Category Archives: Science

Heading for the hot seat of global warming

 

Beyond the headland, off to meet the horizon

It’s been four years since the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicted the end of the world. In that interval, the doom-saying industry has grown to meet the rising demands of the self-flagellating, environmentally righteous among us. Still, no one does moral masochism better than the IPCC.

In a fat, new report, released Monday, the Nobel prize-winning body effectively declared that unless world leaders start taking global warming seriously, the rest of us can stick our heads between our legs and kiss our derrieres goodbye. In fact, we may already be too late.

“In recent decades, changes in climate have caused impacts on natural and human systems on all continents and across the oceans,” the report says. “Glaciers continue to shrink almost worldwide. . .Climate change is causing permafrost warming and thawing in high-latitude and high-elevation regions. . .Climate change has negatively affected wheat and maize yields for many regions 

What’s more, “while only a few recent species extinctions have been attributed as yet to climate change, natural global climate change at rates slower than current anthropogenic climate change caused significant ecosystem shifts and species extinctions during the past millions of years.”

Said IPCC chairman Rajendra Pachauri on Monday: “Nobody on this planet is going to be untouched by the impacts of climate change.”

Added report co-author Saleemul Huq, director of the International Centre for Climate Change and Development at the Independent University in Bangladesh: “Things are worse than we had predicted (in the first report issued in 2007). . .We are going to see more and more impacts, faster and sooner than we had anticipated.”

Indeed, observed Princeton University professor Michael Oppenheimer, another of the report’s authors, in an interview with The Associated Press, “We’re all sitting ducks.”

Perhaps a better metaphor is: ostriches with our heads in the sand. It certainly seemed that way during Question Period this week when Canada’s Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq staunchly defended her government’s record. “Since 2006 we have invested more than $10 billion in green infrastructure, energy efficiency, adaption, clean technology, and cleaner fuels,” she said.

It’s also true, however, that since 2006, the federal government has consistently failed to meet its greenhouse gas reduction objectives. (In fact, it hasn’t even come close). Today, Ottawa couldn’t care less about the environmental impact of new oil sands projects, just as long as it gets enough pipe built to transport the black gold to all points on the map 

“Government has not met key commitments, deadlines and obligations to protect Canada’s wildlife and natural spaces,” Neil Maxwell, interim commissioner of the environment and sustainable development, declared last November.

“(There is a) wide and persistent gap between what the government commits to do and what it is achieving. . .the approval processes currently under way for large oil and gas pipelines in North America have shown that widespread acceptance of resource development depends, in part, on due consideration for protecting nature,” he said, adding,“Our trading partners see Canada as a steward of globally significant resources. Canada’s success as a trading nation depends on continued leadership in meeting international expectations for environmental protection.”

That, in fact, may be wishful thinking. If Stephen Harper evinces any concern for what his trading partners expect of him on the environmental front, it was’t readily evident last week. 

Speaking to a business crowd in Germany, he was asked for his opinion about that country’s decision to wean itself from fossil fuels and nuclear energy, in favour of renewables, such as wind and solar. Thusly replied our estimable prime minister, off-handedly, if not exactly derisively: “So this is a brave new world you’re attempting? We wish you well with it.”

Actually, he doesn’t. Over the past eight years, this country’s political establishment and accompanying officialdom have slipped backwards in all fields that require evidence and critical thinking to penetrate. Today, it seems, the only thing our leadership class respects more than oil and gas is its own high opinion of itself.  

Clearly, environmental doom-saying annoys those who are vested in regressive policies that contribute to our planet’s woes, but the science of global warming is irrefutable.

And the IPCC’s moral masochism is nothing compared with the real McCoy if we don’t start changing our minds before the climate changes them for us.

 

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Will an apple a day keep the doctor away?

 

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Just so there’s no confusion: In our processed, fast-food, anxiety-riddled society, life without sugar is not an option.

Yes, the World Health Organization (WHO) says otherwise, but. . .well, come on. . .its new recommended limit of 12 level teaspoons a day? That would get the average person through lunch.

