Tag Archives: Phoenix payroll system

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].

No mention of climate change or environmental impact? Transforming Canadian science through infrastructure; a report from the Council of Canadian Academies

If there’s a topic that cries out for passion it’s infrastructure. It can be the only thing that will sustain you as the years go by in your quest to improve wonky and sometimes dangerous buildings (e.g. the Science and Technology Museum of Canada prior to i2017; see Ivan Semeniuk’s Nov. 12, 2017 article for the Globe & Mail about the refurbished museum), address poorly designed work environments, and replace inadequate tools and equipment.

Unless you count the report itself , you won’t find any more evidence of passion in the Council of Canadian Academies’ (CCA) report, ‘Building Excellence; The Expert Panel on Leading Practices for Transforming Canadian Science Through Infrastructure’ (webpage). There is a lot of good stuff and I’ll start with that after the description of the panel’s remit. Finally, there’ll be some shortcomings including the failure to make any mention of climate change or environmental impacts. By the way, this posting will not feature an exhaustive analysis.

Rules of the game

For those who don’t know, all of the reports written and published by the CCA are at the request of a government body. From Building Excellence (Note: I have not been able replicate the report formatting),

Public Services and Procurement Canada (the Sponsor) asked the Council of Canadian Academies (CCA) to assess the evidence on leading practices for federal S&T infrastructure investment decisions. Specifically, the Sponsor posed the following questions:

What is known about leading practices for evaluating proposals for science and technology infrastructure investments that is relevant to Canadian federal science for the future?

What processes and advisory structures have been used for reviewing proposals for significant science infrastructure investments, and what is known about their strengths and weaknesses?

What guiding principles and criteria can help assess proposals that support the federal vision for science in Canada, including, for example, interdisciplinarity? [p. 15 PDF; p. 1 print]

Defining infrastructure

In this report they seem to be using the terms scope and definition interchangeably (from Building Excellence),

… In consultation with the Sponsor, the Panel confirmed the scope of the assessment, which included investments in S&T infrastructure that is multi-sectoral, multidisciplinary, and multi-departmental. These investments will be focused on government mission-oriented (or priority-driven) research and development (R&D) and related scientific activities (RSA), such as regulatory science and long-term data collection and monitoring. Out of scope were facilities housing a single department, non-federal science infrastructure, mobile assets (e.g., vessels), global research infrastructure (e.g., CERN), and large infrastructure for basic research (e.g., telescopes). [p. 15 PDF; p. 1 print]

Although the Panel defined infrastructure broadly, the focus of this assessment is primarily on buildings and facilities. However, S&T infrastructure can include a variety of resources, as depicted in Figure 1.1

• equipment, instruments, and tools;
• knowledge-based resources such as libraries, archives, specimen collections, and databases; • cyberinfrastructure, communications, and IT support including hardware, software, services, and personnel;
• animal colonies, cell lines, and plant or bacteria strains;
• technical support staff and services; and
• administrative, management, and governance structures.

(Neal et al., 2008) [p. 16 PDF; p. 2 print]

Unfortunately, I can’t include the infrastructure image referred to as Figure 1.1 but you can find it in the report.

Building Excellence: the good stuff

Gender parity

There were four people on the expert panel; two women and two men. This marks the first time I’ve stumbled across a 50/50 split for any of these expert panels. I realize that ‘standard’ gender categories are seen as reductive and that gender can be fluid, dynamic, and multilayered but, for the moment, I’d like to applaud a tiny step for ‘gender parity’ in the right direction.

The future

It’s very encouraging to see that the authors and other contributors (a workshop was held) are looking to not only fix current problems but anticipate future directions for Canadian government research (from Building Excellence),

Leading practices in decision-making for S&T infrastructure investments take into consideration four principles: scientific excellence, collaboration, feasibility, and broader impacts.

These principles help ensure that S&T infrastructure investments build for a future in which agile, cross-disciplinary, collaborative facilities allow government scientists to engage meaningfully with each other, as well as with collaborators from academia, industry, Indigenous communities, non-governmental organizations, and local organizations, to meet challenges as they arise. Robust evaluations of infrastructure investment proposals also consider the needs of government science, including the urgent need to address existing deficits in infrastructure. [p. 11 PDF; p. IX print]

Also, it’s more than nice to see support staff singled out. Too often there’s a failure to recognize the important role that support staff plays (from Building Excellence),

S&T [science and technology] infrastructure that supports collaboration can amplify science outcomes and lead to solutions for complex challenges.

