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Canada Physics and gender issues top Canada’s G7 science tour

Minister of Science Kirsty Duncan pose for a photograph November 26, 2015 in Ottawa.

Dave Chan/The Globe and Mail

For a tourist on a first trip to Japan, just figuring out how to buy a new toothbrush can be a challenge. But imagine you're a scientist newly arrived from Canada and having to order up a specialized piece of hardware for a sensitive physics experiment – let alone find an apartment.

Barriers to getting things done can be high for Canadian collaborators coming to work at Japan's premier high-energy research facility, known as KEK, in Tsukuba, near Tokyo. To help ease their path, officials with the TRIUMF particle accelerator in Vancouver have set up a satellite office at KEK, strengthening ties between Canada and a global partner known for its prowess in physics. As part of the collaboration agreement inked last December, Japan has established a parallel presence at TRIUMF, where the two countries are partnering on a project to use extremely cold neutrons to hunt for clues to the underlying nature of matter.

TRIUMF's Japan digs were officially opened on Sunday by federal Science Minister Kirsty Duncan, who stopped by KEK ahead of a meeting with her counterparts from other G7 countries. The visit comes as Ms. Duncan is set to launch a comprehensive review of science funding agencies and practices in Canada and begin the search for a federal science officer whose role is yet to be specified.

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TRIUMF's director, Jonathan Bagger, who was on hand for the ribbon cutting, said the minister was enthused by her interactions with Canadian scientists and graduate students working at KEK and "came away with a deeper understanding of the size and complexity of modern particle physics experiments and the role of large laboratories in making them happen."

On Monday, Ms. Duncan is scheduled to remain in Tsukuba's "Science City" for the science ministers' roundtable. The meeting is one of several side summits that have been taking place around Japan in the lead up to next week's gathering of G7 leaders. It marks the first time in three years that Canada has been present when G7 science ministers sit down to talk shop.

This year's agenda includes discussions related to global health, clean energy, the future of seas and oceans and open access to scientific data. Another topic of special interest to Ms. Duncan, who holds a PhD in medical geography, is support for girls and women seeking careers in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields.

"I am personally committed to working to improve the representation of women in STEM disciplines, and view this as an important part of my mandate," Ms. Duncan told The Globe and Mail.

Gender is also expected to come up in Toyama, where Catherine McKenna, Canada's Minister of Environment and Climate Change, is meeting with her G7 peers. According to the United Nations, women account for two thirds of the agricultural work force in the developing world and more than 90 per cent in parts of Africa, making them especially vulnerable to the impacts of climate change on food production.

"Canada has been the lead in the G7 this year on gender and climate and is putting the two together," said John Kirton, director of the G8 Research Group a the University of Toronto's Munk School of Global Affairs. Dr. Kirton said that Ms. McKenna knows the diplomatic terrain in Toyama well, having covered Japan as part of a research group Dr. Kirton led in Lyon during the 1996 summit.

Mehrdad Hariri, president of the the Canadian Science Policy Centre, agreed that Canada was aiming higher at the G7 this year, reflecting the federal government's increased pursuit of "science diplomacy" as a route to economic development and political influence on the international stage.

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But Mr. Hariri said that Canada still needs to do more to keep pace with other nations whose diplomatic efforts are increasingly well informed by and engaged with science and technology.

"Right now, we're not the leader in this field," he said. "Science is one of the ways that we can promote our international brand."

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