Tag Archives: Natural Science and Engineering Research Council

Science, women and gender in Canada (part 1 of 2)

Titled Strengthening Canada’s Research Capacity: The Gender Dimension; The Expert Panel on Women in University Research, the Council of Canadian Academies (CCA) released their assessment on Nov. 21, 2012, approximately 20 months after the incident which tangentially occasioned it (from the Strengthening … webpage) Note: I have added a reference and link to a report on CERC (Canada Excellence Research Chairs) gender issues in the following excerpt,

After the notable absence of female candidates in the Canada Excellence Research Chairs (CERC) program, the Minister of Industry, in March 2010, struck an ad-hoc panel to examine the program’s selection process. The ad-hoc panel found that the lack of female representation was not due to active choices made during the CERC selection process. [Dowdeswell, E., Fortier, S., & Samarasekera, I. (2010). Report to the Minister of Industry of the Ad Hoc Panel on CERC Gender Issues. Ottawa (ON):Industry Canada.] As a result, the Council of Canadian Academies received a request to undertake an assessment of the factors that influence university research careers of women, both in Canada and internationally.

To conduct the assessment, the Council convened an expert panel of 15 Canadian and international experts from diverse fields, which was chaired by Dr. Lorna Marsden, President emeritus and Professor, York University.

For anyone unfamiliar with the CERC programme,

The Canada Excellence Research Chairs (CERC) Program awards world-class researchers up to $10 million over seven years to establish ambitious research programs at Canadian universities.

My commentary is primarily focused on the assessment and not the preceding report from the ad hoc panel, as well, I am not commenting on every single aspect of the report. I focus on those elements of the report that caught my attention.

There is much to appreciate in this assessment/report unfortunately the cover image cannot be included. By choosing a photograph, the designer immediately entered shark-infested waters, metaphorically speaking. From a semiotic perspective, photographs are a rich and much studied means of criticism. Having a photograph of an attractive, middle-aged white woman with blonde hair (a MILF, depending on your tastes)  who’s surrounded by ‘adoring’ students (standing in for her children?) on the cover of this assessment suggests an obliviousness to nuance that is somewhat unexpected. Happily, the image is not reflective of the content.

The report lays out the basis for this assessment,

There are many reasons for concern at the lack of proportional representation of women in senior positions in all facets of our society, including politics, law, medicine, the arts, business, and academia. The underrepresentation of women in any of these areas is a concern considering the fundamental Canadian values of equality, fairness, and justice, as outlined in the Canadian Human Rights Act, the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and the Employment Equity Act. This report focuses on women in academia: the 11,064 women with PhDs who are employed full-time in degree-granting institutions. In comparison, there are 22,875 men in this category (see Table 3.1).1 Besides educating millions of students, these researchers and innovators are working to address the major issues Canada faces in the 21st century, including climate change, demographic shifts, healthcare, social inequality, sustainable natural resources management, cultural survival, as well as the role Canada plays as an international actor. These contributions are in addition to the basic, or knowledge discovery, research that is one of the main duties of academic researchers. In the knowledge economy, a talent pool of Canada’s top thinkers, researchers and innovators is needed to help secure and build Canada’s economic edge. The wider the pool is from which to draw, the more perspectives, experiences, and ideas will be brought to the creative process. [emphasis mine] Arguments for fully including women in research careers range from addressing skills shortages and increasing innovation potential by accessing wider talent pools, to greater market development, stronger financial performance, better returns on human resource investments, and developing a better point from which to compete in the intensifying global talent race. (p. 15 PDF; p. xiii print)

I appreciate the reference to fundamental values in Canadian society as it is important but I suspect the portion I’ve highlighted contains the seeds of an argument that is far more persuasive for power brokers. It was a very smart move.

It is possible to skim this report by simply reading the executive summary and reading the Key Messages page included after each chapter heading, save the final chapter. They’ve done a good job of making this report easy to read if you don’t have too much time but prefer to view the complete assessment rather than an abridged version.

The Chapter 1 Key Messages are,

Chapter Key Messages

• While many reports have focused specifically on women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics careers, this assessment employs comparative analyses to examine the career trajectories of women researchers across a variety of disciplines. The Panel was able to respond to the charge using a combination of research methods, but their analyses were sometimes hindered by a paucity of key data sets.

• In an attempt not to simply repeat numerous studies of the past on women in research careers, the Panel used a life course model to examine the data from a new perspective. This conceptual framework enabled the Panel to consider the multidimensional nature of human lives as well as the effects of external influences on the career trajectories of women researchers.

• Women are now present in all areas of research, including those areas from which they have previously been absent. Over time, institutions have become more inclusive, and Canadian governments have created policies and legislation to encourage more gender equity. Collective bargaining has contributed to this process. Clearly, the advancement of women in research positions relies on the contributions of individuals, institutions and government.

• Since the 1970s, there has been major progress such that women have been obtaining PhDs and entering the academy as students and faculty at increasing rates. However, women remain underrepresented at the highest levels of academia, as demonstrated by their low numbers in the Canada Research Chairs (CRC) program, and their absence from the Canada Excellence Research Chairs (CERC) program. There is considerable room for improvement in women’s representation as faculty.

• Higher education research and development funding has nearly doubled in the past decade. However, the amount of funding allocated to core grants and scholarship programs varies among the tri-council agencies [SSHRC, Social Science and Humantities Research Council; NSERC, Natural Science and Engineering Research Council; and CIHR, Canadian Institutes of Health Research], with the majority of funds available to researchers sponsored by NSERC and CIHR. This pattern is generally replicated in the Canada Research Chairs and the Canada Excellence Research Chairs programs. As noted in the 2003 Human Rights Complaint regarding the Canada Research Chairs program, women are least represented in the areas of research that are the best funded.  (p. 33 PDF; p. 3 print) [emphasis mine]

This panel in response to the issue of women being least represented in the best funded areas of research elected to do this,

The Panel noted that many reports have focused on women in science, technology, and engineering research careers (due in part to the fact that women have been significantly underrepresented in these fields) yet relatively little attention has been paid to women researchers in the humanities, social sciences, and education. This is despite the fact that 58.6 per cent of doctoral students in these disciplines are women (see Chapter 3), and that their research contributions have profoundly affected the study of poverty, violence, the welfare state, popular culture, and literature, to note only a few examples. Considering this, the Panel’s assessment incorporates a comparative, interdisciplinary analysis, with a focus on the broader category of women in university research. In order to identify the areas where women are the most and least represented, Panellists compiled data and research that describe where Canadian female researchers are — and are not — in terms of both discipline and rank. Where possible, this study also analyzes the situation of women researchers outside of academia so as to paint a clearer picture of female researchers’ career trajectories. (pp. 37/8 PDF; pp. 7/8 print) [emphases mine]

Bringing together all kinds of research where women are both over and under represented and including research undertaken outside the academic environment was thoughtful. I also particularly liked this passage,

American research suggests that holding organizational leaders accountable for implementing equity practices is a particularly effective way of enhancing the diversity of employees (Kalev et al., 2006), indicating that reporting and monitoring mechanisms are key to success. [emphasis mine] The Panel observed that meeting these commitments requires the proper implementation of accountability mechanisms, such as reporting and monitoring schemes. (p. 44 PDF; p. 14 print)

Juxtaposing the comment about leaders being held accountable for equity practices and the  comment I emphasized earlier ” … a talent pool of Canada’s top thinkers, researchers and innovators is needed to help secure and build Canada’s economic edge …” could suggest an emergent theme about leadership and the current discourse about innovation.

