Saturday, January 11, 2014

The National Research Council of Canada. [EBP0]

A plaque at NRC Headquarters on Sussex Dr. in Ottawa.  Source.

Having finally and officially graduated Cum Laude from the University of Ottawa with a BSc(Hons), I have been reflecting upon the goals I had before leaving for Ottawa in 2006.  Part of my reason for studying here was that I had been accepted into the co-operative education program, and I also knew that the National Research Council (NRC) was active in Ottawa.  I hoped, as a young high school student that I might be able to be a part of the NRC during my studies.  I believe in the importance of both the Public Service and science in general, and felt that this would be a wonderful marriage of the two.

In short, I accomplished this goal.  A professor in a fourth year class asked if anyone was interested in graduate studies or a co-op term at the NRC, and I was very interested.  I studied/worked at the NRC's Institute for Chemical Process and Environmental Technology (ICPET) for eight months' time researching electrocatalysts for the oxygen reduction reaction [that is to say, I tried to make fuel cells more efficient].  I was thrilled.  I had never before experienced actual research, learning things that no human being had learned before, and it was wonderful.  However, during my time at ICPET I learned that the NRC was undergoing trends which I found disturbing.

The NRC is entrusted with providing a few key scientific services to Canadians, such as timekeeping, standards and measurement.  The NRC is also an extension of academia not unlike Canada's universities, where excellent scientists from around the world come to work.  A collection of brilliant people getting paid to do what they do best is undoubtedly a recipe for success, and the available data supports this.  In the past, the tax revenue generated (from spin off companies and patents) has exceeded the federal investment in the Council.  Not only does the NRC break even, but larger investments from the federal government results in geometric growth of revenue generated [more like an exponential increase than a linear/steady one].

It would then logically follow that the course of action for the federal government should be obvious.  Maintaining a healthy investment in the NRC would lead to increased tax revenue, and in some cases, the creation of entire industries.  I encourage you to look up the stories of canola oil and Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd.  Both are creations of the NRC, and both have been tremendous successes.  In any case, an investment in the NRC is a safe one.  It benefits the government and citizens financially, and it develops a knowledge-based economy in Canada.  This is why it surprised me to learn that the NRC was being expected to rein in its spending.

Had these cuts simply been a result of the global recession which started in the late aughts, I would have completely understood.  While the NRC is certainly important, the government is forced to make difficult decisions, and science cannot be expected to win out over all stimulus initiatives and essential functions.  However, many of these cuts were the result of a philosophical shift.  The NRC was expected to "be more self sufficient."  This statement raised eyebrows across academia, and should have done so in the general public as well.  Rather than requiring federal investment, the Council was expected to obtain its operating budget by contracting its services.  In fairness, if this meant that Canadian companies would benefit from an infrