Thursday, September 15, 2016

Institutions and Openness

Setting Up the Discussion
Let's be precise about what was claimed by Michael Caulfield in his paper Putting Student-Produced OER at the Heart of the Institution:
People make things possible. Institutions make them last.
His italics. His point is specifically that unless something is institutionalized, it does not last. He makes his position explicitly clear:
I had worked my heart out for this thing, evangelized widely, written up the prototypes and the stubs, explained it to the college. But I hadn’t institutionalized it. And so it was bound to die the minute I left.
He is also pretty clear about what that means:
While we like to scoff at all the mucky-muck bureaucracy around training, budgets, policy and messaging, it’s precisely that stuff that prevents your dream initiative of today morphing into rotting infrastructure of tomorrow.

It’s because I respect the work that all of us do in the open — faculty, students, staff — and want to see that work plugged as deeply into the university as the textbook industry used to be. 
I take pains to reproduce exactly what he says because of his response to my criticism (and also Jim Groom's criticism).

My criticism is this:
You can't depend on institutions. And in a sense, you don't need them. Institutions aren't what make tests and exams happen year after year. Institutions aren't what guarantee there will be course outlines and reading lists. What makes this last - the only thing that makes this last - is culture.
Caufield says we have misunderstood what he meant by "institutionalize". What he means is:
To instutionalize is to set up policy and technical architecture that favors activities you want to promote.
I said, "Pretty sure I've not misunderstood. Where do you set up policy? Where does staff turnover happen? In institutions. To be open, it has to be supported by more than just an institution. They're fickle. As I said, it must be part of culture."

The point here is that to institutionalize is to set up policy and technical architecture inside an institution. There's no other place these things can really happen. And my response is, contra Caulfield, doing this does not ensure persistence. Indeed, quite the opposite: if your innovation depends on an institution to survive, it won't.


Caulfield responded to this exchange today with a longish paper called Institutionalized that deserves to be considered in full.

He first responds to my contention that culture, not institutions, preserve the good things we want to preserve:
Institutions are one of the mechanisms we use as a society to perpetuate, change, or disseminate culture. There are other means, but seeing culture as an alternative to institutions is a bit like seeing travelers as an alternative to cars. I understand the relationship of culture and institutions can get a bit chicken and egg.  But they aren’t alternatives to one another.
First, and technically, this is not a category error. Institutions and culture have the same ontological status: they are human constructs, they cause changes of state in each other, and they can both be found empirically to be necessary (or not) and sufficient (or not) to preserve openness. We can disagree about the role each plays, but not about the existence or causal efficacy of one or the other.

Second, and much more substantially, he offers an example of 'institutionalizing' a practice through  Hostile Architecture "that purposely limits certain uses; here the addition of a middle bar to the bench. People don’t lie down on the bench because the bench prevents it." The best authority I know on this is Dan Lockton, who I've followed for years on the subject of architectures of control.

Caulfield's point, and I take it as given, is that institutions perpetuate and control things. Sometimes they exercise negative control, as when they keep the homeless off park benches, keep black people from voting, or keep poor and coloured people off city beaches. Sometimes they exert a productive influence, such as voter turnout through registration, clean cities through the fixing of broken windows, and the like.

Where we disagree is when we say that the institution is necessary in order to produce and preserve these things. Caulfield offers an example and it's worth quoting in full:
You can say, well — you just need a culture of acceptance, or people just need to be less racist, or whatever. But that’s incorrect. When you put a sign on the bathroom that says “Men” you institutionalize one thing. When you take it off, you institutionalize another. And when you put up a sign that says “All-Gender Bathroom” you institutionalize a third thing. (And no, not having any sign on it is not “de-institutionalizing access”. You’re all smarter than that, right?)
Well - let's think about that. The vast majority of bathrooms do not have signs on the doors. I have two bathrooms in my own home and neither has a sign on the door. What happens? Do people pee on the floor? No - they find the bathroom and use that. In my office, if we removed the signs from the doors people would still use the bathrooms. Having a sign on the door is not necessary to promote the use of bathrooms in order to pee.

By contrast, we also have a room in our office dedicated to eating and drinking; it's called a lunch room. There is a sign on the door that indicates this. Now, observe, first, the sign is not sufficient to induce people to eat there; many people eat in their offices, or at local restaurants. Second, imagine we created two separate lunch rooms, one for men and one for women. Would people obey these signs? Probably not - the institutionalization of segregated lunch rooms would (in this culture) be laughed at.

Institutionalization by means of signs is neither necessary nor sufficient to preserve social behaviours. Culture does. Culture says we pee separately, and not in our offices, but eat together, or sometimes in our offices.

Sure you can build things, like low-level bridges, to attempt to enforce policy through objects. Sometimes these objects last longer than the institutions that created them.

Learning Technology

Part of Caulfield's argument revolves around the choices institutions make.
They impact everything. And again, the point of all those ranting blog posts I wrote when I was a younger person was that the LMS institutionalizes a pedagogy that we don’t really want.  And I think the point of those early rants was if you want real change you’re going to have to dismantle — or at least change — the LMS. The LMS chooses what counts. And that effects what gets done. It’s the CompStat of education.
Speaking of category errors, we see one here. An LMS doesn't choose what counts. It is a piece of software, and software does not choose - that is a function reserved for sentience. People choose what counts. Sometimes they choose it directly, and sometimes they choose it (sometimes inadvertently) through their choice of software.

And sometimes - as in the case of institutions - other people make the choice for you, and then enforce it (or, at least, promote it) through policy or technology. That's what Caulfield is reacting to. Witness:
If you want real change, styrofoam padding isn’t going to cut it. Eventually you have to remove the damn bars from the bench. That’s what institutional change is. You make it so people don’t have to be your level of superhero to get it done. 
Yes. If you want institutions to change, you have to create institutional change. QED. But do we need - or want - institutions to change in order to support open access, open source, or open educational resources? Or could we get the desired result if (to take the extreme position) the institutions simply went away?

Why would I ask this? Because, from where I sit, institutions are typically the bodies preventing things like open access (and often in the same ways, and sometimes for the same reasons, they prevent the homeless from sleeping on benches or black people from going to the beach). And to take the point even further, what I've observed over the last two decades or so is a substantial struggle between culture - which wants these these things to be free - and institutions - which are trying to prevent that.

