Tag Archives: National Research Council

Creative destruction for Canada’s fundamental science

After receiving an ‘invitation’ from the Canadian Science Policy Centre, I wrote an opinion piece, drawing on my submission for the public consultation on Canada’s fundamental science research. It seems the invitation was more of a ‘call’ for submissions and my piece did not end up being selected for inclusion on the website. So rather than waste the piece, here it is,

Creative destruction for Canada’s fundamental science

At a time when we are dealing with the consequences of our sins and virtues, fundamental science, at heart, an exercise in imagination, can seem a waste of precious time. Pollution and climate change (sins: ill-considered uses of technology) and food security and water requirements (virtues: efforts to improve health and save more lives) would seem to demand solutions not the flights of fancy associated with basic science. After all, what does the ‘big bang’ have to do with potable water?

It’s not an unfair question despite the impatience some might feel when answering it by citing a number of practical applications which are the result of all that ‘fanciful’ or ‘blue sky’ science. The beauty and importance of the question is that it will always be asked and can never be definitively answered, rendering it a near constant goad or insurance against complacency.

In many ways Canada’s review of fundamental science (deadline for comments was Sept. 30, 2016) is not just an examination of the current funding schemes but an opportunity to introduce more ‘goads’ or ‘anti-complacency’ measures into Canada’s fundamental science efforts for a kind of ‘creative destruction’.

Introduced by economist Joseph Schumpeter, the concept is derived from Karl Marx’s work but these days is associated with disruptive, painful, and regenerative innovation of all kinds and Canadian fundamental science needs more ‘creative destruction’. There’s at least one movement in this direction (found both in Canada and internationally) which takes us beyond uncomfortable, confrontative questions and occasional funding reviews—the integration of arts and humanities as an attempt at ‘creative destruction’ of the science endeavour.

At one point in the early 2000s, Canada developed a programme where the National Research Council could get joint funding with the Canada Council for the Arts for artists to work with their scientists. It was abandoned a few years later, as a failure. But, since then, several informal attempts at combining arts, sciences, and humanities have sprung up.

For example, Curiosity Collider (founded in 2015) hosts artists and scientists presenting their art/science pieces at various events in Vancouver. Beakerhead has mashed up science, engineering, arts, and entertainment in a festival founded and held in Calgary since 2013. Toronto’s ArtSci Salon hosts events and installations for local, national, and international collaborations of artists and scientists. And, getting back to Vancouver, Anecdotal Evidence is a science storytelling series which has been appearing sporadically since 2015.

There is a tendency to dismiss these types of collaboration as a form of science outreach designed to amuse or entertain but they can be much more than that. Illustrators have taught botanists a thing or two about plants. Markus Buehler at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has used his understanding of music to explore material science (spider’s webs). Domenico Vicinanza has sonified data from space vehicle, Voyager 1, to produce a symphony, which is also a highly compressed means of communicating data.

C. P. Snow’s ‘The Two Cultures’ (lecture and book) covered much of the same territory in 1959 noting the idea that the arts and sciences (and humanities) can and should be linked in some fashion was not new. For centuries the sciences were referred to as Natural Philosophy (humanities), albeit only chemistry and physics were considered sciences, and many universities have or had faculties of arts and sciences or colleges of arts and science (e.g., the University of Saskatchewan still has such a college).

The current art/sci or sci-art movement can be seen as more than an attempt to resuscitate a ‘golden’ period from the past. It could be a means of embedding a continuous state of regeneration or ‘creative destruction’ for fundamental science in Canada.

University of Victoria’s (Canada) microscope, world’s most powerful, unveiled

This new microscope at the University of Victoria (UVic) was supposed to be unveiled in 2011 according to my July 28, 2009 posting about the purchase,

In other BC news, the University of Victoria (Canada) will be getting a new microscope which senses at subatomic levels. (From the media release on Azonano),

The new microscope-called a Scanning Transmission Electron Holography Microscope (STEHM) — will use an electron beam and holography techniques to observe the inside of materials and their surfaces to an expected resolution as small as one-fiftieth the size of an atom.

This is being done in collaboration with Hitachi High-Technologies which is building the microscope in Japan and installing it at U Vic in late 2010. The microscope will be located in a specially adapted room where work to prepare and calibrate it will continue until it becomes operational sometime in 2011.

