Tuesday, April 12, 2016

The National Research Council Doesn't Fit Within the Current Innovation Agenda

          By Henry Stewart

Things look grim at the National Research Council (NRC), especially since current NRC president John McDougall embarked on an indefinite leave of absence "for personal reasons" on April 4th.

Later that same week, Federal science minister Kirsty Duncan released a statement indicating that the government had explored plans to "rebrand" the department as "CNRCSolutions." And by Friday, the Ottawa Citizen had published an editorial questioning the NRC's continued scientific usefulness to the Federal government's "innovation agenda."

The NRC's original headquarters on Sussex Drive in Ottawa. Established in 1916 under the pressure of World War I to advise the government on matters of science and industrial research, the current NRC acts as "Canada's premier science and technology research organization," at least according to the NRC website. Several Nobel Laureates have been associated with the NRC including Rudolph MarcusJohn Polanyi and Gerhard Herzberg. Specialized agencies and crown corporations which began as programs within the NRC include Atomic Energy of Canada (AEC) the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), the Canadian Space Agency (CSA), the Communications Security Establishment (CSE), Defence Research and Development Canada (DRDC) and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC). Photo c/o The Office of the Auditor General of Canada.

But the real story behind the NRC's current difficulties goes back several years and begins with how Canada, which was always reasonably good at primary research, was being left behind in the race to turn those scientific advances into useful commercial products.

As outlined in the May 7th, 2013 National Post article, "National Research Council revamp fuels David Suzuki's claims of a Conservative ‘war on science," the Federal government of the day under then Prime Minister Stephen Harper concluded, based in part on the 2011 Tom Jenkins led "Review of Federal Support to Research and Development," that "more direct investment, rather than spending 70% of R&D money on tax credits" was required to jump-start Canadian innovation and create Canadian jobs.

But the Harper government, after doubling direct R&D investment, bailed on adapting the second Jenkin's recommendation that "the NRC be broken up and all its research activities be absorbed by other agencies and universities."

Instead, the conservatives, at least according to the article, "retained the NRC edifice and renovated its interior," by withholding new funding from the NRC and rerouting it into other organizations, but allowing the organization to retain and operate existing programs at a  reduced level.

It was also noted that the announced changes, were "not likely to be the end of the overhaul of the government’s research and development efforts."

And they weren't, although no one expected the next overhaul to originate in the Liberal party.

An April 11th, 2016 screen shot from the NRC website. It's worth noting that OpenText Corporation chairman Thomas Jenkins, who chaired the 2011 panel responsible for reviewing federal investments in R&D (the Jenkins Report) currently acts as chair of the NRC Council, which "reviews the strategic directions, oversees the performance of the organization and provides a challenge function with respect to the work of the President and senior management" of the NRC. Screenshot c/o NRC.

The current crisis, as outlined in the April 4th, 2016 Globe and Mail article, "National Research Council president takes indefinite leave of absence," began with the federal government confirmation of MacDougal's leave of absence.

But, as also outlined in the article, "acting president Maria Aubrey wrote that a planned reorganization of the research council from three to five divisions, expected to take effect on April 1, had been postponed. The letter said that part of the reason for the delay was to 'ensure alignment with the federal government’s emerging innovation agenda.'”

NDP science critic Kennedy Stewart. Photo  c/o Vancouver Sun.
The very next day, as outlined in the April 5th, 2016 Ottawa Citizen article, "Confusion, secrecy reign inside the National Research Council," Kennedy Stewart, the NDP science critic, was quoted  as saying that "morale is awful inside the NRC, and the latest postponement 'is just going to add to the confusion.'"

No one had any information,” one veteran researcher said. “Nobody knew what was going on, and this was as recently as two weeks ago. We were supposed to have a major reorganization on April 1, and nobody had any information."

Other news continued to trickle out. For example, as outlined in the April 6th, 2016 Ottawa Citizen article, "NRC 'solutions' rebranding quietly dropped without explanation," an until now unknown plan to  "re-brand" the NRC as "CNRC solutions," as part of the organizations 100th anniversary celebration, was quietly dropped in February, 2016.

