National Research Council boosts research excellence and collaboration as part of re-imagining initiative

Mark Henderson
November 20, 2019

Emerging details on the re-imagining of the National Research Council reveal an organization with a renewed emphasis on research excellence, collaboration and student training. Fueled by a return to bottom-up decision-making and increased interaction between its laboratories and the Industrial Research Assistance Program, the NRC—Canada’s largest science organization—is boosting its presence as a vibrant component of the national innovation ecosystem.

The NRC’s new structure and direction was forged from the results of the NRC Dialogue, an extensive consultation process that set out 62 action items in seven distinct areas, 90% of which have been completed. Implementation was conducted in three phases, with initiatives to be undertaken in the near, medium and long term. The remaining 10%, described as “the last mile,” involves the re-engineering of NRC’s business processes. They are now being tackled under the leadership of Francois Cordeau, who’s taken an 18-month leave from his duties as VP Vice President, Transportation and Manufacturing.

The re-imagining is the second major re-think of the NRC since 2010, the first being a major industry-centric transformation under former president John McDougall, who was appointed by the Conservative government of Stephen Harper. This time, elements of the McDougall transformation have been retained and welded to a re-affirmation of long-term research, collaboration and distributed decision-making, giving researchers greater input into research programs, partnerships and resource allocation.

“It’s not very often in the public sector that you get to stop and focus on your own organization and how to make it a more effective, constructive and impactful place to work,” says NRC president Iain Stewart.

Under Stewart, whose initial three year term saw him launch the Dialogue process, restructure the organization into 14 research centres and align it to the government’s Innovation & Skills Plan, the NRC re-introduced research excellence as an integral component of its operations. Re-appointed last year for a five-year term, he is spearheading a “structured change management agenda,” enabled by a Memorandum to Cabinet and new funding in the 2018 Budget that provided $258 million in additional resources (see chart).

“It was quite a body of work. Research excellence was one of the thematics within that bundle and the initiatives that support research excellence have been done,” says Stewart.

Stewart credits the transformation process under McDougall for enabling the NRC to express research through large-scale, multi-disciplinary, multi-sectoral, mission-oriented programs. “That was a very smart thing because it differentiates the NRC and makes clear its value in a very strong way,” he says. “We can bring together a big team and we can work for years and we will make an advance in a given area.”

Stewart’s original mandate letter tasked the president with undertaking the re-imaging in four key areas:

• Creating NRC Programs to deliver on government priorities;

• Research excellence in disruptive technologies to address critical challenges;

• Growing SMEs to scale and helping them to export;

• Revitalizing the NRC research environment.

“We disaggregated them a little bit to fully delve into some of the specifics. But effectively it’s those four areas,” says Roger Scott-Douglas, NRC’s Secretary General and the architect of the Dialogue process. “That process of implementation was organized into things we can get going on right away and have some urgency and the things that can wait. Then we had a second wave and third wave (for) the things that required a little more ground work, foundational effort in planning and developing.”

Shifting power down through the organization

Stewart acknowledges that the transformation of the McDougall era “had the side effect of concentrating decision-making around the proactive R&D agenda up in the executive cadres”—a small group of executives led by McDougall that held considerable authority over the shape and focus of research programs and their funding. Following the Dialogue and a comprehensive stock-taking exercise in the summer of 2018, the decision was taken to diffuse that concentration of power throughout the organization.

“It’s the principle of subsidiarity, of lowering the decision-making within the organization and ensuring maximum impact,” says Scott-Douglas. “That’s the broad principle. It meant ensuring that decision-making power and authority that had been moved up during the previous transformation … went back down into the directors general of the 14 research centres and within IRAP and to the five regional directors.”

At the recent Canadian Science Policy Conference, Scott-Douglas explained the benefits of shifting decision-making authority down to the research centre and researcher levels, saying the best broad collaborations start with individual relationships, both domestically and internationally.

To provide optimum coordination and planning under the new distributed structure, the research centres have all developed five-year strategic plans and submitted them to the NRC’s 43-member executive committee, an operating body responsible for enacting the changes. The executive committee is comprised by the heads of the 14 research centres, collaboration centres, IRAP and others. The plans will be released following the installation of the new Cabinet.

In addition, external advisory councils attached to the NRC’s VP were eliminated and replaced with external advisory committees for each of the 14 research centres, providing directors general with a line of sight other than their own on key issues involving their areas of science and technology.