I had been wondering if I’d ever hear of the microscope again, so finding a June 18, 2013 news item on Nanowerk announcing the world’s most powerful microscope at the University of Victoria (British Columbia, Canada) answered the question for me (Note: A link has been removed),

The world’s most powerful microscope, which resides in a specially constructed room at the University of Victoria, has now been fully assembled and tested, and has a lineup of scientists and businesses eager to use it.

The seven-tonne, 4.5-metre tall Scanning Transmission Electron Holography Microscope (STEHM), the first such microscope of its type in the world, came to the university in parts last year,. A team from Hitachi, which constructed the ultra high-resolution, ultra-stable instrument, spent one year painstakingly assembling the STEHM in a carefully controlled lab in the basement of the Bob Wright Centre.

The wait was worth it, says Rodney Herring, a professor of mechanical engineering and director of UVic’s Advanced Microscopy Facility. [emphasis mine]

The June 17, 2013 University of Victoria news release, which originated the news item, doesn’t address the two year delay directly as Herring’s quote seems to be in reference to the one-year assembly period. The news release goes on to describe the microscope’s resolution,

Herring viewed gold atoms through the microscope at a resolution of 35 picometres. One picometre is a trillionth of a metre. This resolution is much better than the previous best image with 49-picometre resolution taken at the Lawrence Berkley National Laboratory in California, and is about 20 million times human sight.

The STEHM allows researchers to see the atoms in a manner never before possible. It has full analytical capabilities that can determine the types and number or elements present, and high-resolution cameras for collecting data.

It will be used by researchers of many science and engineering disciplines for projects requiring knowledge of small atomic scale structures (nanoscience) and nanotechnology. Dr. Vincenzo Grillo from the Istituto Nanoscienze Consiglio Nazionale Delle Ricerche in Modena [Italy] will be the first visiting researcher later this month.

A line-up seems to have formed (from the news release),

Local scientists and businesses are also eager to use it. Ned Djilali, a UVic professor of mechanical engineering, is working with the National Research Council, Ballard Power Systems in Vancouver and Mercedes-Benz on fuel cell research. The STEHM “opens up entirely new possibilities” in fuel cell technology, says Djilali.

Redlen Technologies, a local company that manufactures high resolution semiconductor radiation detectors that are used for such things as nuclear cardiology, CT scanning, baggage scanning and dirty bomb detection, has been waiting for the STEHM to open for the company’s research and development.

If you are curious but don’t have any special influence, you can find out about the microscope (and perhaps view it?) later this week (from the news release),

Herring will give details of the results at a microscopy conference this week at UVic, as well as during a talk Thursday, June 20, that is open to the public. [emphasis mine] It is from 4:30 to 5 p.m. at the Bob Wright Centre, in Flury Hall, room B150.

I don’t usually include funding information but since I am from British Columbia, I have more of an interest than usual (from the news release),

The STEHM microscope is supported by $9.2 million in funding from the government of Canada through the Canadian Foundation for Innovation, the BC Knowledge Development Fund and UVic, as well as significant in-kind support from Hitachi.

Since microscopes and big equipment (in general) are weirdly fascinating to me, here are some details from UVic’s STEHM backgrounder,

The Scanning Transmission Electron Holography Microscope (STEHM) is the highest resolution microscope ever built and the only one of its kind in the world. It’s arrival makes the University of Victoria a global leader in the competitive field of advanced microscopy.

Unlike conventional microscopes, which use light to peer at specimens, the STEHM uses an electron beam and holography techniques to observe the inside of materials and their surfaces to an expected resolution smaller than the size of an atom.

The STEHM will see materials beyond the nanoscale to the picoscale. A nanometer is one-billionth of a metre, while a picometre is one-trillionth of a metre. Atoms are typically between 62 and 520 picometres in diameter.

The STEHM will not only see individual atoms, but it will indicate what type of atoms they are. It also features an electron vortex beam, which researchers can use like tweezers to manipulate individual atoms in a specimen.

The microscope itself is a 4.5-metre tall cylinder encased in metal shielding to block magnetic fields. It has a footprint of six square metres and weighs seven tonnes.

The microscope is so huge that researchers will climb a stepladder to insert their specimens through a tiny airlock into the vacuum of the column. They’ll then leave the room, wait for the air currents in the room to calm, and then operate the microscope remotely from an adjoining room.