We might as well face it, one month after Valentines Day, we’re all addicted to the kind of love that comes in a box. Hello chocolate; come to daddy.

Of course, in my case, it’s not just any chocolate. It’s this absurdly tasty, milky variety by Lindt. No other branding is necessary. I buy it by the gross. I smell it through its paper and foil packaging. I fondle its brown, yielding edges just before I pop it into my mouth. I completely surrender to the orgasmic adventure of. . .

Hey, did I mention that I quit smoking once and for all (again), just the other day? Maybe, just maybe, there’s a connection. The WHO certainly thinks there is, if only a terminal one.

“The guideline amount has been slashed dramatically amid fears that sugar poses the same threat to health as tobacco. . .Experts blame it for millions of premature deaths across the world every year. . . Graham MacGregor, a London cardiologist and health campaigner, said: ‘Added sugar is a completely unnecessary part of our diets, contributing to obesity, type II diabetes and tooth decay. . .We have known about the health risks of sugar for years and yet nothing substantial has been done. . .The new recommendations will be a wakeup call to the Department of Health and the Government to take action by forcing the food industry to slowly reduce the huge amount of sugar added across the board.’”

Meanwhile, Britain’s chief medical officer Sally Davies “has already said a tax may be put on calorie-laden food and drink to curb soaring levels of obesity. Labour suggested last night it would impose a maximum limit on sugar, fat and salt in products marketed at children.”

All that was from London’s Daily Mail last week. Here’s something else from the desks of science reporters: Contrary to everything we’ve been told since June Cleaver made peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for Beaver and the boys back in the 1950s, low-fat diets do not prevent heart attacks.

“There is no conclusive proof that a low-fat diet has any positive effects on health,” The Mail quoted James DiNicolantonio, a New York-based cardiovascular research scientist. “Indeed, the literature indicates a general lack of any effect (good or bad) from a reduction in fat intake. The public fear that saturated fat raises cholesterol is completely unfounded. . .We need a public health campaign as strong as the one we had in the 70s and 80s demonizing saturated fats, to say that we got it wrong.”

So what is the culprit (apart from sugar, obviously)? Take it away, Dr. DiNicolantoni:

“From these data, it is easy to comprehend that the global epidemic of atherosclerosis, heart disease, diabetes, obesity and the metabolic syndrome is being driven by a diet high in carbohydrate/sugar as opposed to fat, a revelation that we are just starting to accept.”

Naturally, these revelations might be easier to accept if we could actually keep track of them.

If it’s not sugar that’s killing us, it’s salt. And what’s up with eggs? One week, they’re nature’s perfect protein. The next, experts are insisting we’d be better off sipping hemlock.

“Researchers found that eating one or more eggs a day did not increase the risk of heart disease or stroke among healthy people,” the Globe and Mail reported last year. “It did, however, increase the odds of developing type 2 diabetes, a major risk factor for heart disease and stroke.”

And don’t imagine, for a minute, that downing a handful of vitamin D supplements will save you. It turns out we were wrong about that, too.

“Previous research has shown that vitamin D deficiency is associated with poor health and early death,” according to a HealthDay report earlier this year. “But recent evidence suggests that low levels of vitamin D are a result, not a cause, of poor health.”

We can be reasonably certain that cutting back on sugar is the sensible thing to do. But, amid the epidemic of shifting medical consensus about virtually everything these days, we’ll just have to trust our guts on that one.

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Open Ottawa’s closed door to science

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The Canadian government’s relationship with the scientific community is, at best, fractious – the inevitable result of frequent dueling over the meaning of the word ‘evidence’ and, more to the point, its value in the so-called real world.

Members of the Conservative caucus routinely poke academics and researchers, who they suspect harbour left-of-liberal sentiments, sometimes for nothing more than the sheer joy of getting a rise out of them. Careful, Dr. Egghead, your shell might crack.

This, at least, appears to the operating principle behind two recent decisions of the Tory regime – both of which are driving environmentalists and biologist bonkers.

