Digging deep into the ‘death of evidence’ in Canada

So, I am pretty excited.  In July of this year, a colleague and I crafted a panel proposal for the forthcoming Canadian Science Policy Conference to be held in Calgary in November.  The title of our proposal? How Governments Access Innovative Science in the Knowledge Economy. It was accepted!

There appears to be a growing gap between science and government in Canada. This has been touted as the ‘death of evidence’ in the media.  We have seen recent cuts to federal science programs and in changes to legislation in Bill C-38. The topic of government’s ‘muzzling’ of scientists was also hotly debated at the AAAS meeting in Vancouver earlier this year.

This topic is an important one in Canada, and globally I would argue.  Accurate, objective and independent science-based information is required to inform debate that precedes formation of government policy. In the context of agriculture, you might recall Bill C-474 (which failed in 2011), a Bill which sought to introduce non-science factors into the approval of new seed varieties. Examples like this raise the question of how, exactly, is objective science accessed by government to inform debates in what essentially are science-based questions?

Here are some possibilities from a Canadian perspective. The Prime Ministers’ Office may have access to in-house resources that script scientifically valid, analytical statements regarding a given topic or issue. But, alternatively, the process may end up being driven politically where Members of Parliament survey constituents that reach a ‘non-scientific’ consensus.  How (and if) policymakers and government leaders get scientific information is a important part of the policy development process.  The role of science in the process has substantial impacts for society as a whole. (See structure of Canadian Federal Government here).

Our panel, How Governments Access Innovative Science in the Knowledge Economy, which will include science and policy experts from North America and the UK will focus on how governments in Canada and other jurisdictions use science to build or shape policy.  Panel experts will present, debate and discuss the various factors affecting policy development and decision-making pertaining to the role of science.  The objective is to contrast and compare Canada with other jurisdictions such as the UK and the US.

If you have any thoughts on this; things that you would like to see discussed or ideas brought up with our panel of experts, please post them here.  And stay tuned for follow up post after November 7th!

The roles of ‘rationality’, ‘toxicity’ and ‘partisanship’ in interpreting scientific information

The article Why we are poles apart on climate change by Yale U law and psychology professor Dan Kahan came across my ‘desktop’ yesterday.  Climate change is a topic that is hotly debated in the mainstream media and in social media as well.  There are climate change proponents and then there are climate change ‘denialists’.  Personally, I resist resting a foot in any camp as I don’t really know enough about the whole issue of climate change.  But I do know that Kahan’s points are certainly relevant when you consider them in the context of the genetically modified food debate.

There are ardent supporters of the technology at one end of the continuum and very passionate opponents on the opposite side.  But why are we so deeply divided on the topic of GMOs (genetically modified organisms)? Kahan poses this (à la climate change debate). He suggests that it’s not that people are irrational. Rather, it may be that their reasoning powers have become disabled by a polluted science-communication environment”“…[C]itizens are …are, in fact, too rational — at filtering OUT [the] information that would drive a wedge between themselves and their peers.”

Hmmm. Now, what does he mean by ‘polluted’ and what does he mean by ‘too rational’? Well, Kahan’s following remark provide insights into that:

“People acquire their scientific knowledge by consulting others who share their values and whom they therefore trust and understand. Usually, this strategy works just fine. We live in a science-communication environment richly stocked…The trouble starts when this communication environment fills up with toxic partisan meanings — ones that effectively announce that ‘if you are one of us, believe this; otherwise, we’ll know you are one of them’. In that situation, ordinary individuals’ lives will go better if their perceptions of societal risk conform with those of their group.”

So, we are largely influenced by our closely-tied networks, our communities and our families. Makes sense.  I am contemplating Kahan’s ideas further in the context of how (dare I say if?) governments acquire / interpret science based information in order to inform policy-making decisions.  What gaps out there need to be addressed? What can be done?

I would welcome your comments. Kahan’s article is attached. It’s a one-pager and a quick and relatively easy read.

Why we are poles apart on climate change? Kahan, Nature, 2012

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Happy to say that this blog has been picked up and posted by Biofortified at this link and by David Tribe on his blog GMO Pundit a.k.a. David Tribe at this link.  Thanks for the support everyone! 

