Another player finds NRC a sandbox

Tennis%20August%2016%2C%202009%20057Mugshot400X400.jpg By Tony Patterson

(Published originally in Ottawa Business Journal, Nov. 28, 2011.)
There are a couple of things you may not know about the Jenkins ReportInnovation Canada: A Call To Action — which was released recently to much disdain and more yawns.
Nicholson%2C%20Peter132X146.jpgFirst, it wasn’t written by Tom Jenkins, chair of OpenText and of the panel that worked on the study. It was written by a team I’m tempted to call “the old guard,” except that such a label significantly understates its venerability. The pen was actually wielded by Peter Nicholson (right), an advisor to prime ministers and others back to and including John Turner. Lead researchers were John Curtis, first encountered in the late1970s when he was front man for the government’s run at regulatory reform, and Fred Gault, who was the S&T guru at StatCan until retirement a few years back.
Second, it doesn’t say what Tom Jenkins (below right) really thinks Canada needs in order to become more innovative and therefore more productive. Jenkins wrote what he really thinks a month before the report with his name on it was published. It’s in the September edition of Policy Options magazine and what he really thinks, to summarize ten pages of well-reasoned and very persuasive argument, is that Canada’s private sector has been protected long enough and must be opened to competition. Stacked against that macro-vision, the handful of recommendations in the Jenkins Report are inconsequential.
NRC-logoA224X137.JPGThey are also controversial. To recalculate the way SRED credits are calculated. To set up a super coordinating agency within government. To elevate the minister of state for S&T to a real Minister for S&T. And my favourite, to reorganize the NRC. Recommendation No. 4: “Transform the institutes of the National Research Council (NRC) into a constellation of largescale, sectoral collaborative R&D centres involving business, the university sector and the provinces . . .”
Perhaps it escaped the notice of the Jenkins panel that Canada’s primary S&T agency is undergoing radical renovation even now under an enforcer from Edmonton, the first CEO at NRC to be appointed by the Conservative government. To remake it again within, say, the next decade would seem cruel punishment for several thousand highly skilled Canadian researchers who are trying to help Canadian industry stay technically hip.141.jpg
That apart, the model that the report puts forward is remarkably like the Networks of Centres of Excellence. We know a great deal about NCEs because they’ve been around for more than twenty years. They’ve also been much promoted by the current government, almost as posters for its largely subliminal S&T policy. What is proposed essentially is to turn NRC into a “constellation of largescale” NCEs.
The distinguishing feature of the proposed NRC collaborative networks is that they would be largescale. The existing bunch of research networks, funded and overseen through the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, get along on $2-$5 million a year. Presumably the transformed NRC centres would be an order of magnitude larger. This is in line with what’s going on already. NRC is allocating resources to projects bigger and better, in the eyes of the new CEO, than before.
The current remake will inevitably swing support to bigger enterprises at the expense of the small and medium-sized. The Jenkins Report talks the talk of support for SMEs, but in its walk around the NRC it stumbles into the same quandary. The nation needs big projects. Big projects need big players. Most Canadian players aren’t that big. Do we field imports and our few native stars? Or do we build for the future by supporting our up-and-comers? Sad to say, the brains trust behind the Jenkins Report has been unable to square this circle any better than the enforcer. The pity is they all have taken a jewel at the core of Canada’s S&T practice for their experimenting.

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