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A journal of discovery and innovation from the University of Ottawa


Summer 2010

Research from the edge

Risk: Research from the edge Life is risky business. Whether we carry an umbrella for protection from the rain or submit to a full body scan to reduce the threat of terrorism, dealing with risk is an inseparable part of our daily experience, and indeed what we call life. Since 9/11 however, the ante has been upped and our vulnerability to hazards has entered mainstream consciousness. From farmers to heads of state, the call for research on how to reduce the threats from an increasingly complex ‘global’ village is becoming more urgent. What standards should we adopt to protect the environment? How safe is the food we eat? What will we do if the world financial markets collapse? How much freedom are we willing to sacrifice for security? In order to meet the challenges of tomorrow, we need to understand the seeds we are sowing today. Risk is one of the most interdisciplinary forms of study you can imagine. This issue of Research Perspectives demonstrates that every field of study at the University of Ottawa has something to contribute to our understanding of risk, from the basic sciences to the applied sciences to the social sciences.

Have a pleasant read. Mona1 Nemer 09-11-16 8:19 AM Vice-President, Research


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In this issue: 4

On shaky ground

We can’t stop earthquakes from happening, but good engineering can help mitigate the risk they pose to billions of lives every day. By Sean Rushton


Protecting our grey matter

Most sports helmets reduce the risk of catastrophic head injuries but don’t protect enough against less serious injuries like concussions. By Celeste MacKenzie


Pursuing prions: A threat past, present and future

Most Canadians no longer pay much attention to the implications of mad cow disease for human health, but Daniel Krewski is watching even more closely than ever. By Tim Lougheed

16 Plan for the human element: Assessing and managing risk

Louise Lemyre and Tracey O’Sullivan assess risks and help governments, organizations and individuals pinpoint gaps in emergency planning.   By Laura Eggertson

18 Troubleshooting with artificial intelligence

Stan Matwin is using artificial intelligence tools to detect the risk of cascading breakdowns across multiple technologies vital to everyday life. By Tony Martins

20 The enemy within In the face of international terrorism, the West fights for ideals, not geopolitical borders. By Sylvianne Duval

10 Putting a halt to crime

22 Microbes to the rescue in the Far North

The City of Edmonton is taking a fresh approach to preventing crime, thanks in large part to the work of criminologist Irvin Waller. By Tim Lougheed

12 Measuring behaviour behind closed doors

Finance expert Kaouthar Lajili weighs in on the link between corporate governance mechanisms and risk disclosure behaviour. By Susan Hickman

14 Avoiding the black hole: Risk management and the global financial crisis

Microbes, with their ability to alter the fate of contaminants, can help clean up the Arctic. By Isabelle Marquis

24 The University of Ottawa recognizes two young researchers

Milena Parent and Jeremy Kerr receive Young Researcher of the Year awards for their exceptional contributions to research and training students. By Martine Batanian

William Leiss says poor risk management almost caused the collapse of the world financial system. It could happen again. By Andrew Clark

Summer 2010, Volume 12, Number 1 Research Perspectives is published three times a year by the University of Ottawa’s Office of the Vice-President, Research. Material may be reprinted with written permission. Publisher Mona Nemer, Vice-President, Research

Editor-in-Chief Nathalie Vanasse Director, Research Communications Editing and translation University of Ottawa Language Services Design and layout Mantle & Overall Communications

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On shaky ground During earthquakes, collapsing buildings and other structures are the leading cause of death. With a large segment of the world’s population living in seismically active regions, untold numbers of human lives depend upon improving the resiliency of our cities. By Sean Rushton


he recent disasters in Haiti, Chile and China have brought new attention to the devastation that can be wrought in the world’s subduction zones, areas where the Earth’s tectonic plates grind against one another and are prone to sudden shifts that cause significant seismic events, or “megaquakes.”

Just such an area exists only slightly west of Vancouver Island, where an undersea fault called the Cascadia could potentially bring the bustling city of Vancouver — and possibly Portland and Seattle — to their knees. “This fault has the same characteristics as the fault that


ruptured in Southeast Asia in 2004, causing major tsunami and earthquake damage,” says Murat Saatcioglu, a civil engineering professor at the University of Ottawa and one of the world’s leading edge earthquake scientists. “It’s also very similar to the fault mechanism we just saw in Chile, so the type of ground shaking we would see in Vancouver would likely be almost identical.” Indeed, the Canadian Risk and Hazards Network asserts that a significant earthquake is probably Canada’s greatest potential natural disaster. The question begs to be asked then: What can we do to prepare ourselves to help reduce loss

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of life and property in the face of such an eventuality? Over the centuries, many efforts have been made to predict earthquakes. Yet the truth of the matter is that earthquakes are going to happen whether they are successfully predicted or not. Therefore, one rational step in mitigating seismic risk is to strengthen and retrofit seismically deficient structures. These structures were often designed and built prior to the enactment of modern seismic codes and are, therefore, vulnerable to earthquakes.

“Earthquakes don’t kill people, buildings do. The first step in mitigating seismic risk is to design and construct our critical infrastructure to withstand.” Murat SaatCioglu

damaged areas, they often circle us and start asking questions in order to salvage what is left of their buildings.”

