Tag Archives: Natural Resources Canada

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.

Medical isotope team at TRIUMF (Canada’s national laboratory for particle and nuclear physics) wins award

I’ve written a few times about the development of a new means for producing medical isotopes that does not require nuclear materials. (my June 10, 2014 posting and my June 9, 2013 posting,) The breakthrough was made at TRIUMF, Canada’s national laboratory for particle and nuclear physics, which is located in Vancouver, and the team which made the breakthrough is being honoured. From a Feb. 17, 2015 TRIUMF news release,

For their outstanding teamwork in realizing a solution for safe and reliable isotope production for hospitals in Canada,interdisciplinary research team CycloMed99 will be receiving a prestigious national award at a ceremony in Ottawa today [Feb. 17, 2015]. The Honourable David Johnston, Governor General of Canada, will present the NSERC  [Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada] Brockhouse Canada Prize for Interdisciplinary Research in Science and Engineering to the team in recognition of their seamless teamwork and successes.

Drawing from expertise in physics, chemistry, and nuclear medicine, the team set out five years ago to develop a reliable, alternative means of production for a key medical isotope in order to eliminate the threat of a supply shortage – a catastrophic healthcare crisis for patients around the world. Technetium-99m (Tc-99m) is the world standard for medical imaging to diagnose cancer and heart disease. Every day, 5,000 medical procedures in
Canada and 70,000 daily worldwide depend on this isotope. With funding support from NSERC, CIHR and Natural Resources Canada, the team developed technology that uses medical cyclotrons already installed and operational in major hospitals across Canada to produce enough Tc-99m on a daily basis.

This innovation is safer and more environmentally friendly than current technology because it eliminates the need for highly enriched uranium, also avoiding the generation
of highly radioactive waste. Canada’s healthcare system would save money by producing isotopes locally under a full-cost recovery model.

The project resulted in over a dozen scientific publications, several provisional patents and a training opportunity for more than 175 individuals.

Now, the research team is focused on working with the world’s major cyclotron manufacturers to add factory-supported Tc-99m production capability to their existing product lines so the technology will become standard in future machines.

CycloMed99 is also working with a Canadian start-up company to license, transfer and sell this technology around the world. This will allow hospitals and companies with cyclotrons to retrofit their existing infrastructure with a Made in Canada solution to produce this valuable material.

Congratulations to the CycloMed99 team, recipients of the Brockhouse Canada Prize:

• Dr. Paul Schaffer, a chemist by training and Division Head, Nuclear Medicine at TRIUMF; Adjunct Professor, Dept. of Chemistry at Simon Fraser University; and Professor, Dept. of Radiology at the University of British Columbia (UBC);

• Dr. François Bénard, a clinician by training and BC Leadership Chair in Functional Cancer Imaging at the BC Cancer Agency; and Professor, Dept. of Radiology at UBC;

• Dr. Anna Celler, a medical physicist by training and Professor, Dept. of Radiology at UBC;

• Dr. Michael Kovacs, a chemist by training; PET Radiochemistry Facility Imaging Scientist at Lawson Health Research Institute; Associate Professor at Western University;

• Dr. Thomas J. Ruth, a nuclear chemist by training and researcher emeritus at TRIUMF; and Professor emeritus at UBC, and;

• Dr. John Valliant, a chemist by training and Scientific Director and CEO of the Centre for Probe Development and Commercialization; and Professor at McMaster University.

There’s more information about TRIUMF and the business aspect of this breakthrough in a Jan. 16, 2015 article by Tyler Orton for Business in Vancouver.

Canada Science and Technology Museums Corporation welcomes Alex Benay as president and chief executive officer (CEO)

The search took over one year as the Canada Science and Technology Museums Corporation (CSTMC) cast about for a new president and CEO in the wake of previous incumbent Denise Amyot’s departure. From the June 17, 2014 CSTMC announcement,

The Canada Science and Technology Museums Corporation (CSTMC) welcomes the appointment by the Minister of Canadian Heritage and Official Languages, the Honourable Shelly Glover, of Alex Benay as its new President and CEO. Mr Benay will assume the role beginning July 2, 2014 for a 5-year term.

“This is excellent news,” said Dr Gary Polonsky, Chair of the CSTMC Board of Trustees. “Alex Benay is an exceptional leader with the capacity to heighten the CSTMC profile as the only national museum institution entirely dedicated to tracking Canada’s rich history and heritage in science, technology and innovation.”

“Alex’s appointment demonstrates the government’s support toward our museums”, added Dr Polonsky. “I wish to recognize Minister Glover’s leadership in this nomination process and express our gratitude for the appointment of a leader with vast experience in managing people, processes and resources. Alex’s significant networks in the private and public sectors in Canada and internationally, and leadership experience with Canada’s digital industry, will be great assets in developing the Corporation.”