To get a sense of which disciplines and what research areas are rewarded within the Canada Research Chair programme read this from the assessment,

Similarly, while 80 per cent of Canada Research Chairs are distributed among researchers in NSERC and CIHR disciplines, SSHRC Chairs represent only 20 per cent of the total — despite the fact that the majority (60 per cent) of the Canadian professoriate come from SSHRC disciplines (Grant & Drakich, 2010). Box 1.1 describes the gendered implications of this distribution, as well as the history of the program. (p. 45 PDF; p. 15 print)

What I find intriguing here isn’t just the disparity. 60% of the researchers are chasing after 20% of the funds (yes, physical sciences are more expensive but those percentages still seem out of line), but that social sciences and the humanities are not really included in the innovation rubric except here in this assessment. Still, despite the inclusion of the visual and performing arts in the State of Science and Technology in Canada, 2012 report issued by the CCA in Sept. 2013 (part 1 of my commentary on that assessment is in this Dec. 28, 2012 posting; part 2 of my commentary is in this Dec. 28, 2012 posting) there is no mention of them in this assessment/report of gender and science.

I did particularly like how the panel approached data collection and analysis,

Coming from a variety of disciplinary backgrounds, Panellists brought with them a range of methodological expertise and preferences. Through a combination of quantitative and qualitative data, the Panel was able to identify and analyze factors that affect the career trajectories of women researchers in Canada (see Appendix 1 for full details). In addition to an extensive literature review of the national and international research and evidence related to the topic, the Panel collected information in the form of data sets and statistics, heard from expert witnesses, conducted interviews with certain stakeholders from academia and industry, and analyzed interview and survey results from their secondary analysis of Canada Research Chairs data (see Appendix 5 for a full description of methodology and results). Together, these methods contributed to the balanced approach that the Panel used to understand the status of women in Canadian university research careers.

In addition, the Panel took an innovative approach to painting a more vibrant picture of the experience of women professors by incorporating examples from academic “life-writing.” Life-writing is the generic name given to a variety of forms of personal narrative — autobiography, biography, personal essays, letters, diaries, and memoirs. Publishing personal testimony is a vital strategy for marginalized groups to claim their voices and tell their own stories, and academic women’s life-writing adds vital evidence to a study of women in university careers (Robbins et al., 2011). The first study of academic life-writing appeared in the U.S. in 2008 (Goodall, 2008); as yet, none exists for Canada.16 Recognizing the benefits of this approach, which focuses on the importance of women’s voices and stories, the Panel chose to weave personal narrative from women academics throughout the body of the report to illuminate the subject matter. As with the data gleaned from the Panel’s secondary analysis of Canada Research Chairs data, these cases highlight the experience of an articulate and determined minority of women who are prepared and positioned to speak out about structural and personal inequities. More comprehensive surveys are required to establish the precise extent of the problems they so effectively illustrate. (pp. 49/50 PDF; pp. 19/20 print)

Nice to note that they include a very broad range of information as evidence. After all, evidence can take many forms and not all evidence can be contained in a table of data nor is all data necessarily evidence. That said there were some other issues with data and evidence,

Despite the extensive literature on the subject, the Panel identified some data limitations. While these limitations made some analyses difficult, the Panel was able to effectively respond to the charge by using the combination of research methods described above. Data limitations identified by the Panel include:

• relatively little research specific to the Canadian context;

• lack of longitudinal data;

• relatively few studies (both quantitative and qualitative) dealing with fields such as the humanities and social sciences;

• lack of data on diversity in Canadian academia, including intersectional data;

• lack of comprehensive data and evidence from the private and government sectors; and

• difficulty in comparing some international data due to differences in disciplinary classifications. (p. 50 PDF; p. 20 print)

I think this does it for part 1 of my commentary.

Encouraging STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) careers while opportunities decline in Canada

The problem never seems to get solved. One end of the organization or institution makes a decision without considering the impact on those affected. Take for example the current drive to encourage more students to undertake STEM (science, technology, engineering, and/or mathematics) careers when there are few job opportunities (except for engineers).

The University of British Columbia has just announced a science outreach toolkit, from the Aug. 30, 2012 news release on EurekAlert,

Outreach programs that offer a taste of real-world science and pair secondary students with enthusiastic young researchers are key to promoting careers in science and technology, according to University of British Columbia researchers.