However, the inventory of seismically deficient buildings and bridges worldwide is very large, and it is not economically feasible to retrofit each and every one of them. Therefore, the assessment of seismic risk is an important first step in order to establish priorities before engaging in costly retrofit projects. The recognition of this important step has motivated Saatcioglu to spend a lot of his career travelling to earthquake-stricken regions. “I am often involved in earthquake reconnaissance visits after major quakes,” he explains. “People in disaster areas are desperate for advice, and as we walk around

“The psychology of people in disaster areas is one of hopelessness and desperation. They want to do something about their buildings after the fact, when it is often too late. Therefore, it is important to develop public outreach programs and sensitize people about the need to reinforce their buildings so they are more earthquake resilient.” Saatcioglu recently returned from Chile where he led a team of 10 scientists examining why some buildings remained standing while others fell down, and to try and determine if similar structures in Canada would react the same way. The Chilean disaster represented a unique opportunity for Saatcioglu and his team to study the various factors that could determine the outcome of such an earthquake on Canada’s West Coast, not only

because similar tectonic forces are at play but also because Canada and Chile share similar buildings codes and seismic risk mitigation practices. One of the reasons the damage in the recent Chilean earthquake was not as extensive as the damage seen in Haiti — even though the earthquake in Chile was significantly stronger—is that Chile, unlike Haiti, uses modern building design practices to design earthquake resistant buildings. “Making structures behave in an earthquake-adaptable manner is full of challenges, but necessary for seismic risk mitigation,” states Saatcioglu. “Unless we research and develop seismic risk mitigation techniques, in terms of developing cost-effective and sound retrofit strategies, and improve the strength of our cities, we are prone to seismic risk and potentially devastating catastrophes.”


As more and more people engage in risky sports, preventing or at least minimizing head injuries is becoming an urgent priority. By Celeste MacKenzie


Protecting our grey matter 6

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he 2009 death of actress Natasha Richardson following a fall during a ski lesson at a Quebec ski resort put the spotlight on the need for sports helmets in even seemingly benign contexts, such as skiing on a beginner hill. But depending on the risks involved in a given activity, the effectiveness of helmets on the market can vary greatly. At the University of Ottawa’s Neurotrauma Impact Laboratory (NIL), Blaine Hoshizaki’s lab specializes in putting sports helmets to the test. Helmet-clad test headforms, dropped from a height of several metres, slam down on a hard surface below; others are slammed into each other at high velocity. To collect the data investigators need, video cameras and computers record the impacts.   Hoshizaki, who is director of both the NIL and the School of Human Kinetics, says while research shows the use of most sports helmets reduces the risk of catastrophic head injuries like skull fractures and internal bleeding, helmets don’t do a good enough job of reducing the risk of less serious traumatic injuries like concussions.   Why is this? One reason is a gap in the research that has been done so far—testing from a variety of impact angles has been very limited. And, too little testing using models based on the smaller head sizes of children is another reason skiers, skaters, hockey players, snowmobilers, cyclists and other sports and play enthusiasts

“There’s a whole range of injuries, from concussions when kids fall off toboggans to catastrophic injury when a person runs into a tree at a high velocity. That’s the challenge.” blaine hoshizaki

suffer trauma even with helmets on, according to Hoshizaki. Another factor is the lack of Canadian legislation requiring alpine and bike helmets to be manufactured to Canadian Standards Association (CSA) specifications. As an example, Hoshizaki cites ski helmets, which really require thicker, softer padding for kids. “Small helmets in Canada generally fail CSA testing, but most consumers don’t know there is no law in Canada that requires manufacturers to adhere to the standards,” he says.   To make improvements to helmet safety in general, Hoshizaki looks at a variety of information, including the kind of risky behaviour typically undertaken. In addition, it is important to know the speeds at which impact is experienced, the heights, surfaces and objects involved in impacts and the give upon impact of these surfaces and objects.   Hoshizaki also examines medical information from victims of head injuries. But rather than just test the damage to or strain on the helmets themselves, the lab uses sophisticated computer modeling to determine how impact actually translates into head injuries. Hoshizaki has also done a lot of testing to develop brand new helmet technology in his lab. A new design that features 18 adaptive air-cell shock absorbers provides more effective cushioning than traditional hard foam. This technology has been used by the University of Ottawa Gee-Gees football team as well as other university and professional

sports organizations, including the National Football League. One of Hoshizaki’s most recent investigations has been on behalf of ThinkFirst, a non-profit organization dedicated to preventing brain and spinal core injuries. Hoshizaki was asked by ThinkFirst to identify which helmets are best for kids to wear while doing different winter sports.   After looking at when, where and how children engage in risky behaviour, Hoshizaki developed a protocol, modeled on children’s heads, to test hockey, bike and downhill ski helmets. He found that hockey helmets outperform at lower speeds during activities such as skating as well as tobogganing on a short or gradual slope. Bike helmets, however, provide better protection at high speeds. Although the large coverage area of ski helmets should make them, in theory, a better choice for both types of impact, Hoshizaki says all models need to provide better protection than they currently do.   The professor insists that compliance to manufacturing standards wouldn’t be difficult. But because manufacturers sell to markets around the world, they prefer not to produce and market helmets for different jurisdictions. Nonetheless, due to an alarming number of head injuries in hockey in the late 1970s, helmets used in this sport were eventually legislated under the Hazardous Products Act, which requires manufacturers to produce hockey helmets that meet CSA standards.

But even a CSA standard helmet won’t necessarily protect someone who hits a hard surface while moving at an extreme speed. So, although public tobogganing hills are often closed when conditions become too icy, Hoshizaki feels there must be ways to ensure users understand the risks of taking part in such activities. “It’s about managing different risks,” says Hoshizaki. “That means that in addition to requiring people to wear certified head protection, municipalities must more closely monitor the hills and certify them as well so users can properly evaluate any danger.” Over the last decade or so, wearing helmets has become more and more common for both children and adults. But Hoshizaki says it’s difficult to say if helmet use is leading to a decreased number of traumatic head injuries because people are also engaging in riskier activities. Extreme sports are becoming even more popular, and a greater number of girls and women are now participating in them. The level of participation in risky activities continues to increase and so will the demand for Hoshizaki’s expertise as we strive to protect what is perhaps our most important asset — our grey matter.