Mr Benay was previously Vice-President, Government Affairs and Business Development at Open Text, Canada’s largest software company since 2011.

As President and CEO, Mr Benay will be responsible for the CSTMC’s day-to-day operations and a staff of about 225 employees and an annual budget of $33 million. The CSTMC includes the Canada Agriculture and Food Museum, the Canada Aviation and Space Museum, and the Canada Science and Technology Museum. Collectively, they are responsible for preserving and protecting Canada’s scientific and technological heritage, while also promoting, celebrating, and sharing knowledge of that heritage and how it impacts Canadians’ daily lives.

I took a look at Mr. Benay’s LinkedIn profile and found this,

President and Chief Executive Officer
Canada Science and Technology Museums Corporation

Government Agency; 201-500 employees; Museums and Institutions industry

June 2014 – Present (1 month) Ottawa, Canada Area

VP, Government Relations
OpenText

Public Company; 5001-10,000 employees; OTEX; Computer Software industry

August 2012 – June 2014 (1 year 11 months) Ottawa

VP, Enterprise Software and Cloud Services
Maplesoft Group

Privately Held; 51-200 employees; Information Technology and Services industry

March 2012 – August 2012 (6 months) Canada

VP, Government Relations
OpenText

Public Company; 5001-10,000 employees; OTEX; Computer Software industry

July 2011 – March 2012 (9 months) Ottawa, Ontario

Manage government relations including :
– trade relations
– trade promotion
– global strategic investment programs (G20, Commonwealth, etc.)
– senior level delegations and engagements
– manage government grant and industry investment programs
– Etc.

Provide company wide government thought leadership and strategic planning

Director, Industry Marketing
Open Text

Public Company; 5001-10,000 employees; OTEX; Computer Software industry

August 2010 – March 2012 (1 year 8 months) Ottawa, Ontario

Responsible for marketing and communication strategies for OpenText’s major industry sectors, enabling field sales and providing thought leadership in key priority sectors.

Director, Eastern Canadian Sales
Open Text

Public Company; 5001-10,000 employees; OTEX; Computer Software industry

January 2010 – August 2010 (8 months) Ottawa, Ontario

Responsible for all product, solutions and services sales for Ottawa, Québec and the Maritimes.

Senior Director, Customer Enablement
Open Text

Public Company; 5001-10,000 employees; OTEX; Computer Software industry

2009 – 2010 (1 year) Ottawa, Ontario

Responsible, throughout the Canadian public sector (including healtcare), for all professional services delivery, establishing a national training program, managing partner relations, pubic speaking engagements, technical support and overall existing customer relations.
Strong focus on strategic communications and planning throughout the Canadian Public Sector.

Director, Information Management
Canadian International Development Agency

Government Agency; 1001-5000 employees; Government Administration industry

2006 – 2009 (3 years) Gatineau, Québec

Responsible for all information and communications aspects within the organisation : enterprise technologies, communication strategies, strategic planning, etc. Including all policy, operational and management aspects of managing organisational information and knowledge

Director, Policy
Canadian International Development Agency

Government Agency; 1001-5000 employees; International Affairs industry

2004 – 2006 (2 years)

Define ICT policy framework for CIDA
coordinate with central agencies and other large multilateral organisations

Senior Program Manager
Canadian International Development Agency

Government Agency; 1001-5000 employees; International Affairs industry

2003 – 2004 (1 year)

Managed all information and communications elements for the Multilateral Programs Branch. Responsible for relations with United Nations, World Bank, etc.; ensuring all systems (technical and human) were properly enabling multilateral development; developed large and complex global engagement and communications strategies pertaining to Canadian multilateralism

Manager, Information, Communications and Knowledge Management
Natural Resources Canada

Government Agency; 1001-5000 employees; Government Administration industry

2001 – 2003 (2 years)

Responsible for the Energy Sector information, communication and knowledge management strategies, thought leadership, events, strategic planning and operational management.

Information Services Officer
Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade

2000 – 2001 (1 year)

Provide global briefing and communications support to various senior Foreign Affairs and International Trade Ministers, Deputy Ministers and Assistant Deputy Ministers

Medical Assistant
Canadian Armed Forces

Government Agency; 10,001+ employees; Military industry

1999 – 2001 (2 years)

Medical Assistant duties included : emergency response, first aid, suturing, orderly duties, basic military training, etc.

Archival Assistant
Library and Archives Canada

Government Agency; 1001-5000 employees; Government Administration industry

1998 – 2000 (2 years)

He certainly brings an interesting and peripatetic work history to the position. Given his previous work record and that he looks to be relatively young (I estimate he’s a few years shy of 40), my most optimistic prediction is that he will last five to six years in this job, assuming he makes it past his first six months.