In a paper published this week in PLoS Computational Biology, UBC researchers document their work on the Genomics Field Trip Program hosted at the Michael Smith Laboratories (MSL). Joanne Fox, Jennifer McQueen and Jody Wright outline the benefits of research-based field trips, offering a blueprint for designing science outreach programs.

The Genomics Field Trip program encourages exploration of the sciences through a full day genomics experience which takes place at the MSL laboratories. Program instructors are typically UBC graduate students who benefit from the experience by developing their ability to communicate scientific ideas to the general public. They also develop skills in lesson design and delivery, allowing them to enhance their instructional skills, something that does not always occur in teaching assistantship positions.

Fox hopes the success of the Genomics Field Trip Program will inspire other institutions to develop similar programs. The recommendations included in her paper can be used as a blueprint for science programs and an online genomics toolkit provides valuable information for lesson plans.

“This type of program helps graduate students remember why science is so exciting, and in turn inspires the next generation of scientists,” Fox explains.

The toolkit available here is designed for grade nine classes and it looks to be quite engaging. However, it is a disconcerting effort in light of the current situation for many STEM graduates. Nassif Ghoussoub (a mathematician at the University of British Columbia) in an Aug. 20, 2012 posting on his Piece of Mind blog writes about the diminishing opportunities for postgraduate science work (Note: I have removed links),

Canada’s “Natural Science and Engineering Research Council” has grown uncomfortable with the rapidly dwindling success rate in its postdoctoral fellowship programme, the latest having clocked in at 7.8%. So, it has decided to artificially inflate these rates by limiting the number of times young Canadian scholars can apply for such awards to … once. Never mind that the pathetic $40,000 salary (see comments below for corrections) for a highly trained Canadian post-doc hasn’t changed in more than 25 years, young Canadian scientists will now be fighting tooth and nail for the privilege of living on the fringe of the poverty line while trying to jumpstart their research careers. Welcome to Canada’s new lottery system for deciding the future of the nation’s capacity for advanced study and research.

I guess something needed to be done to cover up the fact that NSERC is now awarding 66% fewer fellowships than it did 5 years ago. Last year, we wondered whether the following numbers reflected a policy shift at NSERC or just collateral damage.

  • (2008) 250 awards/ 1169 applicants
  • (2009) 254 awards/ 1220 applicants
  • (2010) 286 awards/ 1341 applicants
  • (2011) 133 awards/ 1431 applicants
  • (2012) 98 awards/ 1254 applicants

These 98 fellowships are to be shared by 20 scientific disciplines and to be split among the 59 PhD-granting Canadian universities.

This theme is also addressed in an Aug. 24, 2012 posting by Jonathan Thon on the Black Hole blog which is now being hosted by the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada (AUCC), Note: I have removed a link,

It should come as no surprise that by increasing the supply of graduate students (and in turn post-doctoral fellows), we have arranged to produce more knowledge workers than we can employ, creating a labor-excess economy that keeps labor costs down and productivity high (How much is a scientist worth?) – but is this what we want? While advantageous in the short-term, there is little room for additional gains and a more efficient and productive system will need to be created if we wish to actualize research-based economic growth.

As for opportunities in the industrial sector, Canada has a longstanding reputation for exceptionally low rates of industrial R&D (research and development).

I’ve yet to see the programme for the 2012 Canadian Science Policy Conference taking place in Calagary (Alberta) from Nov. 5 – 7, 2012 but I’m hoping this will be on the agenda.

2011 Scientific integrity processes: the US and Canada

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Foundations

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

Public communication

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The draft Framework introduces new elements, including the following:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Who is being consulted?

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

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

5 Breaches of Agency Policies by Institutions

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

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

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

Broader Impacts Criterion and informal science education in the US

Broader Impacts Criterion (BIC), a requirement for US National Science Foundation (NSF) grants covers the areas of science education, science outreach, and the promotion of benefits to society. As you might expect there is support and criticism from scientists and the scientific community about having to include BIC in grant proposals, from the American Physical Society News, June 2007 (volume 16, no. 6),

Bob Eisenstein, Chair of APS’s Panel on Public Affairs, was at NSF when the criterion was first put in place in the mid-1990s. He said that the criterion is meant to serve two purposes: first, it forces scientists to think more carefully about the ways in which their work impacts society, and second, it helps provide the public with more information about what scientists are doing.

