Renewing National Research Council facilities and expanding international collaborations

Mark Lowey
November 1, 2023

The 107-year-old National Research Council of Canada is the country’s flagship R&D agency, with about 4,200 staff, more than 500 students and more than 118 R&D facilities. The NRC partners with Canadian industry and invests in strategic R&D programming to take research impacts from the lab to the marketplace, where people can experience the benefits. Iain S. Stewart’s (photo at right) current term as president started in October 2021. He also served as NRC president from 2016 to 2020. Stewart talked with Mark Lowey, Research Money’s managing editor, about the NRC’s current activities and priorities and plans for the future.

NOTE: This is Part 2 of a two-part Q&A. In Part 1, published Oct. 25, Stewart talked about how NRC will manage federal spending cuts, Canada’s weak productivity performance, IRAP’s transition from NRC to the Canada Innovation Corporation, and how the NRC is helping to attract and retain talent.

R$: The federal government in November 2022 invested more than $962 million over eight years, and more than $121 million ongoing, to renew the NRC’s facilities. Can you update us on recently opened facilities and plans for new capital investments and replacing aging equipment.

Iain Stewart: We have over 118 facilities that are large scale and range from ocean engineering to vaccines and life sciences to astronomy. We did a review of all of them and what condition they’re in, and do other people in the country already have [similar facilities] – are these unique. From that we came up with a list of prioritized investments. When we went to government ministers and proposed a reinvestment in the NRC, we led with these examples of high-impact facilities that needed to be replaced. That first wave of investments is the $962 million. It’s to do 17 large-scale projects. (See the NRC facilities renewal website, and in French here).

For the 17 investments, there are examples like our hydrogen lab in Vancouver, where we work on fuel cells. But there’s also our aircraft fleet. We have eight aircraft – three helicopters and five fixed-wing aircraft. Our largest, and in a way one of more diverse platforms, is the Convair 580 (a twin-engine turboprop aircraft). And the Convair only has about another six years of life left in it. So a second example of those 17 projects is replacing that with a new aircraft that was a good environmental science platform like the Convair has been.

[Other examples of the projects include] battery testing, battery manufacturing, wave tanks, microfluidics fabrication – different large-scale sweeps of equipment with dedicated teams are being renewed. Another project is the Canadian Photonics Fabrication Centre in Ottawa, which is our compound semiconductor fabrication facility and is having a large equipment overhaul to increase its throughput and also replace the older equipment.

That’s wave one of our investment. Then every two years, starting in fiscal year 2024-2025, we will do a call for proposals internally to allocate our $200 million in capital investments. We have an internal program capability to do capital investment in research and innovation facilities, and, reflecting our public mandate, those facilities and those proposals will favour proposals that have an external partner or partners. So a university or other partners who want to work with us in a shared facility. That will build collaborative partnerships right into the fabric of the NRC now as it goes investing every two years in this cycle.

These large-scale facilities have dedicated technical teams who are career public servants and technical experts. We have researchers who use those facilities. So we’re able to take our long-term facility expertise and invest in a series of increments in those capabilities and evolve them over time. It’s very transformative. That funding will result in an NRC that every 10 years is going to spend $1 billion on recapping, through a competitive internal process with our partners, large-scale research facilities. The funding for this second wave of investment is ongoing. There’s $121 million ongoing each year thereafter.

Why did the Department of Finance and Treasury Board Secretariat go for that? Because we were demonstrably rusting out, we were underfunded for our capital. So our facilities were aging and becoming outmoded. Due to that two-year review we did of all of our facilities, we were able to show the central agencies the state these assets were in. Some of them are unique. If we don’t replace them, the country loses that capacity. Also, there are opportunities to build new facilities in a collaborative way. That’s the vision. We set up a dedicated program team to deliver that now, every two years.

R$: The federal government has implemented measures to ensure Canada’s strategic research and IP are protected during collaborations with other countries. What’s the NRC’s mandate and role in ensuring research security, while still realizing the benefits from international collaboration?

IS: When Minister Champagne and Minister Mendicino, who at that time was minister of public safety, put out their letter to the university presidents asking them to be thoughtful about who they’re collaborating with and what topics they’re collaborating on, the NRC had received direction that we need to be cognizant. When it comes to research collaborations, you have to look at the partners. Who are you working with actually? What are the resumes of those partners? Who’s going to control the intellectual property that arises? Who’s actually funding it? What rules do they have around the funding?

