Time to rethink the National Research Council

“Is the National Research Council (NRC) 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 NRC is a mess. And this mess neatly encapsulates much that’s wrong with Canadian science policy. No direction, no cohesion, and multiple conflicting purposes.”

This is taken from a must-read post “Wither the NRC?” by my friend Rob Annan, where he quite accurately describes the historic highs and lows of this venerable Canadian organization, but also identifies its current state of disarray. A post that heavily influenced this one, though we don’t arrive at the same conclusions.

Since the 1980s, the NRC has been without a strong sense of self. According to the Minister of Industry, “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 what is the reality? The NRC now has a total of 26 research institutes across the country, covering all aspects of science and technology, employing more than 4,000 people thanks to federal government funding approaching half a billion dollars. In addition, it runs the Industrial Research Assistance Program (IRAP) that annually awards about $250M to Canadian Industry to become more innovative.

So what are the problems?

1.    To start with, the government does not fund the full cost of research at the institutes, and these labs are dependent on funding from external sources. According to the minister, Canadian business should foot part of the bill. But we all know that the Canadian industry’s record in investing in academic or government research is not great. So these labs are as dependent on basic science funding as university researchers.

2.    According to the original Act, the NRC institutes were conceived 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, and not for being market innovators.

3.    The NRC model does nothing for quality control of research and competition. Federal funding does provide it with some stability and sustainability, but this has contributed to making it become an isolated ecosystem of its own. Not all NRC institutes are equal of course, but many of these labs do run in an almost parallel universe to the university system. It would be nice to know how they are reviewed, and who does the reviewing.

4.    The NRC was once a very successful and prestigious institution. Nobel Prize winners G. Hertzberg, John Polanyi and Harry Kroto, as well as NSF director Rita Colwell, all started their careers at the NRC. But times have changed and most of the important research efforts in Canada are now pursued in universities, with almost no interaction with the NRC.

5.    Not unlike the current shaky status of the French CNRS (Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique), the absence of the opportunity to teach, train and transmit knowledge in a sustainable fashion is a major handicap for NRC researchers. This is the case whether they are active or not, though for different reasons.

The bottom line is that the NRC is an organization in desperate need of modernization, both in terms of of approach and oversight. So what is the solution ?

I say the NRC should be restructured in a fundamental way:

1.    Carve out the innovation and commercialization elements of the NRC into a new organization that has the responsibility of funding projects through IRAP. Mandate it to build bridges between research organizations and industry. Staff it with a blend of scientists, business-people and lawyers. Link it with the Universities Industry Liaison Offices. Let it manage NSERC’s Collaborative Research and Development (CRD) Grants ($55,000,000), Strategic Network Grants ($31, 900,000), Engage and Interaction grants ($6,100,000), Collaborative Health Research Projects ($5,700,000) as well as the Tri-council’s Centres of Excellence for Commercialization and Research ($30,000,000).

2.    Make the research-active NRC institutes part of the university system. Review each institute independently with the intent that some will sunset, and others will become a government research lab within a suitable Canadian university, possibly after changing direction.  NRC researchers will have joint appointments, will teach, train and supervise, while continuing to do research. The University sector will then have a major injection of federally sponsored qualified researchers and teachers. This new injection of learning and research capacity in Canadian universities will help the country make a quantum jump in its ability to attract, train and retain highly skilled personnel, so that Canadian and international graduate students enrollment in Canada can be increased by 20 % per year through 2020.

More later about making Canada a major international hub for graduate training.

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3 Responses to Time to rethink the National Research Council

  1. Pingback: R&D expert panel: All eyes are on Naylor! | Piece of Mind

  2. > Make the research-active NRC institutes part of the university system.
    At the risk of sounding self-interested, I’d like to say that there is a real value to having research take place outside the university system. From time to time, the university system desperately needs the outside criticism.

    • Ghoussoub says:

      Fair enough! But the R&D expert panel seems to have gone this way. I agree for the need to mutual “criticism”, but you have to look hard to see any substantial one, at least in the direction you suggest.

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