Tag Archives: Navdeep Bains

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

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

Setting the scene

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The science minister disappears

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

Science (and technology) have to be found elsewhere

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

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

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

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

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

The Minister of Digital Government and a bureaucratic débacle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Phoenix Pay System and a great sadness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Money troubles kept getting worse.

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

That email came eight days before her death.

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

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

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

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

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

Canada’s Senate reports back on Phoenix

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PSAC will continue pressing for enough funding and urgent action:

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

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

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

More digital for federal workers and the Canadian public

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Open government, eh?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The other science commentary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Finally

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Model-type coding

By model, I mean Karlie Kloss whose computer coding camp project was profiled in an August 31, 2017 article by Elizabeth Segran for Fast Company (Note: Links have been removed),

It all started on a whim. Four years ago, supermodel Karlie Kloss decided to take an intensive coding course at New York Flatiron School. She had never written a lick of code in her life, but she wanted to see what the fuss about coding was all about. Between runway shows in Paris and Milan, and magazine shoots in London and New York, she would sit down with her instructor, Avi Flombaum, and learn the basics of Ruby on Rails.

“It was sheer curiosity that led me to take that class,” the 25-year-old Kloss tells Fast Company. “But it was really eye-opening to learn about the hardware and the software that goes into the tech we use every day.”

As a successful model, Kloss didn’t have any immediate reason to learn how to code, but she soon realized the activity could bring sweet rewards–literally. “One of the first things I learned how to program was a drone that could pick up a cookie on one side of the room and deliver it to the other side of the room,” she says with a twinkle in her eye. “It’s still one of my favorite things I’ve learned to do with code.”

Around 2012, coding bootcamps like the Flatiron course began popping up all over the country with the promise of equipping people with no prior training with the basics of computer science. In Kloss’s case, she was surprised to discover that coding wasn’t an impenetrable skill. “It’s a language just like any other language,” she says. “And the way our world is going, learning to code should be just as important as learning your mother tongue.”

There’s a persistent narrative in our culture that women are less inclined to pursue computer science. This was evident in the infamous Google memo, in which an employee, James Damore, claimed that women are genetically less inclined to code. This hasn’t been Kloss’s experience, though. She’s encountered many young women who are just as curious as she is about the technology that surrounds them. “They are aware of the power of these technical skills and how they are shaping the world today,” Kloss says. “These young women grew up with this technology embedded and they’re not scared to try building things. They are more forward-thinking than we sometimes give them credit for.”

Back in 2014, Kloss put out a call on her social media channels, asking if there were like-minded young women out there who wanted to code but didn’t have access to a course. She received an avalanche of responses from young women and ultimately offered scholarships to 21 young women to attend a two-week summer camp at the Flatiron School.

Three years later, Kloss says that this initiative–called Kode With Klossy–has grown and evolved. So far, more than 400 girls age 13 to 18 have gone through the Kode With Klossy summer camps. Kloss can now track where these students have ended up, and the results have been impressive. One of the original beneficiaries just won the grand prize at the TechCrunch Disrupt Hackathon, together with three other high school girls. (The team beat out 750 engineers with a virtual reality app that can help treat and diagnose ADHD efficiently.) …

There’s a bit more about Kloss and her camps, although it’s mostly about Kloss’s career, in a June 2017 article by Laura Brown for In Style magazine.

You can find Kode with Klossy here; the efforts are concentrated in the US. For anyone interested in coding initiatives in Canada, there’s Ladies learning Code, which offers both girls only and co-ed opportunities amongst others. Also, the Canadian federal government is getting in on the act with a $50M programme as I noted in my June 16, 2017 posting,

Government officials are calling the new $50M programme to teach computer coding skills to approximately 500,000 Canadian children from kindergarten to grade 12, CanCode (h/t June 14, 2017 news item on phys.org). Here’s more from the June 14, 2017 Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada news release,,

Young Canadians will get the skills they need for the well-paying jobs of the future as a result of a $50-million program that gives them the opportunity to learn coding and other digital skills.

The Honourable Navdeep Bains, Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development, together with the Honourable Kirsty Duncan, Minister of Science, today launched CanCode, a new program that, over the next two years, will give 500,000 students from kindergarten to grade 12 the opportunity to learn the in-demand skills that will prepare them for future jobs.

The program also aims to encourage more young women, Indigenous Canadians and other under-represented groups to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and math. In addition, it will equip 500 teachers across the country with the training and tools to teach digital skills and coding.

 Getting back to Segran’s article about Kloss’s coding camps, the writer describes the current approach to coding camps in the US,

The problem, she [Kloss] believes, is access. Many middle and high schools don’t offer coding courses, although this is slowly changing. And when they are offered, they tend to be oversubscribed by male students, creating an uncomfortable imbalance in the classroom. Then there are the popular coding bootcamps, such as the one that Kloss took, but they often come with hefty price tags: Tuition can cost upward of $1,000 a week. There have also been questions about how sustainable the coding bootcamp business model really is, since several companies, like The Iron Yard and Dev Bootcamp, have had to shut down recently.

I guess we’ll see what happens with the Canadian $50M in the next few years and whether it proves a more effective approach (i.e., government and not-for-profit) than the individual business and not-for-profit efforts seen in the US.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Quotes

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

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

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

Quick Facts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Canadian children to learn computer coding from kindergarten through to high school

Government officials are calling the new $50M programme to teach computer coding skills to approximately 500,000 Canadian children from kindergarten to grade 12, CanCode (h/t June 14, 2017 news item on phys.org). Here’s more from the June 14, 2017 Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada news release,,

Young Canadians will get the skills they need for the well-paying jobs of the future as a result of a $50-million program that gives them the opportunity to learn coding and other digital skills.

The Honourable Navdeep Bains, Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development, together with the Honourable Kirsty Duncan, Minister of Science, today launched CanCode, a new program that, over the next two years, will give 500,000 students from kindergarten to grade 12 the opportunity to learn the in-demand skills that will prepare them for future jobs.

The program also aims to encourage more young women, Indigenous Canadians and other under-represented groups to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and math. In addition, it will equip 500 teachers across the country with the training and tools to teach digital skills and coding.

Many jobs today rely on the ability of Canadian workers to solve problems using digital skills. The demand for such skills will only intensify as the number of software and data companies increases—whether they sell music online or design self-driving cars, for example. That’s why the government is investing in the skills that prepare young Canadians for the jobs of tomorrow.

This program is part of the Innovation and Skills Plan, a multi-year strategy to create well-paying jobs for the middle class and those working hard to join it.