The microscope is so sensitive that its image could be affected by little more than a passing cloud. …

I don’t know how many times the public will have any access to this microscope given its extreme sensitivity so you might want to make a point of attending the public talk on Thursday, June 20, 2013 at the University of Victoria.

One final comment, I find it a bit disconcerting that the only ‘academic’ research mentioned seems to be Italian and that the ‘Canadian’ research is primarily commercial. It’s very nice that Dr. Herring saw a gold nanoparticle but are there any local or Canadian publicly funded academic researchers using this microscope, which seems to have been paid for by taxpayers? Hopefully, this is a case where excitement took over and the writer who almost always focuses on local, academic research got carried away with the international involvement and big name companies (Mercedes Benz).

Two (Denmark & US) contrasting documents about nanomaterials and risk

The Danes released their NanoRiskCat (NRC) document in early December 2011 while the US National Research Council released its report on the US research strategy on environmental and health impact of engineered nanomaterials today, Jan. 25, 2012.

(BTW, There”s going to be an alphabet soup situation in this posting with two different NRCs [the catalogue] and the US National Research Council for starters. I’ll do my best to keep these entities distinct from each other.)

The documents represent an interesting contrast regarding approaches to nanomaterials and their risks. From the Jan. 25, 2012 Nanowerk Spotlight article about Denmark’s NanoRiskCat,

The project’s aim was to identify, categorize and rank the possible exposure and hazards associated with a nanomaterial in a product. NanoRiskCat is using a stepwise approach based on existing data on the conventional form of the chemical as well as the data that may exist on the nanoform. However, the tool still needs to be further validated and tested on a series of various nano products in order to adjust and optimize the concept and thereby to achieve a screening tool as informative and practical as possible.

Meanwhile, here’s the description of the US NRC’s latest report, from the Jan. 25, 2012 news item on Nanowerk,

Despite extensive investment in nanotechnology and increasing commercialization over the last decade, insufficient understanding remains about the environmental, health, and safety aspects of nanomaterials. Without a coordinated research plan to help guide efforts to manage and avoid potential risks, the future of safe and sustainable nanotechnology is uncertain, says a new report (“A Research Strategy for Environmental, Health, and Safety Aspects of Engineered Nanomaterials“)from the National Research Council. The report presents a strategic approach for developing research and a scientific infrastructure needed to address potential health and environmental risks of nanomaterials. Its effective implementation would require sufficient management and budgetary authority to direct research across federal agencies.

I find it interesting that the US government which has poured billions into its National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) is still trying to develop a research strategy for environmental and health impacts while the Danish (who have likely spent far less and, to be fair, likely have less bureaucracy) have created an assessment tool designed to evaluate the exposure to and hazards posed by nanomaterials found in consumer and industrial use.

One other interesting tidbit, both the Danish and the US Environmental Protection Agencies (EPAs) were instigators of their country’s respective documents. The Danish EPA was one of the three funders (the other two were the Danish Technical University and the National Research Centre for the Working Environment) for their NanoRiskCat. The US EPA was one of the sponsors  for the strategy report. The other sponsors include the The National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, Institute of Medicine, and National Research Council.

I have to admit I’m getting a little tired of strategy documents and I’m please to see an attempt to evaluate the situation. I’m not sure which version (alpha or beta) of the tool they’ve released but there’s definitely some tweaking to be done as the Danes themselves admit,

It is the view of the Danish EPA that the traffic light ranking [I’m assuming they assign a colour [red, amber, yellow] as a means of quickly identifying a risk level in their documentation of specific nanomaterials) of the health effects may be further modified to obtain a better ranking in the various categories. Thus titanium dioxide in sunscreen is ranked as red due to lung effects of titanium dioxide, because the tool in its present form does not sufficiently take account of which type of health effects that are most relevant for the most relevant exposure route of the product. In this case the inhalational exposure of titanium dioxide from a sun screen seems less relevant.

Yes, I agree that exposure to nanoscale titanium dioxide via inhalation is an unlikely when you’re using a nanosunscreen. Although given some folks I’ve known, it’s not entirely out of the question. (It’s been my experience that people will inhale anything if they think they can get high from it.)

