Researchers model chemical bonds using quantum computers

The multi-qubit simulation of a quantum chemistry calculation is a world first

Researchers model chemical bonds using quantum computers

A group of researchers including Alán Aspuru-Guzik, U of T professor and Canada 150 Research Chair in Theoretical & Quantum Chemistry, has achieved a world first in quantum chemistry.

A recent study in Physical Review X published the findings of a quantum computer used to calculate the ground-state energy of molecular hydrogen (H2) and lithium hydride (LiH). Ground state refers to the lowest possible energy level of electrons in an atom or molecule.

Although these bonds have been simulated before, this is the first time a multi-qubit — pronounced ‘cue-bit’ — system has been used. While qubits are the basic unit of quantum information, classical computing uses basic units known as bits, which are unable to solve complex computations.

Quantum chemistry is a subfield of chemistry that uses quantum mechanics to model physical systems like chemical bonds and reactions. Quantum chemistry uses ground states, transition states, and excited states to model bonds and reactions.

Where transition states signify the highest possible energy levels in a given molecule or atom, excited states include all energy levels when moving between ground and transition states.

Many advances have been made in the field of quantum chemistry in years prior. In 2010, the hydrogen atom was simulated using photonic and nuclear magnetic resonance experiments.

In 2013, another photonic experiment was used to simulate the hydrohelium cation HeH+. In 2015, the dissociation curve of the same cation was modelled.

We saw the first scalable quantum chemistry simulator on a superconducting platform in 2016, and in 2017, three molecules — H2, LiH, and beryllium hydride, or BeH2, — were simulated on a superconducting qubit platform.

However, these experiments involving ion-trap implementation were limited to a single qubit.

In contrast, this experiment used the trapped-ion model, which was implemented in conjunction with the variational quantum eigensolver (VQE) algorithm. This algorithm was used to calculate the molecular ground-state energies of H2 and LiH, which were then used to simulate their respective bonds.

In effect, the ions are isolated in free space using electromagnetic fields and, once stabilized, they are used to store qubits. This allows quantum information to be transferred through the motion of the ions in a shared trap.

Lasers are used to induce coupling between the internal qubit states and the external motional states for multi-qubit experiments. In other words, the ions become excited and move from a lower energy state to a higher one, which leads to an increase in ion size and allows them to start interacting. The more qubits involved, the more data is shared.

This groundbreaking study is an indication that data processing and collection through quantum computers could become faster, leading to practical applications in many areas from medicine to artificial intelligence.

Currently, even the largest supercomputers are struggling to accurately model molecules. The researchers chose to model H2 and LiH because they are easily understood molecules, and can be modelled using classical computers. Modelling simple bonds helps to pinpoint the accuracy of quantum computing and refine its applications to chemistry.

Simulations of said molecules would allow scientists to model and understand different chemical reactions with lower energy pathways. This would enable the design of new catalysts — substances that increase the rate of reactions — by reducing the amount of energy needed to start them.

The production of new catalysts could lead to the development of new fertilizers, better batteries, and organic solar cells.

The high speed afforded by quantum computing could also benefit the medical field. Masses of data produced through biomedical research on genomes could be more easily shared and handled by scientists. This, in turn, could lead to advances in personalized medicine, useful in treating diseases such as cancer.

More research is still needed to limit errors and their consequences, especially as the VQE method is vulnerable to calibration errors early on, and some errors cannot directly be recovered from.

But with developments in machine learning, scientific discoveries in fields like chemistry can be made much more quickly, and can lead to more advancements.

Have we reached a verdict on medical marijuana?

With recreational cannabis on the horizon, implications for health care remain uncertain

Have we reached a verdict on medical marijuana?

The seizures started in 1959, when Terrence Parker was four years old.

‘Grand mals,’ they were called — a term that rose to prominence in the late nineteenth century and loosely translates to ‘a great evil.’

He could tell when they were about to happen. The hairs on the nape of his neck prickled in anticipation. A fear of the known, it was unlike any other, yet he could do little to prevent it.

As the electrical storm raced in his brain, his limbs jerked violently and his consciousness shredded. He would later be placed on an anticonvulsant therapy, and go through medications such as Dilantin, Mysoline, and Librium with little success.

The lobectomies, first performed at the Hospital for Sick Children, or SickKids, at age 14, and then 16, failed to effectively improve his symptoms. Parker’s prognosis appeared bleak.