Fred Cooper, a current NSF program director for theoretical physics, said his personal opinion is that this is a good thing for NSF to do. “I’m very happy to encourage people to think about these things,” he said. He says it is in scientists’ self-interest to do so.

However, some scientists object to research funding being coupled to education or outreach efforts. Mildred Dresselhaus of MIT says she has heard from many scientists who are unhappy with the broader impacts requirements, and who feel they should be funded based on the quality of their research, not for outreach. …

I gather the criticism was serious enough to warrant a review, excerpted from the July 25, 2011 NISE (Nanoscale Informal Science Education) Net blog posting by Carol Lynn Alpert (BIC requirements have an indirect impact on science museums which benefit from subawards and partnerships with researchers and research institutions seeking to fulfill their BIC obligations),

After reviewing comments from 5,100 stakeholders, the NSB [the National Science Board is the NSF’s governing body] has decided to retain both criteria, but to revise them in order to clarify their intent and “connection to NSF’s core principles” (NSF-11-42, available at http://www.nsf.gov/nsb/publications/2011/06_mrtf.jsp).

As stated by the NSB, these core principles and national goals are led by concerns for global economic and workforce competitiveness, and for the first time allow that “broader impacts” may be achieved “through the research itself.”  This phrase has some worrying that a “BIC loophole” has been created, for it allows that the research itself may be “enough” to enhance U.S economic and workforce competitiveness, without the research team needing to specifically incorporate synergistic activities addressing concomitant K-12 education, diversity, or public engagement goals.

On July 13, AAAS [American Association for the Advancement of Science] submitted a letter to the Chairman of the NSB strongly objecting to what I am here referring to as the “BIC loophole.” AAAS said, “While increasing knowledge serves a public good, it is not always clear how publicly funded research can produce broader impacts unless it is applied and/or widely communicated beyond the scholarly community. The current language appears to offer researchers an excuse not to engage in a more thoughtful consideration of the criterion.”

Here’s a link to the full letter from the AAAS.

I find it fascinating that there’s a discussion about this in the US as the concept of scientists engaging in public outreach does not seem to exist in the same way in Canada. I was able to find Canadian science funding agencies that require some public outreach.  NSERC (Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council) has a general NSERC policy for public communication,

The Institution [receiving the grant] agrees to:

  1. identify, encourage and assist researchers to communicate with media and participate in announcement events to promote Agency-funded research;
  2. inform, at least five working days before the proposed announcement, if feasible, the Agency’s or Agencies’ public affairs or communications division – normally through the Institution’s own public affairs, communications, or research communications department – of announcements of Agency awards, programs and significant research results that the Institution proposes to make;
  3. include appropriate acknowledgement of the appropriate Agency or Agencies in all relevant public communications issued by the Institution;
  4. respect the relevant Agency or Agencies’ obligation under the Communications Policy of the Government of Canada;
  5. respect the relevant Agency or Agencies’ prerogative to make the first public announcement of its awards, grants and programs, when the relevant Minister declines to do so. It is the purview of a Minister or the Minister’s designate to make public announcements of all federal expenditures; and
  6. share with the Agency or Agencies any promotional material for the general public that is based on Agency-funded research.

So, this NSERC policy is aimed more at the universities and other institutions not the individual researcher.  Also, it seems to be more a guideline or general rule which provides a bit of a contrast  with the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI) which lists public communication as a requirement for funding. From the CFI Policy and Program Guide, December 2010,

As part of filing their annual institutional reports (see secion 7.3.2), institutions must provide the CFI with information on the communication activities undertaken in the previous year, along with activities planned for the coming year that are designed to showcase the impacts and outcomes of CFI investments. Institutions are asked to provide information on media activity, publications (print and online) and special events. This information assists the CFI in identifying national trends in research communications, as well as opportunities for collaboration on communications initiatives with institutions. (p. 81)

