Tag Archives: Tom Spears

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].

What kind of science do we want? A few thoughts on the National Research Council of Canada and its new dedication to business

Last week in its May 7, 2013 news release, the National Research Council of Canada flung open the doors of its closet and declared itself ‘open for business’,

The National Research Council of Canada (NRC) has transformed into an industry-focused research and technology organization. The refocused NRC will work with Canadian industries to bridge technology gaps, helping build a more innovative Canadian economy.

“NRC plays a pivotal role at the heart of Canada’s innovation system,” said the Honourable Gary Goodyear, Minister of State (Science and Technology). “The refocused NRC will provide Canadian industries with access to strategic research and development, technical services and specialized scientific infrastructure they need to succeed.”

“The Government’s top priority is jobs, growth and long-term prosperity for all Canadians,” said the Honourable Claude Carignan, Deputy Leader of the Government at the Senate. “By refocusing the NRC into a research and technology organization, our Government is ensuring that Canadian firms have the instruments and tools they need to become even more successful on the global stage.”

The refocused NRC will support Canadian industries by investing in large-scale research projects that are directed by and for Canadian business. It will also develop international networks to ensure timely access to primary research and will open the doors to world class scientific infrastructure, technical expertise and people.

“We are very excited about this change. Our organization is now easier for business to understand and access,” said John R. McDougall, President of the National Research Council. “We are committed to being a strong partner for innovation, and focused on achieving the concrete outcomes that will contribute to a stronger and more prosperous Canada. We will measure our success by the success of our clients.”

Research and technology organizations are mission-oriented providers of innovation services to firms and governments, dedicated to building economic competitiveness and, in doing so, improving quality of life. The refocused NRC will strengthen Canadian industry by encouraging more business investment to develop innovative products and services.

Response has ranged from mild interest to apoplexy and heartbreak.

Phil Plait, a US astronomer and creator of the Bad Astronomy blog/book/website, has opined in a May 13, 2013 posting at Slate.com (Note: A link has been removed),

This is not a joke. I wish it were.

John MacDougal [sic], President of the NRC, literally said, “Scientific discovery is not valuable unless it has commercial value”. Gary Goodyear, the Canadian Minister of State for Science and Technology, also stated “There is [sic] only two reasons why we do science and technology. First is to create knowledge … second is to use that knowledge for social and economic benefit. Unfortunately, all too often the knowledge gained is opportunity lost.”

This is monumentally backwards thinking. That is not the reason we do science. Economic benefits are results of doing research, but should not be the reason we do it. Basic scientific research is a vast endeavor, and some of it will pay off economically, and some won’t. In almost every case, you cannot know in advance which will do which.

… If proposed and immediate economic benefits are the prime factors in choosing what science to fund, then the freedom of this human endeavor will be critically curtailed. It’s draining the passion and heart out of one of the best things we humans do.

This intensity suggests that Plait is unaware that the changeover has been taking place over a number of years. Hannah Hoag in an April 19, 2011 piece for Nature magazine noted this about the changeover which was even then taking place,

Canada’s largest research entity has a new focus — and some disaffected scientists. On 1 April [2011], the National Research Council (NRC), made up of more than 20 institutes and programmes with a total annual budget larger than Can$1 billion (US$1 billion), switched to a funding strategy that downplays basic research in favour of programmes designed to attract industry partners and generate revenue. [emphasis mine] Some researchers suggest that the shift is politically driven, because it brings the agency into philosophical alignment with the governing Conservative Party of Canada, which is in the middle of an election campaign.

The change was announced in a memo from NRC president John McDougall on 2 March [2011], and involves the transfer of authority over 20% of the agency’s research funds and the entire Can$60-million budget for large equipment and building costs to the NRC’s senior executive committee, which will direct it towards research with a focus on economic development, rather than pure science. Until now, individual institutes have had authority over research spending. McDougall wrote that in future, 80% of the research budget will be centralized, with “curiosity and exploratory activities” to be funded by the remaining 20%.

In Canada, most funding for academic researchers flows through agencies other than the NRC. [emphasis mine] However, with 4,700 scientists, guest researchers, technologists and support staff pursuing specialities from astrophysics to plant biotechnology at its institutes, the NRC plays a vital part in the nation’s scientific community, as a generator of original research and a service provider to government and industry.

While I’m no friend of the current Canadian government or John McDougall for that matter, this is an attempt to dealt with a longstanding issue, Canada’s failure with industrial research. From the Feb. 27, 2013 article, which prefigures the current discussion by a little over two months, by Tom Spears  in the Ottawa Citizen,

In October [2012], members of the House of Commons Industry Committee challenged McDougall to justify the changes.

Now McDougall has responded that Canada’s economy can’t wait for slow advances.

As science investment has grown in Canada, “our productivity and competitiveness, as measured by various organizations in the world, has been going in exactly the opposite direction,” he said in an interview.

“The primary reason for that is entirely speculative … But it would appear that Canada’s balance is quite different from other countries.”

That means we’re good at academic research, he says. We’re not so good at putting new knowledge to work.

“We’re not doing the things that take technology and ‘productize’ it.” (He makes exceptions to that: We’re strong in informational technology and in space-related industries such as robotics and building satellites.)

And he argues the answer lies in involving industry with the research from the start “rather than shoving it down their throat and hoping they’ll take it.”

For example, one new “flagship program” at NRC is to develop wheat that will resist cold and drought better than today’s, require less fertilizer, and produce greater yields.

“The timeline for this kind of thing is in the order of seven or eight years, which left to normal — I’ll call it traditional approaches — would typically be 20,” he said.

