Research council to focus on helping industry, move away from basic science

OTTAWA – 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 mandate 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.

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.”

Kennedy Stewart, the NDP critic for science and technology, called the move a bad one that will hurt core research, while offering a boon to companies reluctant to invest in research.

“The best part of our chain in terms of the innovation supply chain is the academic side of things,” he said. “Where we’re having a lot of trouble … is on the business investment side. Businesses in Canada simply don’t invest in (research and development).

“Their solution is to punish the side of the supply chain that’s working very well and reward the side of the supply chain that is not functioning very well.”

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

But Stewart worried that researchers will simply move to place such as China or India, which are hungry for scientists.

“Once you have a brain drain it’s pretty hard to reverse it. I’m really worried about our smartest Canadians packing up and leaving.”

Goodyear dismissed suggestions that the changes are part of what opposition critics like Stewart 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,” Goodyear 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, he added.

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