At least, it did until he was introduced to cannabis by a worker at the Lakeshore Psychiatric Hospital. He would smoke a joint to get high and receive immediate, albeit brief, relief from the havoc that the seizures wreaked on his body. As he continued to smoke, however, something curious happened.

The seizures stopped.

“After 38 years of this terrible affliction, and hundreds, if not more than a thousand seizures, I can say that it is only with the assistance of marijuana that I have ever been able to fight through the [fear] and stave off an oncoming grand mal,” stated Parker, in a 1997 affidavit after he was arrested for the possession and trafficking of cannabis.

Parker was acquitted of all charges in 2000, after the judge declared his arrest unconstitutional on the grounds that it violated his rights to life, liberty, and security. It was at that moment that Terrence Parker became the first individual in Canada to use marijuana legally, for medical reasons. Regulated medical cannabis later became legal in 2001.

There are many individuals with stories like that of Parker — of discovering hope in this herbaceous flowering plant.

Although controlled clinical trials that determine a direct causal relationship between the use of cannabis and the frequency of seizures have been few and far between, there is mounting anecdotal evidence of its efficacy in treating epilepsy.

Exposure to cannabidiol (CBD), a non-psychoactive component in marijuana, has been linked to the reduction of seizure frequency in pediatric epilepsy and Lennox-Gastaut syndrome, a form of severe childhood-onset epilepsy.

Despite evidence being mainly anecdotal, Dr. David Juurlink, Head of Clinical Pharmacology and Toxicology at Sunnybrook Hospital and Professor in the Faculty of Medicine at U of T, believes a case can be made for the judicious prescription of cannabis.

According to Juurlink, cannabis is particularly useful for patients whose symptoms have improved with its use. It should be prescribed on a case-by-case basis, while also considering other drugs with similar effects.

Meanwhile, high-quality scientific evidence for the therapeutic effects of cannabis in the treatment of symptoms associated with multiple sclerosis (MS) like chronic pain, neuropathic pain, and spasticity — the tightness and stiffness of muscles preventing normal movement — has been well established.

In a 2007 study published in the European Journal of Neurology, 124 individuals with MS and spasticity were given a cannabis-based medicine containing CBD and the primary psychoactive component tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), while 65 individuals were given a placebo for a duration of six weeks. The results of this research gave cannabis the green light.

Studies published in 2004 and 2006 in the Multiple Sclerosis Journal had also found similar results, confirming the growing optimism that cannabis can be used to relieve symptoms associated with MS.

In a 2009 Nature study, researchers used similar methodologies to study the effects of cannabis for neuropathic pain in patients with HIV. The researchers found that the 28 subjects, who completed both placebo and cannabis treatments, experienced greater pain relief when they were treated with cannabis.

But despite what a quick Google search might tell you, cannabis is not a panacea for all diseases and disorders.

Dr. Tony George, Chief of Addictions at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health and also Professor in the Department of Psychiatry, found that THC in marijuana actually worsens symptoms of psychosis in patients with schizophrenia, and could induce psychosis in those who have a family history of the disorder.

Surprisingly, isolating certain cannabinoids may have the opposite effect.

“CBD seems to oppose the effects of THC… and [CBD] is being studied for anti-psychotic, anti-depressant, and anti-addictive, and cognitive enhancing effects,” said George. “If that’s true, that could be a very exciting breakthrough in therapeutics in psychiatry, and it may be a potential pain strategy.”

Currently, there is simply not enough evidence to conclude that cannabis can effectively treat a myriad of mood disorders and other debilitating diseases. It has only been proven for a few diseases, and often in isolated cases.

According to George, thus far, there are only indications that cannabinoids have positive effects on post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, depression, or glaucoma, and evidence to support these indications is not substantive.

Yet, preliminary research is promising and may pave the way for its unrestricted use.

With the impending legalization of recreational cannabis, however, there are some concerns over what will become of Health Canada’s medical marijuana program. “The problem is that the current approach by the government is sort of full speed ahead, without doing the due diligence to find out the facts,” said George.

“There [are] only about 30,000 or 40,000 people using in a country of 35 million people,” he explained. “I don’t know what the future of medical marijuana is, but if you’re someone who is a patient or family member, or a healthcare professional that’s invested in that, I think there is some reason to be concerned.”

Page-turners for year-long learners

Your summer reading list for science books has arrived

Page-turners for year-long learners

Summer is the time to read all the books you didn’t get to during the school year because you were too busy ‘reading’ all those chapters your professor assigned. The following science books will quench your thirst for knowledge even during the hottest of summer days.

