Universities reach consensus to pursue new framework for materials research with neutron beams

TVB Associates is pleased to have provided strategic support to the Canadian Neutron Initiative (CNI) working group, comprised of university executives. The CNI seeks to enable research with neutron beams to continue following the 2018 closure of Canada’s primary neutron source, the NRU reactor, in Chalk River.

On 2020 January 29, VPs of Research or their designates from 16 universities met in Ottawa to discuss a proposed new pan-Canadian, university-led framework to manage Canada’s infrastructure, international partnerships, projects, and programs for materials research with neutron beams. The gathering discussed the creation of “Neutrons Canada” as a central feature of the new framework.

“The roundtable meeting of university executives from 16 institutions across Canada was an historic moment, topping off five years of work to establish a new, pan-Canadian, university-led framework to govern, manage, and represent Canada’s programme and capacity for materials research with neutron beams.”

Dr. Karen Chad, Vice-President of Research, University of Saskatchewan and Chair of the CNI working group.

The university executive participants formed a consensus around three propositions:

  1. Canada should maintain its leadership role in materials research with neutron beams;
  2. Canadian universities need to establish a pan-Canadian, university-led framework to govern, manage, and represent Canada’s program for materials research with neutron beams; and
  3. Canadian university Vice-Presidents of Research should devote their own time and attention to help shape this new framework and to ensure ongoing engagement of their universities as Institutional Members.

The CNI working group will invite additional university executives to join the current group and act as a steering committee for the establishment of Neutrons Canada.

Official report on the roundtable meeting towards the establishment of “Neutrons Canada” (prepared by TVB Associates)

Five tips for working from home

Never waste a crisis. If you or your staff are being forced to work from home due to COVID‑19, this is a great opportunity for you and your organization to learn how you can take advantage of technology to work differently and more productively. Organizations of all kinds are adapting; even my church is figuring out how to live stream and hold internet meetings.

Author: Daniel Banks, President, TVB Associates Inc.
Originally published: Canadian Association of Research Administrators (April 2020)

I have been working from home for almost five years now, and I love it. Avoiding a commute in the Greater Toronto Area can redeem as much as three hours per day—time I can invest with my family instead. I spend my lunch break with them, and seeing them “at the water cooler” throughout the day ensures I stay engaged in family life—even if I’m putting in long hours on a big project.

I work most productively at home because I’m not being interrupted as much as when I’m “at the office.” Today’s knowledge work usually requires people to concentrate on a task for a bare minimum of 15 minutes, and many tasks are best done with a few uninterrupted hours (see Cal Newport’s book, “Deep Work”). For another perspective on the benefits of working from home, see Michael Hyatt’s blog, https://michaelhyatt.com/no-office/.

Over the past number of years, I’ve learned quite a bit about what works—and what doesn’t—when it comes to working from home. Here are five tips for making the transition as successfully as possible.

  1. Set up an office room

Avoid working from the dining room table or other spaces in the middle of household life. Convert a bedroom into an office so you will have a door to close when appropriate. The kids may have to learn to share bedrooms, like large families have traditionally done.

You don’t need to invest a lot of money to set up an effective home office. All you really need to get started is a flat worktop and a chair. I bought two folding tables (about $80 each) from an office supply store and put them together in an L‑shape. This gives me plenty of working space; even one would be enough. I also have a small two-drawer filing cabinet, which substitutes for drawer space. For general storage, I put an old dresser in the closet to store various office supplies.

2. Invest in quality connections

Have you ever been frustrated in a virtual meeting when people can barely communicate because of poor audio or bad internet connections? It probably happens more often than we want to admit.

Working from home, you’ll be relying on virtual meetings now more than ever. Invest in reliable high-speed internet and quality phone connections with good audio so you’re not the weak link. Don’t rely exclusively on your cell phone, as the audio quality often isn’t great.

Get a dedicated telephone line for your home office space so you only get work-related calls when you are working. This line can be a traditional land line, but internet-based phone lines (i.e. VOIP) are an option to save money. (The audio quality of such connections has improved over the years; just keep in mind you’ll need a back-up phone for the rare times when your internet connection does not work.). Importantly for self-isolation during covid-19, you can sign up for a VOIP service online, the phone adapter will be shipped to you, and you can install it yourself—no need for a technician to visit your home.

Pay for a reliable internet-based video meeting service, if your employer doesn’t already provide one. Free services like Skype are not reliable enough for professional communications. Any paid service will be better.