 

Quotes

“Our government is investing in a program that will equip young Canadians with the skills they need for a future in which every job will require some level of digital ability. Coding teaches our young people how to work as a team to solve difficult problems in creative ways. That’s how they will become the next great innovators and entrepreneurs that Canada needs to succeed.”

– The Honourable Navdeep Bains, Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development

“Coding skills are highly relevant in today’s scientific and technological careers, and they will only become more important in the future. That’s why it is essential that we teach these skills to young Canadians today so they have an advantage when they choose to pursue a career as a scientist, researcher or engineer. Our government is proud to support their curiosity, their ambition and their desire to build a bolder, brighter future for all Canadians.”

– The Honourable Kirsty Duncan, Minister of Science

Quick Facts

  • Funding applicants must be not-for-profit organizations incorporated in Canada. They must have a minimum of three years of experience delivering education-related programs to young Canadians.
  • The deadline for applications for project funding is July 26, 2017 [emphasis mine].

Associated Links

Exciting stuff, eh?

I was a bit curious about how the initiative will be executed since education is a provincial responsibility. The answers are on the ‘CanCode funding application‘ page,

The CanCode program aims to provide coding and digital skills learning opportunities to a diverse set of participants, principally students from kindergarten to grade 12 (K-12) across Canada, including traditionally underrepresented groups, as well as their teachers. The program will consider proposals for initiatives that run until the program end date of March 31, 2019.

Funding

Maximum contribution funding to any one recipient cannot exceed $5 million per year, and the need for the contribution must be clearly demonstrated by the applicant. The level of funding provided by the program will be contingent upon the assessment of the proposal and the availability of program funds.

Proposals may include funding from other levels of government, private sector or non-profit partners, however, total funding from all federal, provincial/territorial and municipal sources cannot exceed 100%.

Eligible costs

Eligible costs are the costs directly related to the proposal that respect all conditions and limitations of the program and that will be eligible for claim as set out in the Contribution Agreement (CA) if the proposal is approved for funding.

Eligible costs include:

  • Administrative operating costs, including travel related to delivery of training (limited to no more than 10% of total eligible costs except for approved recipients delivering initiatives in Canada’s Far North due to high costs associated with travel, inclement weather, costs of accommodation and food)
  • Direct costs to deliver training (including for training delivery personnel, space rental, materials, etc.)
  • Costs for required equipment limited to no more than 20% of total eligible costs
  • Costs to develop and administer online training

Eligibility details

Essential criteria for assessment

To qualify for funding, your organization:

  • Must be a not-for-profit organization incorporated in Canada; and
  • Must have a minimum of three years’ experience in the delivery of coding and digital education programs to K-12 youth and/or their teachers.

Your funding proposal must also clearly demonstrate that:

  • Your proposed initiative meets the objectives of the program in terms of target participants and content (e.g. computational thinking, coding concepts, programming robotics, internet safety, teacher training);
  • Your initiative will be delivered at no cost to participants;
  • With program funding, your organization will have the resource capacity and expertise, either internally or through partnerships, to successfully deliver the proposed initiative; and
  • You can deliver the proposed initiative within the program timeframe.

Asset criteria for assessment

While not essential requirements, proposals will also be assessed on the degree to which they include one or more of the following elements:

  • Content that maps to provincial/territorial educational curricula (e.g. lessons for teachers on how to integrate coding/digital skills into the classroom; topics/content that support current curricula);
  • Development of tools and resources that will be made available to students and teachers following a learning opportunity, and which could reinforce or continue learning, and/or reach a broader audience;
  • Partnerships with other organizations, such as school boards, teacher associations, community organizations, and other organizations delivering coding/digital skills;
  • Private sector funding or partnerships that can leverage federal contributions to deliver programming to a wider audience or to enhance or expand initiatives and content;
  • A demonstrated ability to reach traditionally underrepresented groups such as girls, Indigenous youth, disabled, and at-risk youth;
  • A demonstrated ability to deliver services on First Nations Reserves; or
  • A demonstrated ability to reach underserved locations in Canada, such as rural, remote and northern communities.

Eligibility self-assessment

Before you get started, take the following self-assessment to ensure your proposed initiative/project is eligible for funding. If you answer yes to all of the questions below, you are eligible to apply:

  • Are you a not-for-profit organization incorporated in Canada? Are you able to provide articles of incorporation?
  • Has your organization been delivering coding/digital skills education to youth within the range of kindergarten to grade 12 and/or teachers for at least three years?
  • Can your proposed initiative/project be delivered by March 31, 2019?
  • Does your proposed initiative/project provide any of the following: development and delivery of training and educational initiatives for K-12 students to learn digital skills, coding and related concepts (e.g. in-class instruction, after-school programs, summer camps, etc.); development and delivery of training and professional development initiatives for teacher to develop the skills and confidence to introduce digital skills, coding and related concepts into the classroom (e.g. teacher training courses, workshops, etc.); development of online resources/tools to support and enhance coding and digital skills learning initiatives for youth and/or teachers.

How to apply

When you click “Apply now”, you will be prompted to submit a basic form to collect your contact information. We will then contact you to provide you with the application package.

[Go here to Apply now]

Contact information

For general questions and comments, please contact the CanCode program.

Telephone (toll-free in Canada): 1-800-328-6189
Telephone (Ottawa): 613-954-5031
Fax: 343-291-1913
TTY (for hearing-impaired): 1-866-694-8389
By email
Chat now
Business hours: 8:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. (Eastern Time)
By mail: CanCode
C.D. Howe Building
235 Queen Street, 1st floor, West Tower
Ottawa, ON  K1A 0H5
Canada

For anyone curious about just how much work is involved (from the Apply for CanCode funding page;Note: contact form not included),

Please complete and submit the form below and we will contact you within 2 business days to provide you with an application package.

Application package

A complete application package, consisting of a completed Application Form, a Project Work Plan, a Budget, and such additional supporting documentation as required by the program to fully assess the proposal’s merit to be funded, must be submitted on or before July 26, 2017 to be considered.

Supporting documentation includes, but is not limited to, the following:

  • Corporate documents, e.g. articles of corporation;
  • Financial statements from the last three years;
  • Information on any contributors/partners and their roles and resources in support of the project;
  • A detailed budget outlining forecasted total costs and per participant cost of delivering the proposed initiative;
  • A detailed work plan providing a description of all project activities and timelines, as well as overall expected results and benefits;
  • Information on experience/skills of key personnel;
  • Copies of any funding or partnership agreements relevant to the proposal;
  • Letters of support from partners, previous clientele, other relevant stakeholders;

Application intake

The program will accept proposals until July 26, 2017 [emphasis mine], whereupon the call for proposals will be closed. Should funding remain available following the assessment and funding decisions regarding proposals received during this intake period, further calls for proposals may be issued.