Federal science minister Kirsty Duncan. Photo c/o Daily O.
And by Friday, as outlined in the April 8th, 2016 Ottawa Citizen editorial, "Do we still need the National Research Council?," people had begun asking the obvious questions. According to the article:
The recent federal budget, at a glance, illustrates the problem. Chirping happily about the “digital economy,” “world-class research,” “continued leadership in space,” the “ingenuity of Canadian industry” and so on, the budget mentions the NRC only as a second-stringer. Instead, Budget 2016 rattles off extra funding for a host of taxpayer-funded, science-y agencies that are NOT the NRC. 
It also highlights the work of other organizations, such as Genome Canada, the Stem Cell Network, the Brain Canada Foundation, and the Perimeter Institute, for their sophisticated science. 
Even the Liberals’ beloved research on electric cars won’t flow through the NRC, but through Natural Resources Canada. It would seem no one knows what to do with this agency.
But they do.

As outlined in the 2013 Jenkins recommendations, the current plan is the same as the old one; the NRC will be broken up (although it might keep its name and offices) and its research activities will be absorbed by other agencies and universities.

Conservative science critic Marilyn Gladu. Photo c/o Toronto Sun.
Of course, with politician's being politicians, it's only natural for the opposition conservatives to have also weighed in on this matter.

And they have.

As outlined in the April 7th, 2016 Ottawa Citizen post, "Conservatives take U-turn, step back from 'business-first' NRC,"  conservative party science critic Marilyn Gladu has indicated that she and science minister Duncan both want "to balance the NRC’s applied industrial work with research in more theoretical areas often called basic, or fundamental, science."

Gladu also indicated that she could work comfortably with the Liberal minister in this area.

She's more than likely correct.

After all, there has been a general consensus on this policy among both liberals and conservatives since 2011, when the Jenkins report was released. The NRC doesn't really fit within the current innovation agenda.

Henry Stewart is the pseudonym of a Toronto based aerospace writer.


  1. Hi Chuck,

    I saw the below e-mail other day, then read the blog this morning. If you are professional enough to have a “style guide”, how can you accept that people write under pseudonyms? Unless you’re Frank Magazine, I think it strains your blog’s credibility when you have anonymous people with axes to grind writing articles.

    Secondly, that story by “Henry Stewart” seems relatively wrong-headed to me.

    I don’t know what’s happening at the NRC, but I imagine that the Harper-appointed president was plowing ahead with his agenda, without getting a read and buy-in from the new Trudeau government, so he was turfed. I gather they have appointed someone to start cleaning up the mess.

    Cheers, Leslie.

  2. Hi Chuck
    I agree with Leslie. The use of anonymous authors is not appropriate. The article also does not support nor make the case for the premise stated in the headline which is "The National Research Council Doesn't Fit Within the Current Innovation Agenda". The NRC definitely has a role in any Innovation agenda. It is unfortunate that the NRC begins its second century with such a cloud over its head. The issue is its ability to recover from a decade of damage.

  3. If you'd prefer, I'll put my name on the article and then we can move on to the part where the focus is on the content and not on the messenger.

    As for whether or not the article supports the statement that the NRC does or does not fit into the current innovation agenda, I think the budget, referenced in the story, is a good indicator of whether or not the government supports the NRC as it currently stands.

    As quoted from the Ottawa Citizen article:

    "The recent federal budget, at a glance, illustrates the problem. Chirping happily about the “digital economy,” “world-class research, "continued leadership in space,” the “ingenuity of Canadian industry” and so on, the budget mentions the NRC only as a second-stringer. Instead, Budget 2016 rattles off extra funding for a host of taxpayer-funded, science-y agencies that are NOT the NRC. It also highlights the work of other organizations, such as Genome Canada, the Stem Cell Network, the Brain Canada Foundation, and the Perimeter Institute, for their sophisticated science. Even the Liberals’ beloved research on electric cars won’t flow through the NRC, but through Natural Resources Canada. It would seem no one knows what to do with this agency."

    Let's be honest here. Henry Stewart is not the only one making the case that the current Liberal government has provided only lip service to the NRC.

    This bandwagon started out in the Ottawa Citizen, and while the blog post added useful background materials, it's certainly not the only news organization making the claim.

    Hopefully we'll hear the rest of the story first hand as all those NRC employees line up to tell their side over the next little while.

    And why shouldn't they.

    The Liberals have re-established the right of scientists to talk with the press, without needing to get permissions from their political masters.

    We can all talk openly now.