Alex Benay, president and CEO of the Canada Science and Technology Museums Corporation

Alex Benay, president and CEO of the Canada Science and Technology Museums Corporation

Getting back to his work record, I’m not sure how Mr. Benay manged to be both an archival assistant for Library and Archives Canada and a medical assistant for the Canadian Armed Forces from 1999 – 2000. (Possibly he was working in the Reserves, which, as I understand it, requires weekends and the occasional longterm stint easily contained within one’s work vacation.) There is one other niggling thing, wouldn’t 1998 – 2000 be three years not two?

Interestingly, the company with which Benay has been most closely associated is OpenText whose Chairman, Tom Jenkins, led a  panel to review government funding programmes for research and development (R&D, a term often synonymous with science and technology). The resultant report is known familiarly as the Jenkins Report (Innovation Canada: A Call to Action; Review of Federal Support to R&D;–Expert Panel Report). I’m guessing Mr. Benay brings with him some important connections both corporately and governmentally, which could potentially extend to the University of British Columbia where Arvind Gupta (a member of Jenkins’ expert panel) is due to take up the reins as president when Stephen Toope officially vacates the position June 30, 2014.

I’m not sure how much insight one can derive from this March 6, 2014 article (for Canadian Government Executive) written by Mr. Benay while he was enjoying his second stint as VP Government Relations for Open Text,

With the rise of “smart power,” distinct from “hard” and “soft” power of traditional theories of international relations, the use of online collaboration has become an integral part of government communication.

Public sector employees who adopt partner-based collaboration models will find that they are able to effectively achieve their goals and generate results. Ideas shared through open-platform communication technologies, peer-to-peer networks, and enterprise-grade secure collaboration platforms can help foster greater dialogue and understanding between governments and citizens, ultimately leading to more effective attainment of foreign policy goals.

Increasingly, public-private partnerships are driving this new era of e-diplomacy.

As an example, governments worldwide are achieving tremendous success through their use of Public Service Without Borders (PSWB), the secure, cloud-enabled collaboration and social media environment developed in partnership with the Institute of Public Administration of Canada (IPAC).

Using secure social software solutions, PSWB helps to connect all levels of public service employees to one another to network, engage, share ideas and impart valuable lessons learned in such areas as governance, healthcare, technology and the environment. Whether via desktops or through mobile devices, participants can connect, network, plan and deliver exciting new partnerships and initiatives anytime, from anywhere in the world. This online collaboration platform ultimately fosters better, faster and more efficient services to all constituencies.

Another case in point is the G-20 Summit in Toronto. For the first time in history, policymakers from around the world were able to collaborate over secure social networking software in advance of and during the Toronto G-20 Summit. A confidential and secure social networking application was created to enhance the sharing of government leaders’ stances on important world financial issues. [emphasis mine]

Providing the secure, hosted social networking platform to G-8 and G-20 participants was in itself a collaboration between Open Text, the Canadian Digital Media Network (CDMN) – the organization that attracted high-tech companies to the event – and the then-called Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (DFAIT). [emphasis mine] In addition to secure Web access from anywhere in the world in real time, delegates were also able to access the application from their BlackBerrys, iPhones and iPads. The application supported multiple languages to enhance the ability of delegates to network productively.

The leap from ‘soft power’ in paragraphs one and two  to ‘public-private partnerships’ in paragraph three is a bit startling and suggests Benay’s tendency is towards ‘big picture’ thinking buttressed by a weakness for jumping from one idea to the next without much preparation. This is not a deal breaker as all leaders have weaknesses and a good one knows that sort of thing about him or herself so compensates for it.

Benay’s association with OpenText and, presumably, Jenkins suggests * strongly, when added to his article on public-private partnerships, that the CSTMC museums will be corporatized to a new degree. After all, it was Jenkins who delivered a report with recommendations to tie research funding more directly to business and economic needs. (This report was submitted to then Minister of State for Science and Technology, Gary Goodyear on Oct. 17, 2011 according to this Review of Federal Support to Research and Development  website. For those unfamiliar with the Canadian science and technology scene, this is considered a junior ministry and is part of the Industry Canada portfolio.) Since 2011, a number of these recommendations have been adopted, often accompanied by howls of despair (this May 22, 2013 posting delves into some of the controversies,which attracted attention by US observers).

I am somewhat intrigued by Benay’s experience with content management and digital media. I’m hopeful he will be using that experience to make some changes at the CSTMC such that it offers richer online and outreach experiences in the museums (Canada Agriculture and Food Museum, the Canada Aviation and Space Museum, and the Canada Science and Technology Museum) for those of us who are not resident in Ottawa. Amyot, during her* tenure, made some attempts (my Oct. 28, 2010 posting makes note of one such attempt) but they failed to take root for reasons not known* to me.

