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]
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
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.
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].
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: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.
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.