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What Do the Party Platforms Say About Science and Research?

April 19, 2011 4 comments

As with every Canadian election, the primary issues are healthcare, the deficit, and the “scandal” de jour (Conservatives being in contempt of Parliament is this year’s scandal).

But what about science and research? This is an issue which gets lost in the fray of other issues, but is vital to Canadians maintaining a strong image around the world, as well as strengthening the economy.

So I went through all the party platforms in an effort to summarize their views on science, technology, and research. As a first step, I counted the number of times each of the words “science”, “technology”, and “research” each appear in the party platforms.

The results certainly jump out at you. The Green Party seems to be most interested in funding research and technology. This mainly stems from their wish to increase funding to “green” technologies, in an effort to save the environment.

The Conservatives and Liberals are pretty similar. In the Conservative Party platform, their promises regarding scientific endeavours are:

  • Establish 10 additional Canada Excellence Research Chairs;
  • Support the outstanding work of the Institut national d’Optique in the fields of optics and photonics;
  • Invest in strengthening the Perimeter Institute’s position as a world-leading research centre for theoretical physics; and
  • leverage funding to support Brain Canada’s efforts to support new diagnostics, treatments, and cures for brain disorders, including Alzheimer’s Disease.

In addition to these measures, the Conservatives discuss their “Digital Economy Strategy”, which includes (I’m summarizing here)

  • Extend broadband coverage to 200,000 additional rural homes
  • Increase competition in the wireless market
  • Support projects between colleges and small businesses to accelerate the adoption of new technologies
  • Promote enrollment in science, technology, engineering and math post-secondary programs

These points sound very well and good, but are very vague and I wonder how they would actually get implemented.

The Conservative Platform also states the Liberals and NDP “opposed” these measures when they forced this election. However I believe this is misleading, because rejecting a budget does not mean they reject every expenditure in the budget.

So what about the Liberals? What are they up to? Here are a few key points pulled from the Liberal Party platform:

–  A Liberal government will work with provinces, territories and the research community to bolster innovation in the health and bioscience field, improve the health of      Canadians, and help bring Canadian products to global markets.

– A Liberal government will make digital technologies one of its Canadian Champion Sectors, boosting incentives for investment in innovators seeking to conquer world markets.

– A new Innovation and Productivity Tax Credit (IPTC) that will grant Canadian investors a 15 percent tax credit for investments in small, early-stage start-ups that don’t yet have the track record to seek financing from more traditional sources such as banks and the stock market.

– An extension of the popular “Flow-Through Shares” tax model to start-ups in the three Canadian Champion Sectors. This tax incentive would allow venture companies with little or no revenue to pass on tax deductions to investors, creating a significant incentive to invest in Canadian entrepreneurs from promising sectors where Canada can become a world leader.

– A Liberal government will launch a new Innovation Gateway providing a “single window” approach that consolidates government support for innovation and entrepreneurship in emerging fields as well as long-standing areas of strength like aerospace, manufacturing and natural resources.

The Liberals also take advantage of the Conservative government’s poor record of investing in “green” technologies and taking action on climate change, which he once called a “socialist scheme”.

The Liberals discuss investing in cleaner technologies for processing the oil sands and reducing carbon emissions, though details on their plans are sketchy. Indeed, they state that investment in these fields will occur “as the economy improves”, which certainly allows plenty of room for interpretation on timelines for implementing these strategies.

Let’s take on the NDP next. As you can see from the above graph, the NDP does not talk about science to the extent of the Liberals and Conservatives. Part of this has to do with the fact that the NDP’s platform is quite a bit shorter than the other parties, but it also deals with the fact that the NDP’s primary concern is healthcare, job creation in all sectors, and social programs.

When they do discuss scientific issues, it deals with climate change and renewable energy. Some points from their platform (again, I’m summarizing):

  • Reduce green-house gas emissions to 80 percent below that of 1990 by 2050.
  • Introduce a carbon emissions cap-and-trade system
  • Cut subsidies to non-renewable energy
  • Federal financial incentives for “clean” energy, such as solar, wind, tidal and biomass
  • Support for research of “made in Canada” green technologies
  • Establish “Green Bonds” so Canadians can invest in green technologies and energy

The NDP chooses to spend their money directly helping Canadians. Which is all well and good, but I feel they don’t do enough to help bolster the economy, which is increasingly dominated by the technology industry.

