Requiem for a National Network Program

This article is part of our Fast Policy Facts online series

By Paul Dufour
December 12, 2018

With the news that the Trudeau administration is apparently terminating the former Mulroney administration’s Networks of Centres of Excellence Programme and replacing it with a new scheme, a 30-year-old experiment has come to a close. No rationale or evidence has yet been provided for this decision regarding a programme made permanent two decades ago, despite fairly positive evaluations over the course of its history (though its track record in supporting social science based networks was weak).

Borrowing liberally from an existing program in Ontario, the concept for the NCEs had been put forward for further comment by the National Advisory Board on Science and Technology that had been created to advise the PM on how S&T can be more effectively exploited in Canada,  along with input from the Council of federal-provincial-territorial Science and Technology Ministers, which had been meeting regularly since 1985.

InnovAction — The Canadian Strategy for Science and Technology– announced by then PM Mulroney in January 1987 at a summit in Toronto, had made several commitments totalling $1.3B, including support for industrial innovation, strategic technologies, human resources, management of federal resources and public education. It was built around a National S&T Policy signed by all provinces and territories in Vancouver, in March 1987 (the first and last time the country had a pan-Canadian approach to its knowledge investments). It is worth noting that in the February 1986 federal budget, the federal government has also introduced a five-year plan totaling $3.4B over five years for the granting councils, including a Matching Funding Policy to match funds from industry to the granting councils.

The NCE program, with an initial $240M over five years, was designed to help change research culture for Canada’s vast geography with a focus on its existing scientific excellence, bringing together researchers in a variety of different institutions across the country to help provide the scientific and technological base for Canada’s future long-term competitiveness. Over 238 letters of intent were received in the first  competition resulting in 158 applications, of which 16 were eventually supported. An Inter-Council Program Directorate comprising the three granting councils was set up to manage the experiment, and a high-level international peer review committee, chaired by the former head of the Science Council of Canada, was created to evaluate the applications.

It is important to underscore what the designers of the NCE program initially had in mind for what could result from this announcement:

  1. Networks that would capitalize on the existing national base in research and contribute to the positioning of the Canadian economy for the 21st Century
  2. The creation of a unique cultural environment for excellence in fundamental research while forging alliances linking researchers in existing university, industry and government facilities
  3. The training and retention of a core group of highly-qualified personnel and researchers for the future;
  4. The federal government being able to demonstrate leadership with its provincial and territorial colleagues in support of fundamental science for economic competitiveness and knowledge-based jobs of the future

In a speech at the University of Waterloo on March 4 1987, the PM had presaged the large investments that were to come when he noted:

“We want to be known not only as a resource-rich nation, not only as a trading nation, but as a nation known for our brain power, our ideas, and our intellectual and educational achievements — The long-term answer is a commitment of resources, energies, talents and skills to the achievement of a great national objective: namely, the fullest development of our scientific and technological capacity and the celebration of their contribution to our nationhood.”

The NCE program was to become one of the pillars of this vision, and while it has morphed over the years into several other tangents around commercialization and business-led centres, the original concept of excellence remained while being anchored in a veritable national strategy.


Fast Policy Facts is a guest opinion column by Ottawa-based policy wonk Paul Dufour (Fellow, ISSP, UOttawa and Principal, PaulicyWorks). He can be reached at

The views and opinions expressed in this piece are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of RE$EARCH MONEY.