of promoting evidence-based decision making that this government has been vocal about. Queried on how her role has impacted policy making, Dr. Nemer suggested the question should be asked to politicians. [emphasis mine]

I’m tempted to describe the ‘Digital Government’ existence and portfolio as virtue signalling.

Finally

There doesn’t seem to be all that much government interest in science or, even, technology for that matter. We have a ‘junior’ Minister of Science disappear so that science can become part of all the ministries. Frankly, I wish that science were integrated throughout all the ministries but when you consider the government culture, this move more easily lends itself to even less responsibility being taken by anyone. Take another look at the Canada’s Chief Science Advisor’s comment: “Queried on how her role has impacted policy making, Dr. Nemer suggested the question should be asked to politicians.” Meanwhile, we get a ‘junior Minister of Digital Government whose portfolio has the potential to affect Canadians of all ages and resident in Canada or not.

A ‘junior’ minister is not necessarily evil as Sá points out but I would like to see some indication that efforts are being made to shift the civil service culture and the attitude about how the government conducts its business and that the Minister of Digital Government will receive the resources and the respect she needs to do her job. I’d also like to see some understanding of how catastrophic a wrong move has already been and could be in the future along with options for how citizens are going to be making their way through this brave new digital government world and some options for fixing problems, especially the catastrophic ones.

*December 30, 2019 correction: After Scott Brison left his position as President of the Treasury Board and Minister of Digital Government in January 2019, Jane Philpott held the two positions until March 2019 when she left the Liberal Party. Carla Quatrough was acting head from March 4 – March 18, 2019 when Joyce Murray was appointed to the two positions which she held for eight months until November 2019 when, as I’ve noted, the ‘Minister of Digital Government’ was split from the ‘President of the Treasury Board’ appointment.

ETA January 28, 2020: The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) has an update on the Phoenix Pay System situation in a January 28, 2020 posting (supplied by The Canadian Press),

More than 98,000 civil servants may still owe the federal government money after being overpaid through the disastrous Phoenix pay system.

… the problems persist, despite the hiring of hundreds of pay specialists to work through a backlog of system errors.

The public service pay centre was still dealing with a backlog of about 202,000 complaints as of Dec. 24 [2019], down from 214,000 pay transactions that went beyond normal workload in November [2019].

Canada’s Chief Science Advisor: the first annual report

Dr. Mona Nemer, Canada’s Chief Science Advisor, and her office have issued their 2018 annual report. It is also the office’s first annual report. (Brief bit of history: There was a similar position, National Science Advisor (Canada) from 2004-2008. Dr. Arthur Carty, the advisor, was dumped and the position eliminated when a new government by what was previously the opposition party won the federal election.)

The report can be found in html format here which is where you’ll also find a link to download the full 40 pp. report as a PDF.

Being an inveterate ‘skip to the end’ kind of a reader, I took a boo at the Conclusion,

A chief science advisor plays an important role in building consensus and supporting positive change to our national institutions. Having laid the foundation for the function of the Chief Science Advisor in year one, I look forward to furthering the work that has been started and responding to new requests from the Prime Minister, the Minister of Science and members of Cabinet in my second year. I intend to continue working closely with agency heads, deputy ministers and the science community to better position Canada for global leadership in science and innovation.

I think the conclusion could have done with a little more imagination and/or personality, even by government report standards. While there is some interesting material in other parts of the report, on the whole, it is written in a pleasant, accessible style that raises questions.

Let’s start here with one of the sections that raises questions,

The Budget 2018 commitment of $2.8 billion to build multi-purpose, collaborative federal science and technology facilities presents a once-in-a-generation opportunity to establish a strong foundation for Canada’s future federal science enterprise. Similarly momentous opportunities exist to create a Digital Research Infrastructure Strategy [emphasis mine] for extramural science and a strategic national approach to Major Research Facilities. This is an important step forward for the Government of Canada in bringing principles and standards for federal science in line with practices in the broader scientific community; as such, the Model Policy will not only serve for the benefit of federal science, but will also help facilitate collaboration with the broader scientific community.

Over the past year, my office has participated in the discussion around these potentially transformative initiatives. We offered perspectives on the evidence needed to guide decisions regarding the kind of science infrastructure that can support the increasingly collaborative and multidisciplinary nature of science.

Among other things, I took an active part in the deliberations of the Deputy Ministers Science Committee (DMSC) and in the production of recommendations to Cabinet with respect to federal science infrastructure renewal. I have also analyzed the evolving nature and needs for national science facilities that support the Canadian science community.

Success in building the science infrastructure of the next 50 years and propelling Canadian science and research to new heights will require that the multiple decisions around these foundational initiatives dovetail based on a deep and integrated understanding of Canada’s science system and commitment to maintaining a long-term vision.

Ultimately, these infrastructure investments will need to support a collective vision and strategy for science in Canada, including which functions federal science should perform, and which should be shared with or carried out separately by academic and private sector researchers, in Canada and abroad. These are some of the essential considerations that must guide questions of infrastructure and resource allocation.

Canadian government digital infrastructure is a pretty thorny issue and while the article I’m referencing is old, I strongly suspect they still have many of the same problems. I’m going to excerpt sections that are focused on IT, specifically, the data centres and data storage. Prepare yourself for a bit of a shock as you discover the government did not know how many data centres it had. From a December 28, 2016 article by James Bagnall for the Ottawa Citizen,

Information technology [IT} offered an even richer vein of potential savings. For half a century, computer networks and software applications had multiplied willy-nilly as individual departments and agencies looked after their own needs. [emphases mine] The result was a patchwork of incompatible, higher-cost systems. Standardizing common, basic technologies such as email, data storage and telecommunications seemed logical. [emphasis mine]

It had been tried before. But attempts to centralize the buying of high-tech gear and services had failed, largely because federal departments were allowed to opt out. Most did so. They did want to give up control of their IT networks to a central agency.

The PCO determined this time would be different. The prime minister had the authority to create a new federal department through a simple cabinet approval known as an order-in-council. Most departments, including a reluctant Canada Revenue Agency and Department of National Defence, would be forced to carve out a significant portion of their IT groups and budgets — about 40 per cent on average — and hand them over to Shared Services.

Crucially, the move would not be subject to scrutiny by Parliament. And so Shared Services [Shared Services Canada] was born on Aug. 3, 2011.

Speed was demanded of the agency from the start. Minutes of meetings involving senior Shared Services staff are studded with references to “tight schedules” and the “urgency” of getting projects done.

Part of that had to do with the sheer age of the government’s infrastructure. The hardware was in danger of breaking down and the underlying software for many applications was so old that suppliers such as Microsoft, PeopleSoft and Adobe had stopped supporting it. [emphases mine]

The faster Shared Services could install new networks, the less money it would be forced to throw at solving the problems caused by older technology.

… Because the formation of Shared Services had been shrouded in such secrecy, the hiring of experienced outsiders happened last minute. Grant Westcott would join Shared Services as COO in mid-September.

Sixty-three years old at the time, Wescott had served as assistant deputy minister of Public Services in the late 1990s, when he managed the federal government’s telecommunications networks. In that role, he oversaw the successful effort to prepare systems for the year 2000.

