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Whither the NRC?

April 7, 2010

Last week, the Government announced John McDougall’s appointment as the new President of the National Research Council (NRC) of Canada. His appointment provides an opportunity to point something out:

The NRC is a mess.

And the mess of the NRC neatly encapsulates much that’s wrong with Canadian science policy. No direction, no cohesion, multiple conflicting purposes.

What is the NRC?

The NRC was founded more than 90 years ago to advise the government on matters related to science and technology. It evolved into a federal research laboratory with the construction of the Sussex Dr. labs in the 1930s, and was the focus of Canada’s research efforts during WWII. Post-war, the NRC expanded and was a major source of Canadian research success, with notable achievements like the invention of the pacemaker, development of Canola and the crash position indicator.

From the 1950s through the 1970s, NRC’s success, growth, and increasing complexity led to the creation of spin-off organizations. Atomic research went to the Atomic Energy of Canada, defense research went to the Defense Research Board. Medical research funding went to the Medical Research Council, later the CIHR. Lastly, support for academic research was passed to NSERC.

All of these organizations have grown and prospered. The NRC? Not so much.

Why not? Well, the NRC is mandated, by the original NRC Act of 1916, “to undertaking, assisting or promoting scientific and industrial research in different fields of importance to Canada”. It did this very successfully into the 1960s, at which point, its greatest successes were carved out and handed to new organizations.

So what’s left? Well the NRC Act has a few specific mandates that the NRC fulfills: standards of measurement, manage observatories, investigate and standardize industrial materials, perform agricultural research, and maintain a national science library (which is under major financial stress, but let’s save that for another time). But the general mandate to “undertake, assist, or promote” scientific and industrial research is open to interpretation, and is a source of conflict.

The NRC has research institutes in every province in the country, from the Herzberg Institute of Astrophysics in BC to the Institute for Ocean Technology in Newfoundland. A total of 26 institutes across the country, covering all aspects of science and technology, and employing more than 4,000 people. It’s a broad effort and employs a lot of great scientists.

But since the 1980s, the NRC has been without a strong sense of self. Is it a basic research organization or an applied research organization? Does it exist to perform independent, government-sponsored research, or does it provide research services in support of the private sector? Does it perform early-stage research and then partner with industry, or is it a fee-for-service research organization? The answer is yes.

The NRC is being pulled in too many directions.

What does our Minister of Industry have to say about the NRC?

NRC‘s aim is to bring timely solutions to market in areas of national importance: clean energy, health and wellness, and the environment. NRC will continue to partner with Canadian firms to deliver tangible, market-oriented results in high-impact and emerging industry sectors, such as the automotive sector.

But the NRC isn’t designed to do this – this is a different mandate than what is laid out in the Act. Which would be fine – maybe it’s time for a change – except that the NRC institutes have been, not surprisingly, built according to the mandate outlined in the NRC Act – as research laboratories, not product development laboratories or partnership incubators. And the people recruited to run these labs are scientists, not business-people. They want to do science, not chase down industrial partnerships in the automotive sector or take their clean energy products to market. They’ve been recruited for their scientific abilities; it’s a bit of a stretch to expect them also to be market innovators.

Furthermore, because the government does not fund the full cost of research at the institutes, these labs are dependent on research funding from external sources. If the funding was coming from Canadian business, then the vision of our Industry minister would be fulfilled. Unfortunately, Canadian business is notoriously averse to investing in academic or government research. So these labs are dependent on CIHR, NSERC, or private funding – mostly basic science funding. So, the government builds a system of research laboratories, forces them into dependence on basic science funding, and then complains that there isn’t enough market-driven research going on?

It makes no sense. The left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing.

Stating that the NRC will play a critical role in sustaining innovation for business isn’t effective policy and leadership, it’s wishful thinking.

If the Government is serious about remaking the NRC – then it has to actually do the job. It needs new organizational models, it needs new people running the labs, it needs a whole infrastructure dedicated to building these bridges. Instead, it seems the policy approach is to starve the labs and then suggest that they increase their business partnerships to make ends meet. To build big, expensive tech transfer administrations into existing institutes. This is the best the Government can do?

Even the appointment of the new President won’t address these problems. As CEO of the Alberta Research Council (ARC), Mr. McDougall turned the ARC into an organization with a $100-million dollar annual budget, three-quarters of which came from self-generated revenues. This is only about a tenth the size of the NRC, mind you, and doesn’t have the added burdens of the dispersed, diverse activities of the national organization. Even Mr. McDougall recognizes this – in an interview he acknowledged that the ARC is really a fee-for-service organization, but the NRC is different – it works in the realm of “big science”.