University of Toronto research team’s efficient tandem solar cell with colloidal quantum dots (CQD)

Professor Ted Sargent, electrical and computer engineering professor at the University of Toronto, heads an engineering research team which recently published a paper about solar cells and colloidal quantum dots (CQD) in Nature Photonics. From Wayne MacPhail’s June 27, 2011 news release for the University of Toronto,

The researchers, led by Professor Ted Sargent of electrical and computer engineering, report the first efficient tandem solar cell based on colloidal quantum dots (CQD). “The U of T device is a stack of two light-absorbing layers – one tuned to capture the sun’s visible rays, the other engineered to harvest the half of the sun’s power that lies in the infrared,” said lead co-author Xihua Wang, a post-doctoral fellow.

“We needed a breakthrough in architecting the interface between the visible and infrared junction,” said Sargent, Canada Research Chair in Nanotechnology. “The team engineered a cascade – really a waterfall – of nanometers-thick materials to shuttle electrons between the visible and infrared layers.”

According to doctoral student Ghada Koleilat, lead co-author of the paper, “We needed a new strategy – which we call the graded recombination layer – so that our visible and infrared light harvesters could be linked together efficiently, without any compromise to either layer.” [emphasis mine]

The team pioneered solar cells made using CQDs, nanoscale materials that can readily be tuned to respond to specific wavelengths of the visible and invisible spectrum. By capturing such a broad range of light waves – wider than normal solar cells – tandem CQD solar cells can in principle reach up to 42 per cent efficiencies. The best single-junction solar cells are constrained to a maximum of 31 per cent efficiency. In reality, solar cells that are on the roofs of houses and in consumer products have 14 to 18 per cent efficiency. The work expands the Toronto team’s world-leading 5.6 per cent efficient colloidal quantum dot solar cells.

According to the University of Toronto news item and the June 28, 2011 news item by Cameron Chai on Azonano, Sargent believes that this ‘graded recombination layer’ will be found in building materials and mobile devices in five years.

It’s always informative to look at the funding agencies for these projects. The CQD project received its funding from King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) [mentioned in my Sept. 24, 2009 posting—scroll down 1/2 way), by the Ontario Research Fund Research Excellence Program and by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) of Canada.

ETA July 4, 2011: You can get another take on this work from Dexter Johnson, Nanoclast blog on the IEEE website in his June 28, 2011 posting, Harvesting Visible and Invisible Light in PVs with Colloidal Quantum Dots.

Canadian attosecond researcher wins medal

The Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC)  awarded Dr. Paul Corkum at the University of Ottawa with $1M in funding and the Gerhard Herzberg Canada Gold Medal for Science and Engineering. Corkum’s work is in the field of attosecond science.

I looked up attosecond to find out that it is one quintillionth of a second or one thousandth of a femtosecond. I found the description of the work a little more helpful (from Attosecond science researcher wins Gerhard Herzberg Canada Gold Medal),

Dr. Paul Corkum and his team at NRC used the world’s fastest laser light pulses to capture the first image of an electron, one of the smallest bits of matter in the universe.

And this helped too,

Dr. Paul Corkum and his team … used the world’s fastest laser light pulses to capture the first image of an electron, one of the smallest bits of matter in the universe. This manipulation of electrons could lead to breakthroughs in fields as diverse as computing, engineering and medicine.

I’m still trying to find ways to describe nanotechnology and now there’s attosecond science. Not to mention synthetic biology (I’m still not sure I can define the difference between that and biotechnology). Btw, there’s a Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies event, Synthetic Biology: The Next Biotech Revolution Is Brewing on Wednesday, March 25, 2009 from 9:30 am to 10:30 am PST. It will be webcast live and posted on their website a few days later. If you’re in the Washington, DC area and want to attend please RSVP by clicking on the event title link. The event features Michael Rodemeyer from the University of Virginia. He’s the author of a report titled New Life, Old Bottles: Regulating First-Generation Products of Synthetic Biology and will be discussing the US regulatory framework for biotechnology and whether synthetic biology can be contained within that framework.