Sunday, November 13, 2016

Generalists, Data Miners, Lotteries, Comedy, Open Access and the Future of Science in Canada

          By Chuck Black

Want to learn about the future of science in Canada? Then check out the 2nd Annual Canadian Science Policy Award of Excellence for Youth, which was presented by Federal Science Minister Kirsty Duncan at the 8th Canadian Science Policy Conference (CSPC2016) in Ottawa on November 10th, 2016.

Science Minister Duncan at CSPC 2016 in Ottawa. As outlined in the November 10th, 2016 transcript of her speech under the title, "Minister Duncan Reflections: One Year as Minister of Science," much work has occurred over the past year "to rebuild the government’s respect for and trust in our scientists," but much remains to be done. Items still on the table include addressing "the gaps in equity and diversity in the sciences," plus the appointment of a Federal Chief Science Advisor, tasked to become "a strong, enduring voice for science and scientists in government." Photo c/o author.

As outlined in the undated CSPC press release on the "2nd Annual Science Policy Award of Excellence - Youth Category," the award recognizes people under the age of 35, whether student, postdoctoral fellow, researcher, entrepreneur or from some other area, who have developed "an innovative and compelling evidence-based policy that will make a positive difference to Canadians."

The award is designed to encourage young people "who may not currently be studying, or working on, public policy to develop and share their policy ideas."

Amani Saini. Photo c/o CSPC.
And here's where it gets interesting. This year's prize winner doesn't really even consider herself a scientist, at least not in the traditional sense.

As outlined in the press release, prize winner Amani Saini holds a master of public administration degree from Dalhousie University and a bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of British Columbia (UBC). In essence, science:
... was never her forte and she tried her best to avoid science classes, but the near death of her sister forced her to start searching for solutions to prevent adverse drug reactions. 
After she came across an article about genomics, a topic she knew absolutely nothing about before, she contacted scientists in Canada and worldwide to learn more about the discipline and DNA sequencing. 
She took her findings to scientists and pharmacists at UBC and found that there is a solution to adverse drug reactions that could be potentially feasible in Canada, which she has been advocating for since.
In essence, Saini was a generalist able to synthesize disparate silos of knowledge into something useful. As outlined in the CSPC press release:
The governments of the U.S. and the U.K. have already shown incredible support for the increased use of genomics to guide health decisions. In 2015, President Obama announced $215 million to fund the creation of a national research program to sequence DNA to identify the genetic drivers of diseases.  
In order to continue to be a world leader in health and technology, the Canadian government should take on a similar national approach.
Saini also has other interests. lists her as a "Weapons control and genocide prevention advocate." She has also worked with the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA), a national, non-partisan, non-profit organization, representing the perspectives of 150,000 Canadian Jews.

"Sucker Bait," a 1954 novella by Isaac Asimov, postulated a "mnemonic service," composed of individuals who had been trained from the age of five to memorize and correlate vast amounts of information and synthesize the data into a coherent whole. The theme of the story is the peril of scientific overspecialization, a theme Asimov would revisit numerous times during his career. Graphic c/o Atomic Rockets

Both runners-up also possess a broad, almost generalist range of experience and expertise which they used to develop practical and useful policies.

Runner-up Robert Gooding-Townsend suggested, "Using a Modified Lottery to Select Among Meritorious Grant Applications." He is a graduate student in mathematical biology at the University of Waterloo, where he studies large-scale forest dynamics and the sociology of science. He is perhaps best known for his interdisciplinary background in bio-engineering, museum exhibit design, and science comedy – including a performance at the 7th Canadian Science Policy Conference (CSPC 2015), which was held from November 25th - 27th, 2015 in Ottawa, Ontario.

Runner-up Jessica Ross proposed "Rethinking Phosphorus: Contaminant or Commodity? Securing Food for Our Future," and studied chemistry at Simon Fraser University from 2001-2003 before joining the military, where she earned her bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering from the Royal Military College of Canada in 2007.

In fact, CSPC 2016 spent more than its fair share of time assessing the context of science and how to push scientific facts and discoveries into the broader public awareness through the development of useful public and science policy.

It included sessions on evidence based decision making (a program, practice, or policy grounded in the best available research and relevant contextual evidence), building open access science portals (using research free from restrictions on access and use), utilizing science diplomacy (scientific collaborations among nations to address common problems and to build constructive international partnerships), mentoring the next generation of scientific talent and understanding Canada's new innovation agenda, at least as outlined by the currently governing Federal Liberal party.

Of course, not all participants attended all the sessions. As one who attended only the "2016 Canadian Space Policy Symposium" session at CSPC 2016 said:
We only discussed a very narrow range of topics related to specific upcoming events and capabilities at our session. No one discussed collaborations or any practical methodologies or plans to move forward with the promotion of our areas of concern.
We've always asked the politicians to develop policies for us!
Perhaps that's the real incentive to check out the science minister's speech, the annual Canadian Science Policy Award of Excellence for Youth and maybe a few of the other sessions when the 9th Canadian Science Policy Conference (CSPC 2017) reconvenes on March 1st - 3rd. 2017 in Ottawa, Ontario.
Chuck Black.

Chuck Black is the editor of the Commercial Space blog.

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