Last year, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans announced that it would shutter more than half of its regional marine research libraries. The government justified its action – will save a total of $430,000 – on the grounds that taxpayers should not have to shoulder the annual cost of maintaining 11 facilities when six will do.

But, as Gloria Galloway reported in the Globe and Mail on Wednesday, “it was not until (scientists) saw the shelves being cleared, the books and journals being scooped up for free by private companies, and the scientific reports being hauled off to the dumpster that the magnitude of the purge hit home.”

Indeed, former DFO regional director Burton Ayles called it a “loss of historic material.” His peer, Peter Wells, a professor at Dalhousie University, went further.

“I see this situation as a national tragedy, done under the pretext of cost savings, which, when examined closely, will prove to be a false motive,” the Globe quoted him. “A modern democratic society should value its information resources, not reduce, or worse, trash them.”

One letter writer to the Globe carried the flag the following day: “This government says Canadians cannot afford the $430,000 per year required to maintain taxpayer-funded irreplaceable scientific research,” wrote Chris Marriott of Chelsea, Que.

“On the other hand, we find that it was quite willing to spend $20-million a year on the Prime Minister’s personal security (we’ve seen this week how that’s worked out), and tens of millions promoting itself through the Economic Action Plan and Canada Job Grant advertising campaigns. The public money spent on just a handful of Action Plan ads aired during last year’s Stanley Cup playoffs would have more than covered the $430,000 the government says it can’t find to preserve critical scientific research.”

Meanwhile, we learn from the Globe’s Shawn McCarthy that the federal government has told the United Nations that unless Big Oil in Canada curbs its emissions, there’s virtually no chance that this country will come close to meeting its 2009 commitments made at the Copenhagen climate summit.

Instead, according to the article, the report to the UN “talks vaguely about new regulations in its sector-by-sector approach, while adding provinces, businesses and consumers also have a responsibility to address climate change.”

Given that the U.S. government, under the leadership of President Barack Obama, has articulated a thorough plan for reducing emissions in that country – and that Prime Minister Stephen Harper has consistently tied this country’s progress on the issue to that of our neighbour to the south – the disingenuousness in Ottawa these days   fills the air so thickly, it’s hard to breath.

What this crew has against against science or, indeed, any sort of learned discipline is hard to divine. But, it is abundantly clear, from many public pronouncements of many Tory MPs over the years that healthy, vigorous debate in caucus or in the Commons is roundly anathematic to good, representative government – a supposition that is genuinely absurd.

Still, evidence and deliberation, a knowledge of history and an appreciation of nuance, are enemies of political agendas regardless of the ideological underpinnings. No party in this, or any other democratic nation, has a patent on open-mindedness. Sadly, a demonstrable ability to think critically on any given subject long ago dropped off the list of worthy qualifications for a life in public office.

We, the electorate, must either do without or reinvent it in the so-called real world of politics as usual.

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Teachable moments from the living dead

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What accounts for the unrelenting zombie craze that finds perfect prime-time expression in the American Movie Channel’s The Walking Dead and in the distraught, if otherwise perfect, visage of Brad Pitt, hero of the summer blockbuster World War Z?

Let us say the scholarship on the subject is diverse.

According to one Todd Platts, a researcher at the University of Missouri’s Department of Sociology, “It may be tempting to brush zombies aside as irrelevant ‘pop culture ephemera,’” he writes in a recent edition of Sociology Compass. “Zombie infected popular culture, however, now contributes an estimated $5 billion to the world economy per annum. In addition to movies, comics, books, and video games, individuals routinely don complex homemade zombie costumes to march in zombie walks and/or engage in role-playing games like Humans vs. Zombies.”

None of which should surprise anyone, says Daniel Drezner, a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Tufts University and the author of Theories of International Politics and Zombies.

“Zombies thrive in popular culture during times of recession, epidemic and general unhappiness,” he writes in The Wall Street Journal. “Traditional threats to U.S. security may have waned, but nontraditional threats assault us constantly. Concerns about terrorism have not abated since 9/11, and cyberattacks have now emerged as a new anxiety. Drug-resistant pandemics have been a staple of local news hysteria since the H1N1 virus swept the globe in 2009. Scientists continue to warn about the dangers that climate change poses to our planet. And if the financial crisis taught us anything, it is that contagion is endemic to the global market system. Zombies are the perfect metaphor for these threats.”