Returning to Benay’s old boss for a moment, Tom Jenkins has some connections of his own with regard to digital media and the military (from the OpenText Board of Directors page) ,

Mr. Jenkins was Chair of the Government of Canada’s military procurement review Panel which reported “Canada First: Leveraging Defence Procurement through Key Industrial Sectors (KICs) in February 2013 and reviewed the $490 Billion of federal public spending on defence to determine means by which the Canadian economy could benefit from military procurement.   Mr. Jenkins was Chair of the Government of Canada’s Research and Development Policy Review Panel which reported “Innovation Canada: A Call to Action” in October 2011 and reviewed the $7 Billion of federal public spending on research to assist the Canadian economy in becoming more innovative.   He was also chair of the November 2011 report to the Government of Canada on Innovation and Government Procurement.  He is also the Chair of the federal centre of excellence Canadian Digital Media Network (CDMN) which co-ordinates commercialization activity in the digital economy throughout Canada.  He is a member of the Canadian Government’s Advisory Panel on Open Government.  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 (the Wilson Panel) which reported “Compete to Win” in June 2008, and past appointed member of the Province of Ontario’s Ontario Commercialization Network Review Committee (OCN) which reported in February 2009.  … Mr. Jenkins is also one of the founders of Communitech – the Waterloo Region Technology Association.  Mr. Jenkins served as a commissioned officer in the Canadian Forces Reserve and he currently serves as Honorary Colonel of the Royal Highland Fusiliers of Canada (RHFC), a reserve infantry regiment in the Waterloo Region. [emphases mine]

Meanwhile, Mr. Benay’s appointment takes place within a larger context where the Council of Canadian Academies will be presenting two assessments with direct bearing on the CSTMC. The first, which is scheduled for release in 2014, is The State of Canada’s Science Culture (an assessment requested by the CSTMC which much later was joined by Industry Canada and Natural Resources Canada). The assessment is featured in my Feb. 22, 2013 posting titled: Expert panel to assess the state of Canada’s science culture—not exactly whelming. I will predict now that a main focus of this report will be on children, STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, and the economy (i.e., how do we get more children to study STEM topics?). Following on that thought, what better to way to encourage children than to give them good experiences with informal science education (code for science museums and centres).

The second assessment is called Memory Institutions and the Digital Revolution and was requested by Library and Archives Canada (museums too perform archival functions). in the context of a Jan. 30,2014 posting about digitizing materials in Fisheries and Oceans Canada libraries I excerpted this from an earlier posting,

Library and Archives Canada has asked the Council of Canadian Academies to assess how memory institutions, which include archives, libraries, museums, and other cultural institutions, can embrace the opportunities and challenges of the changing ways in which Canadians are communicating and working in the digital age.

Background

Over the past three decades, Canadians have seen a dramatic transformation in both personal and professional forms of communication due to new technologies. Where the early personal computer and word-processing systems were largely used and understood as extensions of the typewriter, advances in technology since the 1980s have enabled people to adopt different approaches to communicating and documenting their lives, culture, and work. Increased computing power, inexpensive electronic storage, and the widespread adoption of broadband computer networks have thrust methods of communication far ahead of our ability to grasp the implications of these advances.

These trends present both significant challenges and opportunities for traditional memory institutions as they work towards ensuring that valuable information is safeguarded and maintained for the long term and for the benefit of future generations. It requires that they keep track of new types of records that may be of future cultural significance, and of any changes in how decisions are being documented. As part of this assessment, the Council’s expert panel will examine the evidence as it relates to emerging trends, international best practices in archiving, and strengths and weaknesses in how Canada’s memory institutions are responding to these opportunities and challenges. Once complete, this assessment will provide an in-depth and balanced report that will support Library and Archives Canada and other memory institutions as they consider how best to manage and preserve the mass quantity of communications records generated as a result of new and emerging technologies.

The Council’s assessment is running concurrently with the Royal Society of Canada’s [RSC] expert panel assessment on Libraries and Archives in 21st century Canada. Though similar in subject matter, these assessments have a different focus and follow a different process. The Council’s assessment is concerned foremost with opportunities and challenges for memory institutions as they adapt to a rapidly changing digital environment. In navigating these issues, the Council will draw on a highly qualified and multidisciplinary expert panel to undertake a rigorous assessment of the evidence and of significant international trends in policy and technology now underway. The final report will provide Canadians, policy-makers, and decision-makers with the evidence and information needed to consider policy directions. In contrast, the RSC panel focuses on the status and future of libraries and archives, and will draw upon a public engagement process.

While this could be considered a curse, these are interesting times.

* ‘a’ removed from ‘a strongly’ and ‘strongly’ moved to closer proximity with ‘suggests’, ‘her’ added to ‘her tenure’ and ‘know’ corrected to ‘known’ on June 19, 2014 at 1200 hours PDT.