More relevant to his new position at Shared Services, Westcott had also worked for nearly a decade at CIBC. As executive vice-president, he had been instrumental in overhauling the bank’s IT infrastructure. Twenty-two of the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce’s [CIBC] data centres were shrunk into just two, saving the bank more than $40 million annually in operating costs. Among other things, Westcott and his team consolidated 15 global communications networks into a single voice and data system. More savings resulted.

It wasn’t without glitches. CIBC was forced on several occasions to apologize to customers for a breakdown in certain banking services.

Nevertheless, Westcott’s experience suggested this was not rocket science, at least not in the private sector. [emphasis mine] Streamlining and modernizing IT networks could be done under the right conditions. …


While Shared Services is paying Bell only for the mailboxes it has already moved [there was an email project, which has since been resolved], the agency is still responsible for keeping the lights on at the government’s legacy data centres [emphasis mine]— where most of the electronic mailboxes, and much of the government’s software applications, for that matter, are currently stored.

These jumbles of computers, servers, wires and cooling systems are weighed down by far too much history — and it took Shared Services a long time to get its arms around it.

“We were not created with a transformation plan already in place because to do that, we needed to know what we had,” Forand [Liseanne Forand, then president of Shared Services Canada] explained to members of Parliament. “So we spent a year counting things.” [emphasis mine]

Shared Services didn’t have to start from scratch. Prior to the agency’s 2011 launch, the PCO’s administrative review tried to estimate the number of data centres in government by interviewing the IT czars for each of the departments. Symptomatic of the far-flung nature of the government’s IT networks — and how loosely these were managed — the PCO [Privy Council Office] didn’t even come close.

“When I was at Privy Council, we thought there might be about 200 data centres,” Benoit Long, senior assistant deputy minister of Shared Services told the House of Commons committee last May [2016], “After a year, we had counted 495 and I am still discovering others today.” [emphasis mine]

Most of these data centres were small — less than 1,000 square feet — often set up by government scientists who didn’t bother telling their superiors. Just 22 were larger than 5,000 square feet — and most of these were in the National Capital Region. These were where the bulk of the government’s data and software applications were stored.

In 2012, Grant Westcott organized a six-week tour of these data centres to see for himself what Shared Services was dealing with. According to an agency employee familiar with the tour’s findings, Westcott came away profoundly shocked.

Nearly all the large data centres were decrepit [emphasis mine], undercapitalized and inefficient users of energy. Yet just one was in the process of being replaced. This was a Heron Road facility with a leaking roof, considered key because it housed Canada Revenue Agency [CRA] data.

Bell Canada had been awarded a contract to build and operate a new data centre in Buckingham. The CRA data would be transferred there in the fall of 2013. A separate part of that facility is also meant to host the government’s email system.

The remaining data centres offered Westcott a depressing snapshot. [emphasis mine]

Most of the gear was housed in office towers, rather than facilities tailormade for heavy-duty electronics. With each new generation of computer or servers came requirements for more power and more robust cooling systems. The entire system was approaching a nervous breakdown.[emphasis mine]

Not only were the data centres inherited by Shared Services running out of space, the arrangements for emergency power bordered on makeshift. One Defence Department data centre, for instance, relied [on] a backup generator powered by a relatively ancient jet engine. [emphases mine] While unconventional, there was nothing unique about pressing military hardware into this type of service. The risk had to do with with training — the older the jet engine, the fewer employees there were who knew how to fix it. [emphasis mine]

The system for backing up data wasn’t much better. At Statistics Canada — where Westcott’s group was actually required to swear an oath to keep the data confidential before entering the storage rooms — the backup procedure called for storing copies of the data in a separate but nearby facility.While that’s OK for most disasters, the relative proximity still meant Statcan’s repository of historical data was vulnerable to a bombing or major earthquake.

Two and a quarter years later, I imagine they’ve finished counting their data centres but how much progress they might have made on replacing and upgrading the hardware and the facilities is not known to me but it’s hard to believe that all of the fixes have been made, especially after reading the Chief Science Advisor’s 2018 annual report (the relevant bits are coming up shortly.

If a more comprehensive view of the current government digital infrastructure interests you, I highly recommend Bagnall’s article. It’s heavy going for someone who’s not part of the Ottawa scene but it’s worth the effort as it gives you some insight into the federal government’s workings, which seem remarkably similar regardless as to which party is in power. Plus, it’s really well written.

Getting back to the report, I realize it’s not within the Chief Science Advisor’s scope to discuss the entirety of the government’s digital infrastructure but ***Corrected March 22, 2019 : Ooops! As originally written this section was incorrect. Here’s the corrected version; you can find the original version at the end of this post: “… 40 percent of facilities are more than 50 years old …” doesn’t really convey the depth and breadth of the problem. Presumably, these facilities also include digital infrastructure. At any rate, 40 percent of what? Just how many of these facilities are over 50 year old?*** By the way, the situation as the Chief Science Advisor’s Office describes it, gets a little worse, keep reading,

Over the past two years, the Treasury Board Secretariat has worked with the federal science community to develop an inventory of federal science infrastructure.

The project was successful in creating a comprehensive list of federal science facilities and documenting their state of repair. It reveals that some 40 percent of facilities are more than 50 years old and another 40 percent are more than 25 years old. The problem is most acute in the National Capital Region.

A similar inventory of research equipment is now underway. This will allow for effective coordination of research activities across organizations and with external collaborators. The Canada Foundation for Innovation, which provides federal funding toward the costs of academic research infrastructure, has created a platform upon which this work will build.

***Also corrected on March 20, 2019: Bravo to the Treasury Board for creating an inventory of the aging federal science infrastructure, which hopefully includes the digital.*** Following on Bagnall’s outline of the problems, it had to be discouraging work, necessary but discouraging. ***Also corrected on March 20, 2019: Did they take advantage of the Shared Services Canada data centrre counting exercise? Or did they redo the work?*** In any event, both the Treasury Board and the Chief Science Advisor have even more ahead of them.

Couldn’t there have been a link to the inventory? Is it secret information? It would have been nice if Canada’s Chief Science Advisor’s website had offered additional information or a link to supplement the 2018 annual report.

Admittedly there probably aren’t that many people who’d like more information about infrastructure and federal science offices but surely they could somehow give us a little more detail. For example, I understand there’s an AI (artificial intelligence) initiative within the government and given some of the issues, such as the Phoenix payroll system debacle and the digital infrastructure consisting of ‘chewing gum and baling wire’, my confidence is shaken. Have they learned any lessons? The report doesn’t offer any assurance they are taking these ‘lessons’ into account as they forge onwards.

Lies, damned lies, and statistics

I’ve always liked that line about lies and I’ll get to its applicability with regard to the Chief Science Advisor’s 2018 report but first, from the Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics Wikipedia entry (Note: Links have been removed),


Lies, damned lies, and statistics” is a phrase describing the persuasive power of numbers, particularly the use of statistics to bolster weak arguments. It is also sometimes colloquially used to doubt statistics used to prove an opponent’s point.

The phrase was popularized in the United States by Mark Twain (among others), who attributed it to the British prime minister Benjamin Disraeli: “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” However, the phrase is not found in any of Disraeli’s works and the earliest known appearances were years after his death. Several other people have been listed as originators of the quote, and it is often erroneously attributed to Twain himself.[1]

Here’s a portion of the 2018 report, which is “using the persuasive power of numbers”, in this case, to offer a suggestion about why people mistrust science,

A recent national public survey found that eight in ten respondents wanted to know more about science and how it affects our world, and roughly the same percentage of people are comfortable knowing that scientific answers may not be definitive. 1 [emphases mine] While this would seem to be a positive result, it may also suggest why some people mistrust science, [emphasis mine] believing that results are fluid and can support several different positions. Again, this reveals the importance of effectively communicating science, not only to counter misinformation, but to inspire critical thinking and an appreciation for curiosity and discovery.