Whether you study plants or politics, check them out — these titles can be found at University of Toronto Libraries or your local Toronto Public Library branch.

Future Arctic: Field Notes from a World on the Edge by Edward Struzik

Read this book to arm yourself against the next climate change denier who tries to tell you that global warming is #fakenews. In Future Arctic, Canadian author Edward Struzik spares no details about the dire state of the Great White North. While some passages about environmental change are more chilling than the Arctic temperature itself, Struzik does not end the book without leaving readers with a hopeful solution on how to mitigate harm to this delicate ecosystem.

Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void by Mary Roach

Do you ever get so overwhelmed with Earthly affairs that a one-way ticket on a SpaceX ship seems like the best option for escape? If your answer is yes, you may want to read Mary Roach’s hilarious but educational Packing for Mars first. Roach investigates deep into the world of space travel prep and shows readers how the life of an astronaut is not always as glamorous as it seems. Roach explores everything from the psychology of isolation and confinement to the physical limitations of zero-gravity copulation.

Bloodletting & Miraculous Cures by Vincent Lam

This one is for all you current or future medical students. Toronto doctor Vincent Lam won the Giller Prize for this collection of stories about a group of young doctors as they work through med school at U of T and join the fast-paced world of being a Toronto doctor. Read passages about how personal ethics cloud judgment during a cadaver dissection and what it was like to be on the front lines of the SARS crisis.

Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food by Paul Greenberg

Journey on fishing trips around the world with author Paul Greenberg as he outlines society’s relationship with four major commercial fish species: salmon, cod, sea bass, and tuna. These trips are no family fishing excursion at the cottage — instead they are a peek into the fragility and bleak future of commercially harvested fish populations. If you eat seafood, take reading Four Fish as your duty to understanding how complex and problem-ridden the fishing industry is.

The Fever: How Malaria Has Ruled Humankind for 500,000 Years by Sonia Shah

The next time you curse the swarm of mosquitoes buzzing around your head this summer, remember
that an itchy bite is a whole lot better than what you might get from a mosquito if you lived where malaria has yet to be eradicated. Sonia Shah, a science journalist, outlines the history and impact of malaria in The Fever without overwhelming data. According to Bill Gates, if you read one book about malaria, let this be the one.

The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration in the Wonder of Consciousness by Sy Montgomery

A book that is equal parts about the science of cognition and a personal memoir, The Soul of an Octopus details the relationship between a woman and several octopuses at Boston’s New England Aquarium. This humbling story will make you rethink whether these intelligent invertebrates ever belonged in tanks in the first place.

Treating Health Care: How the Canadian System Works and How It Could Work Better by Raisa B. Deber

Written by U of T professor Raisa Deber, this book examines the Canadian healthcare system from different lenses such as economics and ethics. In an interview with the Institute of Health Policy, Management and Evaluation, Deber explains that she wrote Treating Health Care as a toolkit for understanding our current system and how to make it better. With talks of universal healthcare on the horizon and a new Ontario premier in office, you may want to read this book to prepare yourself for the certain changes to our healthcare system ahead.

Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway

The book that inspired the documentary of the same name, Merchants of Doubt remains as relevant as ever in today’s global political climate. The book outlines several historical scandals between science and politics ranging from cigarette smoke to acid rain to global warming. Citizens and scientists alike should read this book to understand why it is important to be both informed and critical of issues that mix science, politics, and money.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams

Transport yourself to the edges of the galaxy with Douglas Adams’ ever-popular and side-splitting novel. The book centres on a man named Arthur Dent who is saved from the demolition of planet Earth by his alien friend Ford Prefect. The two hitchhike throughout the galaxy, meeting friends and foes alike. Wherever you go this summer, don’t forget to bring your towel!

The ROM Field Guide to Birds of Ontario by Janice M. Hughes

Whether you are an experienced birder or can’t tell a sparrow from a swallow, check out the Royal Ontario Museum’s (ROM) field guide to the birds of Ontario — you may just find a rare species in your own backyard. Birds not your thing? The ROM also puts out field guides for fish; reptiles and amphibians;  butterflies; and wildflowers.

Ontario’s plan for STEM is vague but encouraging

Re: “Provincial policy aims to increase number of STEM grads“

Ontario’s plan for STEM is vague but encouraging

The choice to invest heavily in locally educated science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) degrees is plainly and unequivocally a good one. As evidenced by the recent investment by Google into the Waterfront and Toronto’s optimistic bid to house Amazon’s Canadian headquarters, it is clear that the tech industry is booming in Ontario. Likewise, it is in the logistical and economic benefit of everyone involved that the accompanying jobs and opportunities be filled with Ontario-educated talent.