If you keep scrolling down you’ll find the contact form.

Applicants sure don’t much time to prepare their submissions from which I infer that interested parties have already been contacted or apprised that this programme was in the works.

Also, for those of us in British Columbia, this is not the first government initiative directed at children’s computer coding skills. In January 2016, Premier Christy Clark* announced a provincial programme  (my Jan. 19, 2016 posting; scroll down about 55% of the way for the discussion about ‘talent’ and several months later announced there would be funding for the programme (June 10, 2016 Office of the Premier news release about funding). i wonder if these federal and provincial efforts are going to be coordinated?

For more insight into the BC government’s funding, there’s Tracy Sherlock’s Sept. 3, 2016 article for the Vancouver Sun.

For anyone wanting to keep up with Canadian government science-related announcements, there are the two minister’s separate twitter feeds:

@ministerISED

@ScienceMin

*As of June 16, 2017, Premier Clark appears to be on her way out of government after her party failed by one seat to win a majority in the Legislative Assembly. However, there is a great deal of wrangling. Presumably the funding for computer coding programmes in the schools was locked in.

The Canadian science scene and the 2017 Canadian federal budget

There’s not much happening in the 2017-18 budget in terms of new spending according to Paul Wells’ March 22, 2017 article for TheStar.com,

This is the 22nd or 23rd federal budget I’ve covered. And I’ve never seen the like of the one Bill Morneau introduced on Wednesday [March 22, 2017].

Not even in the last days of the Harper Conservatives did a budget provide for so little new spending — $1.3 billion in the current budget year, total, in all fields of government. That’s a little less than half of one per cent of all federal program spending for this year.

But times are tight. The future is a place where we can dream. So the dollars flow more freely in later years. In 2021-22, the budget’s fifth planning year, new spending peaks at $8.2 billion. Which will be about 2.4 per cent of all program spending.

He’s not alone in this 2017 federal budget analysis; CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) pundits, Chantal Hébert, Andrew Coyne, and Jennifer Ditchburn said much the same during their ‘At Issue’ segment of the March 22, 2017 broadcast of The National (news).

Before I focus on the science and technology budget, here are some general highlights from the CBC’s March 22, 2017 article on the 2017-18 budget announcement (Note: Links have been removed,

Here are highlights from the 2017 federal budget:

  • Deficit: $28.5 billion, up from $25.4 billion projected in the fall.
  • Trend: Deficits gradually decline over next five years — but still at $18.8 billion in 2021-22.
  • Housing: $11.2 billion over 11 years, already budgeted, will go to a national housing strategy.
  • Child care: $7 billion over 10 years, already budgeted, for new spaces, starting 2018-19.
  • Indigenous: $3.4 billion in new money over five years for infrastructure, health and education.
  • Defence: $8.4 billion in capital spending for equipment pushed forward to 2035.
  • Care givers: New care-giving benefit up to 15 weeks, starting next year.
  • Skills: New agency to research and measure skills development, starting 2018-19.
  • Innovation: $950 million over five years to support business-led “superclusters.”
  • Startups: $400 million over three years for a new venture capital catalyst initiative.
  • AI: $125 million to launch a pan-Canadian Artificial Intelligence Strategy.
  • Coding kids: $50 million over two years for initiatives to teach children to code.
  • Families: Option to extend parental leave up to 18 months.
  • Uber tax: GST to be collected on ride-sharing services.
  • Sin taxes: One cent more on a bottle of wine, five cents on 24 case of beer.
  • Bye-bye: No more Canada Savings Bonds.
  • Transit credit killed: 15 per cent non-refundable public transit tax credit phased out this year.

You can find the entire 2017-18 budget here.

Science and the 2017-18 budget

For anyone interested in the science news, you’ll find most of that in the 2017 budget’s Chapter 1 — Skills, Innovation and Middle Class jobs. As well, Wayne Kondro has written up a précis in his March 22, 2017 article for Science (magazine),

Finance officials, who speak on condition of anonymity during the budget lock-up, indicated the budgets of the granting councils, the main source of operational grants for university researchers, will be “static” until the government can assess recommendations that emerge from an expert panel formed in 2015 and headed by former University of Toronto President David Naylor to review basic science in Canada [highlighted in my June 15, 2016 posting ; $2M has been allocated for the advisor and associated secretariat]. Until then, the officials said, funding for the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) will remain at roughly $848 million, whereas that for the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) will remain at $773 million, and for the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council [SSHRC] at $547 million.

NSERC, though, will receive $8.1 million over 5 years to administer a PromoScience Program that introduces youth, particularly unrepresented groups like Aboriginal people and women, to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics through measures like “space camps and conservation projects.” CIHR, meanwhile, could receive modest amounts from separate plans to identify climate change health risks and to reduce drug and substance abuse, the officials added.

… Canada’s Innovation and Skills Plan, would funnel $600 million over 5 years allocated in 2016, and $112.5 million slated for public transit and green infrastructure, to create Silicon Valley–like “super clusters,” which the budget defined as “dense areas of business activity that contain large and small companies, post-secondary institutions and specialized talent and infrastructure.” …

… The Canadian Institute for Advanced Research will receive $93.7 million [emphasis mine] to “launch a Pan-Canadian Artificial Intelligence Strategy … (to) position Canada as a world-leading destination for companies seeking to invest in artificial intelligence and innovation.”

… Among more specific measures are vows to: Use $87.7 million in previous allocations to the Canada Research Chairs program to create 25 “Canada 150 Research Chairs” honoring the nation’s 150th year of existence, provide $1.5 million per year to support the operations of the office of the as-yet-unappointed national science adviser [see my Dec. 7, 2016 post for information about the job posting, which is now closed]; provide $165.7 million [emphasis mine] over 5 years for the nonprofit organization Mitacs to create roughly 6300 more co-op positions for university students and grads, and provide $60.7 million over five years for new Canadian Space Agency projects, particularly for Canadian participation in the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s next Mars Orbiter Mission.

Kondros was either reading an earlier version of the budget or made an error regarding Mitacs (from the budget in the “A New, Ambitious Approach to Work-Integrated Learning” subsection),

Mitacs has set an ambitious goal of providing 10,000 work-integrated learning placements for Canadian post-secondary students and graduates each year—up from the current level of around 3,750 placements. Budget 2017 proposes to provide $221 million [emphasis mine] over five years, starting in 2017–18, to achieve this goal and provide relevant work experience to Canadian students.