I was happy to see the footnote but surprised that the writer(s) simply trotted out a statistic without any hedging about the reliability of the data. Just because someone says that eight out of ten respondents feel a certain way doesn’t give me confidence in the statistic and I explain why in the next section.

They even added that ‘people are aware that scientific answers are not necessarily definitive’. So why not be transparent about the fallibility of statistics in your own report? If that’s not possible in the body of the report, then maybe put the more detailed, nuanced analysis in an appendix.Finally, how did they derive the notion from the data suggesting that people are aware that science is a process of refining knowledge and adjusting it as needed might lead to distrust of science? It’s possible of course but how do you make that leap based on the data you’re referencing? As for that footnote, where was the link to the report? Curious, I took a look at the report.

Ontario Science Centre and its statistics

For the curious, you can find the Ontario Science Centre. Canadian Science Attitudes Research (July 6, 2018) here where you’ll see the methodology is a little light on detail. (The company doing this work, Leger, is a marketing research and analysitcs company.) Here’s the methodology, such as it is,


QUANTITATIVE RESEARCH INSTRUMENT

An online survey of 1501 Canadians was completed between June 18 and 26, 2018, using Leger’s online panel.The margin of error for this study was +/-2.5%, 19 times out of 20.

COMPARISON DATA

Where applicable, this year’s results have been compared back to a similar study done in 2017 (OSC Canadian Science Attitudes Research, August 2017). The use of arrows ( ) indicate significant changes between the two datasets.

ABOUT LEGER’S ONLINE PANEL

Leger’s online panel has approximately 450,000 members nationally and has a retention rate of 90%.

QUALITY CONTROL

Stringent quality assurance measures allow Leger to achieve the high-quality standards set by the company. As a result, its methods of data collection and storage outperform the norms set by WAPOR (The World Association for Public Opinion Research). These measures are applied at every stage of the project: from data collection to processing, through to analysis.We aim to answer our clients’ needs with honesty, total confidentiality, and integrity.

I didn’t find any more substantive description of the research methodology but there is a demographic breakdown at the end of the report and because they’ve given you the number of the number of people paneled (1501) at the beginning of the report, you can figure out just how many people fit into the various categories.

Now, the questions: What is a Leger online panel? How can they confirm that the people who took the survey are Canadian? How did they put together this Leger panel, e.g., do people self-seletct? Why did they establish a category for people aged 65+? (Actually, in one section of the report, they make reference to 55+.) Read on for why that last one might be a good question.

I haven’t seen any surveys or polls originating in Canada that seem to recognize that a 65 year old is not an 80 year old. After all, they don’t lump in 20 year olds with 40 year olds because these people are at different stages in their lifespans, often with substantive differences in their outlook.. Maybe there are no differences between 65 year olds and 80 year olds but we’ll never know because no one ever asks. When you add in Canada’s aging population, the tendency to lump all ‘old’ people together seems even more thoughtless.

These are just a few questions that spring to mind and most likely, the pollsters have a more substantive methodology. There may have been a perfectly good reason for not including more detail in the version of the report I’ve linked to. For example, a lot of people will stop reading a report that’s ‘bogged down’ in too much detail. Fair enough but why not give a link to a more substantive methodology or put it in an appendix?

One more thing, I couldn’t find any data in the Ontario Science Centre report that would support the Chief Science Advisor Office’s speculation about why people might not trust science. They did hedge, as they should, “… seem to be a positive result, it may also suggest why some people mistrust science …” but the hedging follows directly after the ” … eight in ten respondents …”. which structurally suggests that there is data supporting the speculation. If there is, it’s not in the pollster’s report.

Empire building?

I just wish the office of the Chief Science Advisor had created the foundation to support this,

Establishing a National Science Advisory System

Science and scientific information permeate the work of the federal government, creating a continuous need for decision-makers to negotiate uncertainty in interpreting often variable and generally incomplete scientific evidence for policy making. With science and technology increasingly a part of daily life, the need for science advice will only intensify.

As such, my office has been asked to assess and recommend ways to improve the existing science advisory function [emphasis mine] within the federal government. To that end, we examined the science advisory systems in other countries, such as Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States, as well as the European Union. [emphasis mine]

A key feature of all the systems was a network of department-level science advisors. These are subject matter experts who work closely with senior departmental officials and support the mandate of the chief science advisor. They stand apart from day-to-day operations and provide a neutral sounding board for senior officials and decision-makers evaluating various streams of information. They also facilitate the incorporation of evidence in decision-making processes and act as a link between the department and external stakeholders.

I am pleased to report that our efforts to foster a Canadian science advisory network are already bearing fruit. Four organizations [emphasis mine] have so far moved to create a departmental science advisor position, and the first incumbents at the Canadian Space Agency and the National Research Council [emphasis mine] are now in place. I have every confidence that the network of departmental science advisors will play an important role in enhancing science advice and science activities planning, especially on cross-cutting issues.

Who asked the office to assess and recommend ways to improve the existing science advisory function? By the way, the European Union axed the position of Chief Science Adviser, after Anne Glover, the first such adviser in their history, completed the term of her appointment in 2014 (see James Wilsdon’s November 13, 2014 article for the Guardian). Perhaps they meant countries in the European Union?

Which four organizations have created departmental science advisor positions? Presumably the Canadian Space Agency and the National Research Council were two of the organizations?

If you’re looking at another country’s science advisory systems do you have some publicly available information, perhaps a report and analysis? Is there a set of best practices? And, how do these practices fit into the Canadian context?

More generally, how much is this going to cost? Are these departmental advisors expected to report to the Canadian federal government’s Chief Science Advisor, as well as, their own ministry deputy minister or higher? Will the Office of the Chief Science Advisor need more staff?

I could be persuaded that increasing the number of advisors and increasing costs to support these efforts are good ideas but it would be nice to see the Office of Chief Science Advisor put some effort into persuasion rather than assuming that someone outside the tight nexus of federal government institutions based in Ottawa is willing to accept statements. that aren’t detailed and/or supported by data.

Final thoughts

I’m torn. I’m supportive of the position of the Chief Science Advisor of Canada and happy to see a report. It looks like there’s some exciting work being done.

I also hold the Chief Advisor and the Office to a high standard. It’s understandable that they may have decided to jettison detail in favour of making the 2018 annual report more readable but what I don’t understand is the failure to provide a more substantive report or information that supports and details the work. There’s a lack of transparency and, also, clarity. What do they mean by the word ‘science’. At a guess, they’re not including the social sciences.

On the whole, the report looks a little sloppy and that’s the last thing I expect from the Chief Science Advisor.

*** This is the original and not accurate version: “… 40 percent of facilities are more than 50 years old …” doesn’t really convey the depth and breadth of the problem. Let’s start with any easy question: 40 percent of what? Just how many of these computers are over 50 year old? By the way, the situation as the Chief Science Advisor’s Office describes it, gets a little worse, keep reading, AND THIS: Bravo to the Treasury Board for tracking down those data centres and more. AND THIS: Also, was this part of the Shared Services Canada counting exercise?