Sustainable Development Technology Canada, Vive Crop, two projects, and $14.7M in funding

The Canadian government used to create Crown Corporations, a kind of quasi-government agency/ business corporation that was run as a not-for-profit operation. Sustainable Development Technology Canada (SDTC) bears some of the marks of a crown corporation (completely government-funded) but it’s self-described as a not-for-profit foundation. Before getting to the main event (Vive Crop) here’s a little bit from the SDTC Profile page,

Sustainable Development Technology Canada (SDTC) is a not-for-profit foundation that finances and supports the development and demonstration of clean technologies which provide solutions to issues of climate change, clean air, water quality and soil, and which deliver economic, environmental and health benefits to Canadians.

SDTC operates two funds aimed at the development and demonstration of innovative technological solutions. The SD Tech Fund™ supports projects that address climate change, air quality, clean water, and clean soil. The NextGen Biofuels Fund™ supports the establishment of first-of-kind large demonstration-scale facilities for the production of next-generation renewable fuels.

SDTC is clearly focused on the economy and entrepreneurship in addition to sustainability as per their Sept. 9, 2013 news release about  a recent $14.7M investment,

The Government of Canada is showing its commitment to a green Canadian economy with an in investment of $14.7 million to help four new clean technology projects from across the country reach commercialization. The announcement was made today by the Honourable Joe Oliver, Minister of Natural Resources, and Dr. Vicky Sharpe, President and CEO of Sustainable Development Technology Canada (SDTC).

“Canada must nurture highly skilled individuals and new ideas that will help our businesses innovate, secure new markets and create well-paying jobs,” said Minister Oliver. “By supporting advanced research and technology, our government is investing in Canadian prosperity and a cleaner environment.”

“The projects announced today are great examples of the Canadian innovation and entrepreneurship that characterizes SDTC’s portfolio, valued at more than $2 billion and brimming with innovative technological solutions,” said Vicky Sharpe, President and CEO of SDTC. “Canadian cleantech leaders are continuing to create economic opportunities and open up avenues to new export markets.”


The newly-funded projects are representative of the investment priorities established in the SD Business Cases™, a series of six reports published by SDTC that provide strategic insights into specific economic sectors (available in the Knowledge Centre section of the SDTC website at http://www.sdtc.ca/).

SDTC’s SD Tech Fund™ has committed $598 million to 246 clean technology projects. These figures include adjustments made to the portfolio.

Vive Crop, headquartered in Toronto, Ontario,  is a recipient for two of the four projects being funded. Here’s more about one of the projects from the Sept. 18, 2013 Vive Crop news release,

Vive Crop Protection is pleased to announce that it received an investment of $3.7 million from the Government of Canada through Sustainable Development Technology Canada (SDTC) to develop an improved pesticide application distribution method that will translate into greater efficiency and reduced wastage.

Vive’s Allosperse® particle will be used to hold pesticides and deliver them precisely where they need to go.

“Canada must nurture highly skilled individuals and new ideas that will help our businesses innovate, secure new markets and create well-paying jobs,” said Minister Oliver. “By supporting advanced research and technology, our government is investing in Canadian prosperity and a cleaner environment.”

“Canadian farmers want a more economical and effective way to protect their crops from pests,” said Keith Thomas, CEO, Vive Crop Protection. “Thanks to support from the Government of Canada through Sustainable Development Technology Canada, Vive Crop Protection will further develop the Allosperse platform, precisely targeting pesticides where they act on crops.”

The best crop protection happens when pesticides stay where they are intended to protect the crop, for example on a crop’s leaves or at its roots. Vive has developed Allosperse®, a tiny particle that has unique properties: it has a hydrophilic (water-loving) exterior and an oleophillic (oil-loving) interior. Pesticides, which are also oleophillic, are loaded into the particle before application to crops. The next generation of Allosperse particles will have increased stickiness to leaves, avoiding run-off during the rain, and will penetrate leaves and seeds to offer systemic plant protection. Finally, the specially-designed particles will control the movement of the particle through the soil, allowing it to target pests at the plant’s roots. Less product, and therefore less cost, would be required to achieve equivalent results, and growers can get better protection with less accidental surface water run-off and soil contamination.

