Tag Archives: Phoenix payroll system

Science and the 2019 Canadian federal government budget

There’s been a lot of noise about how the 2019 Canadian federal government budget is designed to please the various constituencies that helped bring the Liberal party back into power in 2015 and which the Liberals are hoping will help re-elect them later in 2019. I don’t care about that, for me, it’s all about the science.

In general, it seems the budget excitement is a bit milder than usual and some of that possibly due to the SNC-Lavalin (a huge Canadian engineering and construction firm) scandal resulting in the loss of two cabinet ministers, Trudeau’s top personal/political advisor, and Canada’s top bureaucrat; a 3rd reshuffling of Trudeau’s cabinet in less than three months; and the kind of political theatrics from the Liberals, the Conservatives, and the NDP (New Democratic Party) that I associate more strongly with our neighbours to the south. .

(As for the SNC-Lavalin mess which includes allegations of political interference on behalf of a company accused of various offences, you might find this brief March 11, 2019 article by David Ljunggren for Reuters insightful as it reviews the response from abroad, specifically, the OECD [Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. For anyone who wants an overview and timeline of the crisis, there’s this March 10, 2019 news item on Huffington Post Canada and, for context, there’s this March 10, 2019 video report (roughly 3 mins.) on SNC-Lavalin’s long history of corruption by Daniel Tencer for Huffington Post Canada. )

In any event, it’s a been a very busy first quarter for 2019 and the science funding portion of the budget holds a few rays of light but in the main, the science funding portion suggests the government is treading water (term to describe a swimmer who is keeping their head above water and staying in place while being vertical). As for the rest of the 2019 budget, I leave to experience political pundits.

Let’s start with the sections that gladdened my heart, just a little.

Rays of light

We’re in Chapter 2 of the 2019 federal budget, in Part 5: Building a Nation of Innovators; Bringing Innovation to Regulations, and I’m happy to see this, as I think it’s absolutely essential that we become more innovative with regulations when emerging technologies pose new challenges at an ever increasing pace (Note: The formatting has been changed),

Simply put, regulations are rules that stipulate how businesses must operate. When they are effective, they contribute to the protection of health, safety, security and the environment. They also support innovation, productivity and competition by establishing the rules for fair markets and a predictable environment for businesses, reducing barriers to trade and fostering new investment. While the OECD [Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development] Regulatory Policy Outlook (2018) has again ranked Canada in the top five jurisdictions on many key measures of regulatory governance, recent reports from panels convened to advise the Government, such as the Advisory Council on Economic Growth and the Economic Strategy Tables, have called for Canada to take steps to change how we design and administer regulations. The Government is responding.

In Budget 2018, the Government announced its intention to review regulatory requirements and practices that impede innovation and growth in the following high-growth sectors:

Agri-food and aquaculture.
Health and bio-sciences.
Transportation and infrastructure.

The 2018 Fall Economic Statement continued this work, proposing additional ways to reform and modernize federal regulations, with an emphasis on making it easier for businesses to grow while continuing to protect Canadians’ health and safety and the environment. As a next step, Budget 2019 introduces the first three “Regulatory Roadmaps” to specifically address stakeholder issues and irritants in these sectors, informed by over 140 responses from businesses and Canadians across the country, as well as recommendations from the Economic Strategy Tables.

Introducing Regulatory Roadmaps

These Roadmaps lay out the Government’s plans to modernize regulatory frameworks, without compromising our strong health, safety, and environmental protections. They contain proposals for legislative and regulatory amendments as well as novel regulatory approaches to accommodate emerging technologies, including the use of regulatory sandboxes and pilot projects—better aligning our regulatory frameworks with industry realities.

Budget 2019 proposes the necessary funding and legislative revisions so that regulatory departments and agencies can move forward on the Roadmaps, including providing the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, Health Canada and Transport Canada with up to $219.1 million over five years, starting in 2019–20, (with $0.5 million in remaining amortization), and $3.1 million per year on an ongoing basis.

In the coming weeks, the Government will be releasing the full Regulatory Roadmaps for each of the reviews, as well as timelines for enacting specific initiatives, which can be grouped in the following three main areas:

What Is a Regulatory Sandbox? Regulatory sandboxes are controlled “safe spaces” in which innovative products, services, business models and delivery mechanisms can be tested without immediately being subject to all of the regulatory requirements.
– European Banking Authority, 2017

1. Creating a user-friendly regulatory system:
The Roadmaps propose a more user-friendly regulatory system, including the use of more digital services (e.g. online portals, electronic templates), and clearer guidance for industry so that innovative and safe products are available for Canadians more quickly.

2. Using novel or experimental approaches:
The Roadmaps propose greater exploration, innovation, and the use of sandboxes and pilot programs for new and innovative products. This will allow these products to be approved for use in a risk-based and flexible way—encouraging ongoing innovation while continuing to protect Canadians’ health and safety, and the environment.

3. Facilitating greater cooperation and reducing duplication:
The Roadmaps propose greater alignment and coordination within the federal government and across Canadian and international jurisdictions.