2018 Canadian Science Policy Conference (Nov. 7 – 9, 2018) highlights and Council of Canadian Academies: a communications job, a report, and more

This is a going to a science policy heavy posting with both a conference and the latest report from the Canadian Council of Academies (CCA).

2018 Canadian Science Policy Conference

As I noted in my March 1, 2018 posting, this is the fourth year in a row that the conference is being held in Ottawa and the theme for this 10th edition is ‘Building Bridges Between Science, Policy and Society‘.

The dates are November 7 -9, 2018 and as the opening draws closer I’m getting more ‘breathlessly enthusiastic’ announcements. Here are a few highlights from an October 23, 2018 announcement received via email,

CSPC 2018 is honoured to announce that the Honourable Kirsty Duncan, Minister of Science and Sport, will be delivering the keynote speech of the Gala Dinner on Thursday, November 8 at 7:00 PM. Minister Duncan will also hand out the 4th Science Policy Award of Excellence to the winner of this year’s competition.

CSPC 2018 features 250 speakers, a record number, and above is the breakdown of the positions they hold, over 43% of them being at the executive level and 57% of our speakers being women.

*All information as of October 15, 2018

If you think that you will not meet any new people at CSPC and all of the registrants are the same as last year, think again!

Over 57% of  registrants are attending the conference for the FIRST TIME!

Secure your spot today!

*All information as of October 15, 2018

Here’s more from an October 31, 2018 announcement received via email,

One year after her appointment as Canada’s Chief Science Advisor, Dr. Mona Nemer will discuss her experience with the community. Don’t miss this opportunity.

[Canadian Science Policy Centre editorials in advance of conference]

Paul Dufour
“Evidence and Science in Parliament–Looking Back at CSPC and Moving Forward”

Dr. Tom Corr
“Commercializing Innovation in Canada: Advancing in the Right Direction”

Joseph S Sparling, PhD
“Reimagining the Canadian Postdoctoral Training System”

Milton Friesen
“Conspiring Together for Good: Institutional Science and Religion”

Joseph Tafese
“Science and the Next Generation : Science and Inclusivity, Going beyond the Slogans”

Eva Greyeyes
“Opinion Editorial for CSPC, November 2018”

Monique Crichlow
Chris Loken

“Policy Considerations Towards Converged HPC-AI Platforms”

Should you be in the Ottawa area November 7 – 9, 2018, it’s still possible to register.

**Update November 6, 2018: The 2018 CSPC is Sold Out!**

Council of Canadian Academies: job and the ‘managing innovation’ report

Let’s start with the job (from the posting),

October 17, 2018

Role Title:      Director of Communications
Deadline:       November 5, 2018
Salary:            $115,000 to $165,000

About the Council of Canadian Academies
The Council of Canadian Academies (CCA) is a not-for-profit organization that conducts assessments of evidence on scientific topics of public interest to inform decision-making in Canada.

Role Summary
The CCA is seeking an experienced communications professional to join its senior management team as Director of Communications. Reporting to the President and CEO, the Director is responsible for developing and implementing a communications plan for the organization that promotes and highlights the CCA’s work, brand, and overall mission to a variety of potential users and stakeholders; overseeing the publication and dissemination of high-quality hard copy and online products; and providing strategic advice to the President and CCA’s Board, Committees, and Panels. In fulfilling these responsibilities, the Director of Communications is expected to work with a variety of interested groups including the media, the broad policy community, government, and non-governmental organizations.

Key Responsibilities and Accountabilities
Under the direction of the President and CEO, the Director leads a small team of communications and publishing professionals to meet the responsibilities and accountabilities outlined below.

Strategy Development and External Communications
• Develop and execute an overall strategic communications plan for the organization that promotes and highlights the CCA’s work, brand, and overall mission.
• Oversee the CCA’s presence and influence on digital and social platforms including the development and execution of a comprehensive content strategy for linking CCA’s work with the broader science and policy ecosystem with a focus on promoting and disseminating the findings of the CCA’s expert panel reports.
• Provide support, as needed for relevant government relations activities including liaising with communications counterparts, preparing briefing materials, responding to requests to share CCA information, and coordinating any appearances before Parliamentary committees or other bodies.
• Harness opportunities for advancing the uptake and use of CCA assessments, including leveraging the strengths of key partners particularly the founding Academies.

Publication and Creative Services
• Oversee the creative services, quality control, and publication of all CCA’s expert panel reports including translation, layout, quality assurance, graphic design, proofreading, and printing processes.
• Oversee the creative development and publication of all CCA’s corporate materials including the Annual Report and Corporate Plan through content development, editing, layout, translation, graphic design, proofreading, and printing processes.

Advice and Issues Management
• Provide strategic advice and support to the President’s Office, Board of Directors, Committees, and CCA staff about increasing the overall impact of CCA expert panel reports, brand awareness, outreach opportunities, and effective science communication.
• Provide support to the President by anticipating project-based or organizational issues, understanding potential implications, and suggesting strategic management solutions.
• Ensure consistent messages, style, and approaches in the delivery of all internal and external communications across the organization.

Leadership
• Mentor, train, and advise up to five communications and publishing staff on a day-to-day basis and complete annual performance reviews and planning.
• Lead the development and implementation of all CCA-wide policy and procedures relating to all aspects of communications and publishing.
• Represent the issues, needs, and ongoing requirements for the communications and publishing staff as a member of the CCA senior management team.

Knowledge Requirements
The Director of Communications requires:
• Superior knowledge of communications and public relations principles – preferably as it applies in a non-profit or academic setting;
• Extensive experience in communications planning and issues management;
• Knowledge of current research, editorial, and publication production standards and procedures including but not limited to: translation, copy-editing, layout/design, proofreading and publishing;
• Knowledge of evaluating impact of reports and assessments;
• Knowledge in developing content strategy, knowledge mobilization techniques, and creative services and design;
• Knowledge of human resource management techniques and experience managing a team;
• Experience in coordinating, organizing and implementing communications activities including those involving sensitive topics;
• Knowledge of the relationships and major players in Canada’s intramural and extramural science and public policy ecosystem, including awareness of federal science departments and Parliamentary committees, funding bodies, and related research groups;
• Knowledge of Microsoft Office Suite, Adobe Creative Suite, WordPress and other related programs;
• Knowledge of a variety of social media platforms and measurement tools.

Skills Requirements
The Director of Communications must have:
• Superior time and project management skills
• Superior writing skills
• Superior ability to think strategically regarding how best to raise the CCA’s profile and ensure impact of the CCA’s expert panel reports
• Ability to be flexible and adaptable; able to respond quickly to unanticipated demands
• Strong advisory, negotiation, and problem-solving skills
• Strong skills in risk mitigation
• Superior ability to communicate in both written and oral forms, effectively and diplomatically
• Ability to mentor, train, and provide constructive feedback to direct reports

Education and Experience
This knowledge and skillset is typically obtained through the completion of a post-secondary degree in Journalism, Communications, Public Affairs or a related field, and/or a minimum of 10
years of progressive and related experience. Experience in an organization that has addressed topics in public policy would be valuable.

Language Requirements: This position is English Essential. Fluency in French is a strong asset.