Caulfield lists half a dozen or more ways the institution reinforces the textbook and the banking model of education, and yes, this is one of the harmful effects of some of the choices institutions have made for us. I agree with him that these pose a "structural barrier to open pedagogy." But again we may ask whether we need an institution to support open pedagogy, or whether we would get the result we want were we simply to get the institution to cease and desist.

What's happening here, I think, is that Caulfield is imagining that the institution must be implicated in pedagogical choice, one way or another. So if we want something that is a non-banking model of pedagogy, the only way to get that is to change the institution:
We have made it simple to send hundreds of millions of dollars to textbook companies and difficult to use student dollars to build curriculum in-house for students. 
Doesn't it seem from this that he is saying these are the only real options we have?

Look at how he expresses the way culture is changed:
Or imagine another world where there was just a “college store” instead of a bookstore, and where professors had to coordinate directly with publishers to get their books shipped.... What would happen? Suddenly “culture” would change, wouldn’t it? People would walk around and say, wow, you have such a culture of OER on this campus, the same way people walked around the park benches and noticed there was no culture of visible homelessness.
Culture would change, he says. On. this. campus. Because there's no imagining in Caulfield's scenario that the change could happen outside the institution, or without the institution.

Pirate Libertarianism

The alternative to institutionalism is not libertarianism, Caulfield's argument to the contrary notwithstranding. Institutions can easily be used support libertarian (and neo-liberal) structures (indeed, that's what many of them are used for). And libertarianism is often used as an excuse (by institutions) to ignore culture.

Let's take the case of web archiving. It's a fact that institutions failed us with Geocities and with much more besides (we would also have lost all of UseNet, and we have lost countless websites). There are two ways to address this:
  1. Set up institutions to archive the web.
  2. Let anyone who wants to archive the web. 
Caulfield wants to do the first. Indeed, he suggests that doing the second amounts to nothing more than putting out fires or catching babies on an ad hoc basis. The problem of archiving should have been address structurally, institutionally:
A big part of it is the fact that a notion of archiving is not built into the model of the Web. If you want to fix that you’re going to have to get people on some committee meetings, a lot of them. You’re going to have to influence the W3C. You’re also going to have to engage with use of Terms of Service, and the regulation of orphaned content. You’re likely going to do that not as a private citizen, but through your institutions: colleges, policy boards, government.
Suppose we had done this. Would we even have the web? What made the web possible at all is that all this overhead wasn't built into it. All of this overhead costs money and resources. This sort of overhead was what made services like Compuserv and Prodigy so expensive.

This - indeed - is the sort of overhead that weighs down our educational system today. Committee meetings. Governing boards. Terms of service. Regulations. It is not clear - and the case has not been made - that this is necessary in a digital society to support learning.

But even more to the point: it is harmful.

If we look at the second option - "let anyone who wants to archive the web" - we can see that, in fact, this is what has largely happened. We have the people who saved Geocities, the people who saved UseNet, Brewster Kahle who created Internet Archive, Google images and Google cache, we have Napster that created MP3s of everything, even Sci-Hub to ensure that academic papers and publications do not (like so many books before them) simply disappear from sight.

The institutional response has been to do whatever it takes to stop this. The institutional response have been to create terms of service, to create regulations and laws, and to put people in jail for what they call piracy. Yes, even though the content would otherwise disappear. Indeed, the net effect of the institutional response has essentially been to enshrine it into law that only institutions can ensure open access. Not because we can't depend the public in general. But because we can.

It's ironic. On the CBC last night I listened to the announcer implore the public to look for a recording of the first ever episode of 'The World at Six', which was broadcast only 50 years ago. Less than my lifetime, and the recordings were lost. But maybe - just maybe - some individuals saved the recordings. It would have been illegal, of course. But maybe they did it anyways.

I don't trust institutions because they have proven time again that they can't be trusted. And I've found just as often than not when I go upstream that it's the institution lighting fires and throwing babies into the river.

Making it Work

I'm not saying people shouldn't work together. I'm not saying we should never build things. What I am saying is that we cannot count on institutions - organized economic and political units - to ensure the lasting value of these things is preserved.

And I am saying, therefore, that policies that make things like open access or non-banking education dependent on the good-will of institutions are misplaced and misconstrued. Because sooner or later someone is going to object (or forget, or simply retire), and the good work goes down the drain.

People do not value education not because we have educational institutions. Rather, we have educational institutions because people value education. And educational institutions are only one of many ways people support their own education, because what people value is the education, not the institution. The people inside educational institutions often miss that point.

We need policies that support education (or, more broadly construed, knowledge and learning). Because these are the things that are valued. And because people value education (and knowledge and learning), I believe they will value open access - indeed, that they have shown this to be the case - even though educational institutions do not.

Institutional change, in this context, is about saving the institution. But if the institutions don't change, culture will find another way. It always has.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Global Science Excellence in Canada

The Government of Canada, has been accepting proposals from the public on how to promote global science excellence. This is a subject of interest to me; I co-signed a submission from NRC researchers on the subject, and have been reading the other submissions.

I spent several hours today reading the suggestions and the supplementary material provided by many of the contributors. This post summarizes and comments on some of those other submissions.

Administration and Oversight

I think it is a common observatiuon that the previous government over-managed science, much to the detriment of science. Numerous contributions pointed to this:
  • Trevor Charles points to the dissonance between leadership and practitioners in the sciences. "From my perspective, the main reasons for the desperation are 1) stagnated support for basic research, 2) attempts to force innovation by ineffective and obstructive industry co-funding requirements, and 3) futile efforts to predict the areas in which breakthroughs will occur." 
  • The Agricultural Institute of Canada recommends "the reduction of the administrative burden preventing researchers from participating in high-impact research projects."
  • 66 NRC researchers suggest (PDF) "conditions that provide them the freedom to use their expertise and knowledge, including their awareness of the important issues in their scientific fields, related industries, and society at large."
  • The Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada (PDF) writes "Overly restrictive communications policies imposed by the previous government muzzled government science" and "research staff of the National Research Council (NRC), have seen their inventiveness blunted through the imposition of poor project management and the loss of independence." 
  • To address the delay between funding application and funding, Darren Lawless suggests we "create a funding program that allows post-secondary institutions to apply for a fixed funding envelope over a specified time frame that could then be redistributed to fund eligible projects."