A similar ‘Canada is poor at commercializing research’ theme is mentioned in a May 7, 2013 article by Barrie McKenna and Ivan Semeniuk for the Globe and Mail,

The National Research Council, which gave the country canola and the atomic clock, will now be taking its scientific cues from Canadian industry as part of a makeover of the country’s flagship research labs.

The overhaul, quietly begun two years ago and formally unveiled Tuesday, means the 97-year-old NRC will focus on a clutch of large-scale, business-driven research projects at the expense of the basic science that was once at its core. The Conservative government says it wants to leverage the NRC’s world-class resources – everything from wind tunnels and ice tanks to high-powered microscopes – to help reverse the country’s chronically lagging innovation performance.

“Our businesses are not doing the research that they need to do,” Gary Goodyear, the minister of state for science and technology, told reporters in Ottawa. “So something had to be done.”

The move is in keeping with the Conservative government’s emphasis on a business model for public policy, such as tying foreign aid to economic development. It is also another significant foray into the science file, with critics saying the new approach is shortsighted and may shut the door on vast areas of promising fundamental research.

Mr. Goodyear insisted the government isn’t abandoning basic science, just shifting its focus to commercializing discoveries. “The day is past when a researcher could hit a home run simply by publishing a paper on some new discovery,” he said. “The home run is when somebody utilizes the knowledge that was discovered for social or economic gain.”

As part of the overhaul, the NRC is consolidating its disparate operations into a dozen business units and will focus on just five core areas of research: health costs, manufacturing, community infrastructure, security, and natural resources and the environment. Companies, or industries, will be able to tap the NRC’s expertise and labs, while sharing the cost of projects – as well as the intellectual property that results.

“Our job is to change innovation performance,” NRC president John McDougall explained in an interview. “So we have to do the things that will make that happen. Discovery science is necessary, but it’s not sufficient.”

Kennedy Stewart, the NDP (New Democratic Party; the official opposition) Member of Parliament expresses his opinion in his May 7, 2013 news release,

“Conservative incompetence meets Conservative narrow-mindedness,” said NDP Science and Technology critic Kennedy Stewart (Burnaby–Douglas). “They don’t want research driven by researchers themselves or public funding for science going towards actual scientific advancement. Their short-sighted approach will in fact hurt economic growth in the long run because it shuts the door on the long-view fundamental research that truly leads to scientific breakthroughs.”

Widespread dissatisfaction among the over 4,000 NRC employees and the change of focus away from basic research, patents and publications will increase the drain of Canada’s best and brightest minds to other OECD countries that are investing in scientific research heavily. Under the Conservatives, Canada just can’t compete.

“The government has been handing pink slips to scores of NRC scientists and researchers, lowering the organization’s research capacity and devastating internal morale,” said Stewart.  “It is hard to see how business will get scientific advice from the NRC if they fire all the scientists. Who they keep will spend their time trying to get off this runaway train.”

As best as I can unravel, there are several issues in the material I have excerpted:

  • what is the right mix of science, basic to applied/industrial?
  • it’s widely acknowledged that Canadians have done more poorly in the area of industrial science than colleagues in other OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) countries
  • how do we address the issue?

The solution that the current Canadian government has arrived *at is impossible to assess at this point (although I have a guess as to the outcome) and something needed to be done with the National Research Council of Canada as noted in an April 7, 2010 posting on the Don’t leave Canada behind; Researcher Forum blog (I believe the writer was Rob Annan),

The NRC is a mess.

And the mess of the NRC neatly encapsulates much that’s wrong with Canadian science policy. No direction, no cohesion, multiple conflicting purposes.

Rob goes on to discuss the NRC’s mandate (Note: A link has been removed),

Well, the NRC is mandated, by the original NRC Act of 1916, “to undertaking, assisting or promoting scientific and industrial research in different fields of importance to Canada”. It did this very successfully into the 1960s, at which point, its greatest successes were carved out and handed to new organizations.

So what’s left? Well the NRC Act has a few specific mandates that the NRC fulfills: standards of measurement, manage observatories, investigate and standardize industrial materials, perform agricultural research, and maintain a national science library (which is under major financial stress, but let’s save that for another time). But the general mandate to “undertake, assist, or promote” scientific and industrial research is open to interpretation, and is a source of conflict.

I’m not sure if the NRC Act has been amended since 2010 to allow for these latest changes but Rob goes on to make, what is for me, a more interesting point (Note: A link has been removed),

But since the 1980s, the NRC has been without a strong sense of self. Is it a basic research organization or an applied research organization? Does it exist to perform independent, government-sponsored research, or does it provide research services in support of the private sector? Does it perform early-stage research and then partner with industry, or is it a fee-for-service research organization? The answer is yes.

The NRC is being pulled in too many directions.

What does our Minister of Industry [at the time, Tony Clement] have to say about the NRC?

NRC‘s aim is to bring timely solutions to market in areas of national importance: clean energy, health and wellness, and the environment. NRC will continue to partner with Canadian firms to deliver tangible, market-oriented results in high-impact and emerging industry sectors, such as the automotive sector.

But the NRC isn’t designed to do this – this is a different mandate than what is laid out in the Act. Which would be fine – maybe it’s time for a change – except that the NRC institutes have been, not surprisingly, built according to the mandate outlined in the NRC Act – as research laboratories, not product development laboratories or partnership incubators. And the people recruited to run these labs are scientists, not business-people. They want to do science, not chase down industrial partnerships in the automotive sector or take their clean energy products to market. They’ve been recruited for their scientific abilities; it’s a bit of a stretch to expect them also to be market innovators.