Pursuing prions a threat past, present and future The exotic protein responsible for mad cow disease may not be the high profile issue it was a few years ago, but the threat it poses to human health remains. Professor Daniel Krewski is assessing that risk, along with the prospect of related ailments that could emerge. By Tim Lougheed


t has been some time since the intense mainstream media coverage of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), the neurological ailment responsible for “mad cow” disease. And most Canadians haven’t missed that 8

coverage. A 2007 national opinion poll sponsored by PrioNet Canada revealed that few of us regarded BSE as a public health threat. Nonetheless many people would acknowledge the potentially serious economic threat it poses to the country’s cattle industry.

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Daniel Krewski is well aware of this finding. Director of the University’s R. Samuel McLaughlin Centre for Public Health Risk Assessment, he is also associate scientific director of PrioNet Canada.

The research network takes its name from the exotic protein responsible for BSE. Prions—short for proteinacious infectious particles— interfere with the way normal prion proteins arrange themselves in vital tissue. When these complex molecules fold themselves into inappropriate shapes, the result can be devastating. The brain deteriorates from a well-ordered structure to a sponge-like mass, compromising all bodily functions and ultimately leading to death. As Krewski explains, the broader impact of BSE can be no less devastating. Following its initial discovery in Canadian livestock in 2003, other countries refused to accept Canada’s beef exports, generating financial losses estimated to be as high as $20 billion. Yet, no one in North America has been identified with a domestic case of variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD), caused when humans acquire BSE. In fact, there have been just a few hundred of these cases all around the world, a number that hardly ranks with the millions killed by malaria, air pollution or even car accidents. In spite of vCJD’s low profile, Krewski insists on considering the prospects of this disease. Early last year, PrioNet assembled a group of the world’s leading experts on prions, asking them for some highly technical and detailed information about the ongoing risks to human health. “The experience of taking their pulse was a rewarding one,” he says, noting the significant conclusions that emerged. While there are species-specific physiological barriers to prevent prions from migrating easily between animals and humans,

transmission has happened when people have eaten BSE-contaminated beef. Identifying such transmissions is complicated, however, since vCJD may incubate in the body for as long as 20 years. In the meantime, individuals who have not yet been identified could pass their infection on to others through blood transfusions, for example. “The risk models that people use to describe transmission from cattle to humans suggest that we haven’t seen the end of vCJD,” says Krewski. In addition, the expert panel told him and his colleagues that there could well be other prion-based diseases capable of moving from animals to human populations. One outstanding example is chronic wasting disease (CWD), which remains confined to deer and elk in the heart of Midwestern North America. Nevertheless, this limited range could easily expand. Krewski asks, “If CWD bears any resemblance to BSE, is it possible that hunters who shoot deer and eat the meat might develop the human version of the disease?” A warming climate could also entice these animals further north in Canada, perhaps introducing CWD into the caribou that are a dietary staple there. This possibility leads Krewski to another question: “Can we get out ahead of the risk curve and prevent CWD from becoming the major socio-economic disaster that BSE has been?” PrioNet was established in 2005 to achieve such a goal. With a team of some 60 researchers, the network has been developing risk management strategies for Canada’s agricultural and health care sectors, as well as investigating the physical behaviour of prions.

“Let’s not wait until CWD transmits to other species; let’s see if we can do something before it does, learning from the experience with BSE.” daniel krewski

Unlike vCJD, CWD has already revealed itself as a looming health hazard that will cost our society billions of dollars in the coming decades. “We can’t sustain that,” says Krewski. PrioNet’s investigations have pointed in some other intriguing directions, including towards a biochemical mechanism that might finally reveal the elusive underpinnings of Alzheimer’s disease.“If this turns out to be correct, imagine the opportunity,” says Krewski, who sees great promise in any link between prions and Alzheimer’s. “Even if we made a small dent, it would be just a fantastic public health contribution.”


Putting a halt to crime

Professor Irvin Waller has spent his career explaining why the prevention of crime should be as high a priority as the punishment of criminals. His perspective has recently acquired a substantial following in Edmonton, Alberta, and is being closely watched by communities around the world.

By Tim Lougheed


ven the most sound and well-researched academic advice can meet with a difficult reception in the rough-and-tumble world of public policy. Department of Criminology professor and director of the Institute for the Prevention of Crime at the University of Ottawa Irvin Waller was well aware of this fact when he wrote Less Law, More Order, a book tackling the thorny issue of how to reduce crime in our society by providing knowledge to policy makers and voters. He argues that we are better off concentrating on the prevention of criminal activity rather than only legislating degrees of punishment for criminals. The idea is simple, but it runs counter to a popular desire to see individuals “pay” for their transgressions. The federal and Ontario governments have recently indulged in this desire by increasing the severity of sentencing. This approach may get media headlines, but, for Waller, it does not address the underlying causes of crime. He was pleased to learn then that lawmakers in Alberta had


understood what reduces crime and was taking concrete measures. Soon after his book was published in 2006, a provincial task force asked him for help to develop a strategy that would emphasize prevention and treatment as much as it would emphasize punishment. The task force featured people who work on the front lines of law and order, including Edmonton’s police chief. For Waller, addressing this group was nothing less than “an amazing life experience.” Group members listened to him and opted for real solutions that would save people from becoming victims of crime and not just confront criminals after the fact. “I told them exactly what they need to do,” he says. “And it’s do-able—if you’ve got political guts to do it and want to reduce crime.” The provincial government demonstrated guts aplenty, committing $500 million over three years to crime prevention and making it a key issue in the thenupcoming 2008 election. That vote saw the ruling party returned to