You need to look across our international collaborations and know your partners. Consistent with the advice from Minister Champagne and Minister Mendicino, if there are persistent threat actors who are involved, government apparatuses that are involved in those research projects, that’s obviously a space you don’t want to be in. We do classified research, we do defence research. So [with] our cybersecurity, our physical security, we screen everybody. Anybody’s who’s going to work in our buildings, on our campuses, has to go through screening to be able to show up. We spend a lot of time, care and effort in providing a secure research environment that protects our IP. When we’re licensing out our IP, we’re careful who we’re licensing it to. It’s a big area of investment. It’s a No. 1 charge for us. It takes a lot of time and effort.

R$: How does the NRC compare – in measures such as benchmarking, research initiatives and international collaborations – with organizations that serve similar roles in partner countries?

IS: International is really big for us. If you look at the history of the National Research Council, the collaborations go back to the end of the Second World War and they continue on. There are very few developed countries where we do not have at least some peer-to-peer collaborations. The collaborations that we engage in start off at the researcher level – people writing a paper together, that kind of thing. But we also have structural, institutional relationships. If you think about DLR, which is the German Aerospace Centre, we have a structural and ongoing relationship with them on many projects. We have that kind of government-to-government lab you see with AIST (Japan’s National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology) and the RIKEN research institute in Japan. We have these relationships that are more than just researcher-to-researcher, they’re institution-to-institution style relationships. And then we also do a lot of international work. Because of Canada being a free and open economy, we have a lot of international investment here. You’ll see multinationals like Airbus, Boeing or Honda, multinational technology-based advanced manufacturing entities have investments here. We have relationships with them. So on the international front, we’ll do business where we do research projects for multinationals. They have a presence in Canada. Quite often the head office is in Tokyo, down in the U.S. or Munich. We fire on all cylinders internationally.

To try and increase the impact and the ROI on our efforts, in 2018 we did a structured process to identify either countries where we’d like to add more effort – put more resources into that. The United States is obvious as an important partner. But we already do an enormity of collaborations with the U.S. and it's very easy for Canadians to go down to the States, to get off a plane and go collaborate. So we decided we didn’t need to invest institutional resources for the U.S. But we did, we thought, for Japan, Germany and the United Kingdom. All three are rich, strong in science through to applied science, through to – particularly in the case of Japan and Germany – large advanced manufacturing sectors in their economy. We decided we’d focus on them. We do a lot of missions where IRAP will take Canadian SMEs and partner them up with German SMEs or United Kingdom SMEs. We benefit from an international network called Eureka. It’s European-based but there are international members, of which we’re one. So we do a lot of these kinds of missions for collaboration, company-to-company. It helps an SME enter an international market. That’s kind of our remit in trying to encourage their success. We also opened an office in Tokyo which has been really helping us access particularly private sector-type opportunities. We’re blessed to have the former CTO of Fujitsu, Shigeru Sasaki, run our office in Tokyo and he’s just been a great connector. We have Jennifer Decker in Munich. Dr. Decker is a physicist and comes from that background, but she also spent time in Canada’s embassy in Germany, in Berlin. She’s a great networker and connector and we’ve had a lot of research collaborations arise from that. The other thing we decided is that we didn’t need a new person on the ground in the U.K. There’s an excellent person who works in the Canadian High Commission who’s been there for years, Caroline Martin, and she just does a superlative job.  

As for how we compare with other organizations like our own, we belong to the European Association of Research Technology Organizations and that association formed a subgroup which was non-European international members. [It includes] CSIRO (Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation) in Australia, ITRI (Industrial Technology Research Institute) in Taiwan, AIST in Japan and others. I had the privilege of co-chairing that group for the past several years. Through that, we do collaborative discussion of each other’s performance in different performance areas. The problem is that we’re not all actually alike. Parts of us are alike and parts of us are not. In the case of IRAP, I’m the only one who’ll be sitting down at that table who had an SME funding program, for instance, of that nature. The other [international] labs tend not to have that. But we do have that collaboration-comparison. Our metrics are comparable, although they’re distorted by the fact we run a funding program. As we go forward, we’re going to be more of a  pure play [focused on the provision of public sector labs doing collaborative research with university and industrial partners]. That will actually help us on our benchmarking.


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