Monthly Archives: May 2013

The NRC’s Restructuring is Another Data Point in Canada’s Scientific Regression

Last week, Minister of Science Gary Goodyear unveiled the new and restructured National Research Council. Rather than working on both basic and industrial science, the NRC is now focusing solely on the industrial side of science. While some parties have welcomed the restucturing, the usual chorus of critics (including yours truly) has piped up in protest.

The move isn’t seismic — the NRC has traditionally been a supporter of industrial and applied science, though it was not its entire mandate. Along with industrial science, the NRC (in addition to running the time signal which has beeped across Canadian radios since 1939) has supported basic and regulatory science, which is a niche that is now unfilled. The NRC was unique in that it spans all sciences, and many of the specialized agencies were formed from departments in the NRC. It is an important umbrella group that fosters cross-discipline innovation, and yes, helped build ties to industry. Industrial science is important, and little of the criticism I’ve heard claims it isn’t. But without basic science exploring new and uncharted realms of science, industrial science doesn’t have ground to work from. Basic science maps the terrain, and then industrial science takes that knowledge and makes concrete goods and economically viable products with it. Both components are important, and having both aspects of research operate in the same agency increases the efficiency and cross-pollination between researchers. Cutting out basic science form the agency threatens to drastically reduce the effectiveness of the very programs this restructuring puts front and centre.

It’s unclear what precise policies the NRC will now follow, but this bit from a piece by Annie Bergeron-Oliver leaves me with a lot of questions:

In essence, the NRC will act along the lines of a contract-based agency; businesses will be encouraged to pitch research ideas to local NRC offices, or even by email. The idea is that the new process will streamline research, leaving hypothesis testing to academics, and providing NRC scientists with predetermined research plans, added McDougall.

Egads. Contract-based agency sounds like industry is driving the mandate of the NRC, rather than the NRC having a mandate and working with industrial partners. It also sounds like the NRC is going to end up focusing on short term, disjointed work rather than long term, progressive projects. Long term work is often more fruitful and more insightful than a hodgepodge of short term projects. The NRC has a history of long term, large scale projects, including developing canola, radar, the pacemaker, and building the reactors at Chalk River (an internationally renowned source of medical isotopes). None of these are short-term projects, but all have been economically lucrative and had a significant impact on society.

I’d maybe be a bit less worried about this refocus if a) it weren’t the latest data point in a string of cuts and restructurings that’ve threatened basic science and independent research and b) Gary Goodyear didn’t go around saying things like

“It will be hopefully a one-stop, 1-800, ‘I have a solution for your business problem'”

as quoted in a CBC piece in March when this restructuring was initially proposed. (The quote in the CBC piece is oddly chopped and doesn’t form a complete sentence, so I’m quoting all I can.) But the NRC should not be primarily about business: it is (was) an organization focussed on both basic and applied science, much of which has industrial applications, and is done in concert with industrial partners. But the science came first, and industrial partners were partners, not contractors. It is (was) certainly not “a solution for your business problem,” which sounds like a tagline to a management consultancy firm rather than a description of a federal agency. It’s ridiculous and worrisome, to say the least.

I’m beginning to think that I should maintain a page here on ECS with a list of all the cuts, restructurings, and silencing of Canadian science and scientists by the Harper government that’ve come to light in the press. It’d be illustrative to have everything ennumerated in one place, and maybe help draw a more complete picture of how Canadian science is tangibly under siege. Would this be useful or interesting? Let me know what you think in comments or on Twitter.

Addendum, May 14th: From a piece on published today:

Appointed NRC president three years ago by Stephen Harper, John McDougall does not have a PhD, has never published a scientific paper, or received a research grant. His qualifications for the job are a civil engineering degree that he turned into a job with Esso as a petroleum engineer.

So the head of the National Research Council has absolutely no experience whatsoever in research. At this point, though, I think I’d be more surprised if they *did* have research experience. The whole Rabble piece is well worth a read, and this is about the most succinct summary of Harper’s attitudes towards science I’ve read in a while:

The Harper government punishes its winners because it claims Canada performs poorly when it comes to registering scientific patents. The so-called solution is to wind down basic science, and hand over scientific resources to companies.

Today in Weird Invertebrates: Lawn Crayfish

Since I live in the Great White North, which is not generally known for its peculiar fauna, I had never heard of burrowing crayfish. I owe my newfound knowledge to Ursula of Kevin and Ursula Eat Cheap, who also hadn’t heard of such a thing until she found one hanging out in her lawn. (link goes to the episode of their hilarious, if occasionally surreal, podcast where she scolds the state of North Carolina for not putting “We have lawn crayfish!” on their roadsigns.) So, since one of my missions in life is to learn all there is to know about weird invertebrates, I did some digging about the burrowing crayfish.

There’s not an awful lot of information about burrowing crayfish online, and much of the google hits are people going “I think there’s a crayfish… in my lawn?!” (To be fair, that is precisely what I’d do were I in that situation.) Interestingly, most of the papers I found about them make a comment about their life cycle or ecological existance being poorly understood. Perhaps this says more about me than about wetland biologists, but were I a field biologist, burrowing crayfish’d be near the top of my list of research subjects.

Crayfish anatomy

The cray(on)fish. Roughly but not rigourously to scale.

Here’s what I’ve found about them. There are several species of burrowing crayfish, in both the Cambaridae and Parastacidae families. The former live in the southern US, while the later live in the Tasmania and the damper parts of Australia. Their life cycles seem to be similar to most crayfish, hatching from eggs stuck to their mother’s underside, and as they grow they molt. Like all crayfish, they have two large claws, four pairs of walking legs, and several pairs of swimming legs. They range in size from a few centimeters to a few inches (Ursula estimated the one in her yard was about five inches long), and their colour varies between species from bright red to bright blue. Ursula also said something about them glowing under ultraviolet light, but I can’t find anything confirming that. If you have a lawn crayfish and a black light, please investigate and report back!

Like all crayfish, burrowing crayfish eat anything they can get their claws on, including roots and dead plant matter in and around their burrows. Some species stick around in their burrows for food, while others are more likely to go foraging outside.

The burrowing crayfish live where there is a high water table, and often near sources of surface water. They dig complex burrows with branching paths and multiple sections, and usually at least part of the burrow sits below the water table. As they excavate the burrow, they drag mud and dirt up to the surface, and sometimes form a chimney at the mouth of their burrow. What’s not clear to me is how, exactly, they dig out their burrows. Their claws are well adapted for nabbing dinner, warding off predators, and defending territory, but they don’t look like very efficient shovels. On top of that, I’ve no idea how they’d transport the dirt up from the bottom of their burrow up to the top, let alone make a chimney out of it — maybe they shove it along with their tails? Or maybe the claws are shaped to be at least semi-efficient shovels? I’ve found no satisfactory answers, so if you’ve got an idea, please, leave it in the comments.

Crayfish with backpack

Perhaps they’ve developed backpacks to haul the dirt to the surface.

While the numbers are far from clear, since many burrowing crayfish species are poorly studied, it seems like burrowing crayfish are more threatened ecologically than other species of crayfish, and several are critically endangered. Unfortunately, many of the google hits for burrowing crayfish pertain to how best to get rid of lawn crayfish, because they can do a lot of aesthetic damage to a lawn. As water use shifts and water tables lower, however, their available habitat may shrink significantly. Hopefully, researchers will get some more concrete numbers and answers about burrowing crayfish before they suffer more habitat and population loss.

Crayfish, master of simple machines

Or maybe they use a pulley system!