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power with an increased majority, which Waller took as a sign that crime prevention can win popular support. Edmonton has since acted on such support, becoming a leading international test site in this field. In 2008, the city’s mayor created a task force to develop a 10-year plan to reduce crime and violence. The result, so far, is priorities quite distinct from any “get tough” strategy of increasing funds to pay for more police and prisons. Instead, the city has started to dramatically enhance a range of social services to ward off criminal activity. Educators help identify young people whose social or economic circumstances put them at risk of joining gangs. Other organizations offer these same individuals some appealing alternatives to spending their time on the streets. Some also provide information on birth control and assistance with other health matters, for example, helping individuals cope with major challenges like fetal alcohol syndrome. The example set by this city is being watched closely by others, in Canada

“What we are doing is presenting the concepts in a way that policymakers, politicians, voters and taxpayers can grab them, but it’s really about the framing of the issue.” irvin waller

and elsewhere. The University of Ottawa’s Institute for the Prevention of Crime has coordinated a formal exchange of information through a network created for this purpose and comprising 14 Canadian cities. The network operates under a $1.5 million program supported by Public Safety Canada, which asked the Institute to establish a national working group on crime policy. The concepts Waller set out in Less Law, More Order subsequently evolved into a highly condensed series of action briefs. In a few pages, each brief outlines some aspect of crime prevention, what can be done about it and what steps elected officials can take. “This project has generated a lot of interest,” he says. “Mississauga— which isn’t one of the 14 cities—

passed a resolution saying it wants to be part of this. Kingston, Brantford, Oshawa, they also have champions on their council who want to be part of it.” “Once you frame the issue in terms of reducing the number of victims and doing this in a way that’s sensitive to taxpayers, politicians can pick it up and see how you can deal with both smarter enforcement and smarter prevention,” says Waller. “Alberta picked up on that.” What is going on here is being discussed in countries like China, Mexico, Argentina and Germany. And as Less Law, More Order is translated into more languages, the Alberta model is inspiring politicians around the world to re-examine their own approach to crime prevention.


Measuring behaviour behind closed doors There is little reward without risk. But how can an investor determine the risk appetite of a company that doesn’t disclose the relevant information? And how much risk is too much? Where is the threshold? By Susan Hickman


t isn’t easy to measure risk, says Telfer School of Management professor Kaouthar Lajili. An expert in business economics and finance, Lajili has focused her research since coming to the University of Ottawa in 2000 on global enterprise risk management. Whether a company is involved in mining, manufacturing, technology or finance, it has to manage risk related to environmental regulations, market volatility, currency exchange, safety issues, loss of key employees and technical failure, to name just some. “How do you manage this risk?” asks Lajili, whose research examines the impact of a company’s risk tolerance and its governance characteristics, that is, its executive compensation, incentives, ownership structure, management style and the makeup of its board of directors. “Governance and risk are intertwined, and in this age of globalization and breathless advances in information technology, managers have to respond to threats


and opportunities within a turbulent framework.” During a study of the Toronto Stock Exchange, Lajili and a colleague examined close to 300 companies in different sectors. They concluded that the information disclosed by companies is often vague and not very useful. “They’re not telling us whether they are risk takers or how they manage risk.” While every company disclosed a certain amount of information in their annual reports, Lajili noticed that, “in terms of investment, the information was boilerplate. Almost 80% of it was qualitative, mostly general, nothing new.” Currently, Lajili is leading a three-year project to compare the disclosure behaviour of companies in Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom and Germany to determine the connection between risk disclosure attributes, companyspecific characteristics and the potential impact on stock prices.

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“We are focusing mainly on manufacturing and trying to relate the risk disclosure intensity to certain firm attributes, such as the size of the company and business risk proxies. Results so far show little forward-looking or quantitative risk information. The United States has the highest volume of risk disclosures across the board.” Lajili’s research team will try to determine whether disclosure should be mandatory and why red flags weren’t raised by the excessive risk-taking of some American companies during the recent financial crisis. “We are leaning towards keeping it voluntary, which will allow good risk-managing companies to differentiate themselves,” she notes. In a second project with another colleague, Lajili is examining North America’s gold mining sector. “Gold mining companies are exposed to many risks, and we are considering developing a scorecard of risk tolerance for them. We are trying to gauge their risk appetite by building

“Investors want to know how much risk companies are taking. If we made it a goal to disclose risk management, then outsiders could exercise informed judgement.” kaouthar lajili

a risk matrix and then relating it to their risk-management efforts.” For the sake of the investor, Lajili is keen to see more transparency and clear information on the risks companies take. “Risk isn’t bad. Good rewards are driven by taking risks. But there is a threshold, a maximum level you cannot exceed. As a shareholder, I would want to know whether a company is taking a good calculated risk or taking us downhill.” Lajili’s aim is to find a method for determining a company’s risk appetite. “It’s becoming more and more important to know what is going on inside a company. If you are an employee and you know a company is mismanaging, you can act on that information instead of losing your pension or your job. If you are a shareholder, you can avoid losing everything,” she explains. “It’s tough in these times of uncertainty, and in a financial crisis, you need to know how a company is managing its risks,” adds Lajili.

In the future, Lajili foresees greater regulation to control the irrational human factor. “There will always be a need for regulation, but you can’t make it too tight. You have to find the trade-off between regulation and a market that works efficiently with a good flow of information.” She notes, “Information is at the heart of risk management, and how one risk impacts another is important. Internal controls and more transparency are needed in order to succeed.” Lajili admits there is much room for improvement in the field of risk management research and practice. She suggests companies could provide a risk road map for their stakeholders, similar to how airlines inform their passengers of aircraft safety procedures. Tough financial times, Lajili declares, call for this kind of clarity and disclosure.