Entangling diamonds

Usually when you hear about entanglement, they’re talking about quantum particles or kittens. On Dec. 2, 2011, Science magazine published a paper by scientists who had entangled diamonds (that can be touched and held in human hands). From the Dec. 1, 2011 CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) news article by Emily Chung,

Quantum physics is known for bizarre phenomena that are very different from the behaviour we are familiar with through our interaction with objects on the human scale, which follow the laws of classical physics. For example, quantum “entanglement” connects two objects so that no matter how far away they are from one another, each object is affected by what happens to the other.

Now, scientists from the U.K., Canada and Singapore have managed to demonstrate entanglement in ordinary diamonds under conditions found in any ordinary room or laboratory.

Philip Ball in his Dec. 1, 2011 article for Nature magazine describes precisely what entanglement means when applied to the diamond crystals that were entangled,

A pair of diamond crystals has been linked by quantum entanglement. This means that a vibration in the crystals could not be meaningfully assigned to one or other of them: both crystals were simultaneously vibrating and not vibrating.

Quantum entanglement — interdependence of quantum states between particles not in physical contact — has been well established between quantum particles such as atoms at ultra-cold temperatures. But like most quantum effects, it doesn’t tend to survive either at room temperature or in objects large enough to see with the naked eye.

Entanglement, until now, has been demonstrated at very small scales due to an issue with coherence and under extreme conditions. Entangled objects are coherent with each other but other objects such as atoms can cause the entangled objects to lose their coherence and their entangled state. In order to entangle the diamonds, the scientists had to find a way of dealing with the loss of coherence as the objects are scaled up and they were able to achieve this at room temperature. From the Emily Chung article,

Walmsley [Ian Walmsley, professor of experimental physics at the University of Oxford] said it’s easier to maintain coherence in smaller objects because they can be isolated practically from disturbances. Things are trickier in larger systems that contain lots of interacting, moving parts.

Two things helped the researchers get around this in their experiment, Sussman [Ben Sussman, a quantum physicist at the National Research Council of Canada and adjunct professor at the University of Ottawa] said:

  • The hardness of the diamonds meant it was more resistant to disturbances that could destroy the coherence.
  • The extreme speed of the experiment — the researchers used laser pulses just 60 femtoseconds long, about 6/100,000ths of a nanosecond (a nanosecond is a billionth of a second) — meant there was no time for disturbances to destroy the quantum effects.

Laser pulses were used to put the two diamonds into a state where they were entangled with one another through a shared vibration known as a phonon. By measuring particles of light called photons subsequently scattered from the diamonds, the researchers confirmed that the states of the two diamonds were linked with each other — evidence that they were entangled.

If you are interested in the team’s research and can get past Science magazine’s paywall, here’s the citation,

“Entangling Macroscopic Diamonds at Room Temperature,” by K.C. Lee; M.R. Sprague; J. Nunn; N.K. Langford; X.-M. Jin; T. Champion; P. Michelberger; K.F. Reim; D. England; D. Jaksch; I.A. Walmsley at University of Oxford in Oxford, UK; B.J. Sussman at National Research Council of Canada in Ottawa, ON, Canada; X.-M. Jin; D. Jaksch at National University of Singapore in Singapore. Science 2 December 2011: Vol. 334 no. 6060 pp. 1253-1256 DOI: 10.1126/science.1211914

All of the media reports I’ve seen to date focus on the UK and Canadian researchers and I cannot find anything about the contribution of the researcher based in Singapore.

I do wish I could read more languages as I’d be more likely to find information about work which is not necessarily going to be covered in English language media.

Report on Review of Federal Support to R&D

It (Innovation Canada: A Call to Action) [ETA Oct. 25, 2011: Title corrected] is not a light read (it weighs in at 148 pp.) as one might expect when a comprehensive review of government programmes is made and given the pace that major reports are being released these days I’ve not had a chance to even skim through the report itself. However, there are some major recommendations being made, notably this one about the National Research Council (from the Review of Federal Support to R&D home page),

  • Transform the institutes of the National Research Council [NRC] into a series of large-scale, collaborative centres involving business, universities and the provinces.
  • The NRC was created during World War I to kick-start Canada’s research capacity. It has a long and storied history of discoveries and innovation, including numerous commercial spin-offs. While the NRC continues to do good work, research and commercialization activity in Canada has grown immensely.  In this new context, the NRC can play a unique role, linking its large-scale, long-term research activity with the academic and business communities. The panel recommends evolving NRC institutes, consistent with the current strategic direction, into not-for-profit centres run with stakeholders, and incorporating its public policy research into other departments.