Collaborative S&T infrastructure proposals highlight the ways that new users can find opportunities for engagement within a facility, and support building relationships by addressing potential barriers to access. Dedicated, professional support staff [emphasis mine] hold the institutional knowledge that facilitates relationship building and enables new collaborations to face future challenges. S&T infrastructure proposals that provide different types of spaces — such as private, formal meeting, semi-open, open, virtual, and overbuilt spaces — support different but equally vital aspects of collaborative work. [p. 11 PDF; p. IX print]

Co-creating sounds promising

In engineering and community organizing there’s top-down and bottom-up engineering/organizing; this is the first I’ve heard of ‘middle-out’ which leads, apparently, to co-creation (from Building Excellence),

A “middle-out” approach to developing proposals facilitates relationship building from the outset of the proposal process and can ensure the success of collaborative S&T infrastructure.

In a middle-out approach, funders request proposals that address specific objectives and manage a process in which the community [emphasis mine] refines proposals collaboratively. This approach allows the S&T community to co-create promising proposals that meet government needs. In contrast, bottom-up approaches (developed solely by the community) might overlook government-mandated activities and top-down approaches (developed solely by funders) might limit collaborative opportunities [p. 12 PDF; p. X print]

So, if the proposal comes from the S&T (science and technology) community it’s a bottom-up process? What about the larger community? I gather we don’t count. (sigh) I did indicate this would be focused on the good. Here goes: it’s good to see that there is a focus on co-creating or, what some might call collaboration, between scientists and government funding agencies.

Good stuff: final thoughts

This is a thoughtful, readable, carefully constructed report.

The weird and the overlooked

I find it weird that there isn’t more information and insight solicited from parts of the world that are not in Europe, or one of the Commonwealth countries, or the US, in addition to the Canadian input. Take a look (from Building Excellence),

There is limited publicly available evidence on infrastructure evaluation processes for intramural government S&T facilities. Therefore, the Panel looked to organizations that evaluate proposals for research infrastructure dedicated to basic discovery-oriented research, including large-scale big science facilities. The review of these organizations was complemented by interviews with individuals familiar with top research infrastructure programs around the world. Specifically, the Panel examined evidence for reviewing research infrastructure proposals in:

• Australia: National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy (NCRIS);
• Canada: Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI);
• Denmark: Nationalt Udvalg for Forskningsinfrastruktur [National Committee for Research Infrastructure] (NUFI);
• European Union: European Strategy Forum on Research Infrastructures (ESFRI);
• Germany: Bundesministerium für Bildung und Forschung [Federal Ministry of Education and Research] (BMBF);
• United Kingdom: Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC); and
• United States: Major Research Equipment and Facilities Construction (MREFC). [p. 16 PDF; p. 2 print]

It’s quite possible there was an attempt to reach out beyond the ‘usual suspects’ but it’s not apparent so maybe it’s time they started including a section on attempts made to reach out and broaden the expertise brought to the table/report and perhaps note some of the other exclusions and why they had to be made.

As per the head for this posting, there’s no mention of climate change or environmental impact. Given that this is a report about buildings (for the most part) and presumably the old ones will be retrofitted or there will be new buildings, how is there no mention of the environmental impact of these proposed changes? It just seems odd to me especially since the lead on the expert panel is Wendy Watson-Wright, Chief Executive Officer of the Ocean Frontier Institute. Here’s what’s on the Ocean Frontier Institute‘s home page,

SAFE AND SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT OF THE OCEAN FRONTIER

Safe and sustainable, eh? Where is that in the report?

There’s more. A peer review process, a standard practice, was undertaken for this report. It included Karen Dodds, Former Assistant Deputy Minister, Science and Technology Branch, Environment and Climate Change Canada [emphasis mine].

What happened?

It’s a mystery and not one that is likely to be solved unless … somebody would like to contact me and give me the inside story: nano@frogheart.ca.

One other odd thing, the agency which initiated Building Excellence, Public Services and Procurement Canada (PSPC), was in charge of the Phoenix Pay System, which is widely considered one of the greatest government debacles in Canadian history. You can read this Wikipedia entry for a fairly restrained description.

This connection between PSPC and the Phoenix pay system raises questions, in my mind if no one else’s, as to whether or not the agency has learned any lessons from the experience. A July 31, 2018 news item on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) online news website had this title: Senate committee ‘not confident’ government has learned lessons from Phoenix. So who’s going to be in charge of this infrastructure, what failsafes do they have in place, and will warnings be heeded?

The blogger misses an important piece of information

In 2018, the government announced Canada’s Science Vision in a video of Minister of Science Kirsty Duncan posted on October 10, 2018 and I didn’t catch it.

Try as I might, I cannot find a news release for this announcement but I did find a Canada’s Science Vision website.

I think that if I’m going to point out other people’s shortcomings I have to be willing to admit my own and this was definitely a fail on my part.

Final bit

I’m glad to see that infrastructure for government science is being addressed and, as noted earlier, this is a thoughtful report. Let’s hope that climate change and environmental impact will somehow also be considered in the context of science infrastructure and there will be new points of view (experts and/or agencies not based in the European Union, the United States and/or the United Kingdom) represented in any future reports.

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’.