3. Get good communications equipment

For your telephone, make sure it has a corded handset as an option for better audio, even though you may use the speaker frequently. The phone I had when I first started working from home was a cheap cordless model, and what a pain! Too many times I had to repeat myself or ask others to repeat. On speaker, it had only one volume level: too loud. Make sure your unit has adjustable volume controls. If you use your telephone a lot, get a headset that plugs into the phone, so you don’t have to hold the handset (sometimes audio quality on speaker will not be good enough, regardless of your phone).

For internet-based meetings, get another headset with a microphone that will connect to your computer. The microphones built into laptops and computer monitors are located too far from your mouth for optimal sound. The headset microphone will help others hear you. An over-ear headset will also help screen out background noise to help you concentrate on the conversation.

For video conferences, the webcam that’s built into your computer is an entry-level option. Purchasing an external webcam can give you better video quality. Also consider the lighting in your home office. Even the highest-resolution camera can’t make you look professional if the lighting is poor. You may need to supplement your overhead lights with desk lamps to distribute light adequately and avoid shadows on your face. There is at least one webcam that builds in a flat light to prevent this specific problem (i.e. the Razer Kiyo).

4. Use your audio and video communications to full advantage

When we’re working in person, we build relationships with our team. These working relationships become a kind of social capital that is necessary to maintain an efficient, effective, and trusting work culture.

It can be hard to build that social capital with your colleagues unless there is frequent visual (or at least audio) communication. These more personal forms of communication simply build trust faster. Text communications (e.g. email, instant messages) are easily open to misunderstandings and just aren’t suited to many conversations.

When I started working from home, I had seven years of social capital already built with my main coworkers, which enabled me to make the transition to working from home easily. But if you’re relatively new to your role, or are working with a new member of your team, then it’s a good idea to proactively reach out via video or audio to start building social capital.  

5. Set schedules with boundaries

Set a regular working schedule and stick to it, for the sake of both your family and your work colleagues. Ideally, your schedule should mirror your company’s regular “office hours.” If not, it should substantially overlap with the work schedules of your closest team members, so that you can connect with each other frequently and on short notice. 

Some people promote working from home because it allows you to work whenever is best for you. This is true to some extent. However, the problem is twofold. First, it is easy for competing responsibilities (e.g. parenting, errands, housework, etc.) to gradually consume more and more of your time—and, conversely, pressures at work can sabotage your family duties. Secondly, in most cases, your work is not just about you; you must consider what is best for your team as well.

Talk to both your employer and your family about what they can expect from you while you are working from home, and stick to it within reason. If you need to deviate from the schedule once in a while, that’s OK—but first decide how you will make up the difference in terms of your work or family responsibilities.

Lastly, it’s important to talk to your family about what kinds of interruptions are appropriate. In my case, my wife and I taught our four-year-old son about respecting boundaries by having him paint a door-hanger sign, which reads “Come in” on one side and “Shh… Daddy at work” on the other.

Now is the time to embrace the opportunity that working from home presents. After the COVID‑19 crisis is over, your team will rediscover the benefits of getting out of the house and back into an office environment. But if you can make sure that the benefits of working from home are not forgotten, then your team will be better able to accommodate those who work from a distance. And who knows? Some just might want to continue working from home at least part of the time.

For questions and discussion about working from home, you can reach me at: http://tvbassociates.ca/#contact

Demonstrating impact from training highly qualified people

How can we show impact from training Highly Qualified People (HQP) beyond counting numbers of graduates or recounting anecdotes of successful alumni?

Author: Daniel Banks, President, TVB Associates Inc.
Originally published: Canadian Association of Research Administrators (Feb 2020)

Demonstrating socioeconomic impact from the training HQP in research has always been difficult, because of challenges associated with tracking graduates and following their subsequent educational and professional careers over time.

The emergence of career-oriented social networking, however, has provided valuable tools that can be used for this purpose. The value of any social network depends greatly on its number of users. The biggest career-oriented network, LinkedIn, has seen a surge in usage since Microsoft took it over in 2016, and its user base is now over 600 million — about 20% of the estimated 3 billion people working in 70 million companies around the world.

Many HQP provide their career information on LinkedIn

The beauty of LinkedIn for tracking HQP is that individuals openly volunteer career information that would otherwise be confidential and very difficult to get. A high proportion of HQP in North America have LinkedIn profiles or can be otherwise identified online, and this includes professionals of all ages. For example, in 2018, I performed internet searches for former students and post-docs who used the now-closed Canadian Neutron Beam Centre (CNBC) for research as part of their graduate or undergraduate programs at Canadian universities, going back as far 1984. I found 75% of these alumni online, and nearly 60% on LinkedIn. Furthermore, 44% of LinkedIn users are women, which is similar to the proportion of women in the workforce overall, suggesting there is little gender-bias in the data, at least at a very high level (however, there can be difficulty in identifying individuals, often women, who have changed their surname).