I have written about Vive Crop previously (most recently in an Aug. 7, 2013 posting when they received approval from the US Environmental Protection Agency for an insecticide) and my curiosity about Allosperse particles has not yet been satisfied. What are the chemical constituents? In lieu of an answer to that question (it’s nowhere on the company website), I found more information about Vive Crop and its SDTC-funded projects in this latest round of funding. As I noted previously, Vive Crop is involved in two of the funded projects as per the Sept. 9, 2013 SDTC backgrounder,

2. Lead organization: Macrotek

Project Title: Novel MVI Acid Gas Scrubbing Technology Project

Environmental Benefits: Climate Change/Clean Air/Clean Water/Clean Soil

Economic Sector: Waste management

SDTC Investment: $2 million

Consortium Members:

Macrotek

Vive Crop Protection [emphasis mine]

Plasco Energy Group

Project Description:

To avoid injecting contaminants into the atmosphere, industries use chemical reactions to “scrub” exhaust before it is emitted from smokestacks. However, current scrubbing techniques use caustic and oxidizing reagents (materials used to produce a chemical reaction). Macrotek has developed a groundbreaking suite of technologies that scrub in a novel, cost-effective and efficient way. The technology is developed initially to eliminate hydrogen sulfide (H2S), which is a major component of acid rain, from industrial gas streams. The technology uses a regenerative reagent, drastically reducing reagent consumption. It also converts H2S into its elemental form of sulphur, eliminating the current need to treat sulphate byproduct in wastewater streams. When full life-cycle costs are considered, this technology could cost less than 50 percent of the operating costs of traditional scrubber technologies, while maintaining or improving contaminant removal efficiency. This technology has the potential to address a multitude of other pollutants, such as nitrogen oxides, simultaneously.

3. Lead organization: Vive Crop Protection

Project Title: Targeted Delivery for Crop Protection

Environmental Benefits: Clean water/clean soil

Economic Sector: Agriculture

SDTC Investment: $3.7 million

Consortium Members:

Vive Crop Protection

Dow AgroSciences LLC

Loveland Products Inc. (a division of crop production services)

Makhteshim Agan of North America Inc.

Halltech Inc.

University of Alberta – Office of Environmental NanoSafety

University of Toronto – Institute for Optical Sciences

McGill University

Project Description:

The best crop protection happens when pesticides stay where they are intended to protect the crop, for example on a crop’s leaves or at its roots. Vive has developed Allosperse®, a tiny particle that has unique properties: it has a hydrophilic (water-loving) exterior and an oleophilic (oil-loving) interior. Pesticides, which are also oleophilic, are loaded into the particle before application to crops. The next generation of Allosperse particles will have increased stickiness to leaves, avoiding run-off during the rain, and will penetrate leaves and seeds to offer systemic plant protection. Finally, the specially designed particles will control the movement of the particle through the soil, allowing it to target pests at the plant’s roots. Less product, and therefore less cost, would be required to achieve equivalent results, and growers can get better protection with less accidental surface water run-off and soil contamination.

Congratulations to Vive Crop and all of the other funding recipients!

Council of Canadian Academies tries to answer question: What is the state of Canada’s science culture?

The Council of Canadian Academies is an organization designed to answer questions about science in Canada. From the Council’s About Us webpage on their website,

The Council is an independent, not-for-profit corporation that supports science-based, expert assessments (studies) to inform public policy development in Canada. The Council began operation in 2005 and consists of a Board of Governers, a Scientific Advisory Committee and Secretariat. The Council draws upon the intellectual capital that lies within its three Member Academies the Royal Society of Canada (RSC); the Canadian Academy of Engineering;  and the Canadian Academy of Health Sciences.

Our mission is to contribute to the shaping of evidence-based public policy that is in the public interest. This is achieved by appointing independent, multidisciplinary panels of expert volunteers. The Council’s work encompasses a broad definition of science, incorporating the natural, social and health sciences as well as engineering and the humanities.

Expert Panels directly address the question and sub-questions referred to them. Panel assessments may also identify: emerging issues, gaps in knowledge, Canadian strengths, and international trends and practices. Upon completion, assessments provide government decision-makers, academia and stakeholders with high-quality information required to develop informed and innovative public policy.

Several months ago, Gary Goodyear, Canada’s Minister of State (Science and Technology), requested on behalf of the Canada Science and Technology Museums Corporation (CSTMC), Natural Resources Canada, and Industry Canada an assessment of science culture in Canada. From the State of Canada’s Science Culture webpage on the Council of Canadian Academies website,

Over the past 30 years, public interest and debate has been steadily growing in Canada and abroad over the need to foster a science culture as part of the national science and technology agenda. In this period, significant government and private investments have contributed to the development of hundreds of individual science culture programs and institutions.

Now more than ever the volume of programs and data support the need for a national examination of issues, such as the performance indicators that best reflect the vitality of Canada’s science culture, and a need to understand where Canada ranks internationally. The expert panel will be asked to consider these and other questions such as what factors influence an interest in science among youth; what are the key components of the informal system that supports science culture; and what strengths and weaknesses exist in the Canadian system.

Assessments of science culture can focus either on science in the general culture, or the culture among scientists. This assessment will focus principally on the former, with additional interest in understanding the underlying connections among entrepreneurship, innovation and science. …

The full assessment process includes a rigorous peer review exercise to ensure the report is objective, balanced and evidence-based. Following the review and approval by the Council’s Board of Governors, the complete report will be made available on the Council’s website in both official languages. …

Question

What is the state of Canada’s science culture?