Furthermore, because the government does not fund the full cost of research at the institutes, these labs are dependent on research funding from external sources. If the funding was coming from Canadian business, then the vision of our Industry minister would be fulfilled. Unfortunately, Canadian business is notoriously averse to investing in academic or government research. So these labs are dependent on CIHR, NSERC, or private funding – mostly basic science funding. So, the government builds a system of research laboratories, forces them into dependence on basic science funding, and then complains that there isn’t enough market-driven research going on? [all emphases mine]

I realize that CIHR and NSERC funding programs have changed but the issue with Canadian business paying for research has not. It is, as I have noted in other pieces, a cultural issue with the key question being, How do you inculcate a business culture that innovates? What we have now is a ‘start-up’ culture where people found businesses based on exciting research and plan on growing those businesses to a point where they can be sold to larger companies from the US or Britain or elsewhere. Based on these comments, my guess is that the current changes to the NRC will not result in the ‘innovation’ the government has repeatedly stated is its primary goal since our basic business culture will remain untouched. One last thing, I think people are going to figure out how to game this new NRC.

*at added on May 22, 2013

2012 Canadian science blog roundup and some thoughts on a Canadian science blog network

This is my 3rd annual roundup of Canadian science blogs and the science blogging scene in Canada seems to be getting more lively (see my Dec. 31, 2010 posting and Dec. 29, 2011 posting to compare).

As I did last year, I will start with

Goodbyes

Don’t leave Canada appears to be gone as there hasn’t been posting there since May 4, 2011. I’m sorry to see it go as Rob Annan provided thoughtful commentary on science policy on a regular basis for years. Thank you, Rob. (BTW, he’s now the director of policy, research and evaluation at MITACS.)

Cool Science, John McKay’s blog has been shut down as of Oct. 24, 2012,

Hi everyone. This will mark the final post of the CoolScience.ca site and it will be quietly taken offline in November. I will also be closing down the Twitter and Facebook accounts and moving everything over to my professional accounts that are all focused on communicating science, technology, engineering and medicine.

The Dark Matter science blog by Tom Spears, which I reluctantly (as it was a ‘newspaper blog’ from the Ottawa Citizen)included last year  has since disappeared as has NeuroDojo, a blog written by a Canadian scientist in Texas.

Goodbye ish

Marc Leger’s Atoms and Numbers blog’s latest posting is dated Oct. 23, 2012 but the pattern here seems similar to Marie-Claire’s (see the next one) where the posting is erratic but relatively regular (once or twice per month) until October of this year.

Marie-Claire Shanahan is posting less frequently on her Boundary Vision blog with the last posting there on Oct. 9, 2012.

The Bubble Chamber blog from the University of Toronto’s Science Policy Work Group seems to be fading away with only one posting for 2012, Reply to Wayne Myrvold on the Higgs Boson.

Colin Schulz’s CMBR blog hasn’t had a new posting since July 13, 2012’s 11 Things You Didn’t Know About Canada. In any event, it looks like the blog is no longer primarily focused on science.

The Exponential Book blog by Massimo Boninsegni features an Oct. 24, 2012 posting and a similar posting pattern to Marie-Claire & Marc.

exposure/effect which was new last year has gone into a fairly lengthy hiatus as per its last post in January 30, 2012 posting.

Theoretical biologist, Mario Pineda-Krch of Mario’s Entangled Bank blog is also taking a lengthy hiatus as the last posting on that blog was June 11, 2012.

Nicole Arbour’s Canadian science blog for the UK High Commission in Ottawa hasn’t featured a posting since Oct. 15, 2012’s The Power of We: Adapting to climate change.

Gregor Wolbring’s Nano and Nano- Bio, Info, Cogno, Neuro, Synbio, Geo, Chem… features an Aug. 4, 2012 posting which links to one of his nano articles, (Nanoscale Science and Technology and People with Disabilities in Asia: An Ability Expectation Analysis) published elsewhere.

Jeff Sharom’s Science Canada blog highlights links to editorials and articles on Canadian science policy but doesn’t seem to feature original writing by Sharom or anyone else, consequently, it functions more as a reader/aggregator than a blog.

The Black Hole blog which was always more focused on prospect for Canadian science graduates than Canadian science, hence always a bit of a stretch for inclusion here, has moved to the University Affairs website where it focuses more exclusively on the Canadian academic scene with posts such as this, Free journal access for postdocs in between positions  from Dec. 12, 2012.

Returning to the roundup:

John Dupuis’ Confessions of a Science Librarian whose Dec. 26, 2012 posting, Best Science (Fiction) Books 2012: io9 seems timely for anyone taking a break at this time of year and looking for some reading material.

Daniel Lemire’s blog is known simply as Daniel Lemire. He’s a computer scientist in Montréal who writes one of the more technical blogs I’ve come across and his focus seems to be databases although his Dec. 10, 2012 posting covers the topic of how to get things accomplished when you’re already busy.

Dave Ng, a professor with the Michael Smith Laboratories at the University of British Columbia, is a very active science communicator who maintain the Popperfont blog. The latest posting (Dec. 24, 2012) features Sciencegeek Advent Calendar Extravaganza! – Day 24.

Eric Michael Johnson continues with his The Primate Diaries blog on the Scientific American blog network. His Dec. 6, 2012 posting is a reposted article but he has kept up a regular (once per month, more or less) posting schedule,

Author’s Note: The following originally appeared at ScienceBlogs.com and was subsequently a finalist in the 3 Quarks Daily Science Prize judged by Richard Dawkins. Fairness is the basis of the social contract. As citizens we expect that when we contribute our fair share we should receive our just reward. When social benefits are handed out …

Rosie Redfield is keeping with both her blogs, RRTeaching (latest posting, Dec. 6, 2012) and RRResearch (Nov. 17, 2012).

