National Research Council aims to be a central engine for innovation in Canada

Guest Contributor
April 3, 2002

Vision document lays out future to 2006

Fresh from its success in last year’s federal Budget, the National Research Council (NRC) is set to release an ambitious five-year plan that further positions the R&D powerhouse as a key component of the government’s emerging innovation strategy. Vision 2006: Science at Work for Canada outlines the NRC’s strategies and goals in broad strokes, including key outcomes for five areas in which it wants to achieve excellence. Several versions of the brief but carefully crafted document have been prepared for presentation to different audiences and will be officially unveiled this month in Ottawa

“This is the first time we have set explicit targets in a vision document,” says NRC president Dr Arthur Carty. “We have formally committed to cluster development and community innovation and the creation of 10 clusters by 2006 and they are significant elements of the (innovation) white paper.”

The release of Vision 2006 comes as the government is preparing to take its two innovation papers on the road for several months of consultation. The NRC has already had a significant impact on the papers’ contents in the areas of cluster development, commercialization and skills development.

“(Vision 2006) positions the NRC very well,” says Carty. “We are committed to creating new enterprises and are recognized as a viable and tangible way of creating value and creating economic growth.”

The new document replaces Vision to 2001, which was released five years ago, less than one year after Carty arrived in Ottawa to take over the helm of the NRC. That document contained many strategic thrusts which have been successfully implemented, including increased entrepreneurial muscle, closer ties with the private sector and a focus on communities (R$, April 10/96).

But the 2001 version was released during a time of significant financial stress for the agency, while this latest document defines an organization that enjoys considerable support from all players in the innovation system.

In addition to cluster development and community innovation, Vision 2006 also contains a number of other “firsts”, including an employment philosophy to attract, retain and support its workforce. At 3,400, NRC staff is currently the largest in the organization’s history, but warning signs are on the horizon as the global competition for skilled personnel heats up.

NRC Vision 2006 Goals

Outstanding employer of creative and innovative people

An organization dedicated to research excellence

Value for Canada in new technologies, business opportunities and firms

National champion for technology clusters and regional innovation

Canada’s global window on science and technology

“It is a challenge. Demographically, Canada has a problem, and by 2011 the only incremental growth in the skilled labour force will be through immigration,” says Carty. “Immigration needs to expand to meet the government’s goals and we have to get better at training and keeping people in Canada. We have to make it easier for people to come to Canada to work and reside.”

“NRC ... is well positioned to lead in improving Canada’s R&D performance, building essential networks of researchers and entrepreneurs, training the next generation of highly skilled workers, and translating new knowledge into economic and social benefits for Canadians.” — Vision 2006

The commitment to create 10 technology clusters within five years marks another new thrust, although they are more narrowly defined than the federal government’s own commitment to create the same number of clusters by 2010. Carty says the seeds for most of the targeted NRC clusters are already in place, but will require additional resources and increased collaboration as technologies emerge and move toward the marketplace.

Four of those clusters are located in Atlantic Canada in the areas of e-business, ocean engineering, software development and biosciences. They were initiated as part of the NRC’s $110-million Atlantic Initiative that was funded and launched in 2000. Since then, new investments have been made in nanotechnology (Edmonton), aluminum (Chicoutimi), biotechnology and materials (Montreal), biodiagnostics (Winnipeg) nutraceuticals (Saskatoon) and fuel cells (Vancouver). New cluster developments are also being planned for for other regions including Ottawa, Montreal and Toronto.

The NRC has a team to initiate cluster development which has already gained valued experience establishing clusters in Atlantic Canada. A progress report on NRC activity in the region was released earlier this year.

“These things don’t happen overnight How long does it take to get significant commercial activity from a R&D base? It’s not something that will be immediately apparent, but there will be more activity,” says Carty. “You will see firms spin in but it’s too early to see spin-outs in that timeframe (2006).”

The NRC is also working to identify and develop three technology areas which it believes Canada can take a position of global leadership. Carty is coy on what those areas are, but hints that they will likely include nanotechnology and biophotonics. “We aren’t finished yet but these are areas of cutting-edge research that will have significant technological support,” he says.

With the injection of an additional $110 million over three years in the last Budget, the NRC is now able to realistically pursue many of the goals it has established for itself; a far cry from the days of program review when its budget was repeatedly slashed. Budget documents intimated that further increases were being considered as the NRC continues to evolve, and Carty confirms that elements of Vision 2006 will require additional funding.

“We received new funding in December of 2001 and the Summer of 2000 but we are an aggressive organization on the move,” he asserts. “We’re looking for other opportunities. We’re not going to stop here. You can expect more proposals in the future.”

To attract talent, the NRC has produced a new employment philosophy and will be establishing new programs designed to enhance its position as a S&T employer of choice. That entails aggressively managing of its intellectual property and providing opportunities for staff to benefit financially “both for their level of professional development and productivity.”


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