However, attempting to become North America’s number one producer of postsecondary STEM graduates per capita is no easy feat. While I am cautiously optimistic, the vague nature of the government’s announcement that it intends to do just that raises questions as to how exactly Ontario will achieve this bold vision. With big talking points like increasing STEM graduates by 25 per cent over the next five years, the only concrete policy on the matter so far appears to be a $30 million investment into creating applied master’s degrees in artificial intelligence. It remains to be seen precisely how the province will promote other areas in the STEM fields.

Regardless, the announcement is a breath of fresh air for scientists in Ontario. With Canada still feeling the effects of the Harper administration’s ‘war on science’ and the concerning anti-intellectual and anti-scientific rhetoric south of the border, Ontario is taking a stand in the name of progress and innovation. Combined with governmental promises to look into the Naylor Report and the potential reversal of American-Canadian ‘brain drain,’ the future is looking bright.


Spencer Y. Ki is a second-year student at Victoria College studying Astrophysics and Mathematics.

Student-funded, space-bound

The University of Toronto Aerospace Team prepares to launch a satellite into space

Student-funded, space-bound

Article by Mari Ramsawakh

The University of Toronto may make its claim to space following the U of T Aerospace Team’s (UTAT) successful levy referendum last spring. The money from the levy goes toward its Innovation Fund, which was established to create a new project for UTAT: a student-built and student-funded satellite to launch into space. Members of the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) from UTSG will pay the $2.77 per term levy over the next two years.UTAT is a student-run research and design group that aims to incite curiosity and spark interest in aerospace engineering. While the satellite is UTAT’s latest project, the Space Systems Division is only one of several branches of the group. The group also has a Rocketry Division currently working on a hybrid rocket that could break Canada’s high altitude record and an Unmanned Aerial Vehicles Division that is currently the defending champion of the Unmanned Systems Canada competition.
So, how has UTAT been using the Innovation Fund since its inception? How is the satellite coming? I met with UTAT at their office in McLennan Physical Laboratories to find out.


The team

The office, located in the basement of the building, snugly fits five of the Space Systems team members. Every workspace is covered in small plastic and metal components, which were later identified to me as 3D-printed prototypes of components of the satellite.

Although the whole Space Systems Division couldn’t meet with me, several of the Division’s team leads met to tell me more about the satellite project. Before delving into UTAT’s specific plans, I spent some time getting to know a little bit about how these undergraduates got involved with aerospace design.

Ridwan Howlader is a prime example of the sort of trajectory that UTAT can inspire; he’s the Executive Director of UTAT and the Senior Engineering Designer for the Space Systems Division. Howlader first joined UTAT during one of its outreach programs run through high schools — this means he’s been with UTAT longer than he’s been at U of T. As Executive Director, Howlader is part of the strategic and technical planning of all the projects that UTAT is involved in.

“I really appreciate the members and the energy and being curious and wanting to learn,” he told me. “It just aligns with our mission and vision.”

Katie Gwozdecky is the Director of Space Systems and a fifth-year engineering student. She’s in charge of the administrative details of the Space Systems Division, although her focus has shifted away from her initial interest in the technical aspects of the work and toward the team’s culture and keeping them aligned with their passions and needs.

“I think that no team can operate at their best if people aren’t considered to be contributors in any way,” said Gwozdecky. “We also have to make sure that people are given the space they need to do what they want to do.”

Gwozdecky has been with UTAT for five years, initially discovering the group in her first year. She explained that from the moment she saw the rockets at a clubs fair, she knew this was a group she wanted to join. Gwozdecky has been with the Space Systems Division since its creation.

Addy Bhatia, the System Design and Attitude Control Lead, has been with UTAT since fall of last year. The third-year engineering student was determined to join the team and jumped at an opportunity when he could. Now, his role involves figuring out how and where the satellite points as it separates from the rocket, as well as mechanical integrations of smaller projects into the satellite.

Victor Nechita is an aerospace engineering student who has also only been working with UTAT for the last year. Nechita is the Project Manager of the Space Systems Division, meaning that he is the one in charge of managing deadlines and scheduling as well as liaising with their launch providers.

“Your task is not just limited to a competition, we kind of extend beyond that in that we’re trying to have a real impact on the world by creating an open platform for these microbiology experiments,” said Nechita. “Being able to conduct that as a student team has been fantastic, so I hands down love being a part of the team.”