Sci/Why is a science blog being written by Canadian children’s writers who discuss science, words, and the eternal question – why?

Mathematician Nassif Ghoussoub’s Piece of Mind blog continues to feature incisive writing about science, science funding, policy and academe.

Canadian science writer Heather Pringle continues to post on the The Last Word on Nothing, a blog shared collectively by a number of well known science writers. Her next posting is scheduled for Jan. 3, 2013, according to the notice on the blog.

A little off my usual beat but I included these last year as they do write about science albeit medical and/or health science:

Susan Baxter’s blog Curmudgeon’s Corner features her insights into various medical matters, for example there’s her Dec. 1, 2012 posting on stress, the immune system, and the French antipathy towards capitalism.

Peter Janiszewski and Travis Saunders co-own two different blogs, Obesity Panacea, which is part of the PLoS (Public Library of Science) blogs network, and Science of Blogging which features very occasional posting but it’s worth a look for nuggets like this Oct. 12, 2012 (?) posting on social media for scientists.

After posting the 2011 roundup,

I had a number of suggestions for more Canadian science blogs such as these four who are part of the Scientific American SA) blogging network (in common with Eric Michael Johnson),

Dr. Carin Bondar posts on the SA blog, PsiVid, along with Joanne Manaster. There’s more than one Canadian science blogger who co-writes a blog. This one is self-described as, A cross section of science on the cyberscreen.

Glendon Mellow, a professional science illustrator,  posts on The Flying Trilobite (his own blog) and Symbiartic: the art of science and the science of art, an SA blog he shares with Kalliopi Monoyios.

Larry Moran, a biochemist at the University of Toronto, posts on science and anything else that tickles his fancy on his Sandwalk blog.

Eva Amsen who posts on a number of blogs including the NODE; the community site for developmental biologists  (which she also manages) but the best place to find a listing of her many blogs and interests is at easternblot.net, where she includes this self-description on the About page,

Online Projects

  • Musicians and Scientists – Why are so many people involved in both music and science? I’m on a mission to find out.
  • the NodeMy day job is managing a community site for developmental biologists around the world. The site is used by equal numbers of postdocs, PhD students, and lab heads.
  • SciBarCamp/SciBarCamb – I co-instigated SciBarCamp, an unconference for scientists, in Toronto in 2008. Since then I have co-organized five similar events in three countries, and have advised others on how to run science unconferences.
  • You Learn Something New Every Day – a Tumblr site that automatically aggregates tweets with the hashtag #ylsned, and Flickr photos tagged ylsned, to collect the interesting bits of trivia that people come across on a daily basis.
  • Lab Waste – During my last months in the lab as a PhD student, I made a mini-documentary (using CC-licensed materials) about the excessive amount of disposable plastics used in research labs. It screened in 2009 in the “Quirky Shorts” program of the Imagine Science Film Festival in New York.
  • Expression Patterns – In 2007 I was invited to blog on Nature Network. The complete archives from 2007-2012 are now on this site.
  • easternblot.net – Confusingly, my other science blog was named after this entire domain. It ran from 2005 to 2010, and can be found at science.easternblot.net

I believe Amsen is Canadian and working in the UK but if anyone could confirm, I would be much relieved.

Someone, who according to their About page prefers to remain anonymous but lives in Victoria, BC, and posts (somewhat irregularly, the last posting is dated Nov. 10, 2012) on The Olive Ridley Crawl,

I am an environmental scientist blogging about environmental and development issues that interest me. I prefer to be anonymous(e) because I work with some of the companies I may talk about and I want to avoid conflict of interest issues at work. This gets tricky because I am at the periphery of a lot of events happening in the world of my greatest expertise, persistent organic pollutants, endocrine disrupting compounds, their effects on health and the policy fights around chemicals, their use the controversies! So, I’ve reluctantly moved away from writing about what I know most about, which means this blog suffers severely. I still soldier on, though!

I was born, and grew up in India, so I am interested in all things South Asian and tend to view most all Western government and Western institution actions through a colonialist scratched lens! I am also becoming much more active about my feminism, so who knows what that will do to this blog. I have been meaning to write a monstrous essay about women, the environment and justice, but that’s a task!

I used to live in Chapel Hill, NC with a partner of long vintage (the partnership, that is, not her!) and a crazy cat who thinks he’s a dog. We moved to Victoria, BC in 2008 and I’ve been busy learning about Canadian policy, enjoying this most beautiful town I live in.

Why Olive Ridley? Well, the Olive Ridley sea turtle (Lepidochelys Olivacea) nests on the coasts of Madras, India and I got my start in the wonderful world of conservation working on the Olive Ridley with the Students’ Sea Turtle Conservation Network. So, I do have fond memories for this beautiful creature. And yes, as my dear partner reminds me, I did meet her on the beach when I was doing this work.

Agence Science-Presse (based in Québec and headed by Pascal Lapointe) features three blogs of its own:

Blogue ta science : les billets dédiés aux jeunes.

Discutez avec notre expert : avez-vous suivi notre enquête CSI ?

Autour des Blogues : les actualités de nos blogueurs et de la communauté.

There’s also a regular podcast under the Je vote pour la science banner.

genegeek appears to be Canadian (it has a domain in Canada) but the blog owner doesn’t really identify herself (there’s a photo) on the About page but no name and no biographical details. I did receive a tweet last year about genegeek from C. Anderson who I imagine is the blog owner.