Real Improvements for Business

Digitizing Canadian Food Inspection Agency services
The Canadian Food Inspection Agency currently relies on a paper-based system for issuing export certificates. As a result, Canadian exporters are required to submit forms by mail and wait for those forms to be returned prior to exporting their products. When Canadian firms are allowed to complete the application process online and have their reviewed forms returned electronically, Canadian business owners will be able to export their products more rapidly.

Updating the Canadian grains legislative and regulatory frameworks
The Canada Grain Act has not been substantially updated in decades, and its requirements are not aligned with current market realities. A broad-based review of the Act, and of the operations of the Canadian Grain Commission, will be undertaken to address a number of issues raised by the Canadian grain industry, including redundant inspections and issues within the current grain classification process that unnecessarily restrict Canadian grain exporters.

Establishing a regulatory sandbox for new and innovative medical products
The regulatory approval system has not kept up with new medical technologies and processes. Health Canada proposes to modernize regulations to put in place a regulatory sandbox for new and innovative products, such as tissues developed through 3D printing, artificial intelligence, and gene therapies targeted to specific individuals.

Modernizing the regulation of clinical trials
Industry and academics have expressed concerns that regulations related to clinical trials are overly prescriptive and inconsistent. Health Canada proposes to implement a risk-based approach to clinical trials to reduce costs to industry and academics by removing unnecessary requirements for low-risk drugs and trials. The regulations will also provide the agri-food industry with the ability to carry out clinical trials within Canada on products such as food for special dietary use and novel foods.

Enhancing the road safety transfer payment program
Road safety and transportation requirements vary among Canadian provinces and territories, creating barriers and inefficiencies for businesses that transport goods by road. Transport Canada will support provinces and territories in working towards improved alignment of these requirements, including for the use of autonomous and connected vehicles. Funding would be made available to other stakeholders, such as academia and industry associations, to identify innovative road safety options, including for emerging technologies.

Introducing a regulatory sandbox for dangerous goods electronic shipping documents
Currently, shipments of dangerous goods in Canada must be accompanied by paper documentation which can be burdensome and inefficient for businesses. Under this initiative, Transport Canada would work with industry, American counterparts and provincial/territorial jurisdictions to identify options for the sharing of shipping documents by electronic means, based on existing technologies.

Removing federal barriers to the interprovincial trade of alcohol
To facilitate internal trade, the Government intends to remove the federal requirement that alcohol moving from one province to another be sold or consigned to a provincial liquor authority. Provinces and territories would continue to be able to regulate the sale and distribution of alcohol within their boundaries.

To ensure that these Roadmaps can be implemented in a timely manner, Budget 2019 proposes to provide up to $67.8 million over five years, starting in 2019–20, for Justice Canada resources. These funds will strengthen the Government’s capacity to draft the legislative and regulatory changes needed to facilitate a new approach to regulations in these sectors and others.

Harmonizing Regulations
When regulations are more consistent between jurisdictions, Canadian companies are better able to trade within Canada and beyond, while also giving Canadian consumers greater choice. The Government is working with provinces and territories to better harmonize regulations across provincial and territorial boundaries, opening up the door to more seamless internal trade. Canada also has an opportunity to harmonize regulations with its international trading partners, making Canada an even more attractive place to invest in and grow a business. The Government does this through a number of regulatory cooperation bodies, for example, the Canadian Free Trade Agreement Regulatory Reconciliation and Cooperation Table, the Canada-U.S. Regulatory Cooperation Council and the Regulatory Cooperation Forum of the Canada-European Union Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement.  

Budget 2019 proposes to provide $3.1 million per year in ongoing funding to the Treasury Board Secretariat, starting in 2020–21, to support its leadership of the Government’s regulatory cooperation priorities at home and abroad.

Modernizing Regulations
In the 2018 Fall Economic Statement, the Government announced its plan to introduce an annual modernization bill consisting of legislative amendments to various statutes to help eliminate outdated federal regulations and better keep existing regulations up to date. In Budget 2019, the Government proposes to introduce legislation to begin this work. Work also continues to identify opportunities to make regulatory efficiency and economic growth a permanent part of regulators’ mandates, while continuing to prioritize health and safety and environmental responsibilities.

As part of these ongoing efforts, the President of Treasury Board will announce shortly the establishment of an External Advisory Committee on Regulatory Competitiveness, which will bring together business leaders, academics and consumer representatives from across the country, to help identify opportunities to streamline regulations and for novel regulatory approaches as well as to advise the Government on other sectors for consideration in the next round of regulatory reviews. 

Safe Food for Canadians Regulations
A recent regulatory modernization success is related to the coming into force of the new Safe Food for Canadians Regulations in January 2019.These modern regulations apply across all sectors and have introduced an outcomes-based approach to food safety regulations.

The other ‘ray of light’ concerns high speed internet access. Interestingly, some of the text about high speed access echoes faintly echoes descriptions of Estonia’s perspective on this issue. (Note: Canada’s Treasury Board signed a memorandum of understanding with Estonia in May 2018 as per this May 29, 2018 article by Silver Tambur for estonian world (how estonians see it),

Canada and Estonia have signed a memorandum of understanding on digital cooperation, aiming to work together on joint projects.

