Archive for: August, 2015

Canadian Federal Election: If there were a science debate, what would I ask?

Aug 21 2015 Published by under Canada, Canadian war on science, Politics

Katie Gibbs and Alana Westwood of Evidence for Democracy wrote a terrific piece in The Toronto Star a little while ago, We need a national debate on science: A question about science policy has never been asked at a federal leaders’ debate. Now more than ever that has to change.

Given the clear importance of science in our lives, why has a question about science policy never — not once — been asked in a federal leaders’ debate?


Perhaps it’s time for another first: a debate about the state and future of Canadian science. Once a world-leader in scientific research, recent decisions have eroded our science capacity and our international scientific reputation. It’s estimated that up to 5,000 federal scientists have lost their jobs, and over 250 research and monitoring programs and institutions have been closed. Our recently launched website called True North Smart and Free, documents dozens of examples of funding cuts to science, government scientists being silenced and policy decisions that ignore the best available evidence. This is essential public-interest science needed to protect Canadian’s health and safety, from food inspection to monitoring toxic chemicals in water.

I've chronicled the devastation that the current Conservative government has wrought on Canadian public science quite a bit over the last few years. Evidence for Democracy has recently published a terrific new site, True North Smart and Free that beautifully highlights what's gone on, telling a number of very compelling stories in significant depth. I've even started a post where I'm tracking the conversation that is happening around science during the election.

And it's an amazing and appalling roster of research funding cut or bound to industry partnerships, departmental budgets slashed, lab closures, library closures, scientists muzzled and fired, environmental deregulation, oil industry pandering, insults, harassment, demonization and much more. The toll is quite remarkable for a mere 10 years, with most in the last four since the Conservative majority. What took generations to build only took a few short years to disassemble.

So if a science debate did happen to take place among the major party leaders -- Gilles Duceppe, Stephen Harper, Elizabeth May, Tom Mulcair and Justin Trudeau -- what would I ask them?

Canadian science has been devastated over the course of the last decade, from research twisted to meet industry needs, labs closed, scientists muzzled or fired, and environmental regulations scrapped to favour industry. And that's just a small part of the damage to evidence-based decision-making.

If you are Prime Minister after October 19, what would be your short, medium and long-term plan to restore Canadian government and publicly-funded science to what it was before and even to take it in new directions and reach for new heights.

Of course, it's not hard to imagine how Prime Minister Stephen Harper would answer the question. But I would be really interested to hear what the others have to say. Even if answers were forthcoming from the various parties' science and technology critics, that would be great too.

It's also not hard to imagine how an entire two-hour debate among the opposition leaders could essentially revolve around nothing but answering that question, teased apart into a bunch of mini-questions about the various kinds of damage done over the last decade to evidence-based decision-making about the environment, public health, demographics and so much more. Let's keep our fingers crossed that science will be an important part of one of the remaining debates or that even we could get a completely science-focused debate.

How could my question be reframed or reworded to make it more effective?

What question would you ask?

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Reading Diary: Birth of a Theorem: A Mathematical Adventure by Cédric Villani

Aug 04 2015 Published by under book review, mathematics, reading diary, science books

Cédric Villani's Birth of a Theorem: A Mathematical Adventure has risen to the top of my Best Science Book of 2015 list. It'll be tough for another book to kick it off that summit before the end of the year, that's for sure.

The name Cédric Villani probably sounds a bit familiar to most who follow the science world reasonably closely. That's because he's the spider-pendant wearing, cravat and three-piece suit porting, Fields Medal winning French mathematician who's currently the director of the Institut Henri Poincaré in Paris. He's known in math circles for his work on nonlinear Landau damping with Clément Mouhot.

Birth of a Theorem is his memoir of how he and Mouhot made their breakthrough in nonlinear Landau damping. Curiously, the book really isn't about nonlinear Landau damping itself, barely including any kind of non-specialist description of it all all. Rather BoaT is about how they made their discoveries. It's about process, not product.

So the book includes copious email discussions between the two, some barely comprehensible to non-specialists, including TeX code and equations. It includes digressions and discussions, explanations of illuminations about the famous figures in their field, side trips into the music Villani likes to listen to while working. It's about the importance of collaborators and mentors in the scientific enterprise. It's about needing time to think deeply, away from pedestrian concerns, to get to the heart of the math. The serendipity and randomness of learning new things and making unexpected connections. It's about the challenge of finding good bread and cheese in New Jersey.

And lots and lots of rumination about work/life balance, juggling spending time with his small children, balancing his wife's career and his own, and the challenges of relocating to Princeton and the Institute for Advanced Study for six months and throwing all those balls up into the air, working in the shadow of Einstein. Mostly it's about balancing total immersion into the world of pure math with the demands of the very real and impure world of people and institutional politics and collaborators and family and life and death. Is Villani rather self-absorbed? Do we feel for his poor wife and kids at times? Sure, but we also root for him fiercely, hoping that he and Mouhot will slay their dragon.