Ok, now as for the Bloc. Well they hardly mention science at all, and I feel this political cartoon summarized not only their debate strategy, but their platform too, so let’s not waste any time on them.

Cartoon by Brian Gable - The Globe and Mail

Ok, so now we come to the dear Green Party. As I mentioned earlier, their platform discusses science and research more than any other party.

Of course to be fair, the Greens have exactly zero chance of winning this election (and a very slim chance of even winning a seat), so they are free to talk about how much money they want to throw at “green” technology research, without worrying about where this money is actually going to come from.

[Aside: I’ve been writing this post over about a week. It would appear that the Green Party platform I used to generate the graph at the top of the page is no longer the “official” platform. The document is now called their Vision Green and they describe it as “a comprehensive statement of our policies and programmes”. I’m not sure why they aren’t using it as their official platform anymore, but I just wanted to make that clear so you guys don’t think I’m making stuff up.]

So when the Greens talk about science and technology is pretty much always has to do with the environment and climate change. Some of the major points include:

  • Retrofitting Canada’s buildings to a high level of energy efficiency by 2025
  • Upgrade all low-income housing by 2025
  • Provide grants to cover 50% of the cost of solar-powered roofs
  • Rapid deployment of wind turbines to generate 17 GW of power (enough to power ~14 DeLorean time machines, FYI)
  • All bikes and bicycle gear will be tax-deductible and GST free
  • Massively increase funding to public transportation systems
  • 85% reduction in vehicle emissions by 2040
  • By 2017, no landfill will be able to operate without methane capture

And the list goes on. And on, and on…

All these changes will require a huge investment in researching of new technologies, assuming they ever got put in place.

These policies are well-meaning, and many of them have been implemented in other countries. But to try and get them to work in Canada, and so many of them at once, seems unfeasible.

In addition “science”, “research” and “technology”, I also made a chart searching all the party platforms for the word “homeopath”,

Indeed, as Skeptic North pointed out, the Green party would put a greater emphasis on homeopathy and other alternative medicine in our health care plans.

It makes me wonder how a party that talks a big game about using science and research to better our planet, can so greatly miss the mark on science and research in healthcare. Something to consider.

Be sure to vote on May 2. Check Elections Canada for all pertinent information.

Sweden Developing a Matrix-style Method to Harvest Body Heat

January 9, 2011 Leave a comment

“The human body generates more bio-electricity than a 120 volt battery and 25,000 BTUs of body heat. Combined with a form of fusion, the machines had found all the energy they would ever need.”

Morpheus was describing the motivation for building the Matrix. Thankfully, Sweden has no plans to enslave the human race; otherwise we would should have heard about it on WikiLeaks.

But Swedish engineers have developed a way to harness the body heat of commuters passing through Stockholm Central Station.

The excess heat in the building generated by commuters is used to heat water. The hot water is then pumped across the street to heat an office block.

The process could save the building 25% in heating costs, and is relatively simple to implement.

Humans generate 100 watts of body heat, and all that energy gets wasted if nobody harnesses it. When you have thousands of even millions of commuters going through a building, that is a lot of wasted power.

Nowadays, wasted power means wasted money, so expect to see lots more clever ideas like this from engineers to reduce energy costs.

Feel The Heat! US Approves Thermal Solar Power Plant

September 2, 2010 2 comments

Solar power is the future. There are lots of ideas for renewable energy out there, but I am convinced that solar will be the only energy source truly strong enough to handle our power needs.

So we got some good news to that end! The first solar thermal power plant in the United States just got approval to be built in the great (sunny) state of California.

The approval is for a 250-megawatt solar thermal power plant by the Beacon Solar Energy Project. The approval came as a direct result of the green energy incentives granted by President Obama.

The plant will operate on over 2000 acres of land and will use abut 521 million gallons of water annually.

So, I wrote a post awhile ago on the Physics of Solar Power. That post described how semi-conductors are used to make the more common photovolataic cells used to generate electricity using the sun’s energy.