The new partnership was signed during the Estonian prime minister, Jüri Ratas’s, visit to Ottawa on 28 May [2018]. Welcomed by his Canadian counterpart, Justin Trudeau, Ratas became the first Estonian prime minister to make an official visit to Canada.

Both countries already share a membership of Digital 7 – a network of leading digital governments, currently comprising Canada, Estonia, Israel, New Zealand, South Korea, United Kingdom and Uruguay. The group is seeking to harness digital technology and improve digital services for the benefit of its citizens.[emphasis mine]

Under the new cooperation agreement between Canada and Estonia, both countries will work together on joint projects, the exchange of experts and other ways to share good practices as well as concrete digital solutions to advance these priorities.

Of course, there’s no point to improving digital services for citizens who do not have high speed internet or much of any kind of connectivity, as the Estonians must have realized fairly early on. This excerpt from an Estonian tourist website has a scrap of text that bears a resemblance to text in the Canadian 2019 budget (from the homepage of visit estonia),

“e-Estonia”, the E is for electronic, has become the go to tag to describe Estonia’s immensely successful love affair with all things networked and digitised.

Country wide enthusiasm for the efficiency of E has enthralled both citizens and policymakers alike. Estonian programmers have been behind the creation of digital brands such as Skype, Hotmail and more recently Transferwise (a online currency converter which has attracted investment from the likes of Richard Branson). Estonia has declared internet access a human right, [emphasis mine] it has a thriving IT start up culture and has digitally streamlined an unprecedented number of public services for citizens and businesses.

The roots of this revolution began in 1991, the year of Estonian independence, Estonian policy makers were given the rare gift of a bureaucratic clean slate. Placing their faith in the burgeoning possibilities of the internet and value of innovation, they steered the country into a position where it could leapfrog to become one of the most advanced e-societies in the world.

Now, here’s what the 2019 federal budget had to say bout connectivity in Canada (from Chapter 2; Part 3: Connecting Canadians), Note: Formatting has been changed),

Access to High-Speed Internet for All Canadians

In 2019, fast and reliable internet access is no longer a luxury—it’s a necessity. [emphasis mine]

For public institutions, entrepreneurs, and businesses of all sizes, quality high-speed internet is essential to participating in the digital economy—opening doors to customers who live just down the street or on the other side of the world. It is also important in the lives of Canadians. It lets students and young people do their homework, stay in touch with their friends, and apply for their very first jobs. It helps busy families register for recreational programs, shop online and pay their bills and access essential services. For many seniors, the internet is a way to stay up on current events and stay connected to distant family members and friends.

Canadians have a strong tradition of embracing new technologies, and using them to help generate long-term economic growth and drive social progress. In recent years, Canada and Canadian companies built mobile wireless networks that are among the fastest in the world and made investments that are delivering next-generation digital technologies and services to people and communities across the country. Yet, unfortunately, many Canadians still remain without reliable, high-speed internet access. In this time in the 21st Century, this is unacceptable.

How We Will Achieve a Fully Connected Canada

Delivering universal high-speed internet to every Canadian in the quickest and most cost-effective way will require a coordinated effort involving partners in the private sector and across all levels of government. To meet this commitment, Budget 2019 is proposing a new, coordinated plan that would deliver $5 billion to $6 billion in new investments in rural broadband over the next 10 years:

Support through the Accelerated Investment Incentive to encourage greater investments in rural high-speed internet from the private sector.
Greater coordination with provinces, territories, and federal arm’s-length institutions, such as the CRTC and its $750 million rural/remote broadband fund.
Securing advanced Low Earth Orbit satellite capacity to serve the most rural and remote regions of Canada.
New investments in the Connect to Innovate program and introduction of the Government’s new Universal Broadband Fund.
New investments by the Canada Infrastructure Bank to further leverage private sector investment.

Or, you could describe internet access as a human right. Whether you like it or not, it seems, short of a planetary disaster, internet access will be almost as important as food, water, and air.

This next ‘ray of light’ is a bit of a mixed bag, from Paul Wells’s March 19, 2019 article for Maclean’s,

… There’s $2.2 billion, refreshingly free of attached strings, in “much needed infrastructure funds” right now, this year.

Why infrastructure funds would still be “much needed,” four years into the tenure of the third prime minister in a row to make infrastructure spending a personal priority, is an interesting question for another day.

I’m hoping that at least some of this money is going to address the government’s digital infrastructure and I don’t understand any more than Paul Wells does as to why we’d still be talking about infrastructure. Stephen Harper’s Conservative government was in place for almost 10 years and Trudeau’s government for almost four years now (I don’t include Paul Martin’s government as that was fairly short lived) and with both of these prime ministers touting infrastructure, what’s taking so much time?