Avinash Mukkala, the Payload Lead, is a member of the team who isn’t focusing so much on the satellite, but rather the experiment for which it’ll be collecting data. Mukkala is a fourth-year molecular genetics student who joined during the first iteration of the satellite three years ago. As much as team culture has taken precedent in this group, Mukkala found that he was most proud of the scientific and technological progress UTAT has actually made on the satellite since its first iteration.

“It isn’t just a bunch of students that are just building something and putting it into space,” explained Mukkala. “There is a lot of advisors involved, there’s a lot of critical design reviews involved. The process is what I enjoy.”

They also get to learn from real experts in their fields. For example, shortly after meeting with me, several leads on the team travelled to Huntsville, Alabama to attend a NASA conference.

The mission

The first iteration of the satellite was designed for the Canadian Satellite Design Challenge, in which universities across Canada were challenged to design a satellite in a two-year cycle that, once built, could survive the rigorous qualifying testing in order to win the competition. While the contest originally promised that the winning designs would be launched, there weren’t any formal offers to actually launch the satellites. UTAT decided to take the launch into their own hands.

But as Mukkala said, UTAT is more than just a couple of students sending something into space for bragging rights. There is a purpose to the satellite and its launch: a microbiology experiment.

The purpose of the satellite is to send up a payload of genetically modified cells and examine how they grow and react to an environment that is under the effect of microgravity. Mukkala was part of the team that genetically engineered the cells to send up into space. The cells they are using are a form of yeast that is found in the human gut, called candida albicans.

According to Mukkala and Bhatia, there have been several studies from NASA and other researchers that suggest that astronauts who experience long-duration space flight in microgravity can experience immunological changes because of the upregulation of the expression of certain genes in their T-cells and B-cells.

Mukkala said that space is very sterile, but our own bodies contain bacteria, and long space flights require more than one astronaut. If an astronaut is immunocompromised — meaning their immune system is impaired — they can become more susceptible to urinary tract infections or other kinds of infections. Bhatia added that this is a significant concern because, in these situations, necessary medical aid is not accessible in space.

The yeast cells will be loaded onto the UTAT satellite and examined to see how much the genes change over the course of two days in orbit. The sensors they’ll be using in the satellite have already demonstrated that they can be used in a space-like environment and can produce reproducible results. If these studies go on to prove the theories put forth by NASA and other scientists, then similar studies can continue to explore how medications may behave differently in space.

“For that reason we’re putting together a very small-scale, cheap platform that students like us can build and keep on building in the future across the world, to do studies that are as significant as this to the scientific and space community, that would benefit future space exploration,” explained Bhatia.

“Something else to note is that the results that we get from an experiment are usually applicable to more than just one situation,” added Mukkala. “Science is very spontaneous. Things happen as they go. It’s a matter of developing technology that can pace with the spontaneity of science.”

The Innovation Fund was planned to serve only on the Space Systems project and the satellite launch. According to Howlader, a large portion of the levy will be used for the launch costs, which can be “hundreds of thousands of dollars” paid through several installments over the two-year period. All other funds go directly into designing and developing the satellite.

While the first iteration that was built for the design competition withstood the structural testing that it required, the designers of the Space Systems Division found that it was difficult to manufacture and develop. That’s why the satellite has now entered its second iteration; included in this iteration is a new outer design of the satellite. Additionally, each system is being designed to be prototyped and manufactured more quickly.


The future

The true importance of a project like this is not in the immediate results of the launch but rather in the longevity of the project and the doors that it will open. The purpose of UTAT is to get students not only excited about aerospace engineering, but to make it more accessible. UTAT wants to create an environment where students can learn outside the classroom and put the theories they have learned into practice.

“The ability to show that students at the undergraduate level can get involved very deeply into something that only people like NASA have done before is very, very big,” said Howlader.

UTAT is more than just for students in STEM fields. Students involved in commerce, marketing, finance, and outreach can get involved to work on the business development aspect to the group.

“We have an entire system that can be for anyone who has any curiosity to come and learn this stuff,” Howlader told me. “I think a really big thing is how interdisciplinary the aerospace community really is.”

The Ontario Science Centre is already using old UTAT equipment for educational purposes. It’s only a matter of time before the first U of T student-launched satellite becomes the next attraction.