The panel also suggests cutting down on the number of funding agencies and creating a portal or ‘concierge’ to help businesses find the right funding solution for their needs,

  • The creation of an Industrial Research and Innovation Council (IRIC) to deliver the federal government’s business innovation programs.
    • There are currently more than 60 programs across 17 different government departments. The creation of an arm’s-length funding and delivery agency – the Industrial Research and Innovation Council – would begin to streamline the process as the development of a common application portal and service to help businesses find the right programs for their needs (a “concierge”).

This next one seems more like a ‘buy Canada’ recommendation than anything else,

  • Make business innovation one of the core objectives of procurement.
    • The federal government spends billions of dollars every year but it ranks low internationally when it comes to using that purchasing power to encourage Canadian innovation. The encouragement of home-grown innovation a part of government procurement is commonsense.

I like this idea,

  • Help high-growth innovative firms access the risk capital they need through the Business Development Bank of Canada
    • Innovative Canadian companies face real challenges in getting start-up funding and late stage risk capital financing. In many cases, the gap is filled by foreign investors, which means that too many commercial benefits and intellectual property end up leaving the country. Directing the BDC to work with angel investor groups and develop late-stage risk capital/growth equity funds will pay dividends.

Simplifying certainly seems reasonable,

 ·Simplification of the tax credit system used to support small and medium-sized businesses.

  • The current Scientific Research and Experimental Development (SR&ED) program is unnecessarily complicated: many small businesses hire consultants just to submit an application. This discourages eligible businesses from applying and may cost successful small SR&ED recipients a good portion of the credit received. By basing the SR&ED credit  solely on labour costs, the panel believes SR&ED will be more effective.

This one seems like one of those recommendations that are impossible to implement,

·Establish a clear federal voice for innovation and work with the provinces to improve coordination.

  • Currently, there is a lack of government-wide clarity when it comes to innovation. Responsibility is spread across a number of cabinet portfolios. The Prime Minister should assign responsibility for innovation to a single minister, supported by a whole-of-government Innovation Advisory Committee, evolved from the current Science Technology and Innovation Council (STIC), composed of external stakeholders, who would then work with the provincial and territorial governments to initiate a collaborative dialogue to improve coordination and impact.

I base my comment about the last recommendation on my experience with the gnashing of teeth I’ve observed when someone is going to lose an area of responsibility that is associated with power and other good things. Who do you imagine will want to give up innovation and what will they want in return?  Another question which springs to mind is this one: How are they going to develop a single voice for discussion of innovation across several federal bureaucracies with thousands of people and miles between them when even a small office of 20 people experiences difficulty doing this (again, this is based on my personal experience).

As for the suggested changes to the NRC? Well, those should provide some fodder for lively discussion. I’m sure the other items will provide conversational fodder too but it seems to me that the two I’ve highlighted in these comments are likely to be the among the most contentious.

Hannah Hoag in her Oct. 14, 2011 posting on the Nature news blog notes this,

  In an effort to address Canada’s problem with innovation, an independent panel has recommended a radical overhaul that includes the creation of a new funding council and transforms the country’s largest research entity, the billion dollar National Research Council (NRC).

Study after study has shown that Canada’s businesses invest less on R&D, relative to the country’s gross domestic product, than those of many other OECD countries and, unlike others, has actually decreased its spending over the last decade. Many of these business investments include government support in the form tax credits, training programs, or grants. [emphasis mine]

In an effort to make the best use of the government’s investments the six-member expertpanel developed six broad recommendations include appointing a Minister of Innovation and creating the Industrial Research and Innovation Council (IRIC).

Laura Payton writes in her Oct. 17, 2011 article for CBC news,

Canada’s research and development funding system is too complicated and confusing, a government-appointed panel [for the Review of Federal Support to R&D] said Monday.

Creating a new arm’s-length funding agency and putting a single cabinet minister in charge of innovation would streamline the application process and give the government a clear voice on the issue, Tom Jenkins, the panel’s chair said.