I hope some of this money is being dedicated to replacing the government’s dangerously aging digital infrastructure. I included some excerpts from an excellent article by James Bagnall on the state of the government’s digital infrastructure in my March 19, 2019 posting (scroll down about 15% of the way), which is a commentary on the Chief Science Advisor’s Office (CSO) 2018 annual report. Bagnall’s description is shocking and when I looked at the CSO’s 2018 report and saw that approximately 80% of the digital infrastructure for government science is conducted facilities that are between 50 and 25 years old with, presumably, similarly aged hardware and software, I couldn’t help but wonder when the Canadian government digital armageddon would occur.

I dug further into the 2019 budget and in Chapter Four, Part Six: Better Government found no mention of their digital infrastructure or of monies allocated to replacing any or all of the digital infrastructure. (sigh)

More happily, there was some reference to the Phoenix payroll system debacle and attempts to rectify the situation,

Ensuring Proper Payment for Public Servants

Canada’s public servants work hard in service of all Canadians and deserve to be paid properly and on time for their important work. The Phoenix pay system for federal public servants was originally intended to save money, however, since its launch it has resulted in unacceptable pay inaccuracies—resulting in hardships for public servants across the country. Serious issues and challenges with the pay system continue, and too many of Canada’s public servants are not being properly paid, or are waiting for their pay issues to be resolved.

To continue progress on stabilizing the current pay system, Budget 2019 provides an additional $21.7 million in 2018–19 to address urgent pay administration pressures (partially sourced from existing departmental funds), and proposes to invest an additional $523.3 million over five years, starting in 2019–20, to ensure that adequate resources are dedicated to addressing payroll errors. This investment will also support system improvements, to reduce the likelihood of errors occurring in the first place.

To ensure that the Canada Revenue Agency is able to quickly and accurately process income tax reassessments for federal government employees that are required due to Phoenix pay issues, and to support related telephone enquiries, Budget 2019 proposes to provide the Agency with an additional $9.2 million in 2019–20.

While the Phoenix pay system has been underpaying some public servants, it has also been paying others too much. Under current legislation, any employee who received an overpayment in a previous year is required to pay back the gross amount of this overpayment to their employer. The employee must recover from the Canada Revenue Agency the excess income tax, Canada Pension Plan contributions and Employment Insurance premiums that were deducted by their employer when the overpayment was made. On January 15, 2019, the Government proposed legislative amendments that would allow overpaid employees working in both the public and private sectors to repay their employer only the net amount they received after these deductions. The proposed amendments are intended to alleviate the burden faced by employees who were required to make repayments larger than the amounts they received from their employer, creating uncertainty and potential financial hardship.

Moving Toward the Next Generation Pay System for the Federal Public Service

In Budget 2018, the Government announced its intention to move away from the Phoenix pay system toward one better aligned to the complexity of the Government’s pay structure and to the future needs of Canada’s world-class public service.

Working cooperatively with experts, federal public sector unions, employees, pay specialists and technology providers, the Treasury Board Secretariat (TBS) launched a process to review lessons learned, and identify options for a next-generation pay solution.

As part of this process, pay system suppliers were invited to demonstrate possible solutions, which were directly tested with users. Based on feedback from users and participating stakeholders, TBS has been able to identify options with the potential to successfully replace the Phoenix pay system. As a next step, the Government will work with suppliers and stakeholders to develop the best options, including pilot projects that will allow for further testing with select departments and agencies, while assessing the ability of suppliers to deliver.

Finally, TBS will continue to engage public servants throughout this process, to ensure that their feedback is fully reflected in any future solution.

Interestingly, at the time of James Bagnoll’s article (excerpt in my March 19, 2019 posting), the only government data centre being replaced was Revenue Canada’s. It suggests that anything else can fall to pieces but the government should always be able to collect tax.

Getting back to my more cheerful and optimistic self, on balance, it’s encouraging to see thoughtful approaches to modernizing our regulatory system.

Treading water

There’s more to the’ 2019 commitment to science (from the 2019 budget’s Chapter 2; Part 6: Building Research Excellence in Canada: Support for Science, Research and Technology Organizations),