There is also a desire, though, to make sure that the scientific community doesn't run away with itself.  People want oversight, and they want to ensure we get a return on our substantial investment.
  • Tim Harford says "We cannot insist that scientists ought to be accountable only to themselves."

But is the role of government to micromanage research? Some contributors thought the government's perspective should be loftier, setting out a grand vision or national challenge.
  • Wayne Robert says we need to create a Canadian dream to stimulate our interest.  "These things drive innovation at home and create a sense of pride and unity." 
  • In a similar vein, "Something similar to the Large Hadron Collider at CERN."Researchers might point to TRIUMF, though, which already exists (see below).

By and large, though, I think that people found that most of the problems in oversight stemmed from the overseers, and they called for more stability and perspective, instead of going for the quick fix.
  • Ron Rogge advocates for constancy in government policy. "One can fathom the impact an ill-informed, inappropriately-motivated decision can make on the country’s standing in global science excellence.  A capacity that has taken tens of person-years to develop can be quickly lost, and to rebuild will take a much greater investment than the cost of retention." 
  • We have plenty of bright people right here in Canada; who, with the right support, will be the superstar scientists of tomorrow - if we start to remove the barriers to their success."

The last suggestion might be a bit over the top. But it does tap into the idea that the increased government oversight of recent years hasn't been helpful, and people are looking for alternatives.

Private Sector and Industry Input

People outside the sector (or who feel they are outside the sector) want a say.
  • Decisions about research funding should have more industry input, say some. For example, the CCentre for Excellence In Mining Innovation recommends "ensure broader participation by suitably qualified private sector representatives on grant application review boards" because "Right now, they’re dominated by academics."
  • The Council of Canadian Innovators argues "Colleges and universities need to continue to consult with Canada’s scale-up community when designing their programs to ensure that the needs of the current and evolving labour market are being me.
  • Polytechnics Canada (PDF) calls for "this consultation is to be inclusive and to allow Canada’s polytechnics and colleges to make their optimal contribution to increasing Canada’s innovation impact."
This is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it is always valuable to get more input - the contributions to this consultation are themselves evidence of that. On the other hand, if more input means more oversight, then it runs the risk of compounding an already difficult problem.

A lot of what follows below addresses the role of the private sector, colleges and polytechnics in scientific research in Canada.

Fund Fundamental Research

There was substantial support for funding fundamental research, with proponents making it clear that without fundamental research Canada will not have any innovation capacity at all. Indeed, there was concern that fundamental research was not sufficiently address in the consultation documentation, and that insufficient attention has been paid to funding mechanisms that support foundational research.
  • The Alliance des universités de recherche du Canada (ACCRU) argues "L'excellence en recherche n'a pas d'adresse...Investir dans les universités partout au pays" (research excellence is not addressed... invest in universities throughout the country.). 
  • The Agricultural Institute of Canada argues, "Basic (foundation/pure) research must also be considered as it is the fuel for innovation and commercial application.... The public sector must to play a leading role in providing an enabling environment for innovation and performing R&D in areas of public good, such as basic research, where the private sector has less incentive to invest."
  • The Canadian Association of Physicists advocates (PDF) for continuing the NSERC Discovery Funds. "This overall model of 'unfettered funds' works well for training flexible and innovative thinkers, and should continue, at a much higher funding rate," it argues. Also, "Allow for multiple and broad-based funding avenues to support diverse activities, especially when it comes to international collaboration. One size does not fit all." 
  • TRIUMF argues (PDF) for "big science" saying "Because they are built on a foundation of world-class research and education, large-scale research facilities have the expertise and capacity to grow and foster Canada’s innovation economy." It advocates "a 'needs driven' innovation program to fund research aligned with national objectives."
  • There are no rules to producing innovation save one: diversity enables prosperity. Frequently this is discussed in terms of the value of curiosity-driven research, where the history of innovation highlights a central role for serendipity in generating truly novel discoveries." 
  • Garth Huber (PDF), Canadian Institute of Nuclear Physics, and others, argue for reform in funding mechanisms to support basic research. " As the science develops and new opportunities and ideas arise, it is important to allow researchers to pursue a diverse program of excellence in fundamental science research." 
  • Roland Kuhn (PDF) re-examines NRC's mission and questions its focus on revenues. "The suggestion that DARPA’s economic impact be measured by its revenues would be considered ludicrous by any expert on R & D policy, anywhere in the world," he writes.
Foundational research is often contrasted with applied reasearch, which is discussed below, but it is important to keep some comments outlined by Roland Kuhn in mind here: "Basic research versus applied research is a false dichotomy. The range is much more graduated than that. The implication of what we were being told was that if you are not doing exactly what a client wants you to do at this moment in time then you are not doing applied research. As there are only two options, you must be doing basic, blue sky, research."

Innovation, Knowledge Translation and Applied Research

A number of contributors made the point that while Canada is strong on basic research, it is weak in innovation, that is, in bringing basic research to market. This has been a refrain for years. 
  • As le Conseil d'administration de l'Association francophone pour le savoir says, "Le Canada est fort en recherche, mais faible en innovation" (Canada is stong on research, but poor at innovation).
  • The Agricultural Institute of Canada argues,"the gap between Canada and the world’s top five innovation performers has widened. In the most recent World Economic Forum (WEF) Global Competitiveness Report (2014-15) Canada ranks 23rd of 140 countries in capacity for innovation, significantly below levels in the United States (3rd).
  • L'Institut professionnel de la fonction publique du Canada argues "L’économie du Canada manque d’innovation" and suggests "les scientifiques du gouvernement fédéral pourront s’engager pleinement dans l’atteinte des nouvelles priorités du pays en matière d’innovation" (government scientistscould fully commit to meeting the priorities of becoming an innovation nation).  

The natural reaction has been to shift resources to support an innovation agenda. This reaction is echoed by a number of contributors.
  • The Agricultural Institute of Canada argues, "An effective innovation agenda must then set medium and long-term national R&D priority areas that promote business participation. An innovative private sector is critical to translate Canada’s high-quality knowledge production into marketable products that bring productivity gains and deliver commercial solutions to various industries."
  • there needs to be a cultural shift and a redirection of incentives to support innovation and commercialization activities." 