There’s also the Canadian BioTechnologist2.0 blog, which is sponsored by Bio-Rad Canada and is written by an employee.

These next ones were added later in the year:

Chuck Black writes two blogs as he noted in June 2012,

I write two blogs which, while they focus more on space than science, do possess strong science components and overlap with some of the other blogs here.

They are: Commercial Space and Space Conference News.

Andy Park also came to my attention in June 2012. He writes the  It’s the Ecology, Stupid! blog.

Something About Science is a blog I featured in an Aug. 17, 2012 posting and I’m glad to see blogger, Lynn K, is still blogging.

New to the roundup in 2012:

SSChow, Sarah Chow’s blog, focuses on science events in Vancouver (Canada) and science events at the University of British Columbia and miscellaneous matters pertinent to her many science communication efforts.

The Canadian federal government seems to be trying its hand at science blogging with the Science.gc.ca Blogs (http://www.science.gc.ca/Blogs-WSE6EBB690-1_En.htm). An anemic effort given that boasts a total of six (or perhaps it’s five) posting in two or three years.

The Canadian Science Writers Association (CSWA) currently features a blog roll of its members’ blogs. This is a new initiative from the association and one I’m glad to see.  Here’s the list (from the CSWA member blog page),

Anne Steinø (Research Through the Eyes of a Biochemist)
Arielle Duhame-Ross (Salamander Hours)
Bob McDonald (I’m choking on this one since it’s a CBC [Canadian Broadcasting Corporation] blog for its Quirks and Quarks science pr0gram)
Cadell Last (The Ratchet)
Edward Willett
Elizabeth Howell (she seems to be blogging again and the easiest way for me to get to her postings was to click on the Archives link [I clicked on December 2012 to get the latest] after doing that I realized that the images on the page link to postings)
Heather Maughan
Justin Joschko
Kimberly Gerson (Endless Forms Most Beautiful)
Mark Green (a CSWA member, he was born and educated in the US where he lives and works; ordinarily I would not include him, even with his  CSWA membership status,  but he writes a monthly science column for a Cape Breton newspaper, which has made me pause)
Pamela Lincez (For the Love of Science)
Sarah Boon (Watershed Moments)
Susan Eaton (she seems to be reposting articles written [presumably by her] for the AAPG [American Association of Petroleum Geologists] Explorer and other organizations in her blog]

Barry Shell’s site (listed as a CSWA member blog) doesn’t match my admittedly foggy notion of a blog. It seems more of an all round Canadian science resource featuring profiles of Canadian scientists, a regularly updated news archive, and more. Science.ca is extraordinary and I’m thankful to have finally stumbled across it but it doesn’t feature dated posts in common with the other blogs listed here, even the most commercial ones.

Tyler Irving (I had no idea he had his own blog when I mentioned him in my Sept. 25, 2012 posting about Canadian chemists and the Canadian Chemical Institute’s publications) posts at the Scientific Canadian.

I choke again, as I do when mentioning blogs that are corporate media blogs, but in the interest of being as complete as possible Julia Belluz writes the Scien-ish blog about health for MacLean’s magazine.

Genome Alberta hosts a couple of blogs: Genomics and Livestock News & Views.

Occam’s Typewriter is an informal network of science bloggers two of whom are Canadian:

Cath Ennis (VWXYNot?) and Richard Wintle (Adventures in Wonderland). Note: The Guardian Science Blogs network seems to have some sort of relationship with Occam’s Typewriter as you will see postings from the Occam’s network featured as part of Occam’s Corner on the Guardian website.

My last blogger in this posting is James Colliander from the University of  Toronto’s Mathematics Department. He and Nassif (Piece of Mind blog mentioned previously) seem to share a similar interest in science policy and funding issues.

ETA Jan.2.13: This is a social science oriented blog maintained by a SSHRC- (Social Science and Humanities Research Council) funded network cluster called the Situating Science Cluster and the blog’s official name is: Cluster Blog. This is where you go to find out about Science and Technology Studies (STS) and History of Science Studies, etc. and events associated with those studies.

I probably should have started with this definition of a Canadian blogger, from the Wikipedia entry,

A Canadian blogger is the author of a weblog who lives in Canada, has Canadian citizenship, or writes primarily on Canadian subjects. One could also be considered a Canadian blogger if one has a significant Canadian connection, though this is debatable.

Given how lively the Canadian science blogging scene has become, I’m not sure I can continue with these roundups as they take more time each year.  At the very least, I’ll need to define the term Canadian Science blogger, in the hope of reducing the workload,  if I decide to continue after this year.

There’s a rather interesting Nov. 26, 2012 article by Stephanie Taylor for McGill Daily about the Canadian public’s science awareness and a dearth of Canadian science communication,

Much of the science media that Canadians consume and have access to is either American or British: both nations have a robust, highly visible science media sector. While most Canadians wouldn’t look primarily to American journalism for political news and analysis, science doesn’t have the same inherent national boundaries that politics does. While the laws of physics don’t change depending on which side of the Atlantic you’re on, there are scientific endeavours that are important to Canadians but have little importance to other nations. It’s unlikely that a British researcher would investigate the state of the Canadian cod fishery, or that the British press would cover it, but that research is critical to a substantial number of Canadians’ livelihoods.