LinkedIn data reveals where alumni are working now

Some of the simplest results to obtain are the institutions where alumni are working now. For the study for the CNBC, for example, showed that almost 80% of the alumni were working in the sectors that contribute most directly to Canadian innovation: manufacturing, higher education, and professional and technical services. Furthermore, a higher proportion of CNBC alumni with PhDs were working in industry (65%) over academia, as compared to the average for natural sciences PhDs in Canada (51% half stay in academia, according to StatsCan data).

LinkedIn data reveals individual educational and professional paths

LinkedIn data is especially useful for observing alumni’s educational and professional paths over time, because most users treat their profiles like an online resume, listing their record of degrees and professional positions. Such longitudinal data was essential to obtaining valuable insights in the study for the CNBC, such as:

  1. Participation in research at the CNBC as an undergraduate student was a strong predictor of earning a graduate degree: Of the undergraduate students who came to the CNBC for a research project, 60% went on to achieve a graduate degree. In fact, most of these alumni went beyond a single Master’s degree: 40% of the undergraduate students later achieved a PhD, and another 14% earned two Master’s degrees. These rates of academic achievement are far higher than is typical for Canada as a whole: According to StatsCan data, only 44% of all undergraduate students in Canada who are surveyed upon graduation stated intention to pursue further education of any kind. The percentage of students who attain higher degrees is, of course, much lower than those who intended to do so.
Figure 1 Highest degree attained by undergraduate and Master’s students who came to the CNBC for a research project (Data source: LinkedIn). “All Canada” data is the fraction of recent graduates who say they intend to pursue further education of any kind (StatsCan).
  1. Participants in research at the CNBC have enjoyed subsequent career progression: The LinkedIn data showed that alumni with greater years of experience tended to fill more senior positions, while more recently graduated alumni have a greater share of non-supervisory positions.
Figure 2 The level of seniority of the most recent employment positions attained by CNBC student alumni as a function of the number of years that have passed since they attended the CNBC (Data source: LinkedIn).

In the case of the CNBC study, a sample of alumni were contacted via LinkedIn and interviewed. Alumni interviewed attributed their experience of doing research at the CNBC with motivating them to pursue research and development or related technical careers in industry and with helping them develop skills that have helped them in their careers. While not scientifically conclusive, the interview results provide evidence for interpreting some causation in the above observations.

Why aren’t more institutions using LinkedIn data to demonstrate impact from training HQP?

Despite the potential that LinkedIn data holds, I have seen few studies that seek to use the data to full advantage. A notable exception is the 10,000 PhDs project, in which the University of Toronto made a significant investment of effort to identify 88% of its PhD graduates from 2000-2015 online. Many of these alumni were found on LinkedIn. The U of T study analyzed their first and current employment statuses. That study provided valuable insights into employment prospects after earning a PhD, and how that employment differs across fields of study.

Perhaps LinkedIn data has not been used to its full potential because several years ago, its utility for such studies was not as great due to lower usage levels, and one could have reasonably questioned its long-term viability as a platform. But the activity on LinkedIn has greatly increased in recent years and it must now be taken seriously.

Other issues could relate to interpreting the data, data privacy, or the labor required to gather and analyze the data. These issues are discussed next.

Benchmarking to aid data interpretation

A typical challenge in demonstrating impact from training HQP is a lack of reference points to know if the results are excellent or below average. If one believes the results will be ambiguous, then there is less motivation to pursue the analysis.

The key to resolving the ambiguity is to determine appropriate benchmarks and build them into the study. Sometimes the data can be compared with insights from other sources, such as StatsCan as I have done in some of the above examples, to assist with the interpretation. Another option is to conduct the same analyses on random samples of comparator groups (e.g. students who were not involved in research, or were from other institutions distributed across Canada). A comparator group would be useful to interpret the above data on CNBC alumni career progression, for example.

Data privacy

Although LinkedIn users volunteer their career information online, there are still data privacy issues to be considered in collecting and storing the information. LinkedIn users retain the right to remove their data from the site. Systematic duplication of their data by third parties increases the possibility of leakage, which in turn undermines their control over their data.

The U of T study reported that student researchers who conducted the online searches were trained on confidentiality. They entered the data they found into secure servers, at which point they no longer had access to the data. None of the data was stored on personal computers at any time.