Still, this doesn’t explain why zombies are more suitable, metaphorically speaking, than other types of monsters to represent our scared-stiff times.

When I was a kid, growing up in Toronto and Halifax, the preferred creatures of the night included Frankenstein, Dracula, Wolf Man, Godzilla, and even Mothra. These were physical and spiritual mutations, solid incarnations of Cold-War dread. They reminded us of the existential threat – nuclear annihilation – we were not quite powerless to control. But just about.

These bad guys also had personality. Some of them even had rhythm.

Ever see a zombie dance? It’s not a pretty site.

But, of course, that is the point.

There is nothing especially charming or quaint or ingenuous about life on Earth in the breaking decades of the 21st Century. More often than not, mobs, not individuals, enlist our attention. Good ideas are becoming indistinguishable from bad ones as the steady feed of information from the world’s 650 million websites fries our neurons.

Eventually, facts become no better than opinions. Meanwhile, the weight of one’s opinions grows only in direct proportion to the number of “absolute unique visitors” to one’s blog.

In 2013, zombies are the monsters we deserve. We don’t see them coming, though they are slower than molasses in winter. They are lousy conversationalists, and yet they always move in packs. And like members of any mob, they are at their most annoying when they swarm.

We didn’t see the dotcom bubble of 2000 until it was too late. Ditto about the financial crisis of 2008-09.

We didn’t notice the chorus rising up against science (evolution versus intelligent design; global warming versus climate conspiracists) and cheering on folksy, everyday heores (tea partiers versus “elites” of any and all persuasions).

As Mr. Drezner notes, “there’s a real downside to constant references to the living dead. The most serious problem lies in the suggested analogy. Policy entrepreneurs piggyback on zombies to capture attention, but they too often overlook a key element of zombie stories: They are relentlessly, depressingly apocalyptic. In almost all of them, the living dead are introduced in minute one, and by minute 10, the world is a wasteland. The implication is that if zombielike threats emerge, the state and civil society will quickly break down.”

But this is neither the time nor place for yet another dissertation on Toronto Mayor Rob Ford.

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Cracking the algebra of federal R&D funding

Erecting fences between scientific inquiry and sound public policy

Erecting fences between scientific inquiry and sound public policy

Here’s a math problem for our evidence-distrusting times: In the equation ‘x+y=z’, ‘x’ represents federal government support for commercially promising science and ‘y’ stands for calls among university boffins for a broader definition of useful research. What, then, is the value of ‘z’?

Ottawa is firm about its dedication to the hard arts. In a statement the Globe and Mail carried recently, Greg Rockford, the federal minister of state for science and technology, declared, “Our government is committed to science, technology, innovation and taking ideas to the marketplace. Canada is ranked number one among G7 countries for its higher education expenditures on research and development.”

Well, yes and no.

According to Howard Solomon, editor of ITWorldCanada.com and Computing Canada, “Overall R&D spending [in Canada] is low and declining as the manufacturing sector shrinks, including in the communications equipment manufacturing sector. . .a new study by leading academics…(says). . .Communications equipment makers scored well for getting patents and articles in scientific publications. . .However, the group also showed a decline in R&D expenditures and economic output in the last few years, whether that was in R&D growth between 2001 and 2012, or export growth.”

He was writing last month, but the chances are things haven’t improved much since then. A Conference Board of Canada report a couple of years ago, concluded that when it comes to public R&D spending, this country merits “a ‘B’ and ranks eighth out of 16 countries. . .Increases in Canada’s higher-education R&D spending since the mid-1990s provided a temporary advantage, but international peers have closed the gap since the mid-2000s.”

The Board then makes this fateful recommendation: “Future public R&D spending should be aligned with innovation and commercialization needs and attentive to the possible ‘crowding out’ of private R&D by public R&D.”