Arrivederci Italia!

Some may argue that the ICABR presents just one side of an ongoing debate about food production, technology and trade.  Some would say that maybe the conference is a bit imbalanced in terms of representation.  Does balance then come with the fact that the Conference was set in Ravello, a designated GM-free zone? Perhaps not. But it is certainly an interesting dichotomy.

View from my balcony. Oh yeah. Awesome!

We arrived on the Amalfi coast on Sunday afternoon, a bit worse for wear after the heat of Capri which was compounded by an overindulgence in wine and food over the weekend.  The ferry heaved its way along the Italian coastline, passing by Positano (of “Under the Tuscan Sun” fame). Fortunately, my stomach behaved itself and I was able to enjoy the 1.5 hour journey.

Since its inception 16 years ago, the International Consortium on Agricultural Bioeconomy Research (ICABR), with the exception of only a year or two, has been hosted in Ravello, Italy.  Relatively speaking, it’s a small conference set in a small Italian community attracting around 120 academics, government and industry folks from all over the world.  The “home” for the event was the newly established Oscar Niemeyer Auditorium.

Sculpture by Igor Mitoraj at the Auditorium

I co-authored two papers for this conference. One on the development of science-based policies and regulations in developing countries and the other – perhaps a bit of a departure for both me and this conference – on university policy and incentives around social media practice.

But this gastro-academic odyssey from Spain to Ravello, Italy was not only about work.  I was able to catch up with some colleagues and enjoy some pretty great food and wine.  In fact, my room at the Graal had a spectacular view of the Mediterranean so I often hosted the colleagues (@lfec77 @karidoerksen etc) for a late afternoon siesta and drinks on my balcony (yes, we may have skipped out on the odd plenary session or two). Apparently, we were having too much of a good time because the uptight British couple in the room next to me complained; yelling from their balcony:

“How are we supposed to enjoy reading our books with all that racket going on!”

If they had listened a bit more closely, they might have discovered that what we were talking about was far more interesting than any ol’ book! #whatissharedonbalconyoverlookingMediterraneaninItalystaysinItaly

In addition to generating wine-induced noise pollution, we also enjoyed walking through the maze of narrow streets that ran through Ravello, seeking out new places to sample Italian fare and poking through ceramic/tile stores.  We managed to hit a “Wine and Drugs” store where we sampled some of the finest wines in Italy.  The bottles ranged from 90 Euros to well over 250 Euros.  And the “drugs” in “Wine and Drugs”, you ask? Our host claimed that the “drug” was this absolutely amazing balsamic vinaigrette that he offered us (he may have been pulling our naïve Canadian legs, though).  Anyway, the vinaigrette was spectacular.  It was as thick as maple syrup and it beautifully cloaked those gorgeous bits of pungent cheese.  These tidbits were the perfect match to our wine samples.

Overall, the ICABR in Ravello was a great experience.  I finally met Klaus Ammann face-to-face.  Ingo Potrykus gave a wonderful update on GoldenRice (due to arrive in the Philippines in 2013, after 14 years of red tape and political-regulatory wranglings). These latter two folks spoke in one of the parallel sessions. It thought it a shame that not everyone was able to listen to these gentlemen speak.  Alan Olmstead – an economic historian – also closed the conference with a great keynote on opposition to technology from a historical standpoint.  He reminded us of the controversy and once very vocal opposition to technologies and scientific advances of the past: Galileo’s telescope, the tractor, the railroad, TB vaccinations, etc.  Olmstead’s summary of these stories really put things in perspective.

The last session of the program was, by far, the most interesting: “The Political Economy of Biotechnology in International Agricultural Agencies.” This overview on what are presumed to be ‘quiet diplomacy’ strategies by international agencies was presented by Regina Birner and Jock Anderson. Responses to the paper came from a panel that included representatives from the FAO, IFPRI, the World Bank and the European Union.  The icing on the cake was when Tassos Haniotis of the European Union referred to – not once but twice – our joint paper on university policy and incentives for scientists to communicate (Ryan and Doerksen).  What a great way to end a conference! #validated!