As well, the budget item for the Pan-Canadian Artificial Intelligence Strategy is $125M.

Moving from Kondros’ précis, the budget (in the “Positioning National Research Council Canada Within the Innovation and Skills Plan” subsection) announces support for these specific areas of science,

Stem Cell Research

The Stem Cell Network, established in 2001, is a national not-for-profit organization that helps translate stem cell research into clinical applications, commercial products and public policy. Its research holds great promise, offering the potential for new therapies and medical treatments for respiratory and heart diseases, cancer, diabetes, spinal cord injury, multiple sclerosis, Crohn’s disease, auto-immune disorders and Parkinson’s disease. To support this important work, Budget 2017 proposes to provide the Stem Cell Network with renewed funding of $6 million in 2018–19.

Space Exploration

Canada has a long and proud history as a space-faring nation. As our international partners prepare to chart new missions, Budget 2017 proposes investments that will underscore Canada’s commitment to innovation and leadership in space. Budget 2017 proposes to provide $80.9 million on a cash basis over five years, starting in 2017–18, for new projects through the Canadian Space Agency that will demonstrate and utilize Canadian innovations in space, including in the field of quantum technology as well as for Mars surface observation. The latter project will enable Canada to join the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA’s) next Mars Orbiter Mission.

Quantum Information

The development of new quantum technologies has the potential to transform markets, create new industries and produce leading-edge jobs. The Institute for Quantum Computing is a world-leading Canadian research facility that furthers our understanding of these innovative technologies. Budget 2017 proposes to provide the Institute with renewed funding of $10 million over two years, starting in 2017–18.

Social Innovation

Through community-college partnerships, the Community and College Social Innovation Fund fosters positive social outcomes, such as the integration of vulnerable populations into Canadian communities. Following the success of this pilot program, Budget 2017 proposes to invest $10 million over two years, starting in 2017–18, to continue this work.

International Research Collaborations

The Canadian Institute for Advanced Research (CIFAR) connects Canadian researchers with collaborative research networks led by eminent Canadian and international researchers on topics that touch all humanity. Past collaborations facilitated by CIFAR are credited with fostering Canada’s leadership in artificial intelligence and deep learning. Budget 2017 proposes to provide renewed and enhanced funding of $35 million over five years, starting in 2017–18.

Earlier this week, I highlighted Canada’s strength in the field of regenerative medicine, specifically stem cells in a March 21, 2017 posting. The $6M in the current budget doesn’t look like increased funding but rather a one-year extension. I’m sure they’re happy to receive it  but I imagine it’s a little hard to plan major research projects when you’re not sure how long your funding will last.

As for Canadian leadership in artificial intelligence, that was news to me. Here’s more from the budget,

Canada a Pioneer in Deep Learning in Machines and Brains

CIFAR’s Learning in Machines & Brains program has shaken up the field of artificial intelligence by pioneering a technique called “deep learning,” a computer technique inspired by the human brain and neural networks, which is now routinely used by the likes of Google and Facebook. The program brings together computer scientists, biologists, neuroscientists, psychologists and others, and the result is rich collaborations that have propelled artificial intelligence research forward. The program is co-directed by one of Canada’s foremost experts in artificial intelligence, the Université de Montréal’s Yoshua Bengio, and for his many contributions to the program, the University of Toronto’s Geoffrey Hinton, another Canadian leader in this field, was awarded the title of Distinguished Fellow by CIFAR in 2014.

Meanwhile, from chapter 1 of the budget in the subsection titled “Preparing for the Digital Economy,” there is this provision for children,

Providing educational opportunities for digital skills development to Canadian girls and boys—from kindergarten to grade 12—will give them the head start they need to find and keep good, well-paying, in-demand jobs. To help provide coding and digital skills education to more young Canadians, the Government intends to launch a competitive process through which digital skills training organizations can apply for funding. Budget 2017 proposes to provide $50 million over two years, starting in 2017–18, to support these teaching initiatives.

I wonder if BC Premier Christy Clark is heaving a sigh of relief. At the 2016 #BCTECH Summit, she announced that students in BC would learn to code at school and in newly enhanced coding camp programmes (see my Jan. 19, 2016 posting). Interestingly, there was no mention of additional funding to support her initiative. I guess this money from the federal government comes at a good time as we will have a provincial election later this spring where she can announce the initiative again and, this time, mention there’s money for it.

Attracting brains from afar

Ivan Semeniuk in his March 23, 2017 article (for the Globe and Mail) reads between the lines to analyze the budget’s possible impact on Canadian science,

But a between-the-lines reading of the budget document suggests the government also has another audience in mind: uneasy scientists from the United States and Britain.

The federal government showed its hand at the 2017 #BCTECH Summit. From a March 16, 2017 article by Meera Bains for the CBC news online,

At the B.C. tech summit, Navdeep Bains, Canada’s minister of innovation, said the government will act quickly to fast track work permits to attract highly skilled talent from other countries.

“We’re taking the processing time, which takes months, and reducing it to two weeks for immigration processing for individuals [who] need to come here to help companies grow and scale up,” Bains said.

“So this is a big deal. It’s a game changer.”

That change will happen through the Global Talent Stream, a new program under the federal government’s temporary foreign worker program.  It’s scheduled to begin on June 12, 2017.

U.S. companies are taking notice and a Canadian firm, True North, is offering to help them set up shop.

“What we suggest is that they think about moving their operations, or at least a chunk of their operations, to Vancouver, set up a Canadian subsidiary,” said the company’s founder, Michael Tippett.

“And that subsidiary would be able to house and accommodate those employees.”

Industry experts says while the future is unclear for the tech sector in the U.S., it’s clear high tech in B.C. is gearing up to take advantage.

US business attempts to take advantage of Canada’s relative stability and openness to immigration would seem to be the motive for at least one cross border initiative, the Cascadia Urban Analytics Cooperative. From my Feb. 28, 2017 posting,

There was some big news about the smallest version of the Cascadia region on Thursday, Feb. 23, 2017 when the University of British Columbia (UBC) , the University of Washington (state; UW), and Microsoft announced the launch of the Cascadia Urban Analytics Cooperative. From the joint Feb. 23, 2017 news release (read on the UBC website or read on the UW website),

In an expansion of regional cooperation, the University of British Columbia and the University of Washington today announced the establishment of the Cascadia Urban Analytics Cooperative to use data to help cities and communities address challenges from traffic to homelessness. The largest industry-funded research partnership between UBC and the UW, the collaborative will bring faculty, students and community stakeholders together to solve problems, and is made possible thanks to a $1-million gift from Microsoft.

