Dr Pierre Coulombe has been selected as the new president of the National Research Council, pending a possible review by the Industry Standing Committee on Industry, Natural Resources, Science and Technology. The appointment has taken many in the S&T community by surprise as interim president Dr Michael Raymont was considered to be the strong favourite. But insiders say Raymont’s candidacy was undermined by a lack of French — an unofficial prerequisite that has bedeviled many a senior appointment in Ottawa.
Coulombe is currently a private consultant specializing in the financing and strategic planning of technology, but he has a strong scientific background and a long and varied career in industry, government and academia within Quebec stretching from the early 1980s to 2002. In an interview with RE$EARCH MONEY on the day of his announcement (December 9), he expressed great admiration for the NRC and its role in disseminating technology to Canadian society and the economy.
“I believe the NRC is a strategic asset to Canada with nation-wide capabilities in knowledge and discovery and transferring that to the Canadian economy. I am very proud of that,” says Coulombe. “In a way this is a follow-through to what I have been doing during my career in terms of public administration, policy, running research institutes and running companies.”
Dr Camille Limoges has known Coulombe since the early 1980s when he spearheaded the creation of Quebec’s ministry of science and technology. They have interacted frequently in the intervening years and both currently sit on the board of directors of the Institute for Population and Genetics, a non-profit organization that Coulombe organized and led.
“Pierre has a very broad knowledge of the sciences and the private sector … running from arcane issues to nitty gritty practical engineering issues,” says Limoges. “For him, the challenge will be to work in the federal establishment. This is very difficult to predict and is a very real challenge, but he has done many difficult things over his career so he might be an interesting choice.”
In addition to his role in developing Quebec’s S&T policy and bureaucratic infrastructure, Coulombe’s experience in leading — Centre de recherche industrielle du Québec (CRIQ) and Centre de recherche de Montreal (CRIM) — was almost certainly a major selling point in his successful bid to become NRC president. In many ways, the organizations mirror provincially the functions that NRC performs in the national arena.
CRIQ is Canada’s second largest provincial research organization after the Alberta Research Council, with annual expenditures between $33 million and $39 million. It provides services ranging from R&D (development of industrial equipment, environmental technologies, automation and robotics), business services (testing and qualification laboratories, industrial and technological information) and standardization, certification and registration of ISO systems through an affiliation with the Bureau de normalisation du Quebec.
CRIM is a 20-year-old non-profit organization with a mandate of strengthening linkages between universities and information technology companies. Its activities include R&D, knowledge and technology transfer, creation of strategic alliances, networking, training and technology and market monitoring.
Coulombe’s experience in the private sector also places him in good stead for the NRC presidency, given the organizations recent push to strengthen its role in commercialization. He served as president and CEO of Infectio Diagnostics, founded in 1995 by Laval Univ’s Dr Michel Bergeron. Infectio develops diagnostic products that can detect and identify infectious agents from human specimens in less than one hour. It recently merged with molecular diagnostic company, GeneOhm Sciences Inc, San Diego.
Coulombe also sits on the governing council for Science and Engineering Research Canada (NSERC) and is a member of the Canadian Biotechnology Advisory Committee.
NRC STANDING AT CRITICAL CROSSROAD
If Coulombe’s candidacy is approved, he will head up an organization that is in the midst of considerable internal reflection compounded by budget uncertainties and key vacancies in the executive ranks (see page 3). The NRC has been grappling with its role in the government’s emerging commercialization policies and is concerned that the impact of expenditure review –— if applied — could permanently erode its R&D capacity in areas that are critical to the nation’s future economic well being.
A Certificate of Nomination for Coulombe’s appointment was tabled in the House of Commons December 13 and the Standing Committee will meet with him February 7 to assess his qualifications for the position. Review by the standing committee is not a new requirement for appointments of crown agency heads, although the Martin government introduced a new policy earlier this year — Ethics, Responsibility, Accountability An Action Plan for Democratic Reform — which will introduce the concept of prior parliamentary review for crown agency appointments.
The review by the Standing Committee is the final leg of a long process that began last April when Lucienne Robillard was appointed Industry minister. The NRC struck a selection committee composed of representatives from NRC, industry and an official from the Privy Council Office. A total of 19 applications were received and seven went to full interviews that were conducted between October 12 and 14 by a panel established by the selection committee.
The panel’s recommendation then went to Industry minister David Emerson who forwarded the recommendation to the prime minister before moving to Cabinet for approval. The decision of the Standing Committee requires the signature of the governor general to become official. It is not known whether Coulombe or another candidate was the ultimate choice of the NRC selection committee.