And as incomprehensible as some of the math is, the process is vibrant and alive like in few other books I've read. Something like Wrinkles in Time: Witness to the Birth of the Universe by George Smoot and Keay Davidson comes to mind as a similar example from what I've read before.

I would recommend this book without hesitation. Malcolm DeBevoise's translation is smooth and seamless. BoaT would make a great gift to any science- or math- loving member of your extended circle. In particular, for anyone contemplating a research career, this book would provide an amazing insight into how research actually happens, especially in the more abstract areas of math and science. This book should find an eager audience for any library that collects popular science.

In many ways, Villani has only whetted my appetite for learning about the processes of mathematical discovery. Michael Harris's Mathematics without Apologies: Portrait of a Problematic Vocation seems like an interesting second step in this adventure. It's much longer and from the reviews and descriptive material, it looks like it just might pick up from where Villani left off, taking us from the unraveling of one discovery into a more generalized discussion of how the mathematical mindset works.

I have also recently reviewed the graphic novel Les Rêveurs lunaires: Quatre génies qui ont changé l'Histoire by Cédric Villani and Baudoin.

Villani, Cédric. Translated from the French by Malcolm DeBevoise. Birth of a Theorem: A Mathematical Adventure. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015. 272pp. ISBN-13: 978-0865477674

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The Canadian War on Science: Science, the Environment and Public Health in the 2015 Canadian Federal Election

It has begun.

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper has called an election for October 19, 2015, kicking off a marathon 11 week election campaign. The longest campaign since the 1870s, believe it or not.

My patient readers may have noticed that over the last few years I've posted quite a bit about how science has fared under the current government. Readers will have gathered that I'm not too pleased about that state of affairs. This election signals an opportunity to (hopefully) change direction; if it's not completely possible to undo all the damage that Harper has done, we can at least hope to stop the bleeding and maybe fix up as much of the destruction as possible.

My small part in all this will be to help the Canadian electorate follow how science, the environment and public health is being discussed both leading up to the election and during the election itself. No doubt many others will also be doing similar things, and I'll be happy to point to them here, but I'll be dedicating myself to this task over the coming weeks.

My methodology will be similar to the one I've employed before when tracking current issues on this blog. A master post with a rough chronology of what I've found, updated periodically as the story develops.

I'll be flagging issues mostly concerned with science/engineering/technology research funding, the state of government science and scientists and all issues related to the environment. I'll also be flagging stuff on public health issues. Here I'll be concentrating on issues around public health research funding and policies rather than the funding and structure of our public healthcare system. While that's an interesting area, I've always treated it as out-of-scope for my list-making and will continue to do so. The line between the structure and funding of the healthcare system and how evidence is used in constructing public health policy can be a bit fuzzy sometimes, so I may end up erring on the side of including edge cases rather than excluding them.

As mentioned, I do plan to update this post periodically, probably about once per week during the campaign.

Most of the items I plan to collect here -- and I'm not attempting to be complete, only broadly representative of what's been published -- will be from during the campaign itself. I will however include some from before the campaign starts as well as probably some from after the election itself. For example, the initial post here will by necessity not have much from during the campaign itself.

I will also be posting some of the items here in my Tracking the Canadian War on Science tumblr blog, especially as they apply to the broader issues at play. In fact, those items here will probably be posted on the tumblr first.

As a reminder, my master War on Science chronology post is here: The Canadian War on Science: A long, unexaggerated, devastating chronological indictment. The relevant blog posts here on this blog can be found here.




Campaigns, Debates, etc.


Only the Green Party seems to have released a real election platform document that I could find. I'll keep a lookout for those as the campaign rolls on. If I've missed one of the other party's platform document, please let me know. I've included some summaries I've found elsewhere for the others.

The Platforms


The Campaign


With any luck, the Conservatives will lose the coming election handily and I can re-orient my weird list-making mania towards something more enjoyable.

This list is just a start towards documenting the election conversation about science-related topics. As usual, if I've missed anything important or if I've made any errors, please let me know in the comments or at jdupuis at yorku dot ca. If you don't want to use my work email, you can reach me at dupuisj at gmail dot com.


2015.08.10. Updates up to August 9th. Some retrospective ones added.
2015.08.17. Updates to August 16th. I'm only covering the Linda McQuaig/"Leave the oilsands in the ground" issue fairly lightly. It's important, but the volume of commentary risks overwhelming everything else. Separate list post maybe? I'm considering it.
2015.08.24. Updates to August 23rd.
2015.09.04. Updates to September 4th.
2015.09.20. Updates to September 19th. Added a few stragglers too. I also split out some of the "General" items into a new category devoted science-themed debates as well as to various anti-Harper campaigns or movements.
2015.10.07. Updates to October 7th. Added a few more stragglers. I also added the YouTube recordings of the two science debates, the French one in Sherbrooke and the English one in Victoria. These are well worth watching.

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