The principle here is that research needs to be 'translated' or 'transferred' into innovation or economic development, often in specific sectors, "so that we as Canadians can extract maximum benefit from the investments that we make in research."
  • So suggests the Centre for Excellence In Mining Innovation
  • And the Forest Products Association of Canada argues "greater federal support in research and development would help maximize engagement in the forest sector’s innovation agenda."
  • As notes (PDF), "The Massachusetts Life Sciences Centre (MLSC) operates to carry out its MLSI mission choosing investments with a range of priorities: (1) Funding translational research that converts discoveries from Massachusetts into marketable products and services; (2) Investing in promising new technologies; (3) Building connections; and (4) Ensuring alignment of skills with needs of life sciences industries." This approach should be 'Canadianized', he says.
  • The Agricultural Institute of Canada also says "Participatory research approaches bring valuable opportunities to engage science graduates in research projects and knowledge transfer (KT) activities on the ground."
  • The Council of Canadian Innovators  argues we should "develop policies that help our entrepreneurs commercialize ideas coming out of our universities."

Here's the problem: this is exactly what the government has done over the last decade, diverting hundreds of millions of dollars into knowledge translation, applied research, and commercialization. his has not addressed the fundamental issue: the private sector in Canada does not invest in research. And without this investment, no amount of government intervention can buy an innovation society.

Other people are looking for other solutions. Some, for example, think it's a match-making problem.
  • Steve Leach writes that we should "build a platform where new patents are examined and vetted by experts, where inventions are matched to industry needs, and where new opportunities for pure and applied research are aligned with commercial interests."
  • Similarly, IN-PART platform, "a global matchmaking network that connects university technologies with companies who are actively seeking to commercialize research." 
This has been attempted in the past. Maybe it can work with better technology, or maybe the problem isn't a matchmaking problem. Then there's this:
  • Sarah Diamond and Karl Vredenburg write, "Many organizations recognize the importance of innovation, but they don't know how to achieve it. The answer is design. With design thinking, Canada could innovate toward an inclusive society that brings the national values of equity and inclusive design to the international arena."

I'd love to think that this is the answer, but it once again rings of being the quick fix. I think that the answer lies elsewhere.

Transfering IP to Industry

Some people has been calling for more direct industry access to government-funded IP:
  • As noted by Tim Harford, "any IP generated by government scientists stays with the Crown." He recommends we "allow Canadian companies free access to any IP generated on behalf of Canadian citizens.
  • "Maximizing private sector experimenting or use of IP should be the goal," writes J.B., pointing to the barriers facing people wishing to commercialize publicly created IP. 
  • supported "prestigious chairs in industrialization", saying "We need an incentive for the most creative and adaptable researchers to work with industry for a period of time, where do would not be expected to publish, but to support the development of intellectual property owned by businesses." 

One of the major changes that took place at NRC not long after I joined was that a long-standing policy of encouraging researchers to create spin-offs and of rewarding them for their discoveries was discontinued. We've seen, as well, a nation-wide move on the part of universities to manage the commercialization (and retain the benefits) from researcher IP. Maybe this was a mistake.
  • argues "Universities and hospitals sometimes claim too much ownership of a discovery and as such eliminate incentives on academics, researchers and others to innovate and come up with new idea. Universities do not have the opportunities, nor the knowledge to take an idea from the lab and make it practical and execute."
  • The CIHR 'Proof of Principle program' should be reinstated, says J.P. Heale, Managing Director, UBC Industry Liaison Office. It "was a unique funding opportunity for Canadian researchers to de-risk and develop their research discoveries so that they could form spin-off companies, or license the intellectual property to established companies."
Much of Canada's innovation strategy has been centred around the idea of attracting large industry (with tax benefits, access to research, and use of government IP) in the hope that they would invest here and create a cluster of supplier industries. This hasn't happened.

By contrast, if we look at actual innovation clusters - at Silicon Valley, in Massachusetts, or even in Kitchener-Waterloo - we find that the economy develops as a result of a combination of basic research and spin-off startups. In other words, an innovation ecosystem.

Innovation Ecosystem

But what is an innovation ecosystem?
  • Steve Larter and Claude Laflamme suggest expanding our models of innovation. "We must not be too prescriptive about which models of innovation work, or key skill sets of individuals, the key is that the team overall, has the necessary ambition, energy, inspiration, focus, diversity and delivery skills combined with good internal communication."

A number of contributions described and recommended the development of aspects of an innovation ecosystem consisting of skills development, communications and networking, and access to resources. 
  • The Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences says (PDF) "Investments in skill development, knowledge production and collaborative networks will help Canada build a rich and diverse innovation ecosystem."
  • Additionally, an anonymous contributor recommends improving science communication.  "Models of science communication exist.  Canada should build upon these models to become a leader in science communication."
  • Nathalie Mousseau argues for investment in scientific and research libraries. 
  • Sara Rubenfeld argues that public services employees should have better access to electronic resources that contain the most recent research and information available from around the world.
  • one recommendation identified in OBIO's report "How Canada Should be Engaging in a $9 Trillion Dollar Health Economy" ( industry CEOs indicated that for Canada to create an ecosystem for scientists to connect and compete with proposals for global participation."
  • Darren Lawless suggests "the creation of  'pop up' innovation zones within post-secondary institutions with the support of the government. These zones would build on the concept of successful maker spaces."

I think these are ideas that need to be taken more seriously. Most government investment in innovation over the last decade has consisted in funding to specific companies for for specific projects, and much less for services and facilities that support all companies or entrepreneurs. An innovation ecosystem, by contrast, resembles more an infrastructure investment.

Some people, meanwhile, think that we need to reshape society itself.

  • J.B. calls for decreased immigration levels. But a commenter says "for research scientist positions, I know that we cannot limit our search to Canadian university graduates." 
  • Sean Elliott calls on science to buy locally. "If more Canadian products are purchased, production cost per item will reduce, making our products more competitive globally (than they currently are)."
I think that most scientists would concur that nationalism and research are a poor mix.

Improve Research Efficiency

A number of respondents made recommendations that would contribute to an innovation infrastructure by increasing the efficiency of Canada's research investment. I think they have a point.