So, I find myself in Rome – yet again – with one last night to enjoy Italy before I head home tomorrow.  It’s been two weeks. It’s time.  I miss my family, my critters and my own bed.  And the questionable odors emanating from my suitcase suggests that it is time to do laundry, too.

Quote of the day: “For us to go to Italy and to penetrate into Italy is like a most fascinating act of self-discovery — back, back down the old ways of time. Strange and wonderful chords awake in us, and vibrate again after many hundreds of years of complete forgetfulness.” – D.H. Lawrence

Eat, drink, braaaaap!

Elizabeth Gilbert has nothing on me.  As I make my way through the EU on this conference pilgrimage, I may not only return with some good ideas, but it appears that I may be packing on a few extra pounds.

So ends my first ISPIM: Action for Innovation – Innovating from Experience.  Almost 600 delegates representing industry, government and academia from all over the world (30+ from North America) and well over 100 presentations on all that is ‘innovation’.

On day one, I participated in two roundtable discussions.  The first one on frameworks in public innovation was really interesting.  We had a diverse group – Norway, Finland, Tunzunia, Germany and Australia.  The main takeaway? Frameworks are context-dependent and must be reflexive. (I still say that “public innovation” is a bit of an oxymoron but I think that it always worthwhile to discuss new ideas). The second roundtable I participated in was on intellectual property where we debated the usefulness of patents.  For the most part, the group was quite skeptical about the patent process.  It seems to me that patent counts are merely ‘notches in belts’ for some firms or organizations – and the value (often) stops there.  Henry Chesbrough (of ‘open innovation’ fame) provided some insights at the open plenary session earlier in the day.  He presented the “patent utilization ratio”:

This is not a bad way to look at things although I think that I would need to have further clarification on what “under practical use” means.  Chesbrough also suggests that as little as 10 – 30% of patents are utilized in practice.  If that is true, I think that skepticism around patents is well-founded. It would seem that being ‘patent-centric’ may not be what it is cracked up to be.  Rather, IP portfolios require a balance of different protection mechanisms (i.e. trademarks, wordmarks, etc) plus some solid ingenuity around business practice and models.

The rest of the conference was a whirlwind of presentations, social events and networking. We had dinner on the rooftop of the Museu d’Història de Catalunya overlooking the Barcelona Harbour which was lovely.  Then on Tuesday evening, we went to the Carpe Diem Lounge Club on the beach. My presentation was in the last session of the last day.  There is a small group of us that are social network analysis enthusiasts and applying the tool in a variety of ways.  It will be interesting to see how this subset of ISPIM-ers evolves in terms of this type of work.

I closed that final day by skipping out of the plenary session and heading to Sagrada Familia.  This was definitely a highlight of my trip! More photos here.

Sagrada Familia, Barcelona

Gracias, Barcelona! Tuve un gran tiempo! Look out Italy, here I come!

Quote of the day: “There are no ‘last words’ in innovation…”  (Henry Chesbrough)

The Triffid Flax Story: growers’ perspective (plus more)

Over the past couple of years, I have been working with the TUFGEN group (Total Utilization of Flax Genomics) at the University of Saskatchewan.  As the social scientist on the team, I was tasked with (among other things) exploring the Triffid issue that came up in 2009. So, I joined forces with the Saskatchewan Flax Development Commission and together we hosted a focus group, administered a flax grower survey and conducted one-on-one interviews with industry stakeholders.  We were able to, in almost real-time, document the Triffid issue from 2009 up until present. Our findings have been published in an article in the AgBioForum journal. A background to the story and a summary of our findings are outlined below.

Background: Triffid flax was developed in the late 1980s at the Crop Development Centre at the University of Saskatchewan and was designed to thrive in soil containing residues from sulfonylurea-type herbices (good weed control option).  It received both feed and food regulatory approval in Canada and the US by the late 1990s.  However, negative consumer response to genetic modified crops in the EU (major flax export market) forced the Canadian flax industry to make a tough decision.  Triffid was voluntarily removed from the market. In fact, it was never even commercially grown.  Done deal, right? Nope. In 2009, Triffid flax was discovered in baking products in the EU food chain.  As you can imagine, this threw the Canadian industry into a whirlwind… “A winter of discontent turned into the perfect storm of all that can go wrong…”


1. Wide spread low-level presence of Triffid flax across the Canadian growing belt is likely multifaceted and due to a) persistence of the variety (in fields where growers did not rotate for three years and in seed mixing/movement by equipment) and in the b) dispersal of the variety (flax seed ‘sticks’ when wet or dry).