Sub-questions:

  1. What is the state of knowledge regarding the impacts of having a strong science culture?
  2. What are the indicators of a strong science culture? How does Canada compare with other countries against these indicators? What is the relationship between output measures and major outcome measures?
  3. What factors (e.g., cultural, economic, age, gender) influence interest in science, particularly among youth?
  4. What are the critical components of the informal system that supports science culture (roles of players, activities, tools and programs run by science museums, science centres, academic and not-for-profit organizations and the private sector)? What strengths and weaknesses exist in Canada’s system?
  5. What are the effective practices that support science culture in Canada and in key competitor countries?

Hopefully, the expert panel will have a definition of some kind for “science culture.”

After waiting what seems to be an unusually long period, the Council announced the chair for the  “science culture” expert panel (from the CCA Dec. 19, 2012 news release),

Arthur Carty to Serve as Expert Panel Chair on the State of Canada’s Science Culture

The Council is pleased to announce the appointment of Dr. Arthur Carty, O.C., as Chair of the Expert Panel on the State of Canada’s Science Culture. In 2011, the Minister of State (Science and Technology) on behalf of the Canada Science and Technology Museums Corporation (CSTMC), Natural Resources Canada, and Industry Canada requested the Council conduct an in-depth, evidence-based assessment on the state of Canada’s science culture.

As Chair of the Council’s Expert Panel, Dr. Carty will work with a multidisciplinary group of experts, to be appointed by the Council, to address the following question: What is the state of Canada’s science culture?

Dr. Carty is currently the Executive Director of the Waterloo Institute for Nanotechnology at the University of Waterloo. Dr. Carty also serves as Special Advisor to the President on international science and technology collaboration, and as Research Professor in the Department of Chemistry. Prior to this, Dr. Carty served as Canada’s first National Science Advisor to the Prime Minister and to the Government of Canada from 2004-2007 and as President of the National Research Council Canada from 1994-2004.

You can find out more on Carty’s biography webpage, on the CCA website,

Arthur Carty is the Executive Director of the Waterloo Institute for Nanotechnology at the University of Waterloo, Special Advisor to the President on international science and technology collaboration, and Research Professor in the Department of Chemistry

From 2004-2008, Dr. Carty served as Canada’s first National Science Advisor to the Prime Minister and to the Government of Canada. Prior to this appointment, he was President of the National Research Council Canada for 10 years. Before this, he spent 2 years at Memorial University and then 27 years at the University of Waterloo, where he was successively Professor of Chemistry, Director of the Guelph-Waterloo Centre for Graduate Work in Chemistry and Biochemistry, Chair of the Department of Chemistry, and Dean of Research.

….

Carty’s profile page on the Waterloo Institute of Nanotechnology (WIN) website offers the same information but in more detail.

It’s difficult to divine much from the biographical information about Carty as it is very purpose-oriented to impress the reader with Carty’s international and national involvements in the field of science advice and collaboration. Carty may have extensive experience with multi-disciplinary teams and an avid interest in a science culture that includes informal science education and the arts and humanities, unfortunately, it’s not visible on either the CCA or WIN website biographies.

Hopefully,  Carty and the CCA will assemble a diverse expert panel. (Warning: blatant self-promotion ahead) If they are looking for a person of diverse personal and professional interests

  • who has an MA in Creative Writing (nonfiction and fiction) and New Media from De Montfort University in Leicester, UK and
  • a BA (Communication – Honors) from Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, Canada and
  • who has built up one of the largest and longest-running independent science blogs in the country thereby contributing to science culture in Canada,
  • neatly combining the social sciences, the humanities, and an informed perspective on science and science culture in Canada in one person,

they may want to contact me at nano@frogheart.ca. I have more details in the CV and can supply references.

Nanocrystalline cellulose (NCC): killer app for Canadian forestry industry?

Bertrand Marotte, a writer from one of Canada’s better known newspapers, The Globe and Mail, contacted me a few weeks ago regarding his proposed story on Canada’s nanocrystalline cellulose (NCC) efforts. May 6, 2012, he posted his article, Domtar leading the way to market eco-friendly NCC. I was a little curious about what he’d done with the information I’d given him and happy to see this article.

Compared to the amount of hype and excitement I’ve seen and sometimes contributed to myself, Marotte offers a more restrained perspective. From the May 6, 2012 article,

Industry leaders say the forestry sector – hammered over the past 10 years by declining demand for newsprint and paper in the digital revolution, competition from low-cost producers in developing countries and a surfeit of inefficient old mills – has to re-invent itself by creating new revenue streams if it is to survive.

