NRC announces sweeping changes as part of Stewart-led renewal strategy

Mark Henderson
October 31, 2017

The National Research Council (NRC) will appoint a Chief Science Advisor and establish a President’s Research Excellence Advisory Committee as part of sweeping, comprehensive changes planned over the next four years. In August, the 101-year-old research institution launched several short-term actions as part of a renewal strategy undertaken by NRC president Iain Stewart, stemming from his mandate to assess and reinvigorate the organization and establish its future direction. Those actions will be followed by more initiatives in the medium term (two years) and longer term (four years).

A public document — An Overview of the NRC Dialogue — was quietly posted on the NRC web site in recent weeks, the culmination of a year-long process that saw the organization submit a stock-taking report in late 2016 and a Memorandum to Cabinet earlier this year.

The stocktaking, assessment and strategy were developed under the NRC Dialogue initiative to map out a viable future direction and address serious structural and morale challenges that emerged under the leadership of John McDougall, who held the presidency from 2010 to 2016. During that period, the NRC was significantly transformed into a research and technology-like organization with a near-exclusive focus on industry. NRC’s long-standing institute structure was eliminated in favour of a horizontal portfolio structure and much of its activities deemed fundamental research were curtailed.

McDougall also introduced an extensive foresight exercise called the Game Changing Technologies Initiative which identified seven “challenge areas (and) emerging cross-cutting technology themes” to guide future investments.

Stewart arrived at the NRC last fall with a mandate to assess the organization’s support for innovation, engagement with key stakeholders, governance and NRC management. NRC Dialogue was established with seven theme-based teams tasked to assess NRC management, governance, innovation support, and engagement with government, industry and other stakeholders before reporting back to government.

In a previous interview with RE$EARCH MONEY, Stewart described the impact of the changes enacted under McDougall as “transformation with a capital T”. He said “betterment” is the best way to describe the objective of the NRC Dialogue, which consulted with staff and external stakeholders. The NRC Dialogue was spearheaded by Roger Scott-Douglas who accompanied Stewart from Treasury Board to take up the new position of VP policy.

Many of the changes, such as the creation of large-scale collaborative, multidisciplinary, outcome-oriented programs are being retained while others — including the portfolio structure that replaced institutes and sharply reduced spending on targeted fundamental research  – are being jettisoned.

By the end of FY17-18, the NRC will implement 15 short-term actions including:

  • restatement of its vision, mandate and values;
  • replacement of the portfolio structure with NRC Research Centres;
  • external advisory boards for each Research Centre;
  • enhanced collaboration between the Industrial Research Assistance Program and NRC’s R&D operations;
  • creation of two new research centres for digital technologies and nanotechnology;
  • elimination of general manager positions and the reinstatement of directors general;
  • re-establishing an NRC Leadership Development program;
  • a new performance measurement framework; and,
  • a competitive, pilot post-doctoral program.

Within two years, the NRC will appoint a Chief Science Advisor to work collaboratively with their federal counterpart (currently Dr Mona Nemer) and a President’s Research Excellence Advisory Committee, as well as make major changes to its R&D programs by “building capabilities via disruptive technologies and foundational Programs”. It will also align relevant programs with the winning supercluster bids and achieve tighter integration and collaboration with other players in the innovation ecosystem such as the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council and the Business Development Bank of Canada.

Further along, the NRC will launch reviews of its incubation spaces and facilities — the latter to include models for co-investment and shared governance and revitalization of its buildings and real estate.  Perhaps most importantly, it will develop a Stakeholder Engagement Strategy to address integration of efforts, major clients, intellectual property and “NRC pricing” — most likely a response to criticism that its high fee structure makes it difficult for smaller firms to participate.

RE$EARCH MONEY will publish more details and commentary on the NRC changes as they become available.








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