2. Exports of flax into the EU food market (Canada’s major export market for flax) has NOT resumed but Canada is meeting exports there for industrial use.  Russia and the Ukraine have stepped up production and are filling the gaps in the EU food market.

3. Although prices have recovered to some degree and a certain amount of complacency has settled in, the Triffid situation has left some flax growers very frustrated. Particularly with the costs associated with ongoing testing (which continues according to the agreement between Canada and the EU).

4. Costs to the Canadian industry, although difficult to estimate, total CDN $30 Million. This includes demurrage, testing, segregation and other costs. The EU industry sustained ~ CDN $50 million.

This story is documented (yes, ‘academically’ in journal format – but not too difficult of a read) in pdf format here (Ryan and Smyth Triffid 2012).  A link to the article in the online journal AgBioForum (“Economic Implications of Low-level Presence in a Zero-Tolerance European Import Market: The Case of Canadian Triffid Flax” Ryan and Smyth) is here: http://www.agbioforum.org/v15n1/v15n1a03-ryan.htm. We worked with the Saskatchewan Flax Development Commission and with the other industry organizations to pull this story together.  A huge component of our work revolved around a ‘farmer survey’. The article includes very passionate quotes from Canadian farmers.

I would love to hear your comments! This represents an interesting turn in Canada’s agricultural history.  I was happy to be part of the team effort to get this story out!

Slide presentation on this work available on the SaskFlax website: http://www.saskflax.com/PDFs/2012/10_2012_CamiRyan.pdf

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We (Stuart Smyth and I) are grateful for the support of The Saskatchewan Flax Development Commission, Flax Council of Canada, our colleagues at TUFGEN and in the Department of Bioresource Policy, Business and Economics at the U of S and the Canadian Agricultural Adaption Program (CAAP) and Agricultural Council of Saskatchewan, Inc. for funding.

From bio-composites to blush: how agriculture meets our daily needs in non-food ways

The first in a series of blog entries for the Calgary Stampede.

“Food” is often the first thing that comes to mind when we think about farming and agriculture; things like fruits or vegetables or commodity crops such as wheat, barley and canola. Food is an essential part of our every day lives and we are fortunate to live in a part of the world where we can enjoy a variety of foodstuffs sourced from our ‘friendly farmer’.

But did you know that farming and agriculture is more than just “food”? Whether you live in the city or the country, products of agriculture are all around you. And you just might be surprised the shape and form those products take!

Take, for example, biocomposites. A biocomposite is a material formed through the combination of a polymer with natural plant fibers such as hemp or flax. Biocomposite materials can be easily molded into things such as car dashboards or car door panels. (See the biocomposite specs on the “Kestrel” car developed in Alberta by Motive Industries). Biocomposites are also used not only in the manufacture of weed control materials or textiles but also in the development of ‘green’ building products such as biofibre insulation and cement and fibreboard panels (see the Alberta-based company, TTS, for information on their biocomposite products and innovations).

Car panel door, photo sourced from: Wikipedia

On the opposite end of the spectrum, we have agricultural goods used in the manufacturing of hair and skin care products as well as cosmetics. Emolient oils (EOs) are extracted from the seeds of crops such as flax, palm, soybean, sunflower, hemp or canola. EOs can penetrate the skin and bind to the membrane of the skin making them useful additives to a variety of beauty products such as skin moisturizers, anti-dandruff shampoos and even permanent waving agents. Cornstarch, derived from corn, is often used in eyeshadows and blushes.

Peas have been known to be used in facial masks. Oats and oat products serve as effective moisturizing and skin protection agents. And let’s not forget “Royal Jelly”. Royal Jelly is secreted from the glands of worker bees to feed larvae and queen bee within a bee colony. Not only does Royal Jelly have anti-biotic and anti-inflammatory properties (and pharmaceutical application), it is also widely used in cosmetic and beauty products. Lanolin is a yellow waxy substance secreted by the sebaceous glands of sheep. It is used in a variety of products from cream make-up to lipgloss to hand and skin moisturizers. Even bull semen is used as an additive in hair care products!