Consider openness, for example. Merely by employing more open source, by encouraging the use of open resources, and through open cooperation, we can eliminate many of the inefficiencies of Canada's innovation ecosystem.
  • CANARIE notes "research software developers spend time re-creating existing software components instead of expending their efforts on new and innovative functionality" and recommends that the Government should encourage researchers to move to more collaborative models of software development and reuse."
  • Similarly, une sorte de récompense (monétaire, ou sous forme d'accès à des formations, par exemple) pour avoir fourni du travail, du savoir et des nouvelles technologies à la Société en mettant leur(s) création(s) sous licence libre" (some sort of compensation for open source contributions to the ommunity) 
  • also argues that we should find a way to make Canadian science more open. "For example, publication could be in open-access (pay-to-publish rather than pay-to-read) publications, and underlying datasets could be posted online for deep-dives by other researchers.
  • There is also the potential to make research data more widely available. Research Data Canada argues "it must be easy to find, access, reuse, and the data must be accompanied by sufficient descriptive information and permissions to make it useful. In other words, the data should be Open."
There was also a call for centralization and national coordination.
  • The Total Innovation Management  (TIM) Foundation (PDF) recommends "adopting and nationalizing an Innovation Management Standard" that would define a common language and process for innovation management, be employed by government departments, and inform incentive programs.
  • The Agricultural Institute of Canada argues,"A stronger strategy to coordinate research priorities and strategies will reduce risk of duplication and produce efficiencies," and recommends "a  knowledge transfer and translation component should be a mandatory condition for conducting research with public funds." 
  • David Kennedy notes "We currently produce considerably more phD scientists annually than we can support," he writes. "Canada can build a more competitive scientific force by adjusting funding levels to train fewer scientists while at the same time employ(ing) more of them."
Again, though, attempts to create efficiencies through coordination (or standardization) create more problems than they solve. They increase the bulk of administrative overhead, create barriers to good research, cost time and money, and don't actually achieve coordination or standardization.

Public Sector-University-College-Industry Collaboration

There is traditionally a close link between colleges and industry which according to many writers  should be leveraged to support the research ecosystem.
  • Colleges should "have all the necessary tools to enable students to choose an entrepreneurial path right after they complete their studies," says

I think that the government should look into ways to more effectively (and more sufficiently) fund research at colleges and polytechnics. But I don't think that the price for this funding should be close collaboration with industry. This should be decided by the colleges themselves. If colleges decided that collaboration - through, say, co-op placements (see below) - are beneficial, they should be free to proceed. But they should not be wedged into programs of dubious benefit simply for the purpose of qualifying for research money.

There were also some calls for greater research-industry collaboration in other areas.
  • says "industry-academia-government cooperation is needed to develop and facilitate regional cluster"such as the Downsview Aerospace Innovation and Research (DAIR) consortium (

  • The Agricultural Institute of Canada says "existing federal government funding regulations prevent public sector agricultural scientists from collaborating with university scientists" and argues "the current regulatory framework governing the interactions between academia and federal research institutions should be revised." 
  • Jean-Pierre Monchalin writes, "NRC should also renew links with academia and be present internationally, while particularly researching association with scientific and technological leaders. He suggests NRC is the linkage between low-TRL research produced by universities and high-TRL research needed by industry, helping Canadian companies through 'the valley of death'.
  • TRIUMF notes (PDF) notes that while "a number of federally funded programs, such as the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council’s industrial partnership programs, support linkages between academia and industry in order to encourage innovation" these "are not directly accessible to large-scale research facilities."

Support Individual Innovation

While most research support goes to institutions, support could also be provided to individuals.
  • Takin K writes, "you have to have a rich family to establish a business in Canada; this is Inequality at work."
  • ow can innovations from 'citizen scientists' be included in funding and resource consideration?" Grant proposals should be allowed from all Canadians, he says.
  • For example, Le gouvernement pourrait par exemple offrir à chaque citoyen une période de deux ans pendant laquelle il/elle recevrait une allocation suffisante pour bien vivre, pour acheter du matériel, pour voyager, et qui serait consacrée à un projet innovant" (the government could for example offer to each citizen a two year period during which they would receive enough to live on, to purchase material, to travel, and could support an innovative project).O'Byrne also suggests that a universal minimum income would reduce the need to work and foster the development of innovation.
 I think these are good points. Why is funding only available through institutions? How could social policy help individuals get on their feet and do something interesting?

Moreoever, it is worth noting the barriers some individuals face within institutions:
  • points to "systemic barriers facing women regarding research and development grants." She recommends "emphasis on financial / business literacy for women, increased support for student travel to conferences, and increased connections between local politician & student unions/campus groups."
  • he makeup of Canada’s most prestigious and expensive talent selection program, the Canadian Excellence Research Chairs has only a single woman scientist but 24 men." 

I think that Canada could do more to open opportunities in science and innovation to more people and to support increased diversity. This has a little to do with affirmative action and a lot to do with ensuring that support, infrastructure, and access to services are there for everyone (and not just those who can afford them).

Research in Specific Areas

Many submissions recommended the government fund research in specific areas. I will list these for completeness, but I think personally that research ought to be funded if it is high quality reserach, as opposed to whether it supports the specific needs of the day.
All of these are perfectly worthy candidates - except maybe 'elementomes' - and we would do well to support them.

Research, Innovation and Education

It's no surprise that a science and innovation agenda would also get to education. Proposals fell into two categories. The first was support for co-op programs and internships of various types:
  • There is increased industry interest in workforce integrated learning approaches that provide post-secondary students with work experience while they are attending an educational institution" and recommends increased support.
  • J.B. writes "Colleges need to have shorter specialized certificate programs, in coordination with professional or industry sectors and provide internships or work experience"
  • Mitacs Inc. argues "an effective innovation strategy must therefore respond to these trends by supporting effective education and training of future innovators" and suggests "Canada will need to significantly increase the number of work-integrated learning opportunities available for students." It offers "a plan to foster talent for growth by scaling Mitacs’ programs to deliver 10,000 annual innovation internships across Canada by 2020.
  • Darren Lawless suggests a mechanism called 'sprintboard mentorship'. He proposes "funding and a mechanism that allows recent graduates to be engaged in solving industry or community problems while still having the ability to learn from an experienced professor over a short period of time – say six months to a year. Further, these graduates could mentor junior students who are working their way through their programs by providing insight and guidance"
  • The There are more opportunities at the college-level (than there typically are at the university level) to engage in “real-world” projects as part of co-op placements, field practicums and capstone projects."