To commercialize or not to commercialize. That is the question. And it’s clear that policy makers and legislators in Ottawa embrace an entirely different vision than that of working scientists who are growing increasingly frustrated with what they view as Ottawa’s entirely false dichotomy between pure and applied research.

Fundamentally, the research community is correct: This really is a chew-gum-and-walk-at-the-same-time conundrum. Hard science doesn’t always immediately yield commercial applications that build productivity and competitiveness for regional and national economies. But without it, you get nothing. No RIMs, no Nortels, no so-called clusters of excellence and innovation corridors.

That Ottawa talks incessantly about commercial applications and seems to eschew any mention of the lonely wetware, entombed in laboratories and classrooms, that’s vitally responsible for them is more a matter of semantics than ideology. Politicians (their party affiliations are irrelevant) are all about results and success stories and ribbon cuttings.

Scientists, it’s safe to say, are all about reason, the long game to enlightenment. And it’s reason to which they invariably appeal, as they have this week during their Stand Up for Science demonstrations in cities across the country. According to a Globe report, the nation’s research community intends to shift its attention to “drafting policies that reflect best practices on research integrity and funding priorities and will urge the country’s political leaders to adopt them.”

In essence, they hope to capitalize on developments over the past eight years in the United States, where science-friendly policies in the Obama administration have sparked something of a renaissance of respect, if not always funding, for the harder disciplines of inquiry. 

“Canadian scientists are where American scientists were maybe a decade ago,” Michael Halpern of the Washington, D.C.-headquartered Union of Concerned Scientists told the Globe on Monday. “They’re trying to figure out how to protect themselves from a government that’s increasingly focused on message control over a more open discussion of the facts.”

In fact, they’ve been trying to figure out that problem for some time now, with little to recommend their eventual success short of a change in government. That’s why the value of ‘z‘ is likely, for the moment, to remain a big, fact zero.

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On seismic testing, just the facts please

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Those of us who remain curious about the economic potential of onshore tight oil and gas in New Brunswick might as well face it: There is no perfectly safe way to develop an industry that pulls vast quantities of petroleum from the ground. There never has been, and there never will be.

The only thing that matters is identifying the level of risk we are prepared to assume in return for jobs, royalties and tax revenues. And to do this, we need facts. But where are they?

The news media is in its element when it covers controversy. Altercations and recriminations between shale gas protestors along Highway 126 and SWN Resources, which is undertaking exploration there, make headlines. Dispassionate examinations of the claims both for and against the technologies involved more often do not.

And so, we are left sifting through emotionally charged assertions for clues of validity. We are left, for example, parsing this statement from a local resident, whom the CBC quoted in a story the other day: “There’s lots of money in Alberta, but when people come home they don’t want to see this. The money is good, but the money isn’t everything. . .They still put charges of dynamite in the ground and they still blast them.”

He was referring to the practice of seismic testing, which, according to the website naturalgas.org, “artificially (creates) waves, the reflection of which are then picked up by sensitive pieces of equipment called ‘geophones’ that are embedded in the ground.” Essentially, the procedure takes a picture of what lies beneath.

The question, of course, is whether this citizen’s concerns about the potentially catastrophic effects of the process on the water table and broader environment  – which, not incidentally, mirror those of many others in the province – are justified.

Or is Marc Belliveau of the provincial Department of Energy and Mines closer to the truth? Yesterday, he told this newspaper, “There is, unfortunately, a lot of misconceptions of what seismic testing is and what it is not. . .It’s used in making highways, it’s used in finding water sources for municipalities. . .There was seismic testing carried out along more than 500 kilometres in New Brunswick two years ago. . .There were no issues.”

Still, that was then. What about now? Back in the stone age, when I briefly majored in Geology at university, seismic testing was breakthrough technology in the oil and gas industry. And, like all breakthrough technologies – which are, by their natures, intrusive – this one did cause “issues”.

Even today, the procedure can be problematic. Earlier this month, oil and gas companies in the Gulf of Mexico agreed to forgo using the technology over concerns that it may harm marine life. According to a news report from KNOE.com, “Michael Jasny of the Natural Resources Development Council says the (moratorium) will give the government and industry time for required environmental studies and research.”