The idea is to cut red tape and make it easier for companies to get access to cash and increase collaboration.

“Going forward, more of the world’s innovations may well happen elsewhere, outside of Canada,” warned Jenkins, executive chairman and chief strategy officer of Waterloo, Ont.-based Open Text Corp.

“Governments in Canada spend more on supporting business R&D per capita than most countries in the industrialized world. And yet, we’re increasingly near the bottom of the pack when it comes to investing in business innovation. So if it’s not a lack of government investment, then why has our business R&D momentum been stalled for almost a decade?”

Gary Goodyear, minister of state for science and technology, said business investment and R&D help create high-paying, high-value jobs and maintain Canada’s standard of living.

Of course, none of the recommendations in the report from the expert panel address the core problem of Canadian businesses not investing in themselves. It simply wasn’t part of the brief and the title seems a little grandiose. Perhaps Government funding for innovation in Canada: A Call to Action might have been a better title.

While I think this review was an excellent exercise I am dismayed that one of the core problems (business investment) with innovation in Canada has not been addressed.

  • Help high-growth innovative firms access the risk capital they need through the Business Development Bank of Canada
    • Innovative Canadian companies face real challenges in getting start-up funding and late stage risk capital financing. In many cases, the gap is filled by foreign investors, which means that too many commercial benefits and intellectual property end up leaving the country. Directing the BDC to work with angel investor groups and develop late-stage risk capital/growth equity funds will pay dividends.

Smart glass, curling electrodes and a business opportunity

Boris Lamontagne (boris.lamontagne@nrc.ca) at Canada’s National Research Council is looking for a business partner or two to commercialize his smart glass which features ‘micro blinds’. Here’s a demonstration complete with illustrations of the technology,

I found more technical details about the ‘micro blinds’ (from the abstract of a paper, The next generation of switchable glass : the Micro-Blinds, by Boris Lamontagne, Pedro Barrios and Christophe Py at Glassfiles.com (you will need to register at the website to view the full text of the paper),

The micro-blinds are composed of invisible and electrostatically activated curling electrodes of 100 micrometers size. They can be deposited on flat glass by magnetron sputtering like regular low-E coatings, and then patterned by laser. They possess several advantages such as switching speed, UV durability, customized appearance and transmission, and do not employ costly ITO, relative to the current smart windows technologies: electrochromic, suspended particles and liquid crystals.

Let’s get this smart glass commercialized. As regular readers know, I’m very interested in smart glass/windows and I would very much like to see the technology enter the marketplace. My most recent posting on smart windows was Sept. 7, 2011 about some research done by the  US Dept. of Energy.

ETA Sept. 22, 2011: There’s a Sept. 22, 2011 news item about Lamontagne’s smart glass on Nanowerk.

Innovation = more $$$ for business schools?

I’m trying to calm down but really!!!! Roger Martin, Dean of the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto gave the Globe & Mail an interview last week where he opined that Canadian business schools are not getting enough money which is, in turn, affecting innovation. I hope the interview is a form of performance art rather than a reflection of Martin’s thought processes.

(Please accept my apologies but I’m having trouble with my links today so I will have to give you the URLs.) From the March 16, 2011 article Canada will shrivel under business-school neglect, dean says (http://www.theglobeandmail.com/report-on-business/managing/business-education/canada-will-shrivel-under-business-school-neglect-dean-says/article1942997/page1/) by Gordon Pitts,

What makes a country prosperous is not investment in science and technology. [emphasis mine] It is businesses producing high paying jobs by having unique products and processes that a customer needs. Yet we have an economic development policy that focuses incredibly tightly on a very narrow part of the economy with no demonstration or proof that it is particularly helpful. Meanwhile, we complain about our companies not being innovative enough or globally competitive enough, and we send them off to battle with much less education than their competitors.

We hear people say, ‘Well, what we need are scientists and engineers running these companies because these are tech companies.’ But if we in Canada would like to have companies like Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Microsoft, Apple, Cisco and Intel, find out how many of their CEOs have science and tech degrees. The answer is there are a lot more MBAs than science and technology degrees.