With reasonable precautions such as these, data privacy issues need not be a barrier to using the LinkedIn data.

Labor to gather and analyse the data

The labor to gather and analyze the data is perhaps the biggest barrier to using LinkedIn data to its full potential. Few professionals at institutions have time to find large samples of alumni and manually input data from websites into a spreadsheet or database. Longitudinal analyses and benchmarking multiply the amount of data to be found and processed.

The U of T study overcame the labor barrier by using inexpensive part-time student researchers. It reported a $50,000 budget for a team to do the searches and data entry over an 8-month period. The value of staff time to perform subsequent analysis on the data and publish the results can be assumed to be in addition to this budget.

There are also smart ways of automating much of the searching, data entry and data analysis. For the CNBC study, I was fortunate to partner with a consulting firm that had a knack for writing scripts for these purposes. These scripts were key to obtaining results at a reasonable cost.

Furthermore, narrowing the scope of the study to the HQP trained by one or more strategic research facilities at a university can be useful to reduce costs compared to examining the HQP trained by an entire university.

Conclusion and questions for further discussion

The usefulness of LinkedIn as a source of data for demonstrating impact from training HQP has greatly increased in recent years. Research institutions are just beginning realize its potential.

Are you thinking about how to show the value of training HQP in research? What kinds of messages would you like to be able to communicate to governments and research granting agencies, but don’t yet have the evidence to support them?  Are you gathering evidence of impact from a major research facility to support its upcoming funding renewal?

Have you been involved in studies using LinkedIn or using general online searches to find and your research alumni? What lessons have you learned? What are your current practices to benchmark the data, respect data privacy, or manage costs?

For further discussion, you can reach me at: http://tvbassociates.ca/#contact


A step in the right direction for major research facilities

With the recent announcement of $160M to boost funding for “nationally significant” science facilities, Trudeau has continued to position himself as more responsive to the needs of the science community than Harper was.

Author: Daniel Banks, President, TVB Associates Inc.
Originally published: Canadian Science Policy Centre (May 2019)
Image: CFI-funded national research facilities

Harper closed the Office of the National Science Advisor.

Trudeau began with appointing Kirsty Duncan as a full Minister of Science and mandated her to reinstate a national science advisor role.

Harper invested in industry-motivated research, but scientists in other areas felt under-valued, leading to protests against cutbacks and restrictions on speaking about their research.

Minister Duncan commissioned the Fundamental Science Review to help the government realize its promises to take a different approach to science.

Since the Review reported in 2017, Duncan has been working through implementation of its many recommendations for policy changes and for over $1B per year in funding increases.

Duncan’s announcement last week was the latest implementation, increasing the Canada Foundation for Innovation’s funding share of the operations of seven major research facilities from 40% to 60%.

Major research facilities, such as the research icebreaker pictured on the back of the fifty-dollar bill, provide unique capabilities that are part of a 21st century scientific toolkit.

Since these facilities are too expensive to be used by only a few research institutions, they are shared by hundreds of researchers across Canada, one of the reasons they are considered “nationally significant.”

But Canada lacks a coherent system for overseeing the major funding decisions required for creating and operated them.

As a result, the scientists that need these facilities waste a lot of time and energy on lobbying.

Politicians, in turn, are not qualified to judge the scientific merit of investing $100M in a major telescope compared to a big particle physics experiment.

In fact, sometimes new facilities have been built before the operating funds were found – a recipe for a national embarrassment.

Some major facilities still fall through jurisdictional gaps because no agency is responsible for them.

Such gaps were one factor leading to the loss of Canada’s neutron beam facilities, which relied on the NRU reactor in Chalk River.

Neutron beam facilities are national shared tools used for a wide range of materials research.

For example, researchers use neutron beams to answer questions about Alzheimer’s disease and vitamin E, develop clean energy storage for eliminating vehicle emissions, or improve reliability of our aging pipelines.

All other advanced nations have neutron beam facilities because they are versatile and cannot be replaced by other tools.

When the National Research Council (NRC) was restructured in 2012, operating such a facility for scientists from all over Canada was not aligned with its new mission.

So, NRC divested its neutron beam facility to Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd, which kept it open for several years, but it had no mandate in this research field beyond the NRU reactor’s closure in 2018.

No agency was left with the responsibility to obtain replacement facilities.

In response, a working group supported by 15 research organizations was formed to lobby the government to establish a new framework for this scientific capability.