Canada’s largest bank, the Royal Bank, has set itself apart from its competitors through its transparency in disclosing its risk management strategies, says financial expert Kaouthar Lajili of the Telfer School of Management. “RBC follows best practices in corporate governance, risk management and control procedures,” Lajili points out. “Its annual report contains detailed information about the risk approach RBC has adopted to identify and describe its risk capacity, appetite and profile…and the most important types of risks it faces.” This Canadian bank is better positioned than its American counterparts to weather the financial downturn, according to Lajili, thanks to its risk-control mechanisms as well as government regulations.


Avoiding the black hole Risk management and the global financial crisis

William Leiss loves risk. Not danger — although he does admit to the occasional episode of jaywalking. It’s really risk he loves. More specifically, risk management making informed and intelligent decisions that reduce the chance of harm.

By Andrew Clark


isk is the most interdisciplinary form of study you can imagine,” says Leiss. “Every field of study has something to contribute, from the basic sciences to applied sciences to the social sciences.” The interdisciplinary nature of risk management is a natural fit for a man whose original degree is in history, who has a doctorate in philosophy and whose work has taken him from examining the health risks of electromagnetic fields to assessing the safety of Canada’s blood supply system. Now he’s turning his attention to a concept he calls “black-hole risk.” He describes this as a risk so 14

dangerous that when you look in to see how bad it might be, you can’t see the bottom. It’s a risk so great that recovery from its negative consequences may not be possible. “The threat of these past 18 months to the world’s financial system is a black-hole risk,” says Leiss while seated in his office at the R. Samuel McLaughlin Centre for Population Health Risk Assessment at the University of Ottawa. He points to the effort necessary to prevent a complete financial meltdown. “The size of the effort worldwide was $14 trillion. And it’s not over yet,” says Leiss. “That gives you some indication of how big the black hole was.”

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This June, University of Ottawa Press published his book Systemic Financial Risk, an analysis of the current financial crisis. The book examines the decisions, and their consequences, that led to the near collapse of the global economy. And it offers some prescriptions to ensure it doesn’t happen again. Leiss says one of the paradoxes of risk management is that the better we become at assessing risks, the more comfortable we feel taking them. He says that’s one of the reasons why the world’s financial system came close to collapse. “It goes back to the importance of the interdisciplinary aspect of risk management,” says Leiss. “When I started reading about banking

“When I started reading about banking and financial issues, I discovered there were these complete silos of analysis.” william leiss

and financial issues, I discovered there were these complete silos of analysis.” Leiss says some very smart people failed to understand, and practice, the basics of sound risk management. “I found just one example where the author tried to bring in risk management paradigms, where questions were asked about how you manage risk.” But Leiss says the mania over deregulation in the financial sector in the United States caused too many practitioners and policymakers to be blind to the dangers of what they were doing. What Leiss finds particularly frustrating is that there were

plenty of warnings signs about the dangers ahead. “I found a major source in the investigative journalism of the New York Times. It offered indispensable insight into what was happening.” But Leiss says too many academics in the financial field were loathe to take the journalism seriously. “You won’t find a single article in an academic journal that references the journalism,” he says. “These are the silos you encounter. It’s part of the explanation of why we didn’t see this coming.”

more trouble, we will have to manage risk much more effectively the next time around. Leiss says a more robust regulatory system is key. So, too, is greater international co-operation among the world’s financial powers.

If practiced properly, Leiss says risk management by its very nature forces people to look outside their silos. He also says if the world financial system is going to avoid

“We know how to do it,” says Leiss. “The question is whether we have the will to do it properly.”

But Leiss says that there are serious obstacles to real reform and to the proper practice of effective risk management. He cites the power of the banking and financial sector— especially in the United States—as the most serious barrier to change.


Plan for the human element Assessing and managing risk

Louise Lemyre and Tracey O’Sullivan are University of Ottawa researchers who help governments, organizations, businesses and communities plan for emergencies, from natural disasters to terrorism, based on the way people react in crisis situations.

By Laura Eggertson


hen Louise Lemyre hears “bronze, silver and gold,” she thinks, like most Canadians, of the 2010 Olympic Games in Vancouver. But unlike most of those cheering for the extreme accomplishments of Canadian athletes, this University of Ottawa professor was focused on extreme events that could disrupt the Games. That’s because Lemyre, who holds the McLaughlin Research Chair on Psychosocial Risk, was an advisor to Canadian officials on how to plan for the psychological and social factors that affect human behaviour during emergencies. Prior to the Olympics, Lemyre was involved in three major exercises in Vancouver dubbed Bronze,


Silver and Gold. Participants from 350 agencies practiced emergency responses to scenarios ranging from blizzards to biological contamination. Lemyre attended the practices to ensure planners didn’t forget that sometimes people don’t respond the way we anticipate. A specialist in psychosocial risk, Lemyre leads an interdisciplinary team at the University of Ottawa known as GAP-Santé. The team creates tools to help governments, organizations and emergency response teams eliminate gaps in their emergency plans and reduce their risks. Gaps occur when public security officials underestimate the role people’s perception plays in how they respond to an extreme event,

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says Lemyre. “We behave in ways that are driven by how we evaluate and how we, individually, subjectively assess the risks or benefits of what we want to do,” she explains. “So perception matters.” During Hurricane Katrina, some people refused to leave their homes because they didn’t know where other family members were or they couldn’t take their pets with them. They assessed the risks and benefits to not only themselves but their family, which included pets. Lemyre and GAP-Santé also stress the need to coordinate and communicate clearly and honestly. Often governments focus on public information but forget to communicate well within different jurisdictions, such as federal and

