NRC Head Says Realignment Means 'Full Meal' for Canadian Industry

Open for business. NRC President John McDougall at an event in 2012.

National Research Council Canada

The Canadian government's makeover of the 97-year-old National Research Council will significantly alter the nature of its research and how it operates, says NRC President John McDougall.

Plans to make it a "toolbox for industry" will require the NRC's structure, staffing, and research programs to evolve as industrial partnerships develop, McDougall says in an interview today. Some institutes or research groups may have to be transferred to other government departments or to academe, he says, while others will be jettisoned if they prove "obsolete in a total sense" or "they are operating too far up upstream."

The new NRC will be very "fluid," he says, pulling expertise from its various divisions and groups to focus on an industrially-driven initiative. "The intent is to allow people to access the full-meal deal," MacDougall says. "We used to operate in a very siloed way, in fact, virtually as independent organizations and because of that, we weren't able to give people what they really need. People don't need a little bit of science or a component of technology. What they need is a whole solution, and if you can't provide the whole solution, then it's very difficult to get things to go anywhere."

McDougall hopes that this new approach will overcome Canadian industry's notorious indifference to research by demonstrating what he called the "mutual value" of collaborative projects. "The risk is much higher if we do things that they don't value if we don't talk to them," he says. "But if we're working with them right from the beginning, and we're not even going to launch if they don't come along, then it sort of becomes much less likely that that kind of risk will actually play out."

Getting Canadian businesses to invest more in research, he acknowledges, is "not a trivial problem. It takes people with special kinds of expertise, people who understand business as well as understand research and innovation."

McDougall says he's prepared to lose some scientists who don't favor the new attitude toward research. "Some people like to golf and some people like to ski," McDougall says. But he expects that most scientists will quickly find a comfortable place within the fold. "In my experience, scientists do enjoy seeing their things put to work. When they're driving down the road and they say, look that factory is there because I did this technology, that's a good feeling," he says.

Critics worry that the transformation of NRC will force it to compete with universities for funding from industry. But McDougall dismisses the charge as saying "more about the academic world than it does about us. If, in fact, the academic world was doing what industry needed, they wouldn't worry about this."