Tuesday, May 07, 2013

Open for business: Refocused NRC


So here is what has been roiling Canada's National Research Council over the last three years:

NRC held a press conference in downtown Ottawa this morning with Gary Goodyear, Minister of State (Science and Technology), John R. McDougall, President of the National Research Council of Canada and, Deputy Leader of the Government at the Senate, Claude Carignan. Maybe NRC management will send the information to all staff, but in case it doesn’t, here is the relevant information. Essentially, NRC is now making public its transition from the old model to a program-based Research and Technology Organization.

The NRC Launch (as it is called) has its own Twitter Hashtag: #NRCLaunch And there's a lot more commentary on the plain #NRC hashtag.

Here was the announcement: http://www.nrc-cnrc.gc.ca/eng/news/advisories/2013/nrc_announce.html

I have made an audio recording of the press conference, which is available here:
http://www.downes.ca/files/audio/NRC%20Press%20Conference%202013%2005%2007.mp3

Here’s the press release that accompanied today’s press conference:

The National Research Council of Canada (NRC) has transformed into an industry-focused research and technology organization. The refocused NRC will work with Canadian industries to bridge technology gaps, helping build a more innovative Canadian economy.

“NRC plays a pivotal role at the heart of Canada’s innovation system,” said the Honourable Gary Goodyear, Minister of State (Science and Technology). “The refocused NRC will provide Canadian industries with access to strategic research and development, technical services and specialized scientific infrastructure they need to succeed.”

“The Government’s top priority is jobs, growth and long-term prosperity for all Canadians,” said the Honourable Claude Carignan, Deputy Leader of the Government at the Senate. “By refocusing the NRC into a research and technology organization, our Government is ensuring that Canadian firms have the instruments and tools they need to become even more successful on the global stage.”
 
The refocused NRC will support Canadian industries by investing in large-scale research projects that are directed by and for Canadian business. It will also develop international networks to ensure timely access to primary research and will open the doors to world class scientific infrastructure, technical expertise and people.

“We are very excited about this change. Our organization is now easier for business to understand and access,” said John R. McDougall, President of the National Research Council. “We are committed to being a strong partner for innovation, and focused on achieving the concrete outcomes that will contribute to a stronger and more prosperous Canada. We will measure our success by the success of our clients.”

Research and technology organizations are mission-oriented providers of innovation services to firms and governments, dedicated to building economic competitiveness and, in doing so, improving quality of life. The refocused NRC will strengthen Canadian industry by encouraging more business investment to develop innovative products and services.

http://www.nrc-cnrc.gc.ca/eng/news/releases/2013/nrc_business.html

Here is some CBC coverage of the announcement: http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/ottawa/story/2013/05/07/technology-nrc-business.html
 
The Harper government is telling the National Research Council to focus more on practical, commercial science and less on fundamental science that may not have obvious business applications.

The government says the council traditionally was a supporter of business, but has wandered from that in recent years — and will now get back to working on practical applications for industries.

The council has become a loose web of individual fiefdoms, each pursuing its own goals, Gary Goodyear, minister of state for science and technology, told a news conference Tuesday.
The result, he said, was an inflexible agency that had lost its ability to respond to the demands and needs of industry.
I wasn't sure I could share this outside NRC, but all staff received a message from the NRC president later today saying, in part, "This is indeed a defining moment for NRC. And I invite all of you to join me in helping to tell the world about all that we now have to offer." So I'll do that.

The President also wrote,
Today’s public announcement is the first clear signal to businesses both large and small that our doors are open and we’re ready for their business. We’ve positioned ourselves to be a valued partner aligned with strategic national and industry needs.
We can now all feel a tremendous sense of satisfaction in being able to widely broadcast our new agenda. Our revamped, more businesslike practices are in place and we have a strong roster of robust programs ready to go. Our IRAP program, widely recognized and highly successful has received new funding and new responsibilities in the last two years - through it we will also continue to support Canada’s small- and medium-sized companies.
I’m proud of what we’ve already accomplished and I hope you are too. Today was the first public announcement on the national stage, but there are many more to come. I think you’ll find there is much about NRC to be proud of as we publicly roll out targeted new research programs in coming weeks and months.
I have a lot of good things to say about IRAP and I think they've done a lot to get some good Canadian startups off the ground.