Tracey O’sullivan

provincial departments, during health emergencies like the H1N1 pandemic. “The flow of information is always one of the gaps,” Lemyre says. GAP-Santé, whose research is funded in part by the Chemical, Biological, Radiological-Nuclear and Explosives Research and Technology Initiative (CRTI) of Defence Research and Development Canada and the Centre for Security Science, is developing online tools like PRiMer. Short for Psychosocial Risk Manager, PRiMer teaches people about risk management approaches that include psychosocial considerations, says Lemyre. The team also leads workshops for decision-makers. GAP-Santé is creating a tool based on GIS technology so groups can map assets and high-risk zones. Building on research by Lemyre and GAP-Santé, Tracey O’Sullivan, an assistant professor at the University’s Interdisciplinary School of Health Sciences, is working on a pilot project with three Canadian

communities to help them “map” high-risk people. The project, called ENRICH (Enhancing Resilience and Capacity for Health), will ensure that people who have suffered a stroke or suffer from dementia, who have visual or hearing impairments, who are handicapped or who have mental health issues will cope better during and after emergencies. This issue has become one of increasing concern for all communities, given Canada’s aging population and the increasing number of people with dementia, says O’Sullivan. louise lemyre

“We have a lot of information now about high-risk populations… being more at risk when there’s a disaster,” she says. “They may require transportation and mobility assistance if there is a need to evacuate or get to a shelter.” O’Sullivan will work with a number of communities to create databases or other ways to identify high-risk individuals and to put back-up plans in place so people don’t fall through the cracks. If you meet the needs of high-risk people, then you reduce their risk of harm during a disaster, she says. The key to meeting those needs is to develop networks and plans before an emergency occurs. One of the interventions O’Sullivan plans to test is the use of social media like Facebook to keep people connected.

“We’ll be looking to the communities to tell us what relationships exist between organizations that help people on a daily basis and what their contingency plans are,” O’Sullivan says. A critical aspect of her project is to have each community decide which priority gaps they need to address. Home care agencies may need to develop plans to work with the Red Cross, other organizations or even neighbours to ensure clients are still served if regular caregivers get sick or can’t get to clients during an ice storm, for example. “It’s often community associations or neighbours that really help ensure resilience overall,” O’Sullivan says.


Troubleshooting with artificial intelligence How vulnerable are the world’s interconnected technology systems to “cascading” and potentially catastrophic breakdowns? Stan Matwin is using artificial intelligence to analyze “enmeshed systems” and mitigate the risks we face.

By Tony Martins


ap, your power goes out. Pfft, your cell phone network goes along with it. Zzzt, your Internet server shuts down. Clunk, electric-powered gas pumps are not pumping. You’re in the dark, feeling isolated and wondering what might fail next. You are experiencing a “cascading impact” systemic breakdown, something to which our communities are increasingly at risk in an age of interconnected technologies that support the day-to-day systems and services we rely on. How severe are such risks and how can we mitigate them? Stan Matwin and his colleagues are using artificial intelligence (AI) tools to explore these questions, aiming to eventually develop an automated risk management system. “Our job is to build a system based on AI technologies that will detect dependencies and inter18

relationships between enmeshed systems and run various failure scenarios to predict what could go wrong,” explains Matwin.

Sayyad Shirabad, a senior research associate at SITE.

“Enmeshed systems” are prevalent in our current environment, notes Matwin. “There is a lot of implicit interdependency between systems we all rely on,” he explains. “They are tightly interconnected, often in a feedback way. If one such system fails, even in part, other systems will be impacted and may fail as well, further deteriorating or knocking down the system that started it all. It’s kind of a snowball effect of failures.”

Although the initial study is preliminary, “the conclusions will be used to bid next year for a much larger project, where the results will be expected to go into deployment,” says Matwin. For a real-world example of a dominoeffect breakdown in an enmeshed system, Matwin points to the August 2003 power blackout in northeastern North America, in which an estimated 10 million Ontarians and 45 million Americans in eight states were plunged into darkness.

A professor of computer science at the School of Information Technology and Engineering (SITE), Matwin leads the University of Ottawa contingent on the Bell Canada ARMS initiative sponsored by Defence Research and Development Canada (DRDC). Also contributing to the project from uOttawa is Dr. Jelber

“It seems that not much has been done to fix the systemic problems,” Matwin says of our integrated North American power grid. “Lack of redundancy is the number one vulnerability; of course, it would cost billions to build in this redundancy.” Redundancy is a key term in the design and risk analysis of interrelated systems. “Critical

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“Our job is to build a system based on AI techniques that will detect dependencies and inter-relationships between enmeshed systems and run various failure scenarios to predict what might go wrong.” stan matwin

parts should be duplicated,” says Matwin, “so that when one of them fails, the ‘double’ takes over the function smoothly.” “Redundancy was built into the computers running the Apollo moon mission, and it never failed,” continues Matwin. And for a more mundane example, “We all practice redundancy driving around with a spare tire....So for enmeshed systems, where so much depends on reliability and uninterrupted operation, redundancy is an important factor.” But redundancy is not the only area of concern in the study, where findings will include models of the potential damage that could arise from system design flaws. The AI technologies applied will be evaluated based on their ability to model the impact of cascading risk on information, networks, systems and operations. Since detecting system vulnerabilities, risks and interdependencies

(“enmeshments”) requires knowledge and understanding, it makes perfect sense to use staple AI methods—knowledge-based techniques, models and knowledge compilation—to detect and analyze such risks and dependencies. Research using AI has fascinated Matwin since his days in graduate school. While the field has failed to live up to some promises made by early researchers (e.g., 10 years ago one of the world’s leading AI labs was predicting it would build an intelligence on par with that of a two-year-old child), Matwin is undeterred. In 2009, he published a position paper offering his key insights from the first 50 years of AI as well as five “theses,” or criteria, for effective AI research: it must be practical, embedded, empirical, mathematically sound and scrutinized. And according to Matwin, the current study aligns with each of these five theses.