I am not surprisingly supportive of practical experience in learning. Indeed, I think that the majority of a student's education should be actual experience in the community. But I have some caveats. First, and foremost, students aren't just cheap labour, nor are they valuable simply as a source of government funding. Second, many placements would be better served in support of community development and infrastructure support. It's not only about placements in industry.

The second category was focused on the need to teach people about something.
  • For example, We would like to encourage more teaching on the basics of mining and on mining’s contribution to making everything around us happen."
  • The Agricultural Institute of Canada recommends  "actors in the research value chain should undertake mandatory training in dissemination and public communication."
  • Include entrepreneurship in the mission statements and objectives of every post-secondary institution, and appoint an entrepreneurship champion or an entrepreneur-in-residence in every faculty," and "Integrate entrepreneurship into existing courses and add courses where gaps exist.
  • An anonymous contributor recommends we research the value of a STEM graduate to society and then use various advertising and teaching mechanisms to make this knowledge widely known. 
  • Ernesto Icogo calls for increased STEM teaching. "From young age to high-school, intensive STEM (in my case, mathematics) should be developed in the individual's mind, provide enough competition at national and international level,motivational reward and recognition."
  • that a grant is created to specifically address the lack of leadership training in academia.

While I appreciate the good intentions of those who contributed in this way, I need to remind them that education is not a propaganda engine. The purpose of to help students think for themselves and make their way in life, not to inculcate specific belief-set. These criticisms apply especially to those who would make entrepreneurship mandatory. There are many other ways to regard one's interactions with the rest of society, and it would be inappropriate to equate success with founding a business.

A Healthy Society and Ethics

I think it's interesting that almost nobody commented on these.
  • In their submission RESULTS Canada calls attention (PDF) to 'stunting' - that is, the reduced development and capacity created by poor childhood nutrition and recommends that the nation's innovative capacity could be increased through its elimination.
  • An anonymous contributor opposes the increasing use of animals in research and testing.

So much more could have been said in both areas, and more besides. We just received news this week of potential interference by the sugar industry in research regarding heart attacks. There has been no shortage of other ethical issues related to research, and there is no shortage of other social factors that impact our capacity to be a science and innovation society in general.

But that - by way of postscript, I guess - is grist for another day.

Friday, September 09, 2016

My Watershed Moments

I'm following in the footgsteps of Dean Shareski, who originally posted the challenge, and Chris Kennedy, who posted a response of his own.

The idea is to identify some key events in our own professional development, some 'watershed moments', if you will.  Shareski writes, "Watershed moments are those occasions where there the lightbulb came on or something profound was shared or understood."

These are my own, and I'll use the same categories they do.

PD / Conference

I've had a number of key events in my professional life; most of the core ideas of my own approach to education and technology have been formed while on the road. On a trip through Australia in 2004, for example, I was inspired by Olegas Truchanas in Strahan, to think of teaching as stewardship and by the Aboriginal cave drawings in Kakadu to understand that we read the world. Or for example my visit to South Africa where I encountered the cattle boys of Lesotho, or how I learned about groups and networks in New Zealand. The list goes on.

But if I had to identify one conference that was an eye-opening moment for me, it would be my visit to Bogota in July, 2006. I gave two talks, both on the subject of learning objkects and learning object repositories, at a conference titled Objetos de Aprendizaje (OA) y Redes de Alta Velocidad held at the Escuela Colombiana de Ingenieria.

It was my first time in Latin America and my first time outside the western world. I didn't learn so much about learning objects and such as I did people's attitudes towards learning and development outside my own culture. I saw a modern and technologically advanced school, met with staff and students who were knowledgeable and eager to build something better, and I saw a city and a culture ion what can only be described as a springtime for the country.

If affected me so deeply I made a movie about it, spending the next four weeks after the visit learning video editing and painstakingly piecing it bit by bit on a machine vastly underpowered for the job. It recounted not so much my experience at the conference - though it did cover that - as it did my experience in the streets, walking and talking with Diego Leal, talking about learning, seeing and feeling the powerful juxtaposition of people who have everything and people who have nothing, and how to bring them together.

"It all comes back to the children. What they see. What examples they follow. What they learn to value. What they see in life. Diego and I talked about this as we wandered through the Candelaria. That learning isn't saying the right thing or presenting the right content. It's doing the right thing and living the right way. And that's the learning that I was seeing in the park in Bogota that day."


As I would write later: "In 1989, the pieces came together. I watched the rise of 'people power' around the world. I had seen Francisco Varela speak on AIDS and immunology at the University of Alberta hospital. I began to see how networks, whether of individuals of cells, could take shape, form patterns, act with purpose. And how this would reshape how we understood the world."

It's hard to explain why this talk in particular had such a profound effect on me. I'm not sure there is any extant record of it , except for what might be in my own notes. The technical part of the talk was an explanation of how the immune system and the nervous system had in common the property of being a network. He was explaining how the entities in these networks communicated. And he identified a 'sweet spot' - not too many connections, not too few - that would enable optimum functionality.

I knew about connectionism by then - that was why I was in the room - and I had been working on a network theory of knowledge. This talks emphasized to me that there were ways to understand networks themselves that would be of interest, and of use, to this understanding.

But there was more to Varela than that. It's when you look deeply at a person who is presenting and you see the resonance not just of superficial theory but of a way of seeing the world. That's also what I saw that day. A few weeks later I would write my entire dissertation in just a few days sitting on the top of a hill listening to folk music.

"If everybody would agree that their current reality is A reality, and that what we essentially share is our capacity for constructing a reality, then perhaps we could all agree on a meta-agreement for computing a reality that would mean survival and dignity for everyone on the planet, rather than each group being sold on a particular way of doing things." - Varela.


I've had the privilege of reading a large number of powerful books in my lifetime. Some - like Patrick Watson's The Struggle for Democracy, Kenneth Clark's Civilisation or Carl Sagan's Cosmos - were born as TV shows. Others, though, were the classics of literature and philosophy - Tolstoy's War and Peace is probably the greatest book I've read, while Gibbon's Decline and Fall much be the most vital nonfiction, followed by Shirer's Rise and Fall of the Third Reich.
But the watershed moment for me comes with the reading of John Stuart Mill's On Liberty.