Today’s announcement follows last September’s [2016] Emerging Cascadia Innovation Corridor Conference in Vancouver, B.C. The forum brought together regional leaders for the first time to identify concrete opportunities for partnerships in education, transportation, university research, human capital and other areas.

A Boston Consulting Group study unveiled at the conference showed the region between Seattle and Vancouver has “high potential to cultivate an innovation corridor” that competes on an international scale, but only if regional leaders work together. The study says that could be possible through sustained collaboration aided by an educated and skilled workforce, a vibrant network of research universities and a dynamic policy environment.

It gets better, it seems Microsoft has been positioning itself for a while if Matt Day’s analysis is correct (from my Feb. 28, 2017 posting),

Matt Day in a Feb. 23, 2017 article for the The Seattle Times provides additional perspective (Note: Links have been removed),

Microsoft’s effort to nudge Seattle and Vancouver, B.C., a bit closer together got an endorsement Thursday [Feb. 23, 2017] from the leading university in each city.

The partnership has its roots in a September [2016] conference in Vancouver organized by Microsoft’s public affairs and lobbying unit [emphasis mine.] That gathering was aimed at tying business, government and educational institutions in Microsoft’s home region in the Seattle area closer to its Canadian neighbor.

Microsoft last year [2016] opened an expanded office in downtown Vancouver with space for 750 employees, an outpost partly designed to draw to the Northwest more engineers than the company can get through the U.S. guest worker system [emphasis mine].

This was all prior to President Trump’s legislative moves in the US, which have at least one Canadian observer a little more gleeful than I’m comfortable with. From a March 21, 2017 article by Susan Lum  for CBC News online,

U.S. President Donald Trump’s efforts to limit travel into his country while simultaneously cutting money from science-based programs provides an opportunity for Canada’s science sector, says a leading Canadian researcher.

“This is Canada’s moment. I think it’s a time we should be bold,” said Alan Bernstein, president of CIFAR [which on March 22, 2017 was awarded $125M to launch the Pan Canada Artificial Intelligence Strategy in the Canadian federal budget announcement], a global research network that funds hundreds of scientists in 16 countries.

Bernstein believes there are many reasons why Canada has become increasingly attractive to scientists around the world, including the political climate in the United States and the Trump administration’s travel bans.

Thankfully, Bernstein calms down a bit,

“It used to be if you were a bright young person anywhere in the world, you would want to go to Harvard or Berkeley or Stanford, or what have you. Now I think you should give pause to that,” he said. “We have pretty good universities here [emphasis mine]. We speak English. We’re a welcoming society for immigrants.”​

Bernstein cautions that Canada should not be seen to be poaching scientists from the United States — but there is an opportunity.

“It’s as if we’ve been in a choir of an opera in the back of the stage and all of a sudden the stars all left the stage. And the audience is expecting us to sing an aria. So we should sing,” Bernstein said.

Bernstein said the federal government, with this week’s so-called innovation budget, can help Canada hit the right notes.

“Innovation is built on fundamental science, so I’m looking to see if the government is willing to support, in a big way, fundamental science in the country.”

Pretty good universities, eh? Thank you, Dr. Bernstein, for keeping some of the boosterism in check. Let’s leave the chest thumping to President Trump and his cronies.

Ivan Semeniuk’s March 23, 2017 article (for the Globe and Mail) provides more details about the situation in the US and in Britain,

Last week, Donald Trump’s first budget request made clear the U.S. President would significantly reduce or entirely eliminate research funding in areas such as climate science and renewable energy if permitted by Congress. Even the National Institutes of Health, which spearheads medical research in the United States and is historically supported across party lines, was unexpectedly targeted for a $6-billion (U.S.) cut that the White House said could be achieved through “efficiencies.”

In Britain, a recent survey found that 42 per cent of academics were considering leaving the country over worries about a less welcoming environment and the loss of research money that a split with the European Union is expected to bring.

In contrast, Canada’s upbeat language about science in the budget makes a not-so-subtle pitch for diversity and talent from abroad, including $117.6-million to establish 25 research chairs with the aim of attracting “top-tier international scholars.”

For good measure, the budget also includes funding for science promotion and $2-million annually for Canada’s yet-to-be-hired Chief Science Advisor, whose duties will include ensuring that government researchers can speak freely about their work.

“What we’ve been hearing over the last few months is that Canada is seen as a beacon, for its openness and for its commitment to science,” said Ms. Duncan [Kirsty Duncan, Minister of Science], who did not refer directly to either the United States or Britain in her comments.

Providing a less optimistic note, Erica Alini in her March 22, 2017 online article for Global News mentions a perennial problem, the Canadian brain drain,

The budget includes a slew of proposed reforms and boosted funding for existing training programs, as well as new skills-development resources for unemployed and underemployed Canadians not covered under current EI-funded programs.

There are initiatives to help women and indigenous people get degrees or training in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (the so-called STEM subjects) and even to teach kids as young as kindergarten-age to code.

But there was no mention of how to make sure Canadians with the right skills remain in Canada, TD’s DePratto {Toronto Dominion Bank} Economics; TD is currently experiencing a scandal {March 13, 2017 Huffington Post news item}] told Global News.

Canada ranks in the middle of the pack compared to other advanced economies when it comes to its share of its graduates in STEM fields, but the U.S. doesn’t shine either, said DePratto [Brian DePratto, senior economist at TD .

The key difference between Canada and the U.S. is the ability to retain domestic talent and attract brains from all over the world, he noted.

To be blunt, there may be some opportunities for Canadian science but it does well to remember (a) US businesses have no particular loyalty to Canada and (b) all it takes is an election to change any perceived advantages to disadvantages.

Digital policy and intellectual property issues

Dubbed by some as the ‘innovation’ budget (official title:  Building a Strong Middle Class), there is an attempt to address a longstanding innovation issue (from a March 22, 2017 posting by Michael Geist on his eponymous blog (Note: Links have been removed),

The release of today’s [march 22, 2017] federal budget is expected to include a significant emphasis on innovation, with the government revealing how it plans to spend (or re-allocate) hundreds of millions of dollars that is intended to support innovation. Canada’s dismal innovation record needs attention, but spending our way to a more innovative economy is unlikely to yield the desired results. While Navdeep Bains, the Innovation, Science and Economic Development Minister, has talked for months about the importance of innovation, Toronto Star columnist Paul Wells today delivers a cutting but accurate assessment of those efforts:

“This government is the first with a minister for innovation! He’s Navdeep Bains. He frequently posts photos of his meetings on Twitter, with the hashtag “#innovation.” That’s how you know there is innovation going on. A year and a half after he became the minister for #innovation, it’s not clear what Bains’s plans are. It’s pretty clear that within the government he has less than complete control over #innovation. There’s an advisory council on economic growth, chaired by the McKinsey guru Dominic Barton, which periodically reports to the government urging more #innovation.