On the other hand, as Canadian traditional media struggles to consistently cover science news, there’s been an explosion of scientists of all stripes doing a lot of the necessary big picture, broad context, critical analysis on the internet. The lack of space restrictions and accessibility of the internet (it’s much easier to start a blog than try to break in to traditional media) mean that two of the major barriers to complex discussion of science in the media are gone. Blogs struggle to have the same reach as newspapers and traditional media, though, and many of the most successful science blogs are under the online umbrella of mainstream outlets like Scientific American and Discover. Unfortunately and perhaps unsurprisingly, there is currently no Canadian science blog network like this. [emphasis mine]

Yes, let’s create a Canadian science blog network. I having been talking to various individuals about this over the last year (2012) and while there’s interest, someone offered to help and then changed their mind. Plus, I was hoping to persuade the the Canadian Science Writers Association to take it on but I think they were too far advanced in their planning for a member’s network to consider something more generalized (and far more expensive). So, if anyone out there has ideas about how to do this, please do comment and perhaps we can get something launched in 2013.

2011 roundup and thoughts on the Canadian science blogging scene

Last year I found about a dozen of us, Canadians blogging about science, and this year (2011) I count approximately 20 of us. Sadly, one blog has disappeared; Elizabeth Howell has removed her PARS3C blog from her website. Others appear to be in pause mode, Rob Annan at the Researcher Forum: Don’t leave Canada behind (no posts since May 4, 2011), The Bubble Chamber at the University of Toronto (no posts since Aug. 12, 2011), Gregor Wolbring’s  Nano and Nano- Bio, Info, Cogno, Neuro, Synbio, Geo, Chem…  (no new posts since Oct. 2010; I’m about ready to give up on this one) and Je vote pour la science (no posts since May 2011).

I’ve been fairly catholic in my approach to including blogs on this list although I do have a preference for blogs with an individual voice that focuses primarily on science (for example, explaining the science you’re writing about rather than complaining about a professor’s marking of your science paper).

Piece of Mind is Nassif Ghoussoub’s (professor of mathematics at the University of British Columbia) blog which is largely about academe, science, and grants. Nassif does go much further afield in some of his posts, as do we all from time to time. He’s quite outspoken and always interesting.

Cool Science is John McKay’s blog which he describes this way ” This site is about raising a creative rationalist in an age of nonsense. It is about parents getting excited about science, learning and critical thinking. It is about smart parents raising smart kids who can think for themselves, make good decisions and discern the credible from the incredible. ” His posts cover a wide range of topics from the paleontology museum in Alberta to a space shuttle launch to the science of good decisions and more.

Dave Ng makes me dizzy. A professor with the Michael Smith Laboratories at the University of British Columbia, he’s a very active science communicator who has started blogging again on the Popperfont blog. This looks like a compilation of bits from Twitter, some very brief postings, and bits from other sources. I’m seeing this style of blogging more frequently these days.

The queen of Canadian science blogging, Rosie Redfield, was just acknowledged as a ‘newsmaker of the year’ by Nature magazine. The Dec. 22, 20111 Vancouver Sun article by Margaret Munro had this to say,

A critical thinker in Vancouver has been named one of the top science newsmakers of the year.

“She appeared like a shot out of the blogosphere: a wild-haired Canadian microbiologist with a propensity to say what was on her mind,” the leading research journal Nature says of Rosie Redfield, a professor at the University of B.C.

The journal editors say Redfield is one of 10 individuals who “had an impact, good or bad, on the world of science” in 2011. She was chosen for her “critical” inquiry and “remarkable experiment in open science” that challenged a now-infamous “arsenic life” study funded by NASA.

Rosie has two blogs, RRResearch and RRTeaching. She used to say she wasn’t a blogger but I rather think she’s changed her tune.

Jeff Sharom’s Science Canada blog isn’t, strictly speaking, a blog so much as it is an aggregator of Canadian science policy news and a good one at that. There are also some very useful resources on the site. (I shamelessly plundered Jeff’s list to add more blogs to this posting).

The Black Hole is owned by Beth Swan and David Kent (although they often have guest posters too). Here’s a description from the About page,

I have entered the Post Doctoral Fellow Black Hole… I’ve witnessed a lot and heard about much more and, while this is the time in academic life when you’re meant to be the busiest, I have begun this blog. Just as a black hole is difficult to define, the label Post Doc is bandied about with recklessness by university administrators, professors, and even PDFs themselves. One thing is certain though… once you get sucked in, it appears to be near impossible to get back out.

David, Beth, and their contributors offer extensive discussions about the opportunities and the failings of the post graduate science experience.

Nicole Arbour, a Science and Innovation Officer at the British High Commission Office in Ottawa, Canada, blogs regularly about Canadian science policy and more on the Foreign and Commonwealth Office blogs.

Colin Schultz, a freelance science journalist, blogs at his website CMBR. He focuses largely on climate change, environmental research, space, and science communication.

exposure/effect is a blog about toxicology, chemical exposures, health and more, which is written by a scientist who chooses to use a pseudonym, ashartus.

Mario’s Entangled Bank is written by theoretical biologist, Mario Pineda-Krch at the University of Alberta. One of Pineda-Krch’s most recent postings was about a special section of a recent Science Magazine issue on Reproducible Research.

Boundary Vision is written by Marie-Claire Shanahan, a professor of science education at the University of Alberta. She not only writes a science blog, she also researches the language and the social spaces of science blogs.

Eric Michael Johnson writes The Primate Diaries blog which is now part of the Scientific American blog network. With a master’s degree in evolutionary anthropology, Johnson examines the interplay between evolutionary biology and politics both on his blog and as part of his PhD work (he’s a student at the University of British Columbia).

The Atoms and Numbers blog is written by Marc Leger. From the About Marc page,

I am a scientist who has always been curious and fascinated by how our universe works.  I love discovering the mysteries and surprises of our World.  I want to share this passion with others, and make science accessible to anyone willing to open their minds.