“I view our work on this as totally practical, and whatever we do will be embedded in decision-making systems,” Matwin says. “The analysis and warnings that our solution supplies will, of course, be empirically tested. The methods we use are, for the most part, already based on a solid mathematical foundation. And the very role of our solution will be to scrutinize other systems for the drastically negative social effects their failure would bring about.” The result of the study will be published in a research report that “defines the elements necessary to move towards a proof-of-concept demonstrator,” says Matwin. In the meantime, Matwin would likely advise us to keep fresh backup batteries for our flashlights on hand, dig out our grandmother’s old-fashioned landline phone and make sure we have plenty of air in our spare tires.


The enemy within The West figures that turning fragile states into stable ”one-of-us” democracies will reduce the risk of the states breeding international terrorists. This approach comes at a cost to the West’s own values. By Sylvianne Duval


hile the notion of winning hearts and minds in Afghanistan may seem benign, the reality is problematic. As villagers line up for free health care and humanitarian aid, they are expected to co-operate with the Western military operation and “filter out” insurgents. “My research shows that since 9/11, democracies find it a lot easier to suspend the basic freedoms and rights of citizens in the name of managing a diffuse risk,” confirms


She cites examples such as detentions without trial in the UK (the very nation that founded habeas corpus) and invasions of privacy such as the sharing of passenger lists for flights that pass over American air space. And we all know Maher Arar’s story.

was on a state-to-state basis. The West knew that the enemy was the highly militarized communist block and that the threat stopped at its geopolitical borders. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, organizations such as NATO redefined their roles by stating that national security would be well served if these fragile states became democracies, and they set about overseeing the conversion.

According to Gheciu’s analysis, this form of risk management applied to national security is relatively new. Until 1989, national security

“Then came 9/11… sobering attacks on our culture and values,” says Gheciu. “The West realized that democracies may be harbouring a

Alexandra Gheciu, professor at the Faculty of Social Sciences.

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“Security today is a process of managing multiple risks to avoid potentially disastrous scenarios on multiple fronts. We are constantly juggling to address these risks.” alexandra gheciu

non-traditional enemy that is not working on behalf of a state.” Who is the enemy then, if no longer a state? Other than being broadly defined as fluid, transnational extremist groups that may be involved in terrorism and may use weapons of mass destruction against Western societies, we do not know who it is. “And that’s why managing this risk is so difficult,” explains Gheciu. “Our enemies don’t all live conveniently outside our community. What are the boundaries? Where does al-Qaeda end? How do you fight such an elusive enemy? The old methods don’t work.” Indeed, until the end of the Cold War, the West thought it could manage the risk of war with a threat of annihilation (think nuclear arms race). Now the West must re-conceptualize the word “enemy” to include its own citizens and deter people who are not afraid to die. One solution Gheciu has observed being used is the new role of individuals and in-country

organizations in what is now seen as a continual process of security. The price, she says, is the partial suspension of the very values around which the West defines its identity. “Many areas of life, both at home and in the states we are supporting, are now relevant to security,” says Gheciu. “New duties and tremendous burdens have been imposed on individuals and organizations. Banks must provide information on their clients’ transactions. NGOs cannot accept funds from groups or individuals who could be associated with extremists and must collect data on and surrounding their activities. Governments share more and more data on their citizens. It’s reminiscent of communist-style policing.” All this has wide-ranging implications on how we lead our lives. The logic of risk management is that risk can always be invoked as a justification. Gheciu finds that no evidence is necessary, no habeas corpus; the mere sniff of risk is sufficient grounds for justifying extraordinary measures—for

supporting mechanisms to weed out potentially undesirable individuals in ways that are contrary to Western values. That is how Maher Arar found himself in Syria. That is why Omar Khadr is languishing in an American jail. Both men are Canadian citizens. In some Afghan villages, supporting co-operative warlords led to the villages conveniently denouncing rival warlords for their own political gain and undermining the legitimacy of the central Afghan government—an unanticipated outcome far from the values of Western justice. So where does Gheciu’s research lead? Policy makers, who tend to operate in crisis mode, sometimes find it useful to come to academics like her who have already done the analysis. “I try to connect the dots for them,” she says, “to link new techniques to the balance of freedom and security and to question how we perceive friends and enemies in a democratic polity.”


Microbes to the rescue in the Far North

Unrestrained development in the Arctic, a region rich in mineral reserves, may lead to increased contamination of this area. Scientists are hard at work looking for ways to mitigate this problem. And they are looking to microbes that can reduce the toxicity of pollutants to play a crucial role in managing these northern resources.