That said, the best evidence suggests that seismic testing in New Brunswick is about as safe as can be expected given the province’s regulatory framework and SWN’s statement of exploration practice, which appears on its website.

“The vibroseis technique is only used on roadways and provides quality signals with minimal disturbance,” the company declares. “Seismic vibrator trucks are equipped with an underlying vibrating plate to generate specific sound signals. . .The strength of the signal from one seismic vibrator truck is very small; several trucks need to be activated simultaneously to create a signal strong enough to be recorded. These vehicles create noise levels similar to that made by a logging truck.”

When no roads are available, SWN says it deploys the “shot hole technique”. In these instances, the company clears “a maximum three metre-wide path for a drill vehicle in the woods. No vegetation larger than 15 centimeters in diameter is cut. The track-mounted drill vehicle drills a hole 15 metres deep. A small seismic source is placed at the bottom of the hole and is sealed with clay and drill cuttings per provincial regulations. When safely secured, the source is activated with specialized equipment. Afterwards, the area is restored to its original state.”

Whether or not this statement can allay public concern depends entirely on the degree to which one is willing to allow fact to triumph over fear.

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How (not) to breed a culture of innovation

Think about tech at least once in your freakin' life!

Think about tech at least once in your freakin’ life!

Once again, a major Canadian think tank concludes that the nation’s private sector is not spending enough of research and development, on science and technology. Once again, the news runs buried in the tech sections of the day’s print organs, all but guaranteeing the predictable reader response of “so what.”

For decades – at least since the early 1980s – experts have warned that unless industry picks up the pace of innovation, the consequences for Canada’s productivity and competitiveness in the global economy will be dire. But what, exactly, does that mean and why should anyone outside the pearly gates of academe give a fig?

Not long ago, the Conference Board of Canada took a shot at answering the question. In a report entitled “How Canada Performs”, the organization had this to say about the country’s low ranking, compared to other economies, on innovation:

“Overall, countries that are more innovative are passing Canada on measures such as income per capita, productivity, and the quality of social programs. It is also critical to environmental protection, a high-performing education system, a well-functioning system of health promotion and health care, and an inclusive society. Without innovation, all these systems stagnate and Canada’s performance deteriorates relative to that of its peers.”

What’s more, the Board said, “With new key players – such as China, India, and Brazil – in the global economy, Canadian businesses must move up the value chain and specialize in knowledge-intensive, high-value-added goods and services. Although Canada has some leading companies that compete handily against global peers, its economy is not as innovative as its size would otherwise suggest.”

Now, the Science, Technology and Innovation Council (STIC) – a creature of the current federal government – adds its voice to the chorus. “Canada’s gross domestic expenditures on R&D (GERD) declined from their peak in 2008 and, when measured in relation to gross domestic product (GDP), since 2001,” it reports. “In contrast, the GERD and GERD intensity of most other countries have been increasing. Canada’s declining GERD intensity has pushed its rank down from 16th position in 2006 to 17th in 2008 and to 23rd in 2011 (among 41 economies). . .The more recent declines in the country’s total R&D funding efforts are attributable predominantly to private sector funding of R&D.”

The Council also notes, somewhat cheerfully that “Canadians understand that, if we want to create jobs and opportunity in a competitive world and address the key societal challenges that confront us in the 21st century, STI must be an integral part of the national agenda.”

But here’s the thing: I’m not at all sure Canadians do – understand, that is. If they did, then this conversation, which feels like a toothache, would be over. So would the chimerical debate, in government circles, about funding hard, “blue sky” science at the “expense” of applied, commercially viable research. Notice where these discussions almost never occur: Switzerland, Sweden, Denmark, The Netherlands, and, yes, even the United States.

That’s because these nations, unlike Canada, have recognized the truth of their circumstances, which is, both simple and elegant: If you want an innovative culture, you have to breed a culture of innovation. And silos of self-interest won’t help you accomplish the task. All segments of society – government, industry, higher education – must pull in the same direction if we’re going to get anywhere.