U of T releases advocacy toolkit to support Naylor Report

Toolkit provides resources for those who wish to lobby Canadian government

U of T releases advocacy toolkit to support Naylor Report

The U of T administration has released an advocacy toolkit for students, faculty, and staff to persuade the federal government to implement the recommendations from Canada’s Fundamental Science Review Panel, also known as the Naylor Report. The report was commissioned by Science Minister Kirsty Duncan and released in April.

From the findings of an independent panel of experts, the Naylor Report reviews the state of fundamental sciences in Canada. It concludes that federal support in fundamental science has been lacking in recent years, a decline that reduces Canada’s international competitiveness and Canadian innovation.

The report provides recommendations on how the government can improve Canadian research.

“This report sets out a multi-year agenda that, if implemented, could transform Canadian research capacity and have enormous long-term impacts across the nation,” said panel chair and former U of T President David Naylor in the report.

“The Fundamental Science Review presents a thoughtful, coherent plan that addresses all dimensions of Canada’s research system through a set of tightly linked recommendations,” Vivek Goel, U of T Vice-President of Research and Innoation told U of T News. “We will continue to work with our university colleagues across Canada to encourage the government to act on all 35 recommendations made by the panel.”

The Canadian government has not promised to act on all 35 recommendations made in the report, which include a $1.3 billion increase in research funding over four years. In June, nearly 200 researchers gathered in Toronto to discuss making the implementation of the Naylor Report’s provisions a reality. It is unclear if the toolkit is an outcome of this talk.

The advocacy toolkit, announced in a press release by U of T Chief of Government Relations Andrew Thomson, provides “quick facts about the Report, why it matters, and why the University of Toronto strongly endorses its recommendations.” It states that the Naylor Report is “sensible, affordable,” and that the implementation of its recommendations would benefit all Canadians. It further posits that investing in fundamental science is important for innovation, economic growth, and promoting curiosity among young Canadians.

Additionally, the toolkit encourages all members of the U of T community to support the panel through whatever means they have available, including using the hashtag #supportthereport on social media.

“The toolkit asks members of the U of T community to take action and participate in the campaign to convince the federal government of the critical importance of supporting fundamental science,” Thomson wrote.

Is Canadian science back?

The federal government has promised to improve transparency and funding of Canadian research; if done right, it could be a pivotal moment for scientists

Is Canadian science back?

In late 2015, Kirsty Duncan, Member of Parliament (MP) for the riding of Etobicoke North, was appointed Minister of Science in Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s cabinet.

Duncan has no direct predecessor to emulate. The position was introduced by Brian Mulroney in 1990 and existed until 1995, when Jean Chrétien nixed it and added the new title of Minister of Industry to his cabinet. Stephen Harper reintroduced a Science and Technology portfolio to his cabinet, but demoted the person in this position to Minister of State, which is a lower cabinet rank. It was therefore a significant change when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau appointed Duncan with a full mandate. The move seemed to reflect the Liberal Part of Canada’s campaign promise to restore the voice and funding given to Canadian researchers and scientists.

With $1.1 billion in research funding granted at U of T in 2013–2014 — 31 per cent of which came from federal agencies — there is no doubt that the university is a major player in Canadian research. It educates thousands of students hoping to participate in research each year. Many from the U of T community will be watching as the new federal government attempts to change the political climate surrounding research in Canada.

Money and ‘muzzling’

Under Stephen Harper’s government, scientists across Canada reported a variety of challenges related to the government and their work. A common grievance was the reduction in federal research funding to various  programs and facilities. In January 2014, CBC News reported that 2000 government scientists had been laid off within five years, and that research in climate change, water quality, and other areas had seen dramatic financial cutbacks. 

In recent years, Canadian researchers have also expressed concerns over political censorship in the publication of data. The Harper government was accused of preventing scientists employed by the federal government from sharing information that did not align with the goals of the administration. Public scientists’ interactions with the media were carefully controlled by government media managers.

In particular, climate change research conducted by government scientists allegedly did not reach the general public. Some groups, including the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada and the US-based Union of Concerned Scientists, called these practices ‘scientific muzzling.’

The new government seems eager to distance itself from these criticisms and to prioritize transparent scientific research. When asked about the goals of the new Ministry of Science, Duncan said, “The goal is to return science to its rightful place and to return science to its rightful place in government. We have two ministers with science in the title, and it I think it shows the importance this government places on science.”

Duncan is a scientist first and isn’t afraid to admit that. She is a U of T geography and anthropology alumnus, holds a PhD in geography, and is known within the community for her research on historical epidemics. Her work focused on understanding the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic, as the world worried about an outbreak of another global flu in the late 1990s. 