Canada is home to world-leading non-profit organizations that undertake research and bring together experts from diverse backgrounds to make discoveries, accelerate innovation and tackle health challenges. The Government helps support these collaborative efforts with targeted investments that return real economic and social benefits for Canadians.
Budget 2019 proposes to make additional investments in support of the following organizations:
Stem Cell Network: Stem cell research—pioneered by two Canadians in the 1960s—holds great promise for new therapies and medical treatments for respiratory and heart diseases, spinal cord injury, cancer, and many other diseases and disorders. The Stem Cell Network is a national not-for-profit organization that helps translate stem cell research into clinical applications and commercial products. To support this important work and foster Canada’s leadership in stem cell research, Budget 2019 proposes to provide the Stem Cell Network with renewed funding of $18 million over three years, starting in 2019–20.
Brain Canada Foundation: The Brain Canada Foundation is a national charitable organization that raises funds to foster advances in neuroscience discovery research, with the aim of improving health care for people affected by neurological injury and disease. To help the medical community better understand the brain and brain health, Budget 2019 proposes to provide the Brain Canada Foundation’s Canada Brain Research Fund with up to $40 million over two years, starting in 2020–21. This investment will be matched by funds raised from other non-government partners of the Brain Canada Foundation.
Terry Fox Research Institute: The Terry Fox Research Institute manages the cancer research investments of the Terry Fox Foundation. Budget 2019 proposes to provide the Terry Fox Research Institute with up to $150 million over five years, starting in 2019–20, to help establish a national Marathon of Hope Cancer Centres Network. The Institute would seek matching funding through a combination of its own resources and contributions that it would seek from other organizations,, including hospital and research foundations.
Ovarian Cancer Canada: Ovarian Cancer Canada supports women living with the disease and their families, raises awareness and funds research. Budget 2019 proposes to provide Ovarian Cancer Canada with $10 million over five years beginning in 2019–20 to help address existing gaps in knowledge about effective prevention, screening, and treatment options for ovarian cancer.
Genome Canada: The insights derived from genomics—the study of the entire genetic information of living things encoded in their DNA and related molecules and proteins—hold the potential for breakthroughs that can improve the lives of Canadians and drive innovation and economic growth. Genome Canada is a not-for-profit organization dedicated to advancing genomics science and technology in order to create economic and social benefits for Canadians. To support Genome Canada’s operations, Budget 2019 proposes to provide Genome Canada with $100.5 million over five years, starting in 2020–21. This investment will also enable Genome Canada to launch new large-scale research competitions and projects, in collaboration with external partners, ensuring that Canada’s research community continues to have access to the resources needed to make transformative scientific breakthroughs and translate these discoveries into real-world applications.
Let’s Talk Science: Science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) are not just things we study in school—together, they are transforming all aspects of our lives, and redefining the skills and knowledge people need to succeed in a changing world. Let’s Talk Science engages youth in hands-on STEM activities and learning programs, such as science experiments, helping youth develop critical thinking skills and opening up doors to future study and work in these fields. It also helps ensure more girls—and other groups that are underrepresented in STEM—gain and maintain interest in STEM from an early age. Budget 2019 proposes to provide Let’s Talk Science with $10 million over two years, starting in 2020–21, to support this important work.

There’s nothing earth shattering on that list. Five of these organizations could be described as focused on medical research and I have seen at least three of them mentioned in previous federal budgets. The last organization, Let’s Talk Science (established in 1993), focused on science promotion for children and youth, is being mentioned for the first time in a budget (as far as I know).

In the next section, the budget blesses physics or more specifically, TRIUMF. From the 2019 budget’s Chapter 2; Part 6: Building Research Excellence in Canada: Strengthening Canada’s World-Class physics research,

TRIUMF is a world-class sub-atomic physics research laboratory located in British Columbia, and home to the world’s largest cyclotron particle accelerator. TRIUMF has played a leading role in many medical breakthroughs—such as developing alongside Canadian industrial partners new approaches to the medical imaging of diseases—and brings together industry partners, leading academic researchers and scientists, and graduate students from across Canada and around the world to advance medical isotope production, drug development, cancer therapy, clinical imaging, and radiopharmaceutical research.

Budget 2019 proposes to provide TRIUMF with $195.9 million over five years, starting in 2019–20, to build on its strong track record of achievements. Combined with an additional $96.8 million from the existing resources of the National Research Council, federal support for TRIUMF will total $292.7 million over this five-year period.

When are the folks at the Canadian Light Source (our synchrotron) going to get some love? Year after year it’s either TRIUMF or the Perimeter Institute getting a major infusion of cash. I exaggerate but only mildly.You can find some of my comments on the 2018 federal budget in this March 16, 2018 posting and my comments on the 2017 federal budget in this March 24, 2017 posting.

Maybe one day a ray of light?

Here’s something new but I imagine you’ll quickly see what makes this an odd addition to the budget (from the 2019 budget’s Chapter 2; Part 6: Building Research Excellence in Canada: Taking a new approach With the Strategic Science Fund),

To make federal investments in third-party science and research more effective, Budget 2019 proposes to establish a new Strategic Science Fund. This new Fund will respond to recommendations that arose during consultations with third-party science and research organizations. It will operate using a principles-based framework for allocating federal funding that includes competitive, transparent processes. This will help protect and promote research excellence.

Under the Fund, the principles-based framework will be applied by an independent panel of experts, including scientists and innovators, who will provide advice for the consideration of the Government on approaches to allocating funding for third-party science and research organizations.

Budget 2019 proposes to establish and operate the Strategic Science Fund starting in 2022–23.

This Strategic Science Fund will be the Government’s key new tool to support third-party science and research organizations. Going forward, the selection of recipient organizations and corresponding level of support will be determined through the Fund’s competitive allocation process, with advice from the expert panel and informed by the Minister of Science’s overall strategy. The Minister of Science will provide more detail on the Fund over the coming months.

No money until 2022, eh? That’s interesting given that would be a year before the election (2023) after this one later in 2019. And, it’s anyone’s guess as to which government will be in power. Crossing my fingers again, I hope these good intention bear fruit in light of Daniel Banks’s (of the Canadian Neutron Beam Centre] March 21, 2019 essay (on the Canadian Science Policy Centre website) about the potential new oversight (Note: Prepare yourself for some alphabet soup; the man loves initialisms and sees no reason to include full names),

From a science policy perspective, which is about how science is managed, as well as funded, the biggest change may be one item that had no dollar amount attached.