To apply to this position please send your CV and cover letter to careers@scienceadvice.ca before November 5, 2018. The cover letter should answer the following questions in 1,000 words or less:

1. How does your background and work experience make you well-suited for the position of Director of Communications at CCA?
2. What trends do you see emerging in the communications field generally, and in science and policy communications more specifically? How might CCA take advantage of these trends and developments?
3. Knowing that CCA is in the business of conducting assessments of evidence on important policy topics, how do you feel communicating this type of science differs from communicating other types of information and knowledge?

Improving Innovation Through Better Management

The Council of Canadian Academies released their ‘Improving Innovation Through Better Management‘ report on October 18, 2018..As some of my regular readers (assuming there are some) might have predicted, I have issues.

There’s a distinct disconnection between the described problem and the questions to be answered. From the ‘Improving Innovation Through Better Management‘ summary webpage,

While research is world-class and technology start-ups are thriving, few companies grow and mature in Canada. This cycle — invent and sell, invent and sell — allows other countries to capture much of the economic and social benefits of Canadian-invented products, processes, marketing methods, and business models. …

So, the problem is ‘invent and sell’. Leaving aside the questionable conclusion that other countries are reaping the benefits of Canadian innovation (I’ll get back to that shortly), what questions could you ask about how to break the ‘invent and sell, invent and sell’ cycle? Hmm, maybe we should ask, How do we break the ‘invent and sell’ cycle in Canada?

The government presented two questions to deal with the problem and no, how to break the cycle is not one of the questions. From the ‘Improving Innovation Through Better Management‘ summary webpage,

… Escaping this cycle may be aided through education and training of innovation managers who can systematically manage ideas for commercial success and motivate others to reimagine innovation in Canada.

To understand how to better support innovation management in Canada, Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada (ISED) asked the CCA two critical questions: What are the key skills required to manage innovation? And, what are the leading practices for teaching these skills in business schools, other academic departments, colleges/polytechnics, and industry?

As lawyers, journalists, scientists, doctors, librarians, and anyone who’s ever received misinformation can tell you, asking the right questions can make a big difference.

As for the conclusion that other countries are reaping the benefits of Canadian innovation, is there any supporting data? We enjoy a very high standard of living and have done so for at least a couple of generations. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has a Better Life Index, which ranks well-being on these 11 dimensions (from the OECD Better Life Index entry on Wikipedia), Note: Links have been removed,

  1. Housing: housing conditions and spendings (e.g. real estate pricing)
  2. Income: household income and financial wealth
  3. Jobs: earnings, job security and unemployment
  4. Community: quality of social support network
  5. Education: education and what you get out of it
  6. Environment: quality of environment (e.g. environmental health)
  7. Governance: involvement in democracy
  8. Health
  9. Life Satisfaction: level of happiness
  10. Safety: murder and assault rates
  11. Work-life balance

In 2017, the index ranked Canada as fifth in the world while the US appears to have slipped from a previous ranking of 7th to 8th. (See these Wikipedia entries with relevant subsections for rankings:  OECD Better Life Index; Rankings, 2017 ranking and Standard of living in the United States, Measures, 3rd paragraph.)

This notion that other countries are profiting from Canadian innovation while we lag behind has been repeated so often that it’s become an article of faith and I never questioned it until someone else challenged me. This article of faith is repeated internationally and sometimes seems that every country in the world is worried that someone else will benefit from their national innovation.

Getting back to the Canadian situation, we’ve decided to approach the problem by not asking questions about our article of faith or how to break the ‘invent and sell’ cycle. Instead of questioning an assumption and producing an open-ended question, we have these questions (1) What are the key skills required to manage innovation? (2) And, what are the leading practices for teaching these skills in business schools, other academic departments, colleges/polytechnics, and industry?

in my world that first question, would be a second tier question, at best. The second question, presupposes the answer: more training in universities and colleges. I took a look at the report’s Expert Panel webpage and found it populated by five individuals who are either academics or have strong ties to academe. They did have a workshop and the list of participants does include people who run businesses, from the Improving Innovation Through Better Management‘ report (Note: Formatting has not been preserved),

Workshop Participants

Max Blouw,
Former President and Vice-Chancellor of
Wilfrid Laurier University (Waterloo, ON)

Richard Boudreault, FCAE,
Chairman, Sigma Energy
Storage (Montréal, QC)

Judy Fairburn, FCAE,
Past Board Chair, Alberta Innovates;
retired EVP Business Innovation & Chief Digital Officer,
Cenovus Energy Inc. (Calgary, AB)

Tom Jenkins, O.C., FCAE,
Chair of the Board, OpenText
(Waterloo, ON)

Sarah Kaplan,
Director of the Institute for Gender and the
Economy and Distinguished Professor, Rotman School of
Management, University of Toronto (Toronto, ON)

Jean-Michel Lemieux,
Senior Vice President of Engineering,
Shopify Inc. (Ottawa, ON)

Elicia Maine,
Academic Director and Professor, i2I, Beedie
School of Business, Simon Fraser University (Vancouver, BC)

Kathy Malas,
Innovation Platform Manager, CHU
Sainte Justine (Montréal, QC)

John L. Mann, FCAE,
Owner, Mann Consulting
(Blenheim, ON)

Jesse Rodgers,
CEO, Volta Labs (Halifax, NS)

Creso Sá,
Professor of Higher Education and Director of
the Centre for the Study of Canadian and International
Higher Education, Ontario Institute for Studies in Education,
University of Toronto (Toronto, ON)

Dhirendra Shukla,
Professor and Chair, J. Herbert Smith
Centre for Technology Management & Entrepreneurship,
Faculty of Engineering, University of New Brunswick
(Fredericton, NB)

Dan Sinai,
Senior Executive, Innovation, IBM Canada
(Toronto, ON)

Valerie Walker,
Executive Director, Business/Higher
Education Roundtable (Ottawa, ON)

J. Mark Weber,
Eyton Director, Conrad School of
Entrepreneurship & Business, University of Waterloo
(Waterloo, ON)

I am a little puzzled by the IBM executive’s presence (Dan Sinai) on this list. Wouldn’t Canadians holding onto their companies be counterproductive to IBM’s interests? As for John L. Mann, I’ve not been able to find him or his consulting company online. it’s unusual not to find any trace of an individual or company online these days.

In all there were nine individuals representing academic or government institutions in this list. The gender balance is 10 males and five females for the workshop participants and three males and two females for the expert panel. There is no representation from the North or from Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Prince Edward Island, or Newfoundland.

If they’re serious about looking at how to use innovation to drive higher standards of living, why aren’t there any people from Asian countries where they have been succeeding at that very project? South Korea and China come to mind.

I’m sure there are some excellent ideas in the report, I just wish they’d taken their topic to heart and actually tried to approach innovation in Canada in an innovative fashion.

Meanwhile, Vancouver gets another technology hub, from an October 30, 2018 article by Kenneth Chan for the Daily Hive (Vancouver [Canada]), Note: Links have been removed,

Vancouver’s rapidly growing virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) tech sectors will greatly benefit from a new VR and AR hub created by Launch Academy.

The technology incubator has opened a VR and AR hub at its existing office at 300-128 West Hastings Street in downtown, in partnership with VR/AR Association Vancouver. Immersive tech companies have access to desk space, mentorship programs, VR/AR equipment rentals, investor relations connected to Silicon Valley [emphasis mine], advisory services, and community events and workshops.