Duncan taught meteorology, climatology, and climate change at the University of Windsor from 1993 to 2000. Her research led to the publication of a book called Hunting the 1918 Flu: One Scientist’s Search for a Killer Virus in 2003. She entered politics in 2008 and won her riding, even as the federal Liberal Party failed to win nationally.   

It is Duncan’s opinion that the government should not influence scientists’ communications with the public. “Scientists should be able to speak freely in an official capacity where they have direct responsibility or expertise, or scientific and technical matters related to their work. That’s what science is about. Scientists share their work; they have to be able to do that. Part of my mandate is to ensure that government scientists can talk freely about their work, that government science is made available to Canadians and that we have this evidence base to inform decision making,” she said. 

The Conservative Party of Canada maintains that its stance on science has been fair. Marilyn Gladu, MP for the riding of Sarnia-Lambton and Conservative Party of Canada science critic, said, “My view is that scientists are free to speak about their work, but they do not speak for the government on issues of science policy.”

Gladu also defended the Conservatives’ record on science. “Canadian Science never left the main stage while the Conservatives were in power. A lot of very positive things happened, in fact, like a Canadian research team finding a cure for Ebola, that just simply never got a lot of media attention,”she said.

The tension between government regulation and scientific expression was enough to prompt students to speak out about the right to free expression of scientific findings. At U of T, a group known as Students for the Right to Know was started in response to the alleged muzzling of scientists by the Harper government. The group, led by Emma Pask, continues to advocate for the freedom to disseminate scientific findings. 

Pask felt that awareness of the importance of transparency in research has increased. “More professors are presenting their work through alternative avenues, instead of having it written up by public relations representatives or journalists, as dictated by the mandates for government funded research [under Stephen Harper].” To ensure the free expression of their work, Pask said, “Academics are creating more direct ways of sharing their work by starting blogs and appearing on shows, such as TED Talks, to ensure the transparency that their work requires and to secure the proper communication of the scope of their research.”

These measures may no longer be necessary if the new government begins to dismantle the policies put in place by the Harper government, but the lengths researchers go to secure free expression of their findings is representative of how important transparency is to Canadian researchers. 

The ‘Gross Research Product’

The budget allocates an additional $30 million for NSERC and CIHR, and an additional $16 million for SSHRC. As well, an additional $19 million has been granted to the Research Support Fund, a fund “to support the indirect costs borne by post-secondary institutions in undertaking federally sponsored research.” The total increase in funding for research is $141 million in 2016-2017. In total, the final budgets will rise to $1.12 billion for NSERC, $1.03 billion for the CIHR, and $720 million for the SSHRC. Smaller increases were provided to other institutions, like Genome Canada and the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics.

While more generous than previous budgets, an increase of $141 million dollars does not spread well over an entire country and is not likely to significantly improve the ability of researchers to obtain grants for their work

Canada’s research and development expenditure as a percentage of gross domestic product (GDP) remains significantly lower than those of many other top research countries. In 2013, Canada’s per capita GDP spent on research was 1.62 per cent; Israel’s was 4.21 per cent. France’s expenditure on research was 2.23 per cent of GDP in 2013. 

Kennedy Stewart, MP for the riding of Burnaby South and New Democratic Party science critic, thought more should be done to improve research in Canada. “Stephen Harper and the Conservatives undermined scientific research in Canada by reducing funding, firing and muzzling government scientists, and eliminating key tools such as the long form census. As a result, our global reputation took a severe hit and we dropped on most key comparative tables concerning scientific output and innovation,” he said. 

He added that the increases in research funding under the Liberals failed to meet his ideals: “In a recent letter to the new science minister I asked Dr. Duncan to increase funding to our tri-councils by $1.5 billion over the next four years and to tie these increases to inflation to [guarantee] adequate funding over the long term. While a good start, the recent Liberal budget fell short of these goals.”

While researchers would like greater funding, governments are understandably constrained by their budgets. The scarcity of government funding begs the question: should governments prioritize research that is likely to be economically productive? 

Duncan said that the 2016 budget delivers on a mandate to increase funding for “fundamental” science, rather than just research for commercial gain. “Under the framework of the previous government, [researchers] felt that funds were being tied, that there had to be a commercialization aspect to their research to get funding. The example I’ll give is with SSHRC. Between 2000 and 2006, there was 0% tied funding. In 2006, it was 9%. Today it stands at 37%. We heard repeatedly that [increases in research funding] should be unfettered, and [these increases are] unfettered money,” she explained.