There’s a science advisory panel, chaired by former University of Toronto president David Naylor, that delivered a report to Science Minister Kirsty Duncan more than three months ago. That report has vanished. One presumes that’s because it offered some advice. Whatever Bains proposes, it will have company.”

Wells is right. Bains has been very visible with plenty of meetings and public photo shoots but no obvious innovation policy direction. This represents a missed opportunity since Bains has plenty of policy tools at his disposal that could advance Canada’s innovation framework without focusing on government spending.

For example, Canada’s communications system – wireless and broadband Internet access – falls directly within his portfolio and is crucial for both business and consumers. Yet Bains has been largely missing in action on the file. He gave approval for the Bell – MTS merger that virtually everyone concedes will increase prices in the province and make the communications market less competitive. There are potential policy measures that could bring new competitors into the market (MVNOs [mobile virtual network operators] and municipal broadband) and that could make it easier for consumers to switch providers (ban on unlocking devices). Some of this falls to the CRTC, but government direction and emphasis would make a difference.

Even more troubling has been his near total invisibility on issues relating to new fees or taxes on Internet access and digital services. Canadian Heritage Minister Mélanie Joly has taken control of the issue with the possibility that Canadians could face increased costs for their Internet access or digital services through mandatory fees to contribute to Canadian content.  Leaving aside the policy objections to such an approach (reducing affordable access and the fact that foreign sources now contribute more toward Canadian English language TV production than Canadian broadcasters and distributors), Internet access and e-commerce are supposed to be Bains’ issue and they have a direct connection to the innovation file. How is it possible for the Innovation, Science and Economic Development Minister to have remained silent for months on the issue?

Bains has been largely missing on trade related innovation issues as well. My Globe and Mail column today focuses on a digital-era NAFTA, pointing to likely U.S. demands on data localization, data transfers, e-commerce rules, and net neutrality.  These are all issues that fall under Bains’ portfolio and will impact investment in Canadian networks and digital services. There are innovation opportunities for Canada here, but Bains has been content to leave the policy issues to others, who will be willing to sacrifice potential gains in those areas.

Intellectual property policy is yet another area that falls directly under Bains’ mandate with an obvious link to innovation, but he has done little on the file. Canada won a huge NAFTA victory late last week involving the Canadian patent system, which was challenged by pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly. Why has Bains not promoted the decision as an affirmation of how Canada’s intellectual property rules?

On the copyright front, the government is scheduled to conduct a review of the Copyright Act later this year, but it is not clear whether Bains will take the lead or again cede responsibility to Joly. The Copyright Act is statutorily under the Industry Minister and reform offers the chance to kickstart innovation. …

For anyone who’s not familiar with this area, innovation is often code for commercialization of science and technology research efforts. These days, digital service and access policies and intellectual property policies are all key to research and innovation efforts.

The country that’s most often (except in mainstream Canadian news media) held up as an example of leadership in innovation is Estonia. The Economist profiled the country in a July 31, 2013 article and a July 7, 2016 article on apolitical.co provides and update.

Conclusions

Science monies for the tri-council science funding agencies (NSERC, SSHRC, and CIHR) are more or less flat but there were a number of line items in the federal budget which qualify as science funding. The $221M over five years for Mitacs, the $125M for the Pan-Canadian Artificial Intelligence Strategy, additional funding for the Canada research chairs, and some of the digital funding could also be included as part of the overall haul. This is in line with the former government’s (Stephen Harper’s Conservatives) penchant for keeping the tri-council’s budgets under control while spreading largesse elsewhere (notably the Perimeter Institute, TRIUMF [Canada’s National Laboratory for Particle and Nuclear Physics], and, in the 2015 budget, $243.5-million towards the Thirty Metre Telescope (TMT) — a massive astronomical observatory to be constructed on the summit of Mauna Kea, Hawaii, a $1.5-billion project). This has lead to some hard feelings in the past with regard to ‘big science’ projects getting what some have felt is an undeserved boost in finances while the ‘small fish’ are left scrabbling for the ever-diminishing (due to budget cuts in years past and inflation) pittances available from the tri-council agencies.

Mitacs, which started life as a federally funded Network Centre for Excellence focused on mathematics, has since shifted focus to become an innovation ‘champion’. You can find Mitacs here and you can find the organization’s March 2016 budget submission to the House of Commons Standing Committee on Finance here. At the time, they did not request a specific amount of money; they just asked for more.

The amount Mitacs expects to receive this year is over $40M which represents more than double what they received from the federal government and almost of 1/2 of their total income in the 2015-16 fiscal year according to their 2015-16 annual report (see p. 327 for the Mitacs Statement of Operations to March 31, 2016). In fact, the federal government forked over $39,900,189. in the 2015-16 fiscal year to be their largest supporter while Mitacs’ total income (receipts) was $81,993,390.

It’s a strange thing but too much money, etc. can be as bad as too little. I wish the folks Mitacs nothing but good luck with their windfall.

I don’t see anything in the budget that encourages innovation and investment from the industrial sector in Canada.

Finallyl, innovation is a cultural issue as much as it is a financial issue and having worked with a number of developers and start-up companies, the most popular business model is to develop a successful business that will be acquired by a large enterprise thereby allowing the entrepreneurs to retire before the age of 30 (or 40 at the latest). I don’t see anything from the government acknowledging the problem let alone any attempts to tackle it.

All in all, it was a decent budget with nothing in it to seriously offend anyone.

Dear Science Minister Kirsty Duncan and Science, Innovation and Economic Development Minister Navdeep Bains: a Happy Canada Day! open letter

Dear Minister of Science Kirsty Duncan and Minister of Science, Innovation and Economic Development Navdeep Bains,

Thank you both. It’s been heartening to note some of the moves you’ve made since entering office. Taking the muzzles off Environment Canada and Natural Resources Canada scientists was a big relief and it was wonderful to hear that the mandatory longform census was reinstated along with the Experimental Lakes Area programme. (Btw, I can’t be the only one who’s looking forward to hearing the news once Canada’s Chief Science Officer is appointed. In the fall, eh?)