The need for lobbying, when scientists would much rather compete with each other on merit, is a symptom of the wider problem that could be solved by collecting the major facilities under one comprehensive oversight process, as the Fundamental Science Review recommended.

The Review’s recommendation parallels the new Strategic Science Fund in Budget 2019, which is for a second set of science organizations that have operated outside normal funding channels: Genome Canada, and Brain Canada, for example.

The Strategic Science Fund collects all these organizations under one competitive funding program in which they will be evaluated by independent experts according to fixed criteria – no more lobbying required.

The increase in funding announced last week signals that the federal government accepts its leadership responsibility for major facilities, and could be a step toward the Review’s recommendation on their oversight.

2019 budget improves governance for ad hoc science organizations

Following landmark investments in the 2018 budget in response to Canada’s Fundamental Science Review, anyone who expected major new investments in fundamental science in 2019 was sure to be disappointed. This is not to say there’s nothing to be thankful for – indeed, there are a few additional investments and policy changes that will help students and promote equity, diversity and inclusion in the science community. Since there are no claw-backs to the multi-year increases announced in 2018, many scientists will experience increases to their funding in 2019.

Author: Daniel Banks, President, TVB Associates Inc.
Originally published: Canadian Science Policy Centre (March 2019)

From a science policy perspective, which is about how science is managed, as well as funded, the biggest change may be one item that had no dollar amount attached.

Budget 2019 announces a “new approach” for funding so-called “third-party science and research.” The Fundamental Science Review defined “third-party science entities” as those operating outside the jurisdiction of NSERC, CIHR, SSHRC, CFI. Genome Canada, Mitacs, and Brain Canada are a few examples.

The Review raised concerns, not with the quality of these organizations’ output, but with how they are each governed as one-offs, via term-limited contribution agreements with ISED. Ad hoc governance arrangements have been needed until now because these organizations don’t fit within the existing programs of the granting councils. Lack of a suitable program required scientists to lobby for funds, rather than participate in peer-reviewed competitions. Over time, the Review warned, this approach could “allow select groups of researchers to sidestep the intensity of peer review competitions, and facilitate unchecked mission drift as third-party partner organizations shift their mandates to justify their continuation.”

The new approach announced in Budget 2019 is to establish a “Strategic Science Fund” that will oversee investments in ISED’s collection of these agencies using a “principles-based framework” based on competitive, transparent processes. The framework will be applied by an independent expert panel to arrive at advice on funding for these organizations. Although the funding decisions will still be made by the Government, this will be a welcome improvement over the vagaries of political lobbying for funds.

There was no funding announced for the Strategic Science Fund. Indeed, no new funding would be needed if the intention is to pool funds from each third-party organization as their respective contribution agreements expire.

The Strategic Science Fund could be a precedent for another portion of the science community that faces similar challenges: so-called Big Science, or Major Research Facilities (MRFs), such as TRIUMF, SNOLAB, Ocean Networks Canada, the Canadian Light Source, and large facilities for astronomy or neutron scattering. In the absence of a systematic means of overseeing Canada’s portfolio of these shared national resources, an array of oversight mechanisms have been created for these facilities on an ad hoc basis, much like the case for third-party research organizations. The Fundamental Science Review was the latest in a string of reports that have pointed problems with this ad hoc approach, stretching back at least 20 years.

Stewardship of Canada’s MRFs has improved following the introduction of the CFI’s Major Science Initiatives Fund in 2012, and the expansion of its mandate to include more facilities under its program in 2014. Nonetheless, there are still many facilities that are not covered by this Fund. No agency has responsibility for the entire portfolio of MRFs to allow it to plan for the creation of new MRFs as others wind-down, or provide predictable funding over the life-cycle of an MRF. Other MRFs still fall through jurisdictional cracks, where no federal agency is clearly responsible for them. Such jurisdictional cracks were one contributing factor in the loss of Canada’s neutron scattering facilities in 2018.

Thankfully, there are indications from organizations such the CFI, ISED and the Office of the Chief Science Advisor that they are collaborating to consider a new approach to managing Canada’s portfolio of MRFs. With the leadership that the CFI has taken to fund operations of MRFs so far, and the Government’s commitment to provide much larger and more stable funding for the CFI in 2023 (announced in the 2018 budget), I believe the CFI is best positioned to take on the role of managing Canada’s portfolio of MRFs.

While Budget 2019 might not be remembered for its science investments, it does announce significant policy changes to improve governance of ad hoc science organizations — changes that set a precedent for a coherent and consistent approach to the funding and oversight of Canada’s Major Research Facilities as well.