NRC to strengthen collaborations with academia and government as part of evolving mandate

Mark Henderson
July 17, 2017

Change is coming to the National Research Council (NRC) with plans to modify the ways in which it generates new knowledge and expertise for business. The 100-year-old agency is recalibrating to enhance its role in the national innovation agenda by placing greater emphasis on exploratory research in emerging fields, stepping up collaboration with higher education institutions and enhancing integration within the federal innovation ecosystem.

Left relatively intact will be the new program structure featuring large-scale, outcome-oriented initiatives as part of a major transformation that eliminated the institutes that had long defined the organization.

With an infusion of fresh talent, flexibility to pursue more fundamental research and greater alignment with other research and innovation players, the NRC is positioning itself as a key actor in the federal government’s newly minted Innovation & Skills Plan (I&SP), unveiled in the latest federal Budget. The changes are being overseen by NRC president Iain Stewart who joined the agency last August with a mandate to determine how best to embed the NRC within the ecology of Canada’s domestic and international science activities.

Stewart is also looking at how the NRC can help re-brand Canada on the global research scene. For example, the NRC will help support successful proposals that emerge from the current superclusters competition and engage a greater number of businesses through more robust research consortia. The council will also expand efforts to incorporate higher education research – fundamental, applied and use-inspired – into the large-scale programs designed to enhance and exploit Canada’s globally competitive research strengths.

“The National Research Council needs to focus on what it brings – uniquely, valuable activity it does – and it needs to look at who does other things that are valuable and different. And then we need to work out how we work together. That’s really the main thing I’m preoccupied with at a more structural level,” says Stewart. “How do we connect with universities, colleges, polytechnics to support business innovation, advancement of knowledge (and) government policy making? Because there’s so much capacity now.”

To that end, NRC will free up time for researchers to undertake more exploratory research, as well as become adjunct professors and supervise more students and post-doctorates — actions that will ultimately benefit the business innovation components of its mandate.

NRC’s ability to carry out what Stewart describes as “incremental betterment” coupled with “an ambition to minimize dislocation and disruptive change” is being assisted with yet another renewal of $59.6 million in so-called B-based funding originally awarded for a now defunct cluster initiative. The funding was renewed for the eighth time in the recent federal Budget and is now incorporated into general operating revenue, maintaining the agency’s overall $1.1-billion annual budget and fuelling its continued evolution.

“There is a very large opportunity to evolve and better the way the NRC functions, to synergistically work with these other players in this ecosystem,” says Stewart, noting that although the B-base funding is indistinguishable from NRC’s core funding, it is “not a de facto part of our budget”.

Stewart says that the NRC Dialogue process that is informing the agency’s future direction has been extremely helpful in pointing out actions that will enhance its impact and role as a convenor and collaborator. And he acknowledges that staff concerns expressed through a Call to Action last year have also informed the process in positive ways.

“The Call for Action has been an extremely positive contribution and has been a very valuable discussion … Some of the members of the Call for Action ended up being key people in the Tiger Teams process that Roger (Scott-Douglas, NRC’s VP policy) ran,” says Stewart.

One suggestion that emerged from the consultation process was to appoint a chief science advisor to the NRC who could work with senior researchers in exploring how to sustain research excellence within the organization. Stewart says suggestions to free up researcher time to attend conferences as well as explore research independently of research programs will also receive a positive response going forward.

Such new and expanded activities will strengthen the NRC’s role within the I&SP as government seeks to develop closer ties between national R&D capacity and  the organizations, institutions and corporations that will ultimately deliver added value and commercialize knowledge outputs. That means supporting the three ministers directly responsible for different facets of the research and innovation file — Innovation minister Navdeep Bains, Small Business minister Bardish Chagger and Science minister Kirsty Duncan.

Supercluster support

Perhaps the biggest opportunity for the NRC in the near term is its potential partnership role with the superclusters that will emerge from the current competition for $950 million in new funding — the single largest funding envelope the Liberal government has introduced for research and innovation.

“If we’re not supporting the clusters initiative, I think it’s a huge missed opportunity for the NRC to be relevant and contribute to our business innovation goals,” says Stewart. “The NRC is not part of the evaluation process for clusters … so that allows us to be on the other side of the fence … We should be very effective partners supporting them to realize whatever their ambitions end up being.”

To that end, NRC is marshalling its capacity through its large-scale research programs and a growing number of research consortia.

A recent example is the NRC’s advanced manufacturing expertise. The previously announced Factory of the Future program was recently expanded and renamed Advanced Manufacturing, and there’s been progress in establishing an advanced manufacturing facility in Winnipeg.

“Our Factory of the Future model … didn’t feel complete.  So the program leader– Mike (Kilfoil) - has gone out and re-done consultations in different parts of the country – southern Ontario, Quebec, Winnipeg, and so on. Businesses talked to him about what do you need. Industry 4.0, Internet of Things, additive manufacturing, advanced materials and artificial intelligence,” says Stewart. “Instead of the Factory of the Future it will be called Advanced Manufacturing and it will be very much influenced by what happens in the cluster proposals … Dollars to donuts there’s going to be at least one if not more advanced manufacturing proposals.”

For high-growth firms — a key element of minister Chagger’s Accelerated Growth Service program — NRC also sees a role in using the Industrial Research Assistance program and its concierge service to help firms scale before they are handed off to sister organizations such as the Business Development Bank of Canada and Export Development Canada.

As part of the NRC’s outreach to publicize the agency’s capacity and capabilities, Stewart has been meeting with the CEOs of large client firms to discuss how NRC can be a better strategic partner and opportunities for framework agreements or memorandums of understanding. Just last month, NRC entered into a strategic agreement with Siemens Canada to pursue a host of collaborative objectives including: climate change and low-carbon economy; energy efficiency; energy infrastructure; smart cities and urban technology; healthcare; creating and sustaining a globally competitive Canadian manufacturing sector; technology trends; training and education and communications.

Internally, the NRC is looking at adding another line VP by dividing the large engineering division into two parts. Currently comprised of more than 1,000 staff, Stewart says the split, if enacted, will result in four divisions (up from the current three – life sciences, emerging and disruptive technologies and engineering) and will be achieved with a minimum of disruption. (VP engineering Ian Potter has been on French training for the past several months and his training has recently been extended.)

“If we’re going to do something on engineering we’d probably just separate it quickly and leave it (the same) at the portfolio level down below,” he says.


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