Changing the National Science and Technology week by giving it a news name “Science Odyssey” and rescheduling it from the fall to the spring seems to have revitalized the effort. Then, there was the news about a review focused on fundamental science (see my June 16, 2016 post). It seems as if the floodgates have opened or at least communication about what’s going on has become much freer. Brava and Bravo!

The recently announced (June 29, 2016) third assessment on the State of S&T (Science and Technology) and IR&D (Industrial Research and Development; my July 1, 2016 post features the announcement) by the Council of Canadian Academies adds to the impression that you both have adopted a dizzying pace for science of all kinds in Canada.

With the initiatives I’ve just mentioned in mind, it would seem that encouraging a more vital science culture and and re-establishing science as a fundamental part of Canadian society is your aim.

Science education and outreach as a whole population effort

It’s facey to ask for more but that’s what I’m going to do.

In general, the science education and outreach efforts in Canada have focused on children. This is wonderful but not likely to be as successful as we would hope when a significant and influential chunk of the population is largely ignored: adults. (There is a specific situation where outreach to adults is undertaken but more about that later.)

There is research suggesting that children’s attitudes to science and future careers is strongly influenced by their family. From my Oct. 9, 2013 posting,

One of the research efforts in the UK is the ASPIRES research project at King’s College London (KCL), which is examining children’s attitudes to science and future careers. Their latest report, Ten Science Facts and Fictions: the case for early education about STEM careers (PDF), is profiled in a Jan. 11, 2012 news item on physorg.com (from the news item),

Professor Archer [Louise Archer, Professor of Sociology of Education at King’s] said: “Children and their parents hold quite complex views of science and scientists and at age 10 or 11 these views are largely positive. The vast majority of children at this age enjoy science at school, have parents who are supportive of them studying science and even undertake science-related activities in their spare time. They associate scientists with important work, such as finding medical cures, and with work that is well paid.

“Nevertheless, less than 17 per cent aspire to a career in science. These positive impressions seem to lead to the perception that science offers only a very limited range of careers, for example doctor, scientist or science teacher. It appears that this positive stereotype is also problematic in that it can lead people to view science as out of reach for many, only for exceptional or clever people, and ‘not for me’. [emphases mine]

Family as a bigger concept

I suggest that ‘family’ be expanded to include the social environment in which children operate. When I was a kid no one in our family or extended group of friends had been to university let alone become a scientist. My parents had aspirations for me but when it came down to brass tacks, even though I was encouraged to go to university, they were much happier when I dropped out and got a job.

It’s very hard to break out of the mold. The odd thing about it all? I had two uncles who were electricians which when you think about it means they were working in STEM (science, technology,engineering, mathematics) jobs. Electricians, then and now. despite their technical skills, are considered tradespeople.

It seems to me that if more people saw themselves as having STEM or STEM-influenced occupations: hairdressers, artists, automechanics, plumbers, electricians, musicians, etc., we might find more children willing to engage directly in STEM opportunities. We might also find there’s more public support for science in all its guises.

That situation where adults are targeted for science outreach? It’s when the science is considered controversial or problematic and, suddenly, public (actually they mean voter) engagement or outreach is considered vital.

Suggestion

Given the initiatives you both have undertaken and Prime Minister Trudeau’s recent public outbreak of enthusiasm for and interest in quantum computing (my April 18, 2016 posting), I’m hopeful that you will consider the notion and encourage (fund?) science promotion programmes aimed at adults. Preferably attention-grabbing and imaginative programmes.

Should you want to discuss the matter further (I have some suggestions), please feel free to contact me.

Regardless, I’m very happy to see the initiatives that have been undertaken and, just as importantly, the communication about science.

Yours sincerely,

Maryse de la Giroday
(FrogHeart blog)

P.S. I very much enjoyed the June 22, 2016 interview with Léo Charbonneau for University Affairs,

UA: Looking ahead, where would you like Canada to be in terms of research in five to 10 years?

Dr. Duncan: Well, I’ll tell you, it breaks my heart that in a 10-year period we fell from third to eighth place among OECD countries in terms of HERD [government expenditures on higher education research and development as a percentage of gross domestic product]. That should never have happened. That’s why it was so important for me to get that big investment in the granting councils.

Do we have a strong vision for science? Do we have the support of the research community? Do we have the funding systems that allow our world-class researchers to do the work they want do to? And, with the chief science officer, are we building a system where we have the evidence to inform decision-making? My job is to support research and to make sure evidence makes its way to the cabinet table.

As stated earlier, I’m hoping you will expand your vision to include Canadian society, not forgetting seniors (being retired or older doesn’t mean that you’re senile and/or incapable of public participation), and supporting Canada’s emerging science media environment.

P.P.S. As a longstanding observer of the interplay between pop culture, science, and society I was much amused and inspired by news of Justin Trudeau’s emergence as a character in a Marvel comic book (from a June 28, 2016 CBC [Canadian Broadcasting Corporation] news online item),

Trudeau Comic Cover 20160628

The variant cover of the comic Civil War II: Choosing Sides #5, featuring Prime Minister Justin Trudeau surrounded by the members of Alpha Flight: Sasquatch, top, Puck, bottom left, Aurora, right, and Iron Man in the background. (The Canadian Press/Ramon Perez)

Make way, Liberal cabinet: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will have another all-Canadian crew in his corner as he suits up for his latest feature role — comic book character.

Trudeau will grace the variant cover of issue No. 5 of Marvel’s “Civil War II: Choosing Sides,” due out Aug. 31 [2016].

Trudeau is depicted smiling, sitting relaxed in the boxing ring sporting a Maple Leaf-emblazoned tank, black shorts and red boxing gloves. Standing behind him are Puck, Sasquatch and Aurora, who are members of Canadian superhero squad Alpha Flight. In the left corner, Iron Man is seen with his arms crossed.

“I didn’t want to do a stuffy cover — just like a suit and tie — put his likeness on the cover and call it a day,” said award-winning Toronto-based cartoonist Ramon Perez.

“I wanted to kind of evoke a little bit of what’s different about him than other people in power right now. You don’t see (U.S. President Barack) Obama strutting around in boxing gear, doing push-ups in commercials or whatnot. Just throwing him in his gear and making him almost like an everyday person was kind of fun.”

The variant cover featuring Trudeau will be an alternative to the main cover in circulation showcasing Aurora, Puck, Sasquatch and Nick Fury.

