R$ Exclusive: Government launches $2.8-billion plan to revitalize federal labs and build collaborative facilities

Mark Henderson
November 18, 2020

The federal government has begun rolling out an ambitious 25-year master plan to revitalize federal research laboratories starting with an initial investment of $2.8 billion. A cornerstone of the Laboratories Canada initiative is the creation of collaborative research facilities where government scientists can work with colleagues and external partners.

The long-awaited announcement was to be made last year, but was sidelined by the federal election. It was postponed to spring 2020 but again delayed, this time because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Public Services and Procurement Canada (PSPC) notified Research Money November 17 that the announcement is now official.

Laboratories Canada is building upon four pillars considered key to renewing federal S&T infrastructure:

  • Facilities: Build leading-edge, collaborative, accessible and sustainable facilities
  • Equipment: Promote sharing and streamline procurement of major equipment
  • IM/IT: Modernize information management/information technology (IM/IT) systems to meet evolving science needs
  • Policy Barriers: Address policy barriers to S&T that inhibit collaboration

Phase 1, covering the first five years of the initiative, will address the most critical federal infrastructure challenges and lay the groundwork for broader changes to the federal science ecosystem. Subsequent phases will focus to an even greater extent on science outcomes while continuing to address at-risk federal science infrastructure, exploring collaborative science and potential partnerships with academia, industry, provinces, territories, municipalities and Indigenous groups.

The end goal, according to the Long-Term Vision and Plan (LTVP), is “a world-class national network of modern, multipurpose, federal S&T laboratories to support collaborative, multidisciplinary research and innovation, and evidence-based decision-making, including in regulatory responsibilities”. Future decisions will be guided by a framework or criteria to be developed with input from an external panel of experts.

The first slate of projects includes the TerraCanada Hub (TCC), a multipurpose collaborative facility to be constructed in the Ottawa region, as well as the refurbishment of several smaller facilities across Canada. Participants in TCC include Natural Resources Canada, National Research Council (NRC), Environment and Climate Change Canada, Health Canada and the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission. TCC will take an interdisciplinary approach to address sustainable land and resource development, a low-carbon economy and health and safety.

The other projects are:

  • Atlantic Science Enterprise Centre - dedicated to improving the sustainability of Atlantic fresh and salt water resources.
  • Cultural Heritage Science Hub – conservation science by Canadian Heritage and Parks Canada.
  • Regulatory and Security Science Hub –the science of mitigating and responding to food, animal and plant threats related to health safety and border security.
  • Transportation Safety and Technology Science Hub

Funding for Laboratories Canada’s initial phase was contained in the 2018 federal budget and is being managed by PSPC.

“A once in a generation opportunity”

Overseeing the initiative at its inception was Dr. Janet King, associate deputy minister for Laboratories Canada at PSPC, who was appointed to the position in 2018 to oversee federal science infrastructure and has subsequently retired. King described the initiative as the largest federal research infrastructure renewal program in recent memory, and unique globally for its “scope and scale and intent”.

“We view this as a once in a generation opportunity … an ambitious plan to rebuild and revitalize federal labs with the intent to make them collaborative, sustainable, multipurpose and more outward facing,” King said in an interview earlier this year with Research Money. “We’re also building accessibility and inclusivity into the design parameters.”

King said the government’s vision for federal S&T infrastructure stresses that federal scientists need world-class facilities and collaborators to best inform evidence-based decision making. This represents a shift from traditional department-to-department investments in specific infrastructure to a whole-of-government approach focused on collaborative spaces.

“Federal labs are facing (a large) amount of deferred maintenance and some facilities are critically requiring attention,” she explained. “That was one of the focus drivers. But also taking advantage of that opportunity and building science synergies and collaborations to determine how best to address those infrastructure needs.”

The LTVP proposes novel approaches to the management of real property, IT, scientific collaboration, and science program delivery. Experimentation and innovation will permeate all aspects of the LTVP and its implementation.”

Laboratories Canada Long-Term Vision and Plan

The initial slate of five projects was decided based on work by PSPC, as well as the Treasury Board Secretariat, which conducted a Horizontal Fixed Asset Review covering 195 major scientific facilities across Canada. Of the 78 located in the National Capital Region, 25 were found to be in poor condition.

King said work is underway to identify potential partners, and how their needs will influence the building designs and facilities.

“So at the get-go, [we will be] able to prepare federal facilities to include and enable external partnerships,” as well as more public engagement, she said. “We have been able to build in the space for public-facing components of the facilities to embrace the community and other kinds of partners.”

Implementation of the Laboratories Canada Initiative—originally called the Federal Science and Technology Infrastructure Initiative—follows decades of inaction despite increasingly urgent calls to address deteriorating buildings and aging equipment. A case in point is the NRC, which has buildings across Canada. In Ottawa, several of the buildings at its Montreal Road campus were built between 1941 and 1960, while its Sussex Drive flagship facility dates back to 1930.

The NRC is involved in all the hubs with the exception of the Cultural Heritage Science Hub, and views Laboratories Canada as a major opportunity to upgrade its facilities and extend collaborations with academia and industry.

Succeeding where previous efforts failed

Calls for facility revitalization and increased internal and external collaboration are not new. In 2000, the former Council of Science and Technology Advisors issued the BEST Report (Building Excellence in Science and Technology) which recommended increased funding for in-house research capacity to enable government to fulfill its S&T mandates for health, safety and the economic well-being of Canadians. It confirmed concerns that the federal S&T system was veering dangerously close to a state of crisis.

That same year, the ADM Committee on Science and Technology released the FINE Report (Federal Innovation Networks of Excellence) that proposed greater integration of universities and the private sector. Modelled on the Networks of Centres of Excellence program, FINE had the backing of the whole federal S&T community.

Like the BEST Report, however, the FINE proposal was shelved after it failed to gain traction at Cabinet—a fate that met previous and subsequent reports on the issue. King said the most senior levels of government are now solidly behind Laboratories Canada.

“I would like to commend many previous thinkers as they worked to identify and define how to advance some of the challenges facing federal labs. The policy work we did to elaborate this initiative built on all of those studies – learn from them, build from them and bring them into the 21st century,” said King.

To enhance Laboratories Canada’s impact, more than 30 federal labs are now listed on the Canada Foundation for Innovation’s Research Facilities Navigator. Also on board is Dr. Mona Nemer, Canada’s Chief Science Advisor.

“Dr. Nemer has been engaged through the full development of this initiative. She is at our table in terms of the oversight, the policy development stage and the design of the clusters (hub) stage … She is a regular participant in the discussions and a valued advisor,” said King.


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