These are just a few of many examples of how agriculture is all around us. Agriculture is more than just food… it is an essential part of our everyday lives. No matter where we live!

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Cami Ryan is a researcher with the College of Agriculture and Bioresources at the University of Saskatchewan. Her family farmed and she grew up as a “townie” in rural Saskatchewan. Farming and agriculture has always been an important part of her life – both professionally and personally. Cami lives with her family and a collection of critters on an acreage just south of Calgary.

Innovative workers in Calgary “…we have that maverick attitude!”

May 13, 2011

Remember that article that I mentioned in early February that I co-authored with Langford and Li? Well, its finally published in City, Culture and Society. Again, this is a culmination of the work conducted between 2006 and 2008 on the attraction and retention of innovative workers in the Calgary CMA and its part of the Innovation Systems Research Network major collaborative research project (SSHRC funded).  I have been part of this research group since the early 2000’s, starting out in Saskatoon and working on the Saskatoon Agricultural Biotechnology Cluster.  The work in Calgary, and this piece in particular, explores innovative workers’ attitudes about the resource-based city in which they pursue a career (Calgary is an oil & gas dominated economy). The article reports on 28 factors of attraction and retention of creative talent in Calgary studied in the years 2006–2008. The data were drawn from interviewees responses to questions about attitudes toward the city as a place to work and about possible moves to alternative locations, in the context of a study of the social dynamics of innovation from the city perspective.

The main lesson

 from this study and our observations is this: motives are complex, revealing individual patterns of thought. It appears that a balance of personal factors and individual perceptions determines each interviewee’s overall expressed attitude about attraction and retention in the CMA.

Excerpts of quotes by interviewees:

“[For artists], we really have that maverick Calgary attitude… of ‘let’s just do it!’ That is unique to Calgary.”

“…it’s the boom – it’s the boom philosophy, the pioneering spirit… we try, we will! We do have an abundance of heart in this town…corporate support… citizen support… “

“It’s all about keeping your relationships open in Calgary. If you’re a little bit of an extrovert and you’re smart, you should have no problem networking yourself into never having to worry about work.”

“Calgary is a place where there is an opportunity for anyone. That said, I think that the scale of urban growth is causing a divergence… causing a gulf between the rich and the poor…homelessness is the paradox of prosperity. The economically and socially disenfranchised can’t keep up with the increasing costs…”

I wonder if Mayor Nenshi (will read this? He had a hand in cluster work out in Eastern Canada and when he was at Harvard, I believe…

Download this file

‘Organic’ does not necessarily mean ‘pesticide-free’

As always, I find Alex Avery’s work insightful. Here is a few quotes from his latest:

“Nature’s Toxic Tools: The Organic Myth of Pesticide-Free Farming”
Alex A. Avery, Center for Global Food Issues


“The primary organic fungicides are sulfur and copper. Both products are mined from natural mineral ores. Both are toxic to a broad range of organisms and are long-term soil and environmental contaminants. Both are applied at significantly higher rates of active ingredient than synthetic fungicides.”


“All farmers use a combination of crop rotation, disease and insect-resistant crop varieties, and soil fertility management to maximize plant health and minimize the impacts of crop pests. But all farmers also combine these strategies with judicious pesticide use to achieve an acceptable balance between crop yield, pest damage, and profitability. The biggest difference between organic farmers and their conventional counterparts is that organic farmers generally accept higher amounts of crop damage and loss before using pesticides. They do so because of the price premium for organic food and because organic pesticides are generally more expensive and less effective than their synthetic counterparts.”


“But organic farmers refuse to use chemical herbicides to kill weeds. They are left with bare-earth weed control methods that lead to increased soil erosion and less sustainability. The irony is that herbicides are the least toxic class of pesticide and offer the most environmental benefit. Herbicides are mostly compounds that narrowly target plant enzymes and are virtually harmless to insects and mammals. Yet the benefits from their use are enormous. An all-organic mandate would eliminate all of these benefits.”