Many people have appreciated my ability to explain complex scientific ideas in simple terms, and this is one motivation behind my website, Atoms and Numbers.  I taught chemistry in universities for several years, and I participated in the Scientists in the Schools program as a graduate student at Dalhousie University, presenting chemistry magic shows to children and teenagers from kindergarten to grade 12.  I’ve also given presentations on chemistry and forensics to high school students.  I’m even acknowledged in a cookbook for providing a few morsels of information about food chemistry.

Massimo Boninsegni writes about science-related topics (some are about the academic side of science; some physics; some personal items) on his Exponential Book blog.

The Last Word on Nothing is a group blog that features Heather Pringle, a well-known Canadian science writer, on some posts. Pringle’s latest posting is, Absinthe and the Corpse Reviver, all about a legendary cure for hangovers. While this isn’t strictly speaking a Canadian science blog, there is a Canadian science blogger in the group and the topics are quite engaging.

Daniel Lemire’s blog is known simply as Daniel Lemire. He’s a computer scientist in Montréal who writes one of the more technical blogs I’ve come across and his focus seems to be databases. He does cover other topics too, notably in this post titled, Where do debt, credit and currencies come from?

Confessions of a Science Librarian by John Dupuis (head of the Steacie Science & Engineering Library at York University) is a blog I missed mentioning last year and I’m very glad I remembered it this year. As you might expect from a librarian, the last few postings have consisted of lists of the best science books of 2011.

Sci/Why is a science blog being written by Canadian children’s writers who discuss science, words, and the eternal question – why?

I have mixed feelings about including this blog, the Dark Matter science blog by Tom Spears, as it is a ‘newspaper blog’ from the Ottawa Citizen.

Similarly, the MaRS blog is a corporate initiative from the Toronto area science and technology business incubator, MaRS Discovery District.

The last three blogs I’m mentioning are from medical and health science writers.

Susan Baxter’s blog Curmudgeon’s Corner features her insights into various medical matters, for example there’s her Dec. 5, 2011 posting on mammograms, along with her opinions on spandex, travel, and politics.

Peter Janiszewski and Travis Saunders co-own two different blogs, Obesity Panacea, which is part of the PLoS (Public Library of Science) blogs network, and Science of Blogging (nothing posted since July 2011 but it’s well worth a look).

I don’t have anything particularly profound to say about the state of Canadian science blogging this year. It does look to be getting more populous online and I hope that trend continues. I do have a wish for the New Year; I think it should be easier to find Canadian science blogs and would like  to see some sort of network or aggregated list.

Innovation = more $$$ for business schools?

I’m trying to calm down but really!!!! Roger Martin, Dean of the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto gave the Globe & Mail an interview last week where he opined that Canadian business schools are not getting enough money which is, in turn, affecting innovation. I hope the interview is a form of performance art rather than a reflection of Martin’s thought processes.

(Please accept my apologies but I’m having trouble with my links today so I will have to give you the URLs.) From the March 16, 2011 article Canada will shrivel under business-school neglect, dean says (http://www.theglobeandmail.com/report-on-business/managing/business-education/canada-will-shrivel-under-business-school-neglect-dean-says/article1942997/page1/) by Gordon Pitts,

What makes a country prosperous is not investment in science and technology. [emphasis mine] It is businesses producing high paying jobs by having unique products and processes that a customer needs. Yet we have an economic development policy that focuses incredibly tightly on a very narrow part of the economy with no demonstration or proof that it is particularly helpful. Meanwhile, we complain about our companies not being innovative enough or globally competitive enough, and we send them off to battle with much less education than their competitors.

We hear people say, ‘Well, what we need are scientists and engineers running these companies because these are tech companies.’ But if we in Canada would like to have companies like Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Microsoft, Apple, Cisco and Intel, find out how many of their CEOs have science and tech degrees. The answer is there are a lot more MBAs than science and technology degrees.

All of the companies cited were founded by people with science and technology degrees as Nassif Ghoussoub in A business dean’s rant: Ignorance of the facts or pure “Chutzpah”? (http://ghoussoub.wordpress.com/2011/03/20/a-business-dean%E2%80%99s-rant-willful-ignorance-or-pure-%E2%80%9Cchutzpah%E2%80%9D/#more-3241), and James Colliander, Rotman Dean to Government: Give the Basic Research Funding to Business Schools not Scientists (http://blog.math.toronto.edu/colliand/2011/03/17/rotman-dean-wants-the-money-targeted-for-science-research-2/) note.

Martin never does explain how more business education money will actually translate into more innovation in Canada. In fact, he never explains how it has worked anywhere else. Strangely, he does not mention the latest economic meltdown due to business practices. If more education and research benefited business and the economy so much then why the meltdown that our US neighbours to the south have experienced so strongly? By Martin’s reckoning the US economy should be in much better condition than it is what with all that money going to support business students.

I was a little curious as to Martin’s own background and found this in an Aug. 1, 2006 article by Robert Berner for Bloomberg Business Week (from http://www.businessweek.com/magazine/content/05_31/b3945417.htm_),

A Canadian native and graduate of Harvard Business School, the 48-year-old Martin left a position as co-head of a consulting firm to take the Rotman post. He’s working with Patrick Whitney, director of the Institute of Design, and David Kelley, co-founder of design consultancy IDEO and head of the new Stanford Design School, to create a new design-based curriculum that can be used in business schools. Martin practices what he preaches: He advises Procter & Gamble Co. (PG ) chief A.G. Lafley, among other chief executives.

