The Temple of Science provides yet another offering

Paul Dufour
February 22, 2023

The Council’s primary role should be the seeding and nurturing of needed new programs. Once they have sufficiently matured, they should be transferred to other organizations with continuing need for them, or they should become separate activities…. A major expansion in industrial research and in our industrial development generally now is imperative and must be given a very high national priority ... industrial research is one of the most important inputs, and it is to this area that the NRC must now give greater emphasis (William Schneider, President, NRC, Science Forum, April 1968)

In his remarks of 55 years ago, the NRC President made a point of noting the spin-offs from the NRC, a remarkable legacy of “sufficiently matured” items including Canadian Patents and Development Limited, the Canadian Space Agency, the Medical Research Council (CIHR today), NSERC, the Defence Research Board, Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd., a vital base of research support during World War II, and sundry Nobel Prizes won by employees.

In 1968, Schneider also highlighted the work of the Industrial Research Assistance Program (IRAP), which was itself spun off in the 1960s from an earlier program centred on Technical information Services. All these decades later, this unique experiment — often praised by industry — has now apparently reached its own point of sufficient maturity, and will be transferred into the newly announced Canadian Innovation Corporation (CIC).

To quote from the so-called blueprint announced by Finance Canada: ’’To build a national-scale platform of business R&D support, the National Research Council’s Industrial Research Assistance Program (IRAP) will join the CIC. IRAP will provide a strong foundation upon which the CIC will be able to build an integrated platform and continuum of support, service, and strategy across all technologies and industries.’’

The CIC announcement also argues for the revitalization of the NRC as a whole. To be sure, not all has been seamless with the NRC’s strategic planning over the years. There is a rich literature of its history as the “temple of science”, a critical piece of this country’s knowledge and industrial research ecosystem over its 106 years. Further, NRC continues to preoccupy government policy makers, who have regularly mounted major commissions, panels, and House of Commons hearings for advice and recommendations on what should be done to enhance or change its mandate.

Indeed, it was one of these Parliamentary hearings, in 1991, that asked if IRAP should remain in the NRC. Two decades later, an expert panel  chaired by former NRC board chair Tom Jenkins, tackled even broader questions around innovation in Canada.  This panel’s subsequent “call to action” framed the need for an Industrial Research and Innovation Council (IRIC), with a clear business innovation mandate (including delivery of business-facing innovation programs).

With respect to the NRC, Jenkins’ panel also suggested transforming NRC institutes into a constellation of large-scale, sectoral collaborative R&D centres, linking business, academia, and the provinces, while transferring NRC’s public policy-related research activity to the appropriate federal agencies. Meanwhile, the proposed IRIC  was to ensure delivery of IRAP and a commercialization vouchers pilot program; delivery of a national research “concierge” service, and development of a federal business innovation talent strategy.

None of it came to pass. As so often happens to novel policy ideas in Ottawa, this one suffered from the absence of dedicated leadership, long-term political will, and vision for dedicated implementation. Representatives of the industrial and business sectors, and their lobby groups, simply did not step up.

As for this latest experiment with CIC, it comes with a potential downside — spin-offs do not always work. They can be limited by design, especially when there is no overall national roadmap to guide the original blueprint. The national network of seamless research and technical services, cultivated by IRAP and its Industrial Technology Advisors over seven decades, might not translate well into a new and more complex CIC.

Meanwhile, the NRC remains the government’s chosen innovation instrument, irrespective of political administrations, a focal point for so many R&D policy ideas. One could even argue it remains a kind of pan-Canadian innovation agency, with a mandate not only to instill and fund excellence in fundamental research, but to also drive innovation with private sector interests and targeted support through services and labs across the country — much as Schneider envisioned several decades ago. 


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