Some notes (these are not a part of the official announcement and constitute my personal observations solely):

The German Fraunhofer Society was mentioned numerous times as the inspiration for the new model for the NRC. We should note especially that the Society has “€1.9 billion annual research budget totaling. Of this sum, €1.6 billion is generated through contract research. More than 70 percent of the Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft’s contract research revenue is derived from contracts with industry and from publicly financed research projects. Almost 30 percent is contributed by the German federal and Länder governments in the form of base funding.” http://www.fraunhofer.de/en/about-fraunhofer.html This is really downplayed in the press conference, but there is a mention of it at the 38:50 mark of the recording.

That said:

- the Fraunhofer Society is divided into some 60 institutes spread throughout Germany, each focusing on different fields of applied science, in contrast to the program-driven approach NRC has adopted

- Wikipedia notes, “the size of the society's budget depends largely on its success in maximizing revenue from commissions. This funding model applies not just to the central society itself but also to the individual institutes. This serves both to drive the realisation of the Fraunhofer Society's strategic direction of becoming a leader in applied research as well as encouraging a flexible, autonomous and entrepreneurial approach to the society's research priorities.” We have yet to see this applied at NRC. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fraunhofer_Society

- Science Research in Germany is also conducted by the Max Planck Society, which supports “basic research in the interest of the general public in the natural sciences, life sciences, social sciences, and the arts and humanities. They have a total staff of approx. 13,000 permanent employees, including 4,700 scientists, plus around 11,000 non-tenured scientists and guests. Their budget for 2006 was about €1.4 billion, with 84% from state and federal funds.” With the shift of NRC to an RTO, Canada will have no equivalent to the Max Planck Society, and no direct federal investment in basic research.

Obviously I would prefer to be on the Max Planck Society side of the house, rather than the Fraunhofer Society side of the house. It concerns me that the only people able to access my services as a researcher will be those able to pay for them.

But this is where I am, and NRC does pay the bills, so I have been doing my part to position the Learning and Communications Technology part of NRC in such a way as to offer support for the Canadian e-learning industry. But to be clear here: there are six layers of management above me, not counting the PM, Minister and Deputy Minister, and they all have more say in what an e-learning program looks like than I do, which has made it very difficult to innovate, to meet the needs of industry, and generate economic and social outcomes.

A lot of what made NRC an attractive place to work has been taken off the table. I'm not sure what I will be doing in the future.

6 comments:

  1. Leaving the question of pure vs applied research aside for now, I invite my colleagues still in the NRC to challenge the decisions of NRC management.

    For instance, NRC delivered NRC-developed basic research results to monitor CAT scan dosages to give an Canadian company an edge in an a competitive market that protects Canadians' health: http://www.agfahealthcare.com/usa/en/main/news_events/news/archive/he20121125_rem.jsp

    However, the "Intenet logic program ... technology was now being developed or deployed by the private sector." http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/new-brunswick/story/2012/11/01/nb-nrc-job-cuts-258.html

    Sure it was. Internet logic drove the process that delivered it to Agfa. The integration of more tools for this industry, planned, is now aborted -- the antithesis of NRC's stated goals.

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  2. For the record: I spend a part of every day challenging the decisions of management. I'm sure this has been welcomed, endeared me to them, and advanced my career.

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  3. "A lot of what made NRC an attractive place to work has been taken off the table. I'm not sure what I will be doing in the future." I feel for you, this must be very challenging to work through; while we all need to make a living, it's clear that you are driven, both in what you do and how you do it, by passion and strong moral convictions. When we find our ability to live up to these challenged rather than enabled by our workplaces, it is incredibly stressful. Good luck, you have many people rooting for you.

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  4. The NRC has become a stress filled, mind sucking black hole that is going to fizzle out.

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