It’s not the first time a Canadian Prime Minister has been featured in a Marvel comic book (from the CBC news item),

Trudeau Comic Cover 20160628

Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau in 1979’s Volume 120 of The Uncanny X-Men. (The Canadian Press/Marvel)

Trudeau follows in the prime ministerial footsteps of his late father, Pierre, who graced the pages of “Uncanny X-Men” in 1979.

The news item goes on to describe artist/writer Chip Zdarsky’s (Edmonton-born) ideas for the 2016 story.

h/t to Reva Seth’s June 29, 2016 article for Fast Company for pointing me to Justin Trudeau’s comic book cover.

Setting a tone for Canadian science, now what about science and a culture of innovation?

On the heels of reinstating the mandatory long form census, removing the muzzle from Canadian government scientists, and assigning multiple new ministers to old and new ‘science’ ministries, Justin Trudeau has delivered his new ministerial mandate letters where he thanks the ministers for agreeing to serve and lays out his priorities. David Bruggeman provides priority lists from two of the letters in a Nov. 13, 2015 posting on his Pasco Phronesis blog (Note: Links have been removed),

The new Science Minister, Kirsty Duncan, was given the following priorities in her letter:

Create a Chief Science Officer mandated to ensure that government science is fully available to the public, that scientists are able to speak freely about their work, and that scientific analyses are considered when the government makes decisions.
Support your colleagues in the review and reform of Canada’s environmental assessment processes to ensure that environmental assessment decisions are based on science, facts, and evidence.
Support the Minister of Employment, Workforce Development and Labour [emphasis mine] in efforts to help employers create more co-op placements for students in science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and business programs [emphasis mine].
Support your Ministerial colleagues as they re-insert scientific considerations into the heart of our decision-making and investment choices.

It’s worth noting – because it often gets lost – that this philosophy sees scientific knowledge and scientific considerations are but one input into policy and decision making.  [emphasis mine] Inform, not dictate.

It’s also worth noting that the Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development (MP Navdeep Bains) is mentioned just once in the Minister of Science letter.  Looking at the letter sent to Minister Bains, it would seem that PM Trudeau sees science in this portfolio in service to economic development and innovation.  The role as outlined in the letter:

“As Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development, your overarching goal will be to help Canadian businesses grow, innovate and export so that they can create good quality jobs and wealth for Canadians.  You will achieve this goal by working with provinces, territories, municipalities, the post-secondary education system, [emphasis mine] employers and labour to improve the quality and impact of our programs that support innovation, scientific research and entrepreneurship.  You will collaborate with provinces, territories and municipalities to align, where possible, your efforts.  I expect you to partner closely with businesses and sectors to support their efforts to increase productivity and innovation. …

I have a few comments about the ‘science’ letters. I’m happy to see the first priority for the Science minister is the appointment of a Chief Science Officer. David’s point about the letter’s emphasis that science is one input into the policy making process is interesting. Personally, I applaud the apparent even-handedness since scientific evidence is not always unequivocal but this does give the government some room to ignore scientific evidence in favour of other political considerations.

Finally, I see a gray area between the two ministries has been delineated with the Science minister being exhorted to:

“Support the Minister of Employment, Workforce Development and Labour in efforts to help employers create more co-op placements for students in science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and business programs”

and the Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development being exhorted to

” … achieve this goal [economic prosperity] by working with provinces, territories, municipalities, the post-secondary education system, employers and labour to improve the quality and impact of our programs that support innovation, scientific research and entrepreneurship.”

Note the crossover where the Science minister is being asked to help develop more coop placements while the Innovation, Science and Economic Development Minister is being asked to work with the post-secondary education system and employers to improve programs for entrepreneurship. Interestingly the exhortation for the Innovation minister is included in the general text of the letter and not in the list of priorities.

There is one other ministry I’d like to include here and it’s Canadian Heritage. While it might seem an odd choice to some, there is what seems to be an increasing interest in the relationship between art, science, and the humanities. While I’m thrilled with much of the content in the Heritage letter,  mentions of science and technology are notably absent. Given what’s happened in our cultural sector (serious funding cutbacks over several years from both the Conservative government and previous Liberal governments), it’s understandable and it’s good to see more funding (from the Canadian Heritage Ministerial Mandate letter),

As Minister of Canadian Heritage, your overarching goal will be to implement our government’s plan to strengthen our cultural and creative industries. Our cultural sector is an enormous source of strength to the Canadian economy. Canada’s stories, shaped by our immense diversity, deserve to be celebrated and shared with the world. Our plan will protect our important national institutions, safeguard our official languages, promote the industries that reflect our unique identity as Canadians, and provide jobs and economic opportunities in our cultural and creative sectors.

You will be the leader of a strong team of ministers, supported by the Minister of Sport and Persons with Disabilities and the Minister of Status of Women.

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

  • Review current plans for Canada 150 [Canada will be celebrating its 150th anniversary in 2017] and champion government-wide efforts to promote this important celebration.
  • Restore and increase funding for CBC/Radio-Canada, following consultation with the broadcaster and the Canadian cultural community.
  • Review the process by which members are appointed to the CBC/Radio-Canada Board of Directors, to ensure merit-based and independent appointments.
  • Double investment in the Canada Council for the Arts.
  • Increase funding for Telefilm Canada and the National Film Board.
  • Restore the Promart and Trade Routes International cultural promotion programs, update their design, and increase related funding.
  • Increase funding for the Young Canada Works program to help prepare the next generation of Canadians working in the heritage sector.
  • Work with the Minister of Infrastructure and Communities to make significant new investments in cultural infrastructure as part of our investment in social infrastructure.
  • Work in collaboration with the Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs to provide new funding to promote, preserve and enhance Indigenous languages and cultures.

I hope at some point this government integrates a little science and technology into Canadian Heritage because we have often achieved breakthroughs, scientifically and technically, and we have, at times, achieved the impossible as anyone who’s taken a train ride through the Rocky Mountains knows. Plus, if the government wants to encourage entrepreneurship and risk-taking, Canadian artists of all types provide an excellent model.

For the interested, the Ministerial Mandate letters have been made publicly available.

Two final items, there’s a Nov. 16, 2015 posting by Josh Silberg on Science Borealis which provides a more comprehensive roundup of science commentary in the wake of the new Liberal government’s ascendance.  Yes, I’m on it and you may recognize some others as well but there should be one or two new writers to discover.

Second, Phil Plait who has written about Canadian science and the Conservative government’s policies many times provides a brief history of the situation along with a few ebullient comments about the changes that have been taking place. You can find it all in Plait’s Nov. 17, 2015 posting on Slate.com.