Budget 2019 announces a “new approach” for funding so-called “third-party science and research.” The Fundamental Science Review defined “third-party science entities” as those operating outside the jurisdiction of NSERC, CIHR, SSHRC, CFI. Genome Canada, Mitacs, and Brain Canada are a few examples.

The Review raised concerns, not with the quality of these organizations’ output, but with how they are each governed as one-offs, via term-limited contribution agreements with ISED. Ad hoc governance arrangements have been needed until now because these organizations don’t fit within the existing programs of the granting councils. Lack of a suitable program required scientists to lobby for funds, rather than participate in peer-reviewed competitions. Over time, the Review warned, this approach could “allow select groups of researchers to sidestep the intensity of peer review competitions, and facilitate unchecked mission drift as third-party partner organizations shift their mandates to justify their continuation.”

The Strategic Science Fund could be a precedent for another portion of the science community that faces similar challenges: so-called Big Science, or Major Research Facilities (MRFs), such as TRIUMF, SNOLAB, Ocean Networks Canada, the Canadian Light Source, and large facilities for astronomy or neutron scattering. In the absence of a systematic means of overseeing Canada’s portfolio of these shared national resources, an array of oversight mechanisms have been created for these facilities on an ad hoc basis, much like the case for third-party research organizations. The Fundamental Science Review was the latest in a string of reports that have pointed problems with this ad hoc approach, stretching back at least 20 years.

Stewardship of Canada’s MRFs has improved following the introduction of the CFI’s Major Science Initiatives Fund in 2012, and the expansion of its mandate to include more facilities under its program in 2014. Nonetheless, there are still many facilities that are not covered by this Fund. No agency has responsibility for the entire portfolio of MRFs to allow it to plan for the creation of new MRFs as others wind-down, or provide predictable funding over the life-cycle of an MRF. Other MRFs still fall through jurisdictional cracks, where no federal agency is clearly responsible for them. Such jurisdictional cracks were one contributing factor in the loss of Canada’s neutron scattering facilities in 2018.

it’s one of the things I’ve found most difficult about following the Canadian science scene, it’s very scattered. In his essay, Banks explains, in part, why this situation exists.Let’s hope that one government or another addresses it.

On balance, it’s encouraging to see thoughtful approaches to modernizing our regulatory system and to better integrating the various agencies that serve our science initiatives. As for infrastructure and the Strategic Science Fund, I have, as previously noted, my fingers crossed. Let’s hope they manage it this time.

Health technology and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s (CBC) two-tier health system ‘Viewpoint’

There’s a lot of talk and handwringing about Canada’s health care system, which ebbs and flows in almost predictable cycles. Jesse Hirsh in a May 16, 2017 ‘Viewpoints’ segment (an occasional series run as part the of the CBC’s [Canadian Broadcasting Corporation] flagship, daily news programme, The National) dared to reframe the discussion as one about technology and ‘those who get it’  [the technologically literate] and ‘those who don’t’,  a state Hirsh described as being illiterate as you can see and hear in the following video.

I don’t know about you but I’m getting tired of being called illiterate when I don’t know something. To be illiterate means you can’t read and write and as it turns out I do both of those things on a daily basis (sometimes even in two languages). Despite my efforts, I’m ignorant about any number of things and those numbers keep increasing day by day. BTW, Is there anyone who isn’t having trouble keeping up?

Moving on from my rhetorical question, Hirsh has a point about the tech divide and about the need for discussion. It’s a point that hadn’t occurred to me (although I think he’s taking it in the wrong direction). In fact, this business of a tech divide already exists if you consider that people who live in rural environments and need the latest lifesaving techniques or complex procedures or access to highly specialized experts have to travel to urban centres. I gather that Hirsh feels that this divide isn’t necessarily going to be an urban/rural split so much as an issue of how technically literate you and your doctor are.  That’s intriguing but then his argumentation gets muddled. Confusingly, he seems to be suggesting that the key to the split is your access (not your technical literacy) to artificial intelligence (AI) and algorithms (presumably he’s referring to big data and data analytics). I expect access will come down more to money than technological literacy.

For example, money is likely to be a key issue when you consider his big pitch is for access to IBM’s Watson computer. (My Feb. 28, 2011 posting titled: Engineering, entertainment, IBM’s Watson, and product placement focuses largely on Watson, its winning appearances on the US television game show, Jeopardy, and its subsequent adoption into the University of Maryland’s School of Medicine in a project to bring Watson into the examining room with patients.)