Within the Vancouver tech industry, the immersive sector has grown from 15 companies working in VR and AR in 2015 to 220 organizations today.

Globally, the VR and AR market is expected to hit a value of $108 billion by 2021, with tech giants like Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft [emphasis mine] investing billions into product development.

In the Vancouver region, the ‘invent and sell’ cycle can be traced back to the 19th century.

One more thing, as I was writing this piece I tripped across this news: “$7.7-billion pact makes Encana more American than Canadian‘ by Geoffrey Morgan. It’s in the Nov. 2, 2018 print edition of the Vancouver Sun’s front page for business. “Encana Corp., the storied Canadian company that had been slowly transitioning away from Canada and natural gas over the past few years under CEO [Chief Executive Officer] Doug Suttles, has pivoted aggressively to US shale basins. … Suttles, formerly as BP Plc. executive, moved from Calgary [Alberta, Canada] to Denver [Colorado, US], though the company said that was for personal reasons and not a precursor to relocation of Encana’s headquarters.”  Yes, that’s quite believable. By the way, Suttles has spent* most of his life in the US (Wikipedia entry).

In any event, it’s not just Canadian emerging technology companies that get sold or somehow shifted out of Canada.

So, should we break the cycle and, if so, how are we going to do it?

*’spend’ corrected to ‘spent’ on November 6, 2018.

Know any Canadian scientists (Tier 2 Canada Research Chairs) who’d like to meet with Members of Parliament and Senators?

The folks at the Canadian Science Policy Centre (CSPC) have just announced a pilot project heavily influenced by a successful Australian initiative matching scientists and lawmakers for a day. This is going to cost the participant money and the application deadline is August 31, 2018.

If you’re still interested, from a July 10, 2018 CSPC announcement (received via email),

The Canadian Science Policy Centre (CSPC), in partnership with the Chief Science Advisor of Canada [Mona Nember], is launching a new and exciting pilot program: Science Meets Parliament. This is a unique opportunity that invites scientists and engineers of various disciplines to spend one day on the Hill, shadow an MP or senator, explore their role in modern political decision making, and develop an understanding of the parliamentary process.

For more information about the program, eligibility and the application process, please visit the page on the CSPC website.

CSPC is looking for sponsors for this unique and exciting program. We invite all academic institutions to partner with CSPC to support this program. Please check out the sponsorship page.

I found this on the CSPC’s Science Meets Parliament webpage,

Background

This program is modeled on the acclaimed program run by Science and Technology Australia, now in its 19th year. You can find more information about the Science and Technology Australia’s Science Meets Parliament event by clicking here. We are grateful to our Australian colleagues for allowing us to adopt the name and model.

Objectives

Scientists and politicians desire a mechanism to build close and resilient connections. Strengthening evidence-informed decision-making requires systematic connectivity between the scientific and legislative communities. This program will help to create an open and ongoing channel between the two communities.

This program aims to facilitate a crucial dialogue between scientists and political leaders. Selected scientists from across the country will have the rare opportunity to spend a full day on Parliament Hill shadowing an MP or Senator, attending House committee meetings and Question Period, and sharing your passion for science with Parliamentarians.

The program includes exercises and teleconference workshops leading up to the event as well as an orientation and training session on the day before, hosted by the Institute on Governance in Ottawa’s Byward Market.

Benefits

For Parliamentarians and Senators:

  • Interact with researchers driving science and innovation in Canada
  • Build lasting connections with scientists from diverse regions and specialties
  • Discuss the intersection of science and decision-making on the Hill

For Scientists:

  • Meet with MPs, Senators, their staff, and the Federal political community.
  • Showcase their research and discuss the impact of research outcomes for Canadians
  • Learn about the organization, rationale, and motivations of decision-making in Parliamentary procedures.

Eligibility

For this pilot year, the program is open to researchers who currently hold a Tier II Canada Research Chair and are affiliated with a Canadian post-secondary institution. [emphases mine]

The researchers should come from diverse range of science and engineering disciplines  including all social, medical, and natural Sciences.We expect that 15-20 candidates will be selected. We hope to open the application process to researchers from all career stages in future years.

CSPC will oversee the application process and will base final selection of the Delegates on applicant diversity in terms of geography, language, gender, discipline, and visible minority.

Program

The one day event will include:

  • An informative orientation session that includes information about the business of Parliament and exercises that prepare Delegates to speak with politicians
  • Meetings with Members of Parliament and Senators, the Chief Science Advisor of Canada, and possibly the Minister of Science (subject to her availability)
  • Shadowing a Member of Parliament or Senator during the day
  • Networking reception with MPs, Senators, and staff that will include a closing speech by a guest of honour.

The program will be held on the hill on November 6th [2018]. [emphasis mine] The mandatory orientation session will be in the late afternoon of Monday Nov. 5th. Delegates are highly encouraged to stay in Ottawa for the 10th Canadian Science Policy Conference, CSPC 2018, held from Nov. 7-9. In this unique forum, delegates will have the opportunity to discuss the most pressing issues of science and innovation policy in Canada. For more information about the CSPC 2018, please visit the website: www.cspc2018.ca

The detailed event agenda will be made available in the upcoming weeks.

Mandatory requirements

  1. Registration fee: Accepted delegates will be required to pay $250.00 , which will include breakfast, lunch, the evening networking reception, and admission to the program. All delegates will be responsible for their own travel and accommodation costs. [emphases mine]
  2. Scientists who attend this session are required to either present a lecture at their host institution, and/or write an editorial for the CSPC’s editorial page about their experience, interactions with Parliamentarians, and insights they gained during this experience.

For more information on any of the above please contact info@sciencepolicy.ca

If you are a current Tier 2 Canada Research Chair affiliated with a Canadian institution and would like to apply for this program please click here.

Deadline to apply: Friday, August 31, 2018 at 11:59 PM (PST).

For the curious, here’s a definition of a Tier 2 Canada Research Chair (from the Canada Research Chair Wikipedia entry),

  • Tier 2 Chairs – tenable for five years and renewable once, are for exceptional emerging researchers, acknowledged by their peers as having the potential to lead in their field. Nominees for Tier 2 positions are assistant or associate professors (or they possess the necessary qualifications to be appointed at these levels by the nominating university). For each Tier 2 Chair, the university receives $100,000 annually for five years.

Good luck! And, CSPC folks, thank you for giving those of us on the West Coast a midnight deadline!

FrogHeart’s good-bye to 2017 and hello to 2018

This is going to be relatively short and sweet(ish). Starting with the 2017 review:

Nano blogosphere and the Canadian blogosphere

From my perspective there’s been a change taking place in the nano blogosphere over the last few years. There are fewer blogs along with fewer postings from those who still blog. Interestingly, some blogs are becoming more generalized. At the same time, Foresight Institute’s Nanodot blog (as has FrogHeart) has expanded its range of topics to include artificial intelligence and other topics. Andrew Maynard’s 2020 Science blog now exists in an archived from but before its demise, it, too, had started to include other topics, notably risk in its many forms as opposed to risk and nanomaterials. Dexter Johnson’s blog, Nanoclast (on the IEEE [Institute for Electrical and Electronics Engineers] website), maintains its 3x weekly postings. Tim Harper who often wrote about nanotechnology on his Cientifica blog appears to have found a more freewheeling approach that is dominated by his Twitter feed although he also seems (I can’t confirm that the latest posts were written in 2017) to blog here on timharper.net.

