National Research Council move shifts feds' science role

The National Research Council is now focusing more on practical, commercial science and less on fundamental science that may not have obvious business applications, says Gary Goodyear, minister of state for science and technology.

'Job-neutral' restructuring to make agency streamlined, efficient and functional, president says

Funding cuts for science

10 years ago
Duration 7:56
Minister of State for Science and Technology Gary Goodyear responds to critics

The Harper government is telling the National Research Council to focus more on practical, commercial science and less on fundamental science that may not have obvious business applications.

The government says the council traditionally was a supporter of business, but has wandered from that in recent years — and will now get back to working on practical applications for industries.

The council has become a loose web of individual fiefdoms, each pursuing its own goals, Gary Goodyear, minister of state for science and technology, told a news conference Tuesday.

The result, he said, was an inflexible agency that had lost its ability to respond to the demands and needs of industry.

"Today, the NRC embarks on an exciting, new journey — a re-direction that will strengthen Canada's research and innovation ecosystem for many years to come," Goodyear said.

The revamped agency will concentrate on industrial research, new growth and business development, he added.

'Essence of innovation'

Goodyear also pointed out that Germany's Fraunhofer Institute served as a model for the NRC's new business-oriented focus. The institute is a series of 66 smaller institutes and research units owned by the German public, the federal state and state-level governments. It undertakes research of benefit to private and public businesses as well as society as a whole.

Council president John McDougall said the NRC will become a more attractive partner for business.

"We have shifted the primary focus of our work at NRC from the traditional emphasis of basic research and discovery science in favour of a more targeted approach to research and development," McDougall said.

"Impact is the essence of innovation. A new idea or discovery may in fact be interesting, but it doesn't qualify as innovation until it's been developed into something that has commercial or societal value."

It's a matter of going for concrete results, he added. "We will measure our success by the success of our clients."

Some agency staff will lose their jobs in the changes, McDougall said, but additional hiring will ensure the restructuring is job-neutral.

Basic research 'in jeopardy'

In a statement, the executive director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers said the government is "killing the goose that laid the golden egg."

"By transforming the NRC into a "business-driven, industry-relevant" organization, you are denying its ability to support basic research," said Jim Turk.

"At the same time, you are cutting support to basic research in the universities."

Colleges, however, didn't appear to share this view.

James Knight, the president of the Association of Canadian Community Colleges released a statement Tuesday saying the announcement was a "positive shift."

"The federal government’s efforts to bridge technology gaps and build a more innovative economy recognize the benefits of applied research, which responds directly to the needs of industry," the statement said.

Another front in Tory 'war on science'?

NDP science critic Kennedy Stewart called the shift in direction for the NRC "short-sighted" and said it could actually hurt economic growth in the long run, because it scales back the kind of fundamental research that can lead to scientific breakthroughs.

Stewart also warned that some of Canada's best and brightest minds might be lost to other countries that invest more heavily in pure science.

"The government has been handing pink slips to scores of NRC scientists and researchers, lowering the organization’s research capacity and devastating internal morale," he said. "It is hard to see how business will get scientific advice from the NRC if they fire all the scientists."

Goodyear dismissed suggestions that the changes are part of what opposition critics have described as a Conservative war against science, insisting that his government has been a leader in science and technology investment.

"By helping Canadian businesses develop and bring technically advanced products to market, the NRC is supporting the creation not only of jobs, but good-quality, high-paying, long-lasting jobs," he said.

"We will continue to support basic research, but the use of that knowledge is the next step," he said.

The day is past when a researcher could hit a home run simply by publishing a paper on some new discovery, Goodyear said.

"The home run is when somebody utilizes the knowledge that was discovered for social or economic gain."

With files from Max Paris, Power & Politics and CBC News