Innovations being pursued by forestry companies come none too soon, but the risks are huge and a payoff is far from guaranteed.

Tom Rosser, assistant deputy minister at Natural Resources Canada’s Canadian Forest Service, agrees the risk factor is high.

“These are very risky technologies that make it hard to attract private capital,” he said.

Tim Harper, the CEO of London-based Cientifica, a consultant on advanced technologies, describes the market for NCC as “very much a push, without signs of any pull.”

Mention of an AbitiBowater lignin project in Marotte’s article helped to underline the forestry industry’s urgency.

Interestingly, there’s no mention of the NCC project plant in Alberta (mentioned in my July 5, 2011 posting) or Canada’s worldwide NCC production lead.

Canadians are taking a huge risk and, so far, we’re taking the lead on the production side of things but, in a quintessentially Canadian fashion, the article casts doubt on the whole enterprise and ends on that note.

We tout innovation but at the same are deeply disconcerted by and hesitant about the risktaking required to be truly innovative. (I have to note that I too write pieces that can be quite restrained and critical of these types of endeavours.) Really, it’s as much a question of culture as anything else. How do we support innovation and risktaking while maintaining some of our quintessential character?

FPInnovations and a $25M investment from Natural Resources Canada

The federal government’s Minister of Natural Resources, Joe Oliver, made a big announcement in Vancouver on July 14, 2011 (from the FPInnovations news release),

Canada’s  forestry  innovation  hub,  FPInnovations,  today  welcomed  Federal  Natural  Resources  Minister  Joe  Oliver’s  announcement  of  $25.5‐million  towards  the  2011‐2012  Transformative  Technologies  Research  Program  (TTP).  This  program  focuses  on  the  development,  adaptation,  and  deployment  of  emerging  and  breakthrough  technologies  relating  to  forest  biomass  utilization,  forest  biotechnology,  nanotechnology,  green  chemistry,  bio‐materials,  innovative  wood‐based  building  systems  as  well  as  information  and  communications  technologies.

“Today’s  announcement  extends  a  unique  industry/government  partnership  that  is  transforming  the  forest  sector  through  innovation.  This  announcement  will  help  build  and  strengthen  an  innovative  and  diversified  forest  products  sector  in  Canada.   That  is  good  news  for  job  growth  and  new  economic  opportunities  for  hard  hit  forestry  communities,”  stated  Alan  Potter,  Vice‐President  of  FPInnovations.

I have posted about FPInnovations and their nanocrystalline cellulose (NCC) research previously. I was hoping that there might be some information about whether these funds will be applied to NCC research but no details were given.

Canadian federal scientists (or their union) have launched a media campaign and website

These are interesting times. A union representing scientists employed by the Canadian federal government has launched a campaign and website promoting science. From the CBC October 18, 2010 news item,

A union representing federal scientists has launched a campaign targeting what it calls the government’s “worrying trend away from evidence-based policy-making.”

“If the science isn’t supported … then you’re going to find that decisions are going to be made more at the political level,” Gary Corbett, president of the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada, said Monday as the union launched a website called publicscience.ca.

The site aims to highlight science done for the public good — much of it taxpayer-funded and carried out by government scientists — and to “mobilize” scientists and the public to pressure politicians to support it. It features interviews with federal scientists about their work, along with interviews with science policy experts.

The other goal of the campaign is to create a more positive public image of federal scientists by highlighting their work, Corbett said.

He said what the public hears about civil servants these days is mainly criticism of their pensions and salaries.

The union represents 59,000 federal and provincial public servants, including 23,000 involved in scientific research, testing advice and other “knowledge products.”

As of 3 p.m. ET, Natural Resources Canada said it was preparing a response to the union’s news release.

I find this quite interesting not just for the science aspect but for what it says about how the union is positioning itself, i.e., as a voice speaking out for its members’ contributions to society rather than a voice stridently demanding more money and benefits.

As for the response promised from Natural Resources Canada on this union initiative, I’m waiting with some anticipation, given the recent kerfuffle over seeming attempts to muzzle scientists in that ministry as per my Sept. 16, 2010 posting).

The timing for this union initiative seems quite auspicious, or well-timed, given that this is Canada’s National Science and Technology Week (Oct. 15-24, 2010) and the Canadian Science Policy Conference is on from Oct. 20-22, 2010 in Montréal, Québec.

The union’s website is here at http://www.publicscience.ca. I notice that Adam Holbrook (a.k.a. J. Adam Holbrook) is featured on the front page. He’s a Professor and Associate Director of the Centre for Policy Research on Science and Technology, Simon Fraser University (British Columbia), a member of the Advisory Committee for the Canadian Science Policy Conference coming up in Montréal, and a speaker at 2010’s public service science policy conference this spring (both conferences are mentioned in my April 22, 2010 posting).