The Canadian science blogosphere seems to be getting quieter if Science Borealis (blog aggregator) is a measure. My overall impression is that the bloggers have been a bit quieter this year with fewer postings on the feed or perhaps that’s due to some technical issues (sometimes FrogHeart posts do not get onto the feed). On the promising side, Science Borealis teamed with the Science Writers and Communicators of Canada Association to run a contest, “2017 People’s Choice Awards: Canada’s Favourite Science Online!”  There were two categories (Favourite Science Blog and Favourite Science Site) and you can find a list of the finalists with links to the winners here.

Big congratulations for the winners: Canada’s Favourite Blog 2017: Body of Evidence (Dec. 6, 2017 article by Alina Fisher for Science Borealis) and Let’s Talk Science won Canada’s Favourite Science Online 2017 category as per this announcement.

However, I can’t help wondering: where were ASAP Science, Acapella Science, Quirks & Quarks, IFLS (I f***ing love science), and others on the list for finalists? I would have thought any of these would have a lock on a position as a finalist. These are Canadian online science purveyors and they are hugely popular, which should mean they’d have no problem getting nominated and getting votes. I can’t find the criteria for nominations (or any hint there will be a 2018 contest) so I imagine their nonpresence on the 2017 finalists list will remain a mystery to me.

Looking forward to 2018, I think that the nano blogosphere will continue with its transformation into a more general science/technology-oriented community. To some extent, I believe this reflects the fact that nanotechnology is being absorbed into the larger science/technology effort as foundational (something wiser folks than me predicted some years ago).

As for Science Borealis and the Canadian science online effort, I’m going to interpret the quieter feeds as a sign of a maturing community. After all, there are always ups and downs in terms of enthusiasm and participation and as I noted earlier the launch of an online contest is promising as is the collaboration with Science Writers and Communicators of Canada.

Canadian science policy

It was a big year.

Canada’s Chief Science Advisor

With Canada’s first chief science advisor in many years, being announced Dr. Mona Nemer stepped into her position sometime in Fall 2017. The official announcement was made on Sept. 26, 2017. I covered the event in my Sept. 26, 2017 posting, which includes a few more details than found the official announcement.

You’ll also find in that Sept. 26, 2017 posting a brief discourse on the Naylor report (also known as the Review of Fundamental Science) and some speculation on why, to my knowledge, there has been no action taken as a consequence.  The Naylor report was released April 10, 2017 and was covered here in a three-part review, published on June 8, 2017,

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

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

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

I have found another commentary (much briefer than mine) by Paul Dufour on the Canadian Science Policy Centre website. (November 9, 2017)

Subnational and regional science funding

This began in 2016 with a workshop mentioned in my November 10, 2016 posting: ‘Council of Canadian Academies and science policy for Alberta.” By the time the report was published the endeavour had been transformed into: Science Policy: Considerations for Subnational Governments (report here and my June 22, 2017 commentary here).

I don’t know what will come of this but I imagine scientists will be supportive as it means more money and they are always looking for more money. Still, the new government in British Columbia has only one ‘science entity’ and I’m not sure it’s still operational but i was called the Premier’s Technology Council. To my knowledge, there is no ministry or other agency that is focused primarily or partially on science.

Meanwhile, a couple of representatives from the health sciences (neither of whom were involved in the production of the report) seem quite enthused about the prospects for provincial money in their (Bev Holmes, Interim CEO, Michael Smith Foundation for Health Research, British Columbia, and Patrick Odnokon (CEO, Saskatchewan Health Research Foundation) October 27, 2017 opinion piece for the Canadian Science Policy Centre.

Artificial intelligence and Canadians

An event which I find more interesting with time was the announcement of the Pan=Canadian Artificial Intelligence Strategy in the 2017 Canadian federal budget. Since then there has been a veritable gold rush mentality with regard to artificial intelligence in Canada. One announcement after the next about various corporations opening new offices in Toronto or Montréal has been made in the months since.

What has really piqued my interest recently is a report being written for Canada’s Treasury Board by Michael Karlin (you can learn more from his Twitter feed although you may need to scroll down past some of his more personal tweets (something cassoulet in the Dec. 29, 2017 tweets).  As for Karlin’s report, which is a work in progress, you can find out more about the report and Karlin in a December 12, 2017 article by Rob Hunt for the Algorithmic Media Observatory (sponsored by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada [SHRCC], the Centre for Study of Democratic Citizenship, and the Fonds de recherche du Québec: Société et culture).

You can ring in 2018 by reading and making comments, which could influence the final version, on Karlin’s “Responsible Artificial Intelligence in the Government of Canada” part of the government’s Digital Disruption White Paper Series.

As for other 2018 news, the Council of Canadian Academies is expected to publish “The State of Science and Technology and Industrial Research and Development in Canada” at some point soon (we hope). This report follows and incorporates two previous ‘states’, The State of Science and Technology in Canada, 2012 (the first of these was a 2006 report) and the 2013 version of The State of Industrial R&D in Canada. There is already some preliminary data for this latest ‘state of’  (you can find a link and commentary in my December 15, 2016 posting).

FrogHeart then (2017) and soon (2018)

On looking back I see that the year started out at quite a clip as I was attempting to hit the 5000th blog posting mark, which I did on March 3,  2017. I have cut back somewhat from the 3 postings/day high to approximately 1 posting/day. It makes things more manageable allowing me to focus on other matters.

By the way, you may note that the ‘Donate’ button has disappeared from my sidebard. I thank everyone who donated from the bottom of my heart. The money was more than currency, it also symbolized encouragement. On the sad side, I moved from one hosting service to a new one (Sibername) late in December 2016 and have been experiencing serious bandwidth issues which result on FrogHeart’s disappearance from the web for days at a time. I am trying to resolve the issues and hope that such actions as removing the ‘Donate’ button will help.

I wish my readers all the best for 2018 as we explore nanotechnology and other emerging technologies!

(I apologize for any and all errors. I usually take a little more time to write this end-of-year and coming-year piece but due to bandwidth issues I was unable to access my draft and give it at least one review. And at this point, I’m too tired to try spotting error. If you see any, please do let me know.)

Announcing Canada’s Chief Science Advisor: Dr. Mona Nemer

Thanks to the Canadian Science Policy Centre’s September 26, 2017 announcement (received via email) a burning question has been answered,

After great anticipation, Prime Minister Trudeau along with Minister Duncan have announced Canada’s Chief Science Advisor, Dr. Mona Nemer, [emphasis mine]  at a ceremony at the House of Commons. The Canadian Science Policy Centre welcomes this exciting news and congratulates Dr. Nemer on her appointment in this role and we wish her the best in carrying out her duties in this esteemed position. CSPC is looking forward to working closely with Dr. Nemer for the Canadian science policy community. Mehrdad Hariri, CEO & President of the CSPC, stated, “Today’s historic announcement is excellent news for science in Canada, for informed policy-making and for all Canadians. We look forward to working closely with the new Chief Science Advisor.”

In fulfilling our commitment to keep the community up to date and informed regarding science, technology, and innovation policy issues, CSPC has been compiling all news, publications, and editorials in recognition of the importance of the Federal Chief Science Officer as it has been developing, as you may see by clicking here.

