Discipline, sectoral focus define Coulombe's tenure at the National Research Council

Guest Contributor
December 9, 2009

Stepping down in February

For Dr Pierre Coulombe, the impact of his tenure at the National Research Council (NRC) is best measured in the administrative details and new partnerships rather than raw dollar figures. With just two months left in his five-year term, the outgoing president has spent much of his time overseeing streamlining efforts, engaging the governing council, creating new oversight mechanisms and aligning the funding cycles and priority research areas intended to make the beleaguered mothership of Canadian applied R&D more responsive to industry and its federal masters.

Since arriving in 2005, Coulombe has not achieved the public profile of his predecessor, Dr Arthur Carty. Content to work largely behind the scenes, he will leave the NRC with a significantly stronger sectoral focus, several new collaborations and a beefed-up corporate office designed to provide both clients and policy makers with a much clearer picture of its capabilities and performance.

"I did quite a bit of what I wanted to do at NRC. Maybe a year more would have provided me with more results but I think the groundwork is probably done right now," says Coulombe, who steps down in mid February. "There's a lot of stuff that is not that obvious. It does not translate into scientific accomplishment but it does translate into making sure that the NRC is organized in such a way that it can deliver better output and it can answer questions on those outputs ... to show that we are doing things correctly and more efficiently."

Under Coulombe, the NRC has responded to criticism from the Auditor General and made its governing council more pro-active. It has also added audit, risk management, human resources and finance committees to provide a better handle on where NRC's money is spent and facilitate reporting on its administrative processes.

Over Coulombe's term, the NRC's base budget funding has remained largely stagnant, ranging between a high of $784 million in FY05-06 to $774 million in FY08-09. But Coulombe says the A- and B-based budgets captured by Statistics Canada data (R$, October 26/09) tell only part of the story. When contract revenue is included, the NRC budget for FY09-10 is nearly $900 million. In FY08-09, for instance, revenues totaled $155 million. The StatsCan data also don't include the growing leveraged revenue NRC has gained through partnerships with the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) and other departments, agencies and provincial governments.

NRC-NSERC-BDC alliance

The nanotechnology partnership agreement with NSERC and the Business Development Bank of Canada (BDC) is a model Coulombe says provides effective leverage of funds from other agencies and could be implemented in other areas. The three-year, $15-million pact has facilitated peer-reviewed research between NRC and university personnel with the added benefit of being directed by industrial needs and interests. It has also led to the co-location of NRC offices with those of its partners.

"Building a relationship with NSERC and BDC ensures that projects that are finally selected have the potential to have some kind of economic benefit. There's two years to go but so far there's a wonderful alignment," says Coulombe. "I would push this model in other areas where we could see interest in teaming up ... Industry Canada was the one that suggested that, since we're all active in the field of innovation, we should try and find ways to better organize our collaboration."

The NINT model

The National Institute for Nanotechnology (NINT) is another model that Coulombe would like to see replicated, both for its financial leveraging potential and collaboration between university and NRC researchers. Jointly operated and funded by NRC and the Univ of Alberta (with support from the provincial government), NINT also has the potential to attract direct foreign investment from firms seeking nascent applications for nanotech.

"That would be a nice model for NRC in the future, by building upon the priorities of provinces. It's unique in Canada and I would say almost unique in the world," he says. "I would describe NINT as a growing cluster getting organized in such a way that it will have opportunities to grow even faster and maybe begin transferring technologies."

The NRC's Industrial Research Assistance Program (IRAP) has also been the recipient of $200 million in new funding over two years as part of the government's stimulus program. Coulombe hopes that once the impact of the new funding is analyzed, the increase can be made permanent.

"The colour of the money doesn't matter to me. What matters is the support the government is providing to NRC with clusters and IRAP … For NRC, leveraging what we receive should be an avenue to increase our overall budget and not necessarily coming from the federal family. That's my point of trying to build up additional partnerships with others in industries and the provinces," he says. "I believe the government is committed to NRC in a complex environment. There are difficult budget decisions to be made within the Industry Canada portfolio. There are a lot of other areas, a lot of agencies that are engaged in science and innovation…. The NRC is a major player but it's not the only player. The landscape has changed significantly from the years when NRC was seen as the only R&D organization. What matters is the broad support coming from the federal government for S&T increases."

The NRC is currently working near the end of a five-year strategic plan that runs from 2006 to 2011. Under the strategy, the organization has re-aligned its technology strengths from a vertical approach revolving around institutes to a horizontal approach in which the strengths of various institutes are captured under industrial sectors ranging from aerospace to information and communication technology. Five sectoral alignments have already been completed.

The strategy has also seen the continuation of the NRC's cluster strategy which receives sunsetting funding that expires at the end of this FY. Since their inception in FY00-01, NRC clusters have received $554.2 million in funding. Other NRC initiatives facing sunsetting funding this year include TRIUMF and Canada's Long-Range Plan for Astronomy and Astrophysics (R$, October 8/09).

Coulombe confirms that the three initiatives are all subject to memorandums to cabinet in preparation for the next Budget and represent a combined ask of about $1 billion.


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