Hirsh’s choice of IBM’s Watson is particularly interesting for a number of reasons. (1) Presumably there are companies other than IBM in this sector. Why do they not rate a mention?  (2) Given the current situation with IBM and the Canadian federal government’s introduction of the Phoenix payroll system (a PeopleSoft product customized by IBM), which is  a failure of monumental proportions (a Feb. 23, 2017 article by David Reevely for the Ottawa Citizen and a May 25, 2017 article by Jordan Press for the National Post), there may be a little hesitation, if not downright resistance, to a large scale implementation of any IBM product or service, regardless of where the blame lies. (3) Hirsh notes on the home page for his eponymous website,

I’m presently spending time at the IBM Innovation Space in Toronto Canada, investigating the impact of artificial intelligence and cognitive computing on all sectors and industries.

Yes, it would seem he has some sort of relationship with IBM not referenced in his Viewpoints segment on The National. Also, his description of the relationship isn’t especially illuminating but perhaps it.s this? (from the IBM Innovation Space  – Toronto Incubator Application webpage),

Our incubator

The IBM Innovation Space is a Toronto-based incubator that provides startups with a collaborative space to innovate and disrupt the market. Our goal is to provide you with the tools needed to take your idea to the next level, introduce you to the right networks and help you acquire new clients. Our unique approach, specifically around client engagement, positions your company for optimal growth and revenue at an accelerated pace.

OUR SERVICES

IBM Bluemix
IBM Global Entrepreneur
Softlayer – an IBM Company
Watson

Startups partnered with the IBM Innovation Space can receive up to $120,000 in IBM credits at no charge for up to 12 months through the Global Entrepreneurship Program (GEP). These credits can be used in our products such our IBM Bluemix developer platform, Softlayer cloud services, and our world-renowned IBM Watson ‘cognitive thinking’ APIs. We provide you with enterprise grade technology to meet your clients’ needs, large or small.

Collaborative workspace in the heart of Downtown Toronto
Mentorship opportunities available with leading experts
Access to large clients to scale your startup quickly and effectively
Weekly programming ranging from guest speakers to collaborative activities
Help with funding and access to local VCs and investors​

Final comments

While I have some issues with Hirsh’s presentation, I agree that we should be discussing the issues around increased automation of our health care system. A friend of mine’s husband is a doctor and according to him those prescriptions and orders you get when leaving the hospital? They are not made up by a doctor so much as they are spit up by a computer based on the data that the doctors and nurses have supplied.

GIGO, bias, and de-skilling

Leaving aside the wonders that Hirsh describes, there’s an oldish saying in the computer business, garbage in/garbage out (gigo). At its simplest, who’s going to catch a mistake? (There are lots of mistakes made in hospitals and other health care settings.)

There are also issues around the quality of research. Are all the research papers included in the data used by the algorithms going to be considered equal? There’s more than one case where a piece of problematic research has been accepted uncritically, even if it get through peer review, and subsequently cited many times over. One of the ways to measure impact, i.e., importance, is to track the number of citations. There’s also the matter of where the research is published. A ‘high impact’ journal, such as Nature, Science, or Cell, automatically gives a piece of research a boost.

There are other kinds of bias as well. Increasingly, there’s discussion about algorithms being biased and about how machine learning (AI) can become biased. (See my May 24, 2017 posting: Machine learning programs learn bias, which highlights the issues and cites other FrogHeart posts on that and other related topics.)

These problems are to a large extent already present. Doctors have biases and research can be wrong and it can take a long time before there are corrections. However, the advent of an automated health diagnosis and treatment system is likely to exacerbate the problems. For example, if you don’t agree with your doctor’s diagnosis or treatment, you can search other opinions. What happens when your diagnosis and treatment have become data? Will the system give you another opinion? Who will you talk to? The doctor who got an answer from ‘Watson”? Is she or he going to debate Watson? Are you?

This leads to another issue and that’s automated systems getting more credit than they deserve. Futurists such as Hirsh tend to underestimate people and overestimate the positive impact that automation will have. A computer, data analystics, or an AI system are tools not gods. You’ll have as much luck petitioning one of those tools as you would Zeus.

The unasked question is how will your doctor or other health professional gain experience and skills if they never have to practice the basic, boring aspects of health care (asking questions for a history, reading medical journals to keep up with the research, etc.) and leave them to the computers? There had to be  a reason for calling it a medical ‘practice’.

There are definitely going to be advantages to these technological innovations but thoughtful adoption of these practices (pun intended) should be our goal.

Who owns your data?

Another issue which is increasingly making itself felt is ownership of data. Jacob Brogan has written a provocative May 23, 2017 piece for slate.com asking that question about the data Ancestry.com gathers for DNA testing (Note: Links have been removed),

AncestryDNA’s pitch to consumers is simple enough. For $99 (US), the company will analyze a sample of your saliva and then send back information about your “ethnic mix.” While that promise may be scientifically dubious, it’s a relatively clear-cut proposal. Some, however, worry that the service might raise significant privacy concerns.

After surveying AncestryDNA’s terms and conditions, consumer protection attorney Joel Winston found a few issues that troubled him. As he noted in a Medium post last week, the agreement asserts that it grants the company “a perpetual, royalty-free, world-wide, transferable license to use your DNA.” (The actual clause is considerably longer.) According to Winston, “With this single contractual provision, customers are granting Ancestry.com the broadest possible rights to own and exploit their genetic information.”