We invite your opinions regarding the new Chief Science Advisor, to be published on our CSPC Featured Editorial page. We will publish your reactions on our website, sciencepolicy.ca on our Chief Science Advisor page.

Please send your opinion pieces to editorial@sciencepolicy.ca.

Here are a few (very few) details from the Prime Minister’s (Justin Trudeau) Sept. 26, 2017 press release making the official announcement,

The Government of Canada is committed to strengthen science in government decision-making and to support scientists’ vital work.

In keeping with these commitments, the Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, today announced Dr. Mona Nemer as Canada’s new Chief Science Advisor, following an open, transparent, and merit-based selection process.  

We know Canadians value science. As the new Chief Science Advisor, Dr. Nemer will help promote science and its real benefits for Canadians—new knowledge, novel technologies, and advanced skills for future jobs. These breakthroughs and new opportunities form an essential part of the Government’s strategy to secure a better future for Canadian families and to grow Canada’s middle class.

Dr. Nemer is a distinguished medical researcher whose focus has been on the heart, particularly on the mechanisms of heart failure and congenital heart diseases. In addition to publishing over 200 scholarly articles, her research has led to new diagnostic tests for heart failure and the genetics of cardiac birth defects. Dr. Nemer has spent more than ten years as the Vice-President, Research at the University of Ottawa, has served on many national and international scientific advisory boards, and is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, a Member of the Order of Canada, and a Chevalier de l’Ordre du Québec.

As Canada’s new top scientist, Dr. Nemer will provide impartial scientific advice to the Prime Minister and the Minister of Science. She will also make recommendations to help ensure that government science is fully available and accessible to the public, and that federal scientists remain free to speak about their work. Once a year, she will submit a report about the state of federal government science in Canada to the Prime Minister and the Minister of Science, which will also be made public.

Quotes

“We have taken great strides to fulfill our promise to restore science as a pillar of government decision-making. Today, we took another big step forward by announcing Dr. Mona Nemer as our Chief Science Advisor. Dr. Nemer brings a wealth of expertise to the role. Her advice will be invaluable and inform decisions made at the highest levels. I look forward to working with her to promote a culture of scientific excellence in Canada.”
— The Rt. Hon. Justin Trudeau, Prime Minister of Canada

“A respect for science and for Canada’s remarkable scientists is a core value for our government. I look forward to working with Dr. Nemer, Canada’s new Chief Science Advisor, who will provide us with the evidence we need to make decisions about what matters most to Canadians: their health and safety, their families and communities, their jobs, environment and future prosperity.”
— The Honourable Kirsty Duncan, Minister of Science

“I am honoured and excited to be Canada’s Chief Science Advisor. I am very pleased to be representing Canadian science and research – work that plays a crucial role in protecting and improving the lives of people everywhere. I look forward to advising the Prime Minister and the Minister of Science and working with the science community, policy makers, and the public to make science part of government policy making.”
— Dr. Mona Nemer, Chief Science Advisor, Canada

Quick Facts

  • Dr. Nemer is also a Knight of the Order of Merit of the French Republic, and has been awarded honorary doctorates from universities in France and Finland.
  • The Office of the Chief Science Advisor will be housed at Innovation, Science and Economic Development and supported by a secretariat.

Nemers’ Wikipedia entry does not provide much additional information although you can find out a bit more on her University of Ottawa page. Brian Owens in a Sept. 26, 2017 article for the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s (AAAS) Science Magazine provides a bit more detail, about this newly created office and its budget

Nemer’s office will have a $2 million budget, and she will report to both Trudeau and science minister Kirsty Duncan. Her mandate includes providing scientific advice to government ministers, helping keep government-funded science accessible to the public, and protecting government scientists from being muzzled.

Ivan Semeniuk’s Sept. 26, 2017 article for the Globe and Mail newspaper about Nemer’s appointment is the most informative (that I’ve been able to find),

Mona Nemer, a specialist in the genetics of heart disease and a long time vice-president of research at the University of Ottawa, has been named Canada’s new chief science advisor.

The appointment, announced Tuesday [Sept. 26, 2017] by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, comes two years after the federal Liberals pledged to reinstate the position during the last election campaign and nearly a decade after the previous version of the role was cut by then prime minister Stephen Harper.

Dr. Nemer steps into the job of advising the federal government on science-related policy at a crucial time. Following a landmark review of Canada’s research landscape [Naylor report] released last spring, university-based scientists are lobbying hard for Ottawa to significantly boost science funding, one of the report’s key recommendations. At the same time, scientists and science-advocacy groups are increasingly scrutinizing federal actions on a range of sensitive environment and health-related issues to ensure the Trudeau government is making good on promises to embrace evidence-based decision making.

A key test of the position’s relevance for many observers will be the extent to which Dr. Nemer is able to speak her mind on matters where science may run afoul of political expediency.

Born in 1957, Dr. Nemer grew up in Lebanon and pursued an early passion for chemistry at a time and place where women were typically discouraged from entering scientific fields. With Lebanon’s civil war making it increasingly difficult for her to pursue her studies, her family was able to arrange for her to move to the United States, where she completed an undergraduate degree at Wichita State University in Kansas.

A key turning point came in the summer of 1977 when Dr. Nemer took a trip with friends to Montreal. She quickly fell for the city and, in short order, managed to secure acceptance to McGill University, where she received a PhD in 1982. …

It took a lot of searching to find out that Nemer was born in Lebanon and went to the United States first. A lot of immigrants and their families view Canada as a second choice and Nemer and her family would appear to have followed that pattern. It’s widely believed (amongst Canadians too) that the US is where you go for social mobility. I’m not sure if this is still the case but at one point in the 1980s Israel ranked as having the greatest social mobility in the world. Canada came in second while the US wasn’t even third or fourth ranked.

It’s the second major appointment by Justin Trudeau in the last few months to feature a woman who speaks French. The first was Julie Payette, former astronaut and Québecker, as the upcoming Governor General (there’s more detail and a whiff of sad scandal in this Aug. 21, 2017 Canadian Broadcasting Corporation online news item). Now there’s Dr. Mona Nemer who’s lived both in Québec and Ontario. Trudeau and his feminism, eh? Also, his desire to keep Québeckers happy (more or less).

I’m not surprised by the fact that Nemer has been based in Ottawa for several years. I guess they want someone who’s comfortable with the government apparatus although I for one think a little fresh air might be welcome. After all, the Minister of Science, Kirsty Duncan, is from Toronto which between Nemer and Duncan gives us the age-old Canadian government trifecta (geographically speaking), Ottawa-Montréal-Toronto.

Two final comments, I am surprised that Duncan did not make the announcement. After all, it was in her 2015 mandate letter.But perhaps Paul Wells in his acerbic June 29, 2017 article for Macleans hints at the reason as he discusses the Naylor report (review of fundamental science mentioned in Semeniuk’s article and for which Nemer is expected to provide advice),

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

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

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

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

Second,  our other science minister, Navdeep Bains, Minister of Innovation, Science  and Economic Development does not appear to have been present at the announcement. Quite surprising given where her office will located (from the government’s Sept. 26, 2017 press release in Quick Facts section ) “The Office of the Chief Science Advisor will be housed at Innovation, Science and Economic Development and supported by a secretariat.”

Finally, Wells’ article is well worth reading in its entirety and for those who are information gluttons, I have a three part series on the Naylor report, published June 8, 2017,

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

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

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