Canada to Convert NRC Into 'Toolbox' for Industry

After 2 years of flogging the need to transform Canada's National Research Council (NRC) into a toolbox for industry, the Conservative government announced today that the 97-year-old agency is "open for business" under its new philosophy.

"If Canada is going to continue to compete internationally, we must do it through new ideas, new products, and opening new markets. In other words, through innovation," Minister of State for Science and Technology Gary Goodyear told a press conference in Ottawa. "The NRC will now focus on the identified research needs of Canadian businesses. It will be customer pull."

NRC has for decades been the government's primary in-house performer of research in perceived areas of national need, including radio astronomy and agriculture. Its successes include the pacemaker, canola, the crash position indicator to locate downed airplanes, and the Canadarm, which deploys payloads for the space shuttles and the International Space Station.

Those innovations were the fruits of curiosity-driven research. But under the new policies, NRC scientists will tackle questions raised by individual businesses, while more basic research will be shuffled off to other departments or abandoned altogether.

It's not clear what that change will ultimately mean for the roughly 4000 employees at about 50 facilities across the country with an overall budget of $900 million per year. Goodyear indicated that NRC's existing divisions, which he called "institutional fiefdoms," will be restructured around specific economic sectors. An agency press release notes that there are now 12 "industry-themed entry points" such as "automotive and surface transportation," "security and disruptive technologies," and "human health therapeutics." However, the list also includes one umbrella category called "national science infrastructure."

Opposition leaders wasted no time in condemning the new approach. "Conservative incompetence meets Conservative narrow-mindedness," said New Democrat science and technology critic Kennedy Stewart in a statement. "They don't want research driven by researchers themselves or public funding for science going towards actual scientific advancement. Their short-sided approach will in fact hurt economic growth in the long run because it shuts the door on the long-view fundamental research that truly leads to scientific breakthroughs."

As early as March 2012, Goodyear had deplored NRC as a "loose federation of institutes." He said then that the government expected John McDougall, a petroleum engineer appointed NRC president in 2010, to reshape it into an industry-driven organization. Toward that end, the government provided $67 million in its fiscal 2012 to 2013 blueprint to affect the transformation. Last month's federal budget contained $121 million over 2 years for NRC to "help the growth of innovative businesses in Canada."

Goodyear told today's press conference that the government was implementing the recommendations of an expert panel, led by OpenText chair Tom Jenkins, which had been asked to review federal support of research. Its report envisioned the revamped NRC as "a constellation of large-scale, sectoral collaborative R&D centres involving business, the university sector and the provinces." It said NRC's public policy-related research should be shifted "to the appropriate federal agencies."

McDougall told the press conference that NRC is eager to focus on industrial needs. "Scientific discovery is not valuable unless it has commercial value," he said. "We are committed to being a strong partner for innovation, and … we will measure our success by the success of our clients."