McDougall says he will seek consensus when developing new strategic direction

Guest Contributor
April 23, 2010

Interview with new NRC president

Less than a week into his new job as president of the National Research Council (NRC), John McDougall doesn't profess to have detailed knowledge of the venerable institution's current status but he has a succinct plan for assessing the current environment and begin applying a career's worth of expertise in the management of S&T assets. Citing focus, sustainability and communication as his top three guiding priorities, McDougall told RE$EARCH MONEY in his first major interview that he's heard a diversity of opinion on the NRC and intends to move quickly to separate fact from fiction.

Much of the speculation concerning the NRC focuses on the 94-year-old organization's deficit (see page 2), the future direction of the Industrial Research Assistance Program (IRAP), vacancies in the upper ranks, less-than-spectacular innovation outcomes stemming from its nearly $900-million annual budget and the federal government's plans for its future.

"I know there's lots of talk in lots of quarters, a lot of advice for sure," says McDougall, who led the Alberta Research Council (ARC) for 12 years before stepping aside last year. "What I want is not opinion. I want to base decisions on real knowledge. That means I've got some work to do to find out what is fact, what is perception and what is fantasy."

McDougall was approached by the Privy Council Office through the minister of Industry to be considered for the NRC presidency and after some initial hesitation, he says he became excited about the prospect of taking the reins of Canada's biggest standalone R&D entity. He also thinks that by being chosen, the government is sending a signal for the kind of leadership it is seeking to take the NRC forward.

"If you read between the lines … I think the most significant thing that's happened is probably I don't have a PhD. So what does that tell you? It tells you that they want someone who is an executive manager as opposed to a science manager, if I can use that terminology. That means there's an abiding interest to look at an organization, manage the organization to achieve some results," says McDougall. "You still need good science and technical managers and once you work into the organization you're going to have that. But the real agenda is to be able to define the mission and strategy, get the culture in place, put in the performance metrics and design things in such a way in order to get what we want to achieve. I think that's the signal."

A mandate letter is currently being drawn up by Industry Canada that will define the top priorities of McDougall's presidency. McDougall's mandate letter — standard procedure for new executives hired and government ministers — is similar to a performance contract used in industry and should be completed in the coming weeks.

While at ARC, McDougall changed what was essentially a classic provincial research organization that received and distributed public funds into an R&D centre with strong industry relationships and a market-driven focus. Over his 12-year term, ARC's revenues grew significantly but the source of funding shifted dramatically from 85% government funding to 25%.

Once the new focus was established and the culture within ARC was realigned to match the new strategic thrusts, ARC became a powerful new engine for government-industry collaboration, generating enough contract revenue to be able to make a massive reinvestment in equipment and infrastructure

When enacting the changes, McDougall emphasized two-way communications to ensure that all stakeholders understood the types of outcomes ARC was trying to achieve and were willing to support them. At the NRC, he says a key part of the near-term challenge is "getting a good strategic agenda that's right and will contribute in a way that people are willing to support it and at a level that can be sustained … deciding what can be done within the resources available".

"I don't come in here with a fancy blueprint of this is what we're going to do tomorrow and next week. The blueprint I've got is, let's do a good diagnostic and ... make sure we're doing the right things and we're doing it the best way."

— NRC president John McDougall

"We've got to be thinking about other ways of doing business, not just how do we cobble together money to do things exactly the way we have," says McDougall. "Some of those ways are certainly looking outside — can you bring money in from other parties? Some of that has happened. There are lots of different ways."

For IRAP, McDougall says his approach will be the same as his evaluation of all NRC institutes — assess the current situation, understand the business model and determine how well its achieving stated outcomes. As for additional funding IRAP received as part of the government's stimulus spending (R$, February 9/09), he says he won't advocate for a higher budget level until the impact of the extra funding is properly assessed.

"There has to be an evaluation of what that additional funding did and where it went to," he says. "I'm not sure it's underway right now but it certainly will be."

McDougall says he's pleased to be heading an organization that has such a storied history, state-of-the art facilities, excellent staff and strong international reputation. Even the challenges posed by NRC's financial difficulties and the disbursed structure of the organization offer opportunities for positive change.

"In the longer terms it's up to us. It'll only be a challenge if we're not up to it," he says. "I'm never afraid of making my own destiny. I'm afraid of someone else making it for us."


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