  4. The issue was never the messenger. The issue was just transparency.
    It is worth noting that the current government has been in office for 5.5 months which it not a very long time. It was elected based on a platform that it is now implementing. There should be no surprises about its near term priorities in this post-election period.
    Regarding the NRC, we need to allow time for the government to act.....everything in due course. The fact that a major reorganization of the NRC is on hold points to a government that wants to proceed with due care and deliberation. This is hardly lip service.
    I agree that we should hear the story from the NRC employees perspective since the gag that was imposed on scientists by the last government has been finally been removed. Three cheers for basic freedom of speech.
    You hit the nail on the head with your reference to news organizations making claims.

  5. And those claims were made by news organizations which referenced the facts of the budget and the facts from other areas as well, Chris.

    Don't forget that.

    As for me, I'm a political agnostic. When our present government starts acting differently from the last one, especially when it comes to funding for NRC or CSA, I'll be happy enough to report their activities.

    I'd even be willing to sit around a roaring fire with Justin Trudeau and belt out a hearty chorus of "Kumbaya."

    Here's hoping that all those NRC employees feel enough confidence in their new found freedom of speech to weigh in on this debate soon.

    You and I are speaking from the outside, Chris. I'd readily defer to a knowledgeable insider, just so long as the person would allow me to use a few quotes.

  6. Hey all,

    Greetings from inside the (supposed) crumbling walls of NRC. Interesting topic, but unfortunately it's just a lot of high level speculation. To clear a few items, we inside the NRC don't have much more information that everybody else. Yes, we got the emails mentioned in the press, but there's nothing new to report there. I doubt any employees outside the top ranks know anything worth adding.

    (Also note that the rights of scientists to talk to the press is with respect to the product of their/our work/science. We are certainly subject to ATIP as well, but also to general employment decorum in which it is inappropriate for employees of any organization to talk publicly about communications, rumours, speculation, etc., about their employer. Getting something better than pure speculation is partly what Communications Departments are generally for.)

    As far as morale and ongoing business, I don't see anything has changed. A lot of work is expanding; people are doing their jobs and enjoying it. There are lots of joggers out enjoying the (finally) nice weather on main campus. It's pretty much business as usual, including new work.

    As far as last Friday's Citizen column, it seems like an interesting question, but to me the content is superficial fluff. It went as deep as some generalized summary of political policy and a general reference that other government funded or operated research organizations exist in Canada. I don't see how any of that is relevant; seems like "all or nothing" kind of thinking, as if NRC either must do all of the government funded research or it is pointless. It's the incoherent small talk you might have in an elevator waiting for your floor, and leave wondering what the heck he was talking about.

    The re-branding article oddly had more depth but at a level of importance like finding a spelling error on the pens that you are about to hand out at your trade show booth. Branding can be important, but often involves iterations and testing ideas, and changing of direction. That really has little to do with how an organization is structured and more to do with reputation.

    At least the article here gets some substance and context with respect to Jenkins. But still, where's the beef? Sure, splitting up NRC is one possible model, but I don't see any mention of anybody in NRC or government even suggesting this is on the table. More speculation.

    An interesting discussion would look at the value proposition of NRC and of different models of delivery. Why is splitting it up better than other models. What economic analysis has suggested NRC may not be needed (a la Citizen suggestion), or is better off broken up? The Jenkins report was a beginning, not an end. There are many models in the world for national research and investment in innovation. I'm not aware that we have a clear direction on which one is appropriate regarding NRC or why, or even logistically how. For example, the NRC facilities are used across portfolios. A wind tunnel might be used for aerospace, ground transportation, or construction studies. If it's split up, would it go by facility or by portfolio? How would that same research matrix (portfolio vs facilities) work in that case? What organization would take each part? Lots of great discussion people could have.

    Much less interesting is who made what suggestion, what a generalized government policy might vaguely suggest, or what wild and wacky hypotheses we can generate from looking at an absent President, canceled T-shirts, or reading tea leaves. Without actual content, explanations, working plans, or analyses to discuss, it's mere numerology. It can be fun looking for patterns in the noise, but the only people who take it seriously tend to live in little wood shacks in the mountains.

    My 2 cents.

  7. Jennifer Veitch is a Principal Research Officer at the NRC. On April 11th 2016, The Ottawa Citizen published an opinion piece that she wrote entitled “Why we still need the National Research Council”. Given that you seem to quote from The Ottawa Citizen perhaps you could provide your readership with a link to her interesting op-ed? Here is a link: http://ottawacitizen.com/opinion/columnists/veitch-why-we-still-need-the-national-research-counci

  8. Readers are encouraged to check out the link Chris provided.


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