Dr. Vivek Goel, U of T’s vice president of research and innovation, noted that U of T researchers enter into funding agreements that guarantee their ability to publish their results and therefore have not been subject to censorship by the government. He hopes for Duncan and the Liberals to implement improvements to the process of applying for funding, which can sometimes be burdensome. 

“Right now… in order [for researchers] to maintain their research programs, their labs, and their support, their graduate students, post docs and so on have to write multiple applications for the same project to different organizations,” he explained. Goel wants this process to come under the Ministry of Science review that was also announced in the 2016 budget. He also wishes that the government can improve access to funding for new scholars and increase international collaborations.

Dr. Edward Andrew, professor emeritus of the U of T political science department is in favour of research for the sake of research. “My view is that governments should be strong supporters of research, even if it is not economically productive,” he said.

He warned of what can happen if governments fail to support research, regardless of their potential payoff. Andrew predicted, “The alternative to government funding is that all research will be funded and controlled by capitalist corporations. To avoid researchers becoming lackeys of corporations or governments, a multiplicity of patrons or funding agencies is essential.”

Meanwhile, funding agencies have been struggling in recent years. In 2013, both the Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmospheric Science and the National Roundtable on the Environment and the Economy were shut down due to a lack of funding.

While research funding rarely improves the national bottom-line immediately, research should not be undervalued. Rock-solid research is needed to maintain Canada’s position on the global stage. National research and development strengthens our medical care and often leads to new ways to make complicated procedures more effective and cost-efficient.

The National Research Council (NRC) funds a number of medical technologies that improve the way our federally-funded physicians conduct life-saving procedures. Government funding of globally-renowned Canadian health non-profits, like Grand Challenges Canada, also saves thousands of lives abroad. The Defence Research and Development Canada agency conducts important research on how to improve military technology.

While these investments may not pay off immediately, it’s important that a global leader like Canada takes the necessary risk of investing in research, regardless of the outcome.

Goel echoed these sentiments: “Government[s]… can fund fundamental research without having to make the case that it’s going to be economically productive.” Furthermore, he made it clear that governments have a role in funding research for the “social good.”

“[Governments fund] research for which no single entity on its own, particularly a private sector organization, would necessarily invest in because it’s so fundamental [that] it doesn’t lead directly to products and commercialization,” continued Goel. “So, [the] particularly important role for government[s] is to fund the research that nobody else or nowhere else in society would be funded.”

Goel also said that the importance of research in the humanities should not be forgotten or ignored. “I think another part of this [that is] really important for the university is research in humanities and in the social sciences, [which] quite often [are] not directly related to economic activity in the way that people think about it.” noted Goel. In particular, he drew attention to the role the social sciences have in national security. “It is fundamental to our society and understanding social forces within society. Understanding why, for example, people might get radicalized… If we took an economic lens, [that research] might not get funded, [which] can often end up being the most important for us as a society.”

While it is clear that the Liberal government is attempting to improve the Canadian research climate, it remains to be seen whether the measures they have proposed will be enough to realize substantial change. Duncan seems to be hopeful. She concluded, “I just hope that science is back, and that there is respect for science and scientists and the important work they do.”

Correction (April 5th, 2016): An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated the 2016 federal budget allocations for research. The Varsity regrets the errors.

Science around town

Your guide to the top science-related events this week

Science around town


Special lunches and cooking classes will be hosted at several locations across the St. George campus this week to mark UeaT’s Nutrition Education Week. More information, as well as the event schedule, can be found on the UeaT website. 

Monday, March 7 — Friday, March 11


This hands-on event is aimed at providing interested attendees with some introductory lessons in designing and printing 3D objects using tools such as Sculptris and Autodesk 123D Design.

Monday, March 7


Digital Innovation Hub

Fort York Branch

Admission: free with registration


The Ryerson University chapter of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) invites graduating students to attend a professional development seminar featuring presentations from Dr. Vincent Chan, an associate professor in Ryerson’s department of mechanical engineering, and Derek Smith, Career Experience Manager at 

Tuesday, March 8


Oakham Lounge

55 Gould St.

Admission: $5, includes meal


The 2016 Health and Human Rights Conference hosted at OISE will address several facets of the ongoing Syrian refugee crisis. 

Friday, March 11–Saturday March 12

Ontario Institute for Studies in Education

252 Bloor St. W

Admission: $10 deposit, $8.40 refunded at event