Winston also noted a handful of other issues that further complicate the question of ownership. Since we share much of our DNA with our relatives, he warned, “Even if you’ve never used Ancestry.com, but one of your genetic relatives has, the company may already own identifiable portions of your DNA.” [emphasis mine] Theoretically, that means information about your genetic makeup could make its way into the hands of insurers or other interested parties, whether or not you’ve sent the company your spit. (Maryam Zaringhalam explored some related risks in a recent Slate article.) Further, Winston notes that Ancestry’s customers waive their legal rights, meaning that they cannot sue the company if their information gets used against them in some way.

Over the weekend, Eric Heath, Ancestry’s chief privacy officer, responded to these concerns on the company’s own site. He claims that the transferable license is necessary for the company to provide its customers with the service that they’re paying for: “We need that license in order to move your data through our systems, render it around the globe, and to provide you with the results of our analysis work.” In other words, it allows them to send genetic samples to labs (Ancestry uses outside vendors), store the resulting data on servers, and furnish the company’s customers with the results of the study they’ve requested.

Speaking to me over the phone, Heath suggested that this license was akin to the ones that companies such as YouTube employ when users upload original content. It grants them the right to shift that data around and manipulate it in various ways, but isn’t an assertion of ownership. “We have committed to our users that their DNA data is theirs. They own their DNA,” he said.

I’m glad to see the company’s representatives are open to discussion and, later in the article, you’ll see there’ve already been some changes made. Still, there is no guarantee that the situation won’t again change, for ill this time.

What data do they have and what can they do with it?

It’s not everybody who thinks data collection and data analytics constitute problems. While some people might balk at the thought of their genetic data being traded around and possibly used against them, e.g., while hunting for a job, or turned into a source of revenue, there tends to be a more laissez-faire attitude to other types of data. Andrew MacLeod’s May 24, 2017 article for thetyee.ca highlights political implications and privacy issues (Note: Links have been removed),

After a small Victoria [British Columbia, Canada] company played an outsized role in the Brexit vote, government information and privacy watchdogs in British Columbia and Britain have been consulting each other about the use of social media to target voters based on their personal data.

The U.K.’s information commissioner, Elizabeth Denham [Note: Denham was formerly B.C.’s Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner], announced last week [May 17, 2017] that she is launching an investigation into “the use of data analytics for political purposes.”

The investigation will look at whether political parties or advocacy groups are gathering personal information from Facebook and other social media and using it to target individuals with messages, Denham said.

B.C.’s Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner confirmed it has been contacted by Denham.

Macleod’s March 6, 2017 article for thetyee.ca provides more details about the company’s role (note: Links have been removed),

The “tiny” and “secretive” British Columbia technology company [AggregateIQ; AIQ] that played a key role in the Brexit referendum was until recently listed as the Canadian office of a much larger firm that has 25 years of experience using behavioural research to shape public opinion around the world.

The larger firm, SCL Group, says it has worked to influence election outcomes in 19 countries. Its associated company in the U.S., Cambridge Analytica, has worked on a wide range of campaigns, including Donald Trump’s presidential bid.

In late February [2017], the Telegraph reported that campaign disclosures showed that Vote Leave campaigners had spent £3.5 million — about C$5.75 million [emphasis mine] — with a company called AggregateIQ, run by CEO Zack Massingham in downtown Victoria.

That was more than the Leave side paid any other company or individual during the campaign and about 40 per cent of its spending ahead of the June referendum that saw Britons narrowly vote to exit the European Union.

According to media reports, Aggregate develops advertising to be used on sites including Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, then targets messages to audiences who are likely to be receptive.

The Telegraph story described Victoria as “provincial” and “picturesque” and AggregateIQ as “secretive” and “low-profile.”

Canadian media also expressed surprise at AggregateIQ’s outsized role in the Brexit vote.

The Globe and Mail’s Paul Waldie wrote “It’s quite a coup for Mr. Massingham, who has only been involved in politics for six years and started AggregateIQ in 2013.”

Victoria Times Colonist columnist Jack Knox wrote “If you have never heard of AIQ, join the club.”

The Victoria company, however, appears to be connected to the much larger SCL Group, which describes itself on its website as “the global leader in data-driven communications.”

In the United States it works through related company Cambridge Analytica and has been involved in elections since 2012. Politico reported in 2015 that the firm was working on Ted Cruz’s presidential primary campaign.

And NBC and other media outlets reported that the Trump campaign paid Cambridge Analytica millions to crunch data on 230 million U.S. adults, using information from loyalty cards, club and gym memberships and charity donations [emphasis mine] to predict how an individual might vote and to shape targeted political messages.

That’s quite a chunk of change and I don’t believe that gym memberships, charity donations, etc. were the only sources of information (in the US, there’s voter registration, credit card information, and more) but the list did raise my eyebrows. It would seem we are under surveillance at all times, even in the gym.

In any event, I hope that Hirsh’s call for discussion is successful and that the discussion includes more critical thinking about the implications of Hirsh’s ‘Brave New World’.