By Isabelle Marquis


he Arctic is a sensitive area. Contaminants originating thousands of miles away can show up in this fragile ecosystem. These “global pollutants” travel great distances via air masses. When development of the Arctic subsoil begins, the ecosystems will become even more fragile. What can be done to reduce the risks associated with contaminants of global and local origins in this northern ecosystem? Alexandre Poulain, microbiologist and researcher at the University of Ottawa, is interested in how microbes interact with contaminants, particularly toxic metals, in cold environments. “Microbes, and particularly bacteria, have incredible metabolic diversity and can either make metals more toxic or, conversely, transform them into a less toxic form,” explains Poulain. “Since mining


activities seem inevitable in polar regions, I am concentrating my research efforts on understanding the process that allows microbes to alter the toxicity of metals. My hope is that this will allow us to better manage Arctic ecosystems and lead to sustainable use of the resources,” he says. Professor Poulain is particularly interested in mercury, a metal that occurs naturally in the environment and that is being increasingly dispersed in the environment through human activity. Mercury becomes very toxic when it is converted to methylmercury. This toxic compound readily accumulates in organisms and is bioamplified in food webs. As a result, top-level predators in aquatic ecosystems, mainly fish, can exhibit very high levels of this toxin. The health of humans and wildlife consuming the fish is then threatened.

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But what role do microbes play in this picture? Certain bacteria living in the dark and anoxic environment of aquatic systems are responsible for the formation of the toxin methylmercury, while others can actually contribute to the detoxification of this dangerous compound. However, the relative importance of these two reactions— production and detoxification—in polar ecosystems remains poorly understood. Professor Poulain’s recent work has shown that thanks to certain arctic bacteria, detoxification can occur during polar springtime. The results of his work suggest possibilities for developing remediation strategies for contaminated sites in the Far North. To evaluate the impact microbes have on their environment, Alexandre Poulain conducts work both in the lab and out in the field. In the lab, he develops biosensors,

“I want to understand how microbes alter the toxicity and mobility of contaminants in cold environments in order to determine if they can help us better manage the risk of pollution associated with development of the Arctic.” Alexandre Poulain

microorganisms that have been isolated from cold regions and then genetically modified to report on how they interact with their environment and, in particular, with contaminants. Using these biosensors, the research team tries to identify, at the genetic level, the metabolic pathways involved in altering the cycle of the contaminants either positively (by detoxifying) or negatively (by forming toxins). Once the scientists know which genes are likely involved, they can develop biological probes that will track these pathways. When Poulain and his team go out into the field, they use these probes together with the information collected in the lab to test the validity of the information and map the microbial transformations in situ. Through chemical and physical characterization of the test site, this multidisciplinary approach

helps better predict and manage the impact of contaminants on the ecosystem. When contaminants accumulate in food webs, they pose a risk to the health of the organisms that depend on these networks of food chains. By controlling the ability of microbes to reduce the hazardous effect of different pollutants, it is possible to reduce the risk of polluting northern regions and mitigate potential harmful effects on human and wildlife health. “We are trying to optimize natural ability of microbes to break down contaminants and, as a result, clean up the environment,” explains Alexandre Poulain. Toxic metals are, however, only one of the many stresses imposed on Arctic ecosystems. With the current environmental changes we are experiencing and as temperatures

rise, ground that has been frozen for thousands of years could become very active. And we have no idea of the direct or indirect effects of this thawing on the fate of contaminants, explains the researcher. “In addition, under the effects of microbial activity, organic matter contained in the frozen ground may produce huge quantities of greenhouse gases, dramatically increasing the rate of global warming.” This potential risk—the expected extent of which we have no way of measuring—together with the known risks highlight how important it is to address the problem of contamination of polar regions. That a problem so large could be solved with the help of tiny microbes reminds us that “great acts are made up of small deeds.”


The University of Ottawa recognizes two young researchers Jeremy Kerr and Milena Parent both received a Young Researcher of the Year Award, presented annually to two University of Ottawa faculty members who have made exceptional contributions to research and to the training of students. jeremy kerr

By Martine Batanian Jeremy Kerr, a dedicated researcher

Associate professor in the Department of Biology, Jeremy Kerr, is becoming an increasingly influential figure in the field of biodiversity. His dedication to protecting the environment and human health is gaining him admiration from peers and students alike. He received a Young Researcher of the Year Award for his contribution to conserving biodiversity and ecosystems through his research on changes in global biodiversity and in the field of macroecology. “We have made some very exciting major discoveries,” explains the senior researcher with the University of Ottawa’s Canadian Facility for Ecoinformatics Research. “One of the discoveries has resolved a long-standing problem among macroecologists, showing that we can predict how climate change will affect where species are found.” It turns out that the techniques used by Kerr in his research on climate change have surprising applications in the field of human health. Recently, Jeremy Kerr and his team 24

became involved in the fight against malaria in sub-Saharan Africa. “Through the use of satellite images, we were able to track the breeding habitat for mosquito species that transmit malaria and to predict the prevalence of malaria among children in Tanzania. If we can predict where malaria would be most severe, we can direct anti-malaria efforts to those areas. Our hope is to reduce the terrible malaria burden confronting these communities.” Milena Parent, a pioneer in her field

When the winners of the Young Researcher of the Year awards were announced, Milena Parent, associate professor at the School of Human Kinetics, was wrapped up in the excitement of the Olympics. Her research in the areas of sport management and community-based sports partnerships, which earned her this award, had put her right in the heat of the action earlier this year in Vancouver. “The University agreed to my temporary assignment with the Vancouver Organizing

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Committee for the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games (VANOC) because it would allow me to follow this organization for four months,” she says. In fact, Milena Parent is the first researcher ever to study Olympic organizing committee governance and to also be a member of the committee. Her current research allowed her to focus specifically on the role of the different levels of government involved in the Vancouver Olympic Games with two specific goals in mind: to identify the ways the different governments coordinate activities among themselves and how coordination between them and VANOC occurs; to evaluate the democratic governance of the Games with respect to performance and responsibility. The hope is that this study will allow recommendations to be developed to help governments better manage future events. Congratulations to both our researchers!

Research Perspectives  

Research Perspectives is a journal of discovery and invention from the University of Ottawa, published three times a year by the Office of t...

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