All of the companies cited were founded by people with science and technology degrees as Nassif Ghoussoub in A business dean’s rant: Ignorance of the facts or pure “Chutzpah”? (http://ghoussoub.wordpress.com/2011/03/20/a-business-dean%E2%80%99s-rant-willful-ignorance-or-pure-%E2%80%9Cchutzpah%E2%80%9D/#more-3241), and James Colliander, Rotman Dean to Government: Give the Basic Research Funding to Business Schools not Scientists (http://blog.math.toronto.edu/colliand/2011/03/17/rotman-dean-wants-the-money-targeted-for-science-research-2/) note.

Martin never does explain how more business education money will actually translate into more innovation in Canada. In fact, he never explains how it has worked anywhere else. Strangely, he does not mention the latest economic meltdown due to business practices. If more education and research benefited business and the economy so much then why the meltdown that our US neighbours to the south have experienced so strongly? By Martin’s reckoning the US economy should be in much better condition than it is what with all that money going to support business students.

I was a little curious as to Martin’s own background and found this in an Aug. 1, 2006 article by Robert Berner for Bloomberg Business Week (from http://www.businessweek.com/magazine/content/05_31/b3945417.htm_),

A Canadian native and graduate of Harvard Business School, the 48-year-old Martin left a position as co-head of a consulting firm to take the Rotman post. He’s working with Patrick Whitney, director of the Institute of Design, and David Kelley, co-founder of design consultancy IDEO and head of the new Stanford Design School, to create a new design-based curriculum that can be used in business schools. Martin practices what he preaches: He advises Procter & Gamble Co. (PG ) chief A.G. Lafley, among other chief executives.

So let me get this. The dean of a business school whose own educational background appears to be largely business (according to the Wikipedia essay about him [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roger_Martin], he has a Bachelor of Arts in Economics from Harvard College in addition to his MBA from Harvard Business School) and who worked as a management consultant prior to becoming a dean thinks that Canadians need more business education. What’s that old saying? If you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

As for the statistics he offers about the amount of research money going to business (from the Pitts article),

For example, of federal research money from the three major funding councils, business gets 1.7 per cent of the funding but it gets 17 per cent of the students. Health Sciences have 36 per cent of funding and 11.2 per cent of students – and that’s understandable with all that expensive R&D. Natural sciences and engineering have 39 per cent of funding and 28 per cent of students.

In all the social sciences and humanities, except business, there are 44 per cent of students and 24 per cent of research funding. So the social sciences get hit, but their hit is less than 2 to 1. In business – which is all about making our country competitive – it’s a 10 to one cut.

It does seem a pretty pitiful amount of research money is going to business research (Note: I would like to know how Martin has derived his statistics). Mind you a fair amount of the material produced by Statistics Canada is used for business research purposes while a lot of the quantitative social science research has to be gathered by the social scientists themselves. And, Nassif points out that a big chunk of the 2009 budget research money going for  social sciences and humanities research was in fact intended for business studies.

… we should not forget that, as recently as 2009, business schools got a preferential treatment from the federal government. Indeed, after having cut the Tri-council by 5%, the 2009 stimulus federal budget proceeded to earmark the $17.5-million assigned to SSHRC for graduate scholarships towards students in business and finance.

Business is making inroads in many areas not just in social sciences and humanities funding. A March 20, 2011 article by Tom Spears for the Ottawa Citizen indicates that business and economic interests will be driving research in this country in a way that should warm Martin’s heart (from http://www.ottawacitizen.com/business/boss+orders+scientists+focus+market+drivers/4472949/story.html),

There’s radical change at the National Research Council, Canada’s biggest science institute, as the new president orders all staff to direct research toward boosting economic development and technology, with less time for pure science.

Starting this spring, 20 per cent of research money, and all the capital funds that buy expensive lab equipment, will be removed from existing budgets and directed where the president and vice-presidents choose.

Eventually, 80 per cent of research funds will be redirected this way.

NRC president John McDougall has announced to all staff that he wants research that is “successfully deployed and used to benefit our customers and partners in industry and government.”

His memo, dated March 2, warns that “history is an anchor that ties us to the past rather than a sail that catches the wind to power us forward.” [emphasis mine]

The new system, with most funding awarded by top management, will put existing staff in a position of having to apply to their employer to keep doing their own work. So far, they aren’t faring well: McDougall notes that his scientists have suggested more than 70 research areas. But most of these have no clear “market driver” or “purposeful direction,” he writes.