I read it in the Devonian Gardens in downtown Calgary around 1983 or 1984. The gardens are actually indoors, occupying the fourth and top floor of a downtown mall in TD Place. They were as large as a city block, fully tropical, and filled with nooks and crannies where someone could hide and read. Which is what I did. It was the beginning of a habit, for me, of reading great works of philosophy in malls and gardens.,

What Mill said two me was twofold: first, that every person has as much inherent dignity, worth and capacity as every other person, and that they are held back only by circumstances of poverty, poor education, or some other form of oppression; and second, the only defensible definition of society was one in which each person is free to pursue his or her own good, in their own way, so long as it doesn't interfere with others' rights to do the same.

Now of course the latter part of Mill's dictum has been taken on by neoliberals to justify some sort of libertarian non-society, but both parts of Mill's thesis are essential, and no view of society that treats its subjects simply as means (as Kant would say) to someone else's ends is worth defending. There is a type of freedom that Mill envisioned which is essentially one of stepping lightly through the world, redressing wrongs, and working for the betterment of oneself and one's fellows.

Public gardens, I find, are the perfect place to read enlightened philosophy.


I am tempted to write 'the computer' or 'the internet' here. But I'll be more specific.

NCSA's Mosaic was the first graphical we browser. It transformed the web from a linear text-based environment to a non-linear link-and-graphics based environment. It's hard to describe the impact of that.

Before Mosaic, I actually had my feet firmly planted in both worlds. By the time it came out in 1993 I had had several years of internet experience, building bulletin boards systems, programming multi-user games, and traversing the depths of FTP, Usenet and email. And I also had a history in graphic design, working first with wax-and-paper based layout and design, and then tools like Quark xPress, to create pages, posters and more. I had even authored a guide, Practical Graphic Design.

The resulting fusion of those technologies enabled my two greatest passions: to create, and to explore. I began building web sites almost immediately. And I began to navigate the world by hyperlink, spending thousands of hours exploring tens of thousands of websites, peering into minds and lives I never knew could possibly exist.

And I never stopped. My career today is an extension of these two passions, and if I would be said to have a research method, it is the same: to create, and to explore. Returning to a world bound by linear and physical limitations has never been an option.


Rik Hall. You may never have heard of him, but he was of fundamental importance to me.

Rik was moderator of the online WWWDEV mailing list (archives no longer extant, because who cares about history?) and chaired the NAWeb conference in Fredericton for ten years, 1995-2005. I attended seven or eight of them, often financially supported by the conference, as an unknown academic who could do workshops on interesting topics. I also managed the NAWeb Awards for a number of years, then gave it up so I could win some, and was the keynote speaker in the tenth and final year.

I remember one time when Rik was introducing me to someone else him describing me as "one of the good ones." He didn't mean 'good' in the sense of capable, skilled or qualified, but rather, 'good' in the sense of working for the betterment of others and advancement of learning. You never saw these traits more clearly than in Rik, and it was high praise that made me glow inside but also engaged me with a sense of mission.

Through Rik I met people like Terry Anderson and Rory McGreal, who were also both important influences and role models for me. He also connected me with a etwork of developers and inventors. And NAWeb was leading edge - I connected to wireless internet for the first time at NAWeb. NAWeb connected me to AusWeb (where I did my first video editing in 2001) and with a number of great people from Down Under.

Rik is a sharer, a connector, and a demonstrator. He encouraged me when I explored with RSS and content syndication, he taught me to look for and appreciate the best in the many people around the world working in education, and he linked me to a community I had hitherto not even known  existed. Like the best of them, he taught through example and not though lecture, and one of the many people he increased in life was me.

Thursday, September 08, 2016

Canadian Values

Conservative leadership candidate Kellie Leitch has proposed that immigrants be subject to a test for their adherence to what she calls Canadian values.  "It's not intolerant to believe in a set of values we expect everyone to share," she says. There are two things we could talk about: what those values actually are, and whether we should screen for them.

Her intent is to protect Canada from what she has in the past called "barbaric cultural practices". She now regrets that wording. I would too. But one wonders whether her current formulation reflects the same sentiment as her previous formulation. "People who believe women are property, that they can be beaten, bought or sold, or believe that gays and lesbians should be stoned to death because of who they love, don't share our Canadian values," she said on CBC this morning.

What, then, does Leitch believe are actually Canadian values? She says she wants to have this debate: "I believe in a unified Canadian identity." Take the following items as a starting point (quoted form the broadcast):
  • hard work and equality of opportunity - I want everyone to know ... if they work hard, they actually can get ahead (especially our young people);
  • generosity - Canada is a place where hard work and generosity can come together;
  • freedom - a Canadian identity that permits freedom and tolerance that allows each and every one of us to pursue our best lives and our best selves;
  • equality - equality of rights, equality of women;
  • tolerance - it is a Canadian value to respect religion other than those that you might follow yourself, to respect other cultures, to respect sexual orientation that's different from your own.
I have to confess that I am a bit sceptical about testing immigrants for their adherence to a set of values that would be rejected by most members of her own party.

And in fact, I believe there is an interpretation of each of these principles which is close-minded, narrow, and expressed in code to people who are concerned about immigration and the assimilation of people from different cultures.

Consider 'hard work', for example. The emphasis here is on people who contribute to the economy, and those who might not - children, the elderly, refugees, socialists - have the wrong 'values'.

Or consider 'tolerance'. The point here is suggests that some cultures are more pro-tolerance than others. The reference is to the well-known differentiation between men and women in Islamic society, and of their sanctions against homosexuality of any kind.

When we view the record of her own party on each of these points - hard work, generosity, freedom, equality, tolerance - it is a record of failure. And, indeed, the very act of judging people according to whether they share the right values is more typical of the Conservative mindset.

In Canada, if there is any unifying principle, it is the principle that people are free to adhere to whatever set of values they want. Canadian society isn't about forging a single identity. It is not about creating a unity of purpose.

In Canada, we expect the following: peace, order and good government.