“The people who know most and best about what is needed in the research agenda are those that are closest to the research being undertaken, the technological developments in the field, the capabilities and capacities of the organization to respond to them,” says Scott-Douglas. “Twice a year we have meetings to ensure there is coherence of thought, organization of action to bring about a kind of management focus to the priorities of the organization and more generally to ensure there’s a degree of accountability for how we’re performing and people understand what each other are doing.”

Another major change in the NRC under Stewart has been the hiring of significant numbers of graduate and post-doctoral students. From a high of 600 in the past, their number tumbled to 100 under McDougall and has now rebounded to more than 425, or about 12% of the workforce.

“One of the single largest areas where we’ve made a lot of changes in the past three years has been trying to re-engage effectively with the university community to add more value for all of us and students are a manifestation of that,” says Stewart, noting that Canadian Nobel laureates Arthur McDonald and Donna Strickland were once NRC students. “For a research-intensive organization, students are an essential ingredient. They bring enthusiasm, curiosity and a desire to understand into the workforce in a steady flow. For a group of researchers having a new person come in, wanting to understand, it changes the group in a very positive way.”

Budget 2018 funding increases

The budget increases contained in 2018 are fuelling the new initiatives and restructuring of the NRC, most notably IRAP, which has increased the amount it can devote to industry projects from $1 million to $10 million. IRAP has also enhanced its value proposition to companies, which account for $211 million in external revenues, and boosted its collaboration with the NRC research centres, which Stewart describes as “at a high-water mark.”

“What we’re trying to think about as an organization is the different instruments that we have to support an innovation ecosystem,” he says. “How do we encourage a more effective ecosystem so the IRAP client can figure out what services it needs from whom, and help them find their way there. One of the things that we always want to ensure is that we are being synergistic in what we endeavour to do.”

In addition to the new post-doctoral program, the NRC has established a president’s research excellence committee and appointed Dr. Danial Wayner as its Chief Science Officer to perform an internal challenge function and departmental Science Advisor to link the NRC into the emerging, government-wide network of advisors.

“What the NRC Dialogue was about was re-basing the NRC on its more long-term … roles and those three roles have always included advancing knowledge—basically, exploratory research … responding to government mandates [and] the largest mandate [of] business innovation,” says Stewart. “That’s been deeply satisfying because, in effect, we took stock of what was working and not working about the NRC and then as an organization we tried to organize ourselves to address that.”

NRC Dialogue Funding since 2018 ($ millions annually)
Multi-collaborative programs (Challenge and Supercluster programs) $30
NRC Ideation Fund $6
Reduce NRC fees charged to partners $12.4
Scale-up IRAP $100
Return sustainability to NRC operations $59.6
Blended NRC-university teams in Collaboration Centres  (NRC self-funded)

Emphasizing research excellence

Perhaps the most significant of the NRC’s changes is the decision to emphasize research excellence throughout the organization. While outreach and ties to business remain strong, the NRC is now ensuring that the research pipeline in areas considered key to its public good and industrial assistance mandates are beefed up. In many cases, that means longer-term research projects.

“If we’re not invested heavily in research excellence, if we’re not leaders in research, why would anybody come and work with us … For the collaborative research endeavour, if we’re not the world leaders, if we’re not the bleeding edge, if we’re not exciting, if we’re not excellent, why would they come and work with us?" says Stewart. “So we have to continue to invest in research excellence in order to be relevant, impactful and beneficial now but also five years from now.”

Research at the NRC varies from research centre to research centre, depending on the types of research they conduct and whether there are significant industrial receptor communities. Five of the NRC’s 14 research centres are situated lower on the Technology Readiness Level, or TRL scale, placing their work closer to fundamental research.

Increased collaboration is assisting the NRC in its role of delivering on government priorities. To that end, it has established nine collaboration programs, engaging four of the five superclusters and launching four challenge programs (Materials for Clean Fuels, High-throughput and Secure Networks, Disruptive Technology Solutions for Cell and Gene Therapy, and Artificial Intelligence for Design).

“That’s a paradigm-busting model within the NRC. Previously, we only did stuff within our own organization, so if we didn’t have equipment or capacity we would go and build it,” says Stewart. “Now we’re looking at the innovation ecosystem and saying, ‘They’ve got a great lab, they’re just missing this piece of equipment.’ We spent about $14 million last year investing in non-NRC facilities in support of these collaboration endeavours.”


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