If business education is in as much trouble as Martin suggests, I’d like to see data that supports his thesis rather than a lot of numbers being thrown about and what amounts to performance art for the Globe and Mail.

By the way, Tom Jenkins, the head of the expert panel that convened the public consultation on innovation (it’s correct title is: A Review of Federal Support to Research and Development), is the Executive Chairman and Chief Strategy Officer for Open Text. From the Open Text webpage about the Board of Directors (http://www.opentext.com/2/global/company/company-directors.htm),

Mr. Jenkins is Executive Chairman and Chief Strategy Officer for OpenText. From 1994 to 2005, Mr.Jenkins was President, then Chief Executive Officer and then from 2005 to present, Chief Strategy Officer of OpenText. Mr. Jenkins has served as a Director of OpenText since 1994 and as its Chairman since 1998. In addition to his OpenText responsibilities, Mr.Jenkins is the Chair of the federal centre of excellence Canadian Digital Media Network (CDMN). He is also an appointed member of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC), past appointed member of the Government of Canada’s Competition Policy Review Panel and past appointed member of the Province of Ontario’s Ontario Commercialization Network Review Committee (OCN). Mr.Jenkins is also a member of the board of BMC Software, Inc. a software corporation based in Houston, Texas. He is also a member of the University of Waterloo Engineering Dean’s Advisory Council, GRAND, the federal research centre of excellence for digital media, a director of the C.D. Howe Institute, a director of the Canadian International Council (CIC) and a director of the Canadian Council of Chief Executives (CCCE). Mr.Jenkins received an M.B.A. in entrepreneurship & technology management from Schulich School of Business at York University, an M.A.Sc. in electrical engineering from the University of Toronto and a B.Eng.& Mgt. in Engineering Physics and Commerce from McMaster University. [emphases mine]

I gather Mr. Jenkins decided on an education that spans both engineering and business.  Perhaps innovation is better served by multidisciplinary interests over the single-minded pursuit of more money for the Rotman School of Management.

ETA April 20, 2011: Nature has weighed in about John McDougall and his National Research Council directives (from the April 19, 2011 news article by Hannah Hoag),

Canada’s largest research entity has a new focus — and some disaffected scientists. On 1 April, the National Research Council (NRC), made up of more than 20 institutes and programmes with a total annual budget larger than Can$1 billion (US$1 billion), switched to a funding strategy that downplays basic research in favour of programmes designed to attract industry partners and generate revenue. Some researchers suggest that the shift is politically driven, because it brings the agency into philosophical alignment with the governing Conservative Party of Canada, which is in the middle of an election campaign.

Tom Brzustowski, who studies commercialization of innovation at the University of Ottawa, says that the adjustment to the NRC’s focus will support areas that have been weak. “By focusing on the flagship programmes there is still room to do the whole spectrum of research. It’s a good strategic move,” he says.

But the news has rekindled anxiety over how Canada’s government has been directing science funding — criticisms that have grown sharper as the federal election on 2 May [2011] approaches.

Nano kerfuffle in Germany; NRC on impact of photonics research in Canada

Thanks to Dexter Johnson who on his IEEE blog, Nanoclast, recently commented on the publication of a German government paper and the resulting international kerfuffle. Apparently a government agency placed a background paper about nanotechnology and its potential risks on their website which was picked up in newspapers that which used alarming headlines (likely to garner readership).  From Johnson’s comments,

The only thing that the UBA [a German government department] has in their favor for covering up their naïve and ill-conceived decision to catalogue a bunch of research that is not even their own on the risk of nanoparticles is that to a large extent the public doesn’t care.

I’m not sure why Johnson is so harsh about the fact that they did not present original research. I expect a background paper to present information that has been previously published and that represents a broad spectrum of opinions and ideas. I would find it disconcerting if original research were to be included.

The whole incident is an interesting example of how anything can take on its own life (something I discussed in my Monday, Oct. 28, 2009 posting discussion of some recent comments by Eric Drexler). You can read one of the English language versions of a ‘kerfuffle’ article here and a ‘damage control’ article here.

According to a news item on Azonano, Canada’s National Research Council (NRC) Canadian Photonics Fabrication Centre has released a report suggesting that over the next five years their client firms will generate about $500M.  You can read more about it all here.