So let me get this. The dean of a business school whose own educational background appears to be largely business (according to the Wikipedia essay about him [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roger_Martin], he has a Bachelor of Arts in Economics from Harvard College in addition to his MBA from Harvard Business School) and who worked as a management consultant prior to becoming a dean thinks that Canadians need more business education. What’s that old saying? If you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

As for the statistics he offers about the amount of research money going to business (from the Pitts article),

For example, of federal research money from the three major funding councils, business gets 1.7 per cent of the funding but it gets 17 per cent of the students. Health Sciences have 36 per cent of funding and 11.2 per cent of students – and that’s understandable with all that expensive R&D. Natural sciences and engineering have 39 per cent of funding and 28 per cent of students.

In all the social sciences and humanities, except business, there are 44 per cent of students and 24 per cent of research funding. So the social sciences get hit, but their hit is less than 2 to 1. In business – which is all about making our country competitive – it’s a 10 to one cut.

It does seem a pretty pitiful amount of research money is going to business research (Note: I would like to know how Martin has derived his statistics). Mind you a fair amount of the material produced by Statistics Canada is used for business research purposes while a lot of the quantitative social science research has to be gathered by the social scientists themselves. And, Nassif points out that a big chunk of the 2009 budget research money going for  social sciences and humanities research was in fact intended for business studies.

… we should not forget that, as recently as 2009, business schools got a preferential treatment from the federal government. Indeed, after having cut the Tri-council by 5%, the 2009 stimulus federal budget proceeded to earmark the $17.5-million assigned to SSHRC for graduate scholarships towards students in business and finance.

Business is making inroads in many areas not just in social sciences and humanities funding. A March 20, 2011 article by Tom Spears for the Ottawa Citizen indicates that business and economic interests will be driving research in this country in a way that should warm Martin’s heart (from http://www.ottawacitizen.com/business/boss+orders+scientists+focus+market+drivers/4472949/story.html),

There’s radical change at the National Research Council, Canada’s biggest science institute, as the new president orders all staff to direct research toward boosting economic development and technology, with less time for pure science.

Starting this spring, 20 per cent of research money, and all the capital funds that buy expensive lab equipment, will be removed from existing budgets and directed where the president and vice-presidents choose.

Eventually, 80 per cent of research funds will be redirected this way.

NRC president John McDougall has announced to all staff that he wants research that is “successfully deployed and used to benefit our customers and partners in industry and government.”

His memo, dated March 2, warns that “history is an anchor that ties us to the past rather than a sail that catches the wind to power us forward.” [emphasis mine]

The new system, with most funding awarded by top management, will put existing staff in a position of having to apply to their employer to keep doing their own work. So far, they aren’t faring well: McDougall notes that his scientists have suggested more than 70 research areas. But most of these have no clear “market driver” or “purposeful direction,” he writes.

If business education is in as much trouble as Martin suggests, I’d like to see data that supports his thesis rather than a lot of numbers being thrown about and what amounts to performance art for the Globe and Mail.

By the way, Tom Jenkins, the head of the expert panel that convened the public consultation on innovation (it’s correct title is: A Review of Federal Support to Research and Development), is the Executive Chairman and Chief Strategy Officer for Open Text. From the Open Text webpage about the Board of Directors (http://www.opentext.com/2/global/company/company-directors.htm),

Mr. Jenkins is Executive Chairman and Chief Strategy Officer for OpenText. From 1994 to 2005, Mr.Jenkins was President, then Chief Executive Officer and then from 2005 to present, Chief Strategy Officer of OpenText. Mr. Jenkins has served as a Director of OpenText since 1994 and as its Chairman since 1998. In addition to his OpenText responsibilities, Mr.Jenkins is the Chair of the federal centre of excellence Canadian Digital Media Network (CDMN). He is also an appointed member of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC), past appointed member of the Government of Canada’s Competition Policy Review Panel and past appointed member of the Province of Ontario’s Ontario Commercialization Network Review Committee (OCN). Mr.Jenkins is also a member of the board of BMC Software, Inc. a software corporation based in Houston, Texas. He is also a member of the University of Waterloo Engineering Dean’s Advisory Council, GRAND, the federal research centre of excellence for digital media, a director of the C.D. Howe Institute, a director of the Canadian International Council (CIC) and a director of the Canadian Council of Chief Executives (CCCE). Mr.Jenkins received an M.B.A. in entrepreneurship & technology management from Schulich School of Business at York University, an M.A.Sc. in electrical engineering from the University of Toronto and a B.Eng.& Mgt. in Engineering Physics and Commerce from McMaster University. [emphases mine]

I gather Mr. Jenkins decided on an education that spans both engineering and business.  Perhaps innovation is better served by multidisciplinary interests over the single-minded pursuit of more money for the Rotman School of Management.

ETA April 20, 2011: Nature has weighed in about John McDougall and his National Research Council directives (from the April 19, 2011 news article by Hannah Hoag),

Canada’s largest research entity has a new focus — and some disaffected scientists. On 1 April, the National Research Council (NRC), made up of more than 20 institutes and programmes with a total annual budget larger than Can$1 billion (US$1 billion), switched to a funding strategy that downplays basic research in favour of programmes designed to attract industry partners and generate revenue. Some researchers suggest that the shift is politically driven, because it brings the agency into philosophical alignment with the governing Conservative Party of Canada, which is in the middle of an election campaign.

Tom Brzustowski, who studies commercialization of innovation at the University of Ottawa, says that the adjustment to the NRC’s focus will support areas that have been weak. “By focusing on the flagship programmes there is still room to do the whole spectrum of research. It’s a good strategic move,” he says.

But the news has rekindled anxiety over how Canada’s government has been directing science funding — criticisms that have grown sharper as the federal election on 2 May [2011] approaches.