Thermal solar plants work differently. What happens is that a series of parabolic mirrors are installed in long rows surrounding one large tower in the centre. The mirrors will follow the sun throughout the day they are angled in such a way that the sunlight will be focused on water filled tubes.

Thermal Solar Power uses mirrors to direct sunlight onto a central tower, heating water into steam and driving turbines.

These tubes will then get extremely hot, several thousand degrees in fact, and the steam generated will be used to spin turbines, and thus generate electricity.

Its a bit less fancy than the semi-conducting solar panels, but it produces electricity just the same. And 250 megawatts is nothing to sneeze at either; thats enough to power 200,000 homes!

And lets not stop there! The final approval of a 1000 megawatt solar thermal power plant (The Blythe Solar Power Project) is nearing completion. This plant will also be built in California, be 7000 acres large and will generate enough electricity to power 800,000 homes!

The Physics of Solar Power

July 6, 2010 2 comments

In my previous post, I discussed how President Obama is helping to fund the development of Solar Energy. I thought I would then take the opportunity to explain a bit of the physics behind solar power.

Don’t worry, you won’t find any equations here :)

First, lets start with the sun. That big bright thing up in the sky.

The sun generates light, and light can be thought of as a bunch of tiny packets of energy. These packets are called “photons”. The different amounts of energy in a photon will correspond to the colour of the light that is emitted. For example, photons of the colour blue have more energy than photons of the colour red.

Energy increases from left to right (Source: Opensource Handbook of Nanoscience and Nanotechnology)

 

So how do we harness the energy in these photons? We can use Photovoltaic cells. Put simply, they convert solar energy into electricity. Let’s see how…

A photovoltaic cell is made of special materials called semiconductors, which are made of things like silicon (Yes, that stuff used to make fake boobs. Isn’t science awesome?).

Now, all atoms are made up of a nucleus (which is made of protons and neutrons) and electrons which circle around the nucleus.

Electrons can actually absorb the energy from a photon, but this happens only if the photon has a very specific amount of energy (a specific colour). When an electron does absorb a photon, it causes the electron to “jump”, and sometimes even break free of the entire atom! Electricity is a constant flow of electrons, which we refer to as an electric current.

Silicon structures like to hold onto their electrons. They don’t normally let them move around which makes silicon what we call an insulator. But in a Photovoltaic cell we add impurities, little bits of stuff that doesn’t belong there. The impurities will actually encourage the silicon to release its electrons and let them move around.

Now the magic happens. So a photon (those little packets of energy from the sun) hits the Photovoltaic cell. If the photon has just the right energy, it will knock loose one of the electrons in the silicon atoms. And, because of the impurities, that electron will move around.

If you get enough electrons moving around, you get an electric current which we can then use to power all of our awesome toys!

Thats it in a nutshell. If you want to read about this stuff in a bit more detail, check out the links spread all through this post, or some of the cool sites below.

Hooray for Physics!

Further Reading:

http://science.howstuffworks.com/solar-cell.htm

http://www.physlink.com/Education/AskExperts/ae451.cfm

http://science.nasa.gov/science-news/science-at-nasa/2002/solarcells/

Obama is a Democrat. Who knew?

July 5, 2010 1 comment

 

While being the first Black president in history is quite an achievement, the Obama presidency has not quite lived up to the hype.

This may be about to change though. After getting a watered down version of his new health care bill passed, it seems Obama has grown himself a pair of balls.

Obama has earmarked $2 billion in loan guarantees to help give the solar energy business a kick in the ass. One of the projects would involve building the largest solar power plant in the world, and could generate 5000 jobs.

Obama needs to stick to his guns and do more stuff like this. He needs to do the things he promised he would do back during the campaign.

Sure the Republicans are gonna give you a hard time. They are loud, obnoxious, and now that they are out of power, they are maaaaad.

It can be intimidating, I know. But my god, don’t let them push you around.

And by doing the things he promised, Obama can at least get his supporters back to supporting him. So keep it up big guy. Fund more health care, fund green energy, fund the future of your country. We all know the Republicans are gonna whine and complain, but thats just what they do. Deal with it.