These aren't values per se. These are principles of law, of the structuring of society. It is to these we will expect immigrants to adhere, and the proof of this will be in the doing, not some sort of morality test.
  • Peace: violent acts are prohibited by law, and will be penalized. We construe violence fairly widely, so as to exclude most forms of harm. The basis of tolerance, as a governmental policy, is that factionalism and sectarian conflict destabilize society as a whole, and create conditions inhospitable to a good and full life.
  • Order: people are expected to behave in a way which enables the smooth function of society. This includes things like taking your turn in line, driving in a single lane on the highway, not cheating on tests, and a host of other behaviours, mostly enforced through social sanction, that allow that others' interests are as important as your own.
  • Good government: we do not believe in survival of the fittest; we expect government, which represents our ability to work collectively, to be proactive, to support essential social functions such as policing, health and education, and to ensure the general security and prosperity of all Canadians.

On these principles it is arguable that Leitch's Conservative Party fails as well. The Conservative Party picks sides in cultural and religious disputes. It engages in lawless and disorderly behaviour - everything from questionable election practices to sending people to be tortured in Syria. And it prefers a disengagement of government from civil society, rather than proactive engagement to ensure the security and well-being of all.

If Leitch really believed in equality of opportunity, she would support much more progressive taxation, pro-union policies to ensure quality wages and working conditions, generous support for the poor and disadvantaged, much greater support for aboriginal communities, and equality of access to legal representation, education and health care. But she appears to support none of these things.

If Leitch really believed in generosity, and especially of the responsibility of the rich to help the poor, she would support more open borders to refugees, a significant increase in international aid, support for United Nations agencies such as UNESCO and UNICEF, and a taxation and royalty regime which recognizes the principle that the wealth of society is to be shared among all its citizens. But there's no sign of support for this.

If Leitch believed in freedom and tolerance, she would respect the desire of people to live more simply, to pursue philosophical or artistic lifestyles, and to travel freely. She would ensure that everyone had access to legal, cultural, health and educational resources regardless of means. And she would support people who adopt causes other than their own personal welfare: the defense of the environment, for example, the pursuit of science, or public advocacy. But there is no sign of support for these.

If Leitch believed in equality, she ensure wage parity, she would support the right of any person to marry anyone, and she would support the right of a woman to choose what's right for her own body. She would prohibit discrimination (even in the private sector, and even by insurance companies) based on age, gender, culture, skin colour, language, or genetics. She would revise laws that favour people of means and ensure all people equal access to government services. But of these measures, not a whiff of support.

And if Leitch believed in tolerance she would not characterize other cultures as "barbaric", she would not generalize their practices with allegations of "stoning", she would not require that immigrants to Canada "assimilate", and she would not find it necessary to implements a "values test" for new Canadians.

So let's be very clear about what Leitch wants with her values test.

She wants a country where people must work hard in order to get by, and where society is structured such that some people "get ahead" and other people are left behind.

She wants a country where supporting and caring for the well-being of others is optional, characterized as "generosity" rather than as social responsibility, where people are the recipients of support as charity rather than as their civil right.

She wants a country where people are 'free' to trample over each other, where they are free to exercise bias and prejudice, where they are not under constraint of 'political correctness', and where community organization and collectivism are prohibited from protecting people from these abuses.

She wants a country where 'equality' prevails and where, therefore, differences in individual conditions and circumstances are not accommodated at all.

And she want a country in which her own religion and culture are afforded special privileges, under the heading of 'religious tolerance', but where the practices of others can be classified as "barbaric" and therefore prohibited.

I disagree with all of these. I find these values to be fundamentally at odds with Canadian society. But I would not prohibit her entry as an immigrant on that basis, nor even prevent her support for and defense of these values in a public forum.

Kellie Leitch's values are not Canadian values, and the ultimate proof of this is that she would even consider the possibility that there would be a values test for new Canadians. Or for people, generally, at all.

Monday, September 05, 2016

How to Work With Me

First, see this item; it explains what's going on in the text below. Also, this is a bit incomplete; I may well revisit and revise.
  • What are some honest, unfiltered things about you?
- I've always been the one who stands out; this makes my relation with the rest of the world asymmetric.
- I believe that here isn't anything I can't understand in principle, though learning does take time, though for me, not very much time. This makes me impatient with people sometimes (it also makes me a lot more generous with people in other cases).
- I don't trust people. I fear rejection. I take many things more personally than I should. I feel things very deeply.
  • What drives you nuts?
- People who tell me what to do (or what I can't do), especially is there's no clear reason for this. I'm not a fan of power or authority generally.
- People who treat me with disrespect, or who believe they are more important or more valuable than me.
  • What are your quirks?
- I'm not comfortable in unstructured social situations like parties or dinners.
- I think in metaphors. I'm not linear; I'll jump very rapidly from limited evidence to an explanation.
- Also, I am the one who speaks out when someone cuts in line, takes advantage of another, or behaves in an unjust or unfair manner. 
  • How can people earn an extra gold star with you?
- Be supportive. Be reliable. Be some I can count on. Keep your word.
- Be nice to me. Tell me where my work has made a contribution. Let me know if I've done good.
  • What qualities do you particularly value in people who work with you?
- Independence and innovation. I like people who find solutions rather than problems. Criticisms are easy (and I've probably thought of them already). Solutions are hard. Making things work is hard.
- Dedication. I prefer it when people value what they are doing, when it's more than just a job.  
  • What are some things that people might misunderstand about you that you should clarify?
- It's very hard for me to initiate communication with someone and I would much rather have people come to me (conversely, if I have initiated communication with you, I have already done something very hard, and so whatever it is is important to me).
- Just because I'm not smiling doesn't mean I'm not happy; I just don't smile a lot.
  • How do you coach people to do their best work and develop their talents?
- I'm not really a hands-on coach
- I give people a lot of latitude to find their own way and create their own solutions.
- I recognize effort and contributions, and will give credit in public.
- I am open and approachable and will provide any advice and support needed, if asked.
  • What’s the best way to communicate with you?
It depends. For most things, email. If it's really important, talk to me, but keep in mind that I'm always on edge when talking with people, especially about important things.
  • What’s the best way to convince you to do something?
Ask me for help.
  • How do you like to give feedback?
I much prefer a structured feedback mechanism, such as a regular report at a meeting, so that the recipient knows that it isn't capricious or personal. Or comments on a document, so the criticism is structured around a common object.
  • How do you like to get feedback?
The same.