So maybe the Government should return to the original mandate of the NRC, as outlined in a Government Act more than ninety years old. The NRC should be the government’s research labs. Build bridges between the NRC and its healthier research children – NSERC, CIHR, AECL, etc – instead of forcing an uncomfortable union with industry. Fund the NRC appropriately, and then actually use the NRC for research directly related to government priorities.

And then, take a lesson from the past. Carve out the innovation elements of the NRC into a new organization. Give that organization the responsibility of funding projects through the popular IRAP. Expand its scope to include not just government labs, but also academic research units, and then mandate the organization to build the bridges between these research organizations and industry. Call it the Innovation Council of Canada, make it a part of Industry, staff it with a blend of scientists, business-people and lawyers, and then leave the researchers to do research.

When you have a two-headed beast like the NRC, of course it’s going to try to go in two directions. Split it in two, and let each excel in its own direction.

11 Comments leave one →
  1. April 7, 2010 15:55

    Thanks for the history lesson. I’ve often wondered about the NRC’s purpose.

  2. SpongeBob permalink
    April 7, 2010 20:22

    Thanks for the little historical background. I would also like to add that NRC was once a very successful and prestigious institution. Nobel Prize winner G. Hertzberg spent most of his career at NRC, John Polanyi and Harry Kroto, also Nobel laureates, both started their careers as post-doc fellows at the NRC.
    As Rob mentioned, times have changed and most of the research efforts in Canada are now pursued in universities, financed by granting councils that were once part of NRC. The relationship between academia and the former responsible of the funding is everything but friendly. Maybe some kind of “Vatermord”. The fact that Chrétien’s science policy (was there really one?) was based on advice, behind closed doors, from friends and brother from academia did not help. The ambiguous, to say the least, relationship of Harper with knowledge and science is nothing to bring optimism.
    Many successful countries have non-academic research institutions, is Canada so different that it cannot do the same?
    As we keep repeating, the biggest problem lies with the Canadian private sector which does not invest enough in R&D. The focus of the Government should be there, find ways to foster a change We are also at a turning point in industrial development and we should jump on the opportunity. Time has come to turn to sustainable development. However, the resources-oriented hunter-gatherer mentality of the present government is more an obstacle than anything else.

  3. Jim permalink
    April 8, 2010 07:02

    There are (even) more basic problems at NRC than you mention Rob. This is an organization in desperate need of modernization of approach and oversight. It’s A-base budget model does nothing for quality control of research and competition. It does provide stability and sustainability that short term grants cannot provide and this is its main benefit. It’s primary problem (IMHO) is that it has become an isolated ecosystem of its own. There needs to be a reality check and major rethink. Why not have active exchanges and joint appointments between the NRC facilities and the universities (there are hints that the government wants this – although the clumsy attempt to “off load” the institutes to universities was a dismal failure). Why not use the sustainability model of NRC for longer term programs within the University sector – by joint ventures and joint appointments?

    It is also too easy to paint all of NRC research with the same brush. There are clear successes and many NRC scientists struggle hard to meet changing priorities. Others are too comfortable in their domain. There needs to greater clarification of purpose and a transparent mandate on an institute by institute basis. Review each institute independently with the intent that some will sunset – or change direction. Reward success and innovation and get rid of the job for life security. I’d argue this should apply to the university tenure system too but its obvious tenure has essentially lost its original meaning so, in essence, has been abandoned in that sector. Lastly, remove all traces of entitlement that seem endemic to the NRC system. Nothing should be guaranteed just because a facility exists.

    • Joe permalink
      April 8, 2010 11:14

      Jim:
      Except for salaries, NRC A-base funding has been at static levels for at least 15 years. That’s why NRC scientists have to raise external funds. They afford no stability unless you know how to cut your operating budget to the quick and remain relevant. I don’t know where you get the notion that NRC is an isolated ecosystem. The institute I am most familiar with collaborates worldwide with premier universities, govt labs, and industries, and brings in millions in royalties from its patents.

      • Jim permalink
        April 8, 2010 15:00

        Joe, I’m not tarring al NRC institutes with the same brush and apologize if I gave that impression, but my experience has been that many of these labs do run in an almost parallel universe to the university system and are reviewed in an inward facing manner. Perhaps this is in part due to their internal pyramidal structure which relates more to medieval europe (and modern France). Whatever happens next, the status quo should not be an option.

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