Or, as the STIC observes, “The responsibility is shared: all participants in our STI ecosystem have a role to play in driving enhanced performance and lifting Canada into the ranks of the world’s leading innovative economies. It is not just about investing more, but about investing more strategically and coherently, focusing our resources and efforts, learning from the experience of global STI leaders and improving agility to seize emerging opportunities. That is how Canada will truly be able to ‘run with the best.’”

It’s also how you convince average Canadians, who may not often read the tech sections of their newspapers, that their material well being – their wages and standards of living – depends directly on the quantity and quality of the innovations they enlist in the service of their respective futures.

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The sky’s the limit for Canuck in space

The future is what you make of it. . .Up. . .up. . .in the air

The future is what you make of it. . .Up. . .up. . .in the air

When I grow up, I want to be Chris Hadfield – minus the mustache.

In fact, the first Canadian astronaut to command the International Space Station (he returns to terra firma on Monday) perfectly mirrors my own youthful ambitions, if not actual experiences.

He’s almost exactly my age (we both graduated high school in 1978). He can fly 70 different types of aircraft (I once took the controls of a Cessna for about five seconds). He’s on a first-name basis with Captain Kirk (I once tripped over William Shatner’s carry-on at Pearson Airport). He plays the guitar (so do I. . .sort of).

There, alas, the similarities end.

Where the mere thought of spending months on end sealed up in a metal can hundreds of kilometers above our planetary orb is enough to give me a panic attack, Mr. Hadfield seems to relish his splendid isolation. He even wrote a song about it (with Barenaked Ladies’ frontman Ed Robertson).

“Eighteen thousand miles an hour/Fueled by science and solar power/The oceans racing past/At half a thousand tons/Ninety minutes Moon to Sun/A bullet can’t go half this fast/Floating from my seat/Look out my window/There goes Home (There goes home)/That brilliant ball of blue/Is where I’m from, and also where I’m going to.”

Catchy. Last week, Mr. Hadfield warbled his ditty, “ISS – Is Somebody Singing?” – from space. According to a CBC News report, “students, musicians and other participants from across Canada and as far away as Singapore and Australia sang along. . .The concert (was his) final live link from the space station before he returns to Earth on May 13.”

Indeed, the high-flying voyager has been a busy guy since he docked with his orbiting home away from home on December 21. Deftly using social media to communicate with his terrestrial brethren, he helped the Bank of Canada unveil its new, plastic $5 bill (he noted that the currency illustrates “how we can reach new heights of innovation”).

He also demonstrated that weightlessness, though challenging, need not preclude every day chores, such as brushing teeth, making sandwiches or sopping up spilled water. As National Post columnist Joe O’Connor observed in February, Mr. Hadfield “put on a goofy outfit to celebrate Mardi Gras. . .dropped a puck from the heavens on Hockey Night in Canada, fixed some space station gizmo of great scientific importance while sending out a daily stream of majestic photographs of the Earth below – the Sahara, the Australian Outback, the blinding lights of Beijing  via Twitter, Facebook and Youtube.”

The highlight, perhaps, was his twitter conversation with Canadian-born actor William Shatner (AKA James Tiberius Kirk of Star Trek fame) In January.

Mr. Shatner: “Are you tweeting from space?”

Mr. Hadfield: “Yes, Standard Orbit, Captain. And we’re detecting signs of life on the surface.”

All of which moved Stephen Quick, director of the Ottawa-based Canada Aviation and Space Museum, to tell Mr. O’Connor, “Chris is a rock star, there is no two ways about it. We’ve seen it from the beginning with Chris. We’ve had him in here to do briefings on how to fly a CF-18, and on training for space, and he is as adept at talking to a six-year-old with stars in their eyes as he is talking to the governor-general or a head of state. He tunes into that person. He has this vibrant personality, this twinkle in his eye, and it is almost a mischievous twinkle.”

At a time when interest in science is waning and only the grizzled among us can remember the excitement and wonder the Apollo moon landings inspired so many long decades ago, Mr. Hadfield’s demonstrable competence and enthusiasm renews faith in the efficacy of human endeavor. And his good homour is infectious.

Now that this Mr. Dressup of near space, this Pied Piper of the cosmos, this indisputable Voice of God to countless four-year-olds (including my grandson) prepares to rejoin us on the surface, a thought inevitably occurs.

If Mr. Hadfield ever decides to remove his mustache, certain candidates for high political office in Canada should start watching their backs.

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Applying social values to good science

Seing the forest for the trees. . .

Seeing the forest for the trees. . .

The contention that science, or at least its pursuit, should benefit society is hardly revolutionary. Where things get sticky is in front of the cameras as politicians explain what they mean when they modify the noun, “research”, with the adjective, “useful”.

So it was on Tuesday when Gary Goodyear, the federal minister of state for science and technology, announced that, henceforth, the National Research Council will concentrate on helping Canadian industry become more innovative and competitive.

“The day is past when a researcher could hit a home run by publishing a paper on some new discovery,” he told an Ottawa news conference. “The home run is when somebody utilizes the knowledge that was discovered for social and economic gain.”

The implication is that the NRC has been spending too much of its time doing “basic” science, and not enough time helping businesses commercialize promising, new technologies. In fact, Mr. Goodyear is explicit when he says, “Our businesses are not doing the research that they need to do. So something had to be done.”

But if the NRC has been a laggard in the nuts-and-bolts, dollars-and-cents world of applied science, then what are we to make of its government-approved website? It clearly states this: “The National Research Council (NRC) is the Government of Canada’s premier research and technology organization (RTO). RTOs are mission-oriented providers of innovation services to firms and governments, dedicated to building economic competitiveness and, in doing so, improving quality of life.”

And this: “NRC partners with Canadian industry to take research impacts from the lab to the marketplace, where people can experience the benefits. This market-driven focus delivers innovation faster, enhances people’s lives and addresses some of the world’s most pressing problems. We are responsive, creative and uniquely placed to partner with Canadian industry, to invest in strategic R&D programming that will address critical issues for our future.”

And this: “Each year our scientists, engineers and business experts work closely with thousands of Canadian firms, helping them bring new technologies to market. We have the people, expertise, services, licensing opportunities, national facilities and global networks to support Canadian businesses.”

Far from describing itself as a college of eggheads who sit around in their lab coats screeching “Eureka!” at every arcane discovery they make, it lists its main areas of R&D in proudly pragmatic terms: aerospace, information and communications technologies, security and disruptive technologies, construction, medical devices, energy, mining, and the environment.

It is, of course, entirely possible that the organization’s website is less a reflection of reality than wishful thinking by business-oriented bureaucrats. But that still wouldn’t undermine the NRC’s long track record of useful innovations over the years.

Here’s one from the Council’s archives: “Long before fictional forensic investigators with fancy crime-busting gadgets became popular entertainment, the Canadian Mounties were using some of the world’s best detection equipment to sniff out hidden weapons. Developed by a soft-spoken NRC scientist, the portable bomb sniffer became the standard of explosives detection in international aviation security.”

Here’s another: “The Canadian Prairies are blanketed with millions of acres of bright yellow canola fields. The crop is used in dozens of products, including cooking oil, mayonnaise and printing ink. Over the past five decades, researchers at NRC have transformed a minor crop into one of our country’s most valuable assets.”

And another: “The dedicated researchers at the National Research Council have produced many significant medical technologies and advancements, but perhaps two of the most important are the first practical motorized wheelchair and the first artificial pacemaker. Through these developments, NRC scientists have improved the quality of life of millions of people around the world.”

Mr. Goodyear’s determination to ensure that the NRC sticks ever more closely to its knitting in the field of practical science may be laudable. But is it actually necessary?

The distinction between “basic” and “applied” science is real. As a public institution, however, the Council has pursued the former quite often in the interests of latter as a matter of course (and in accord with its mandate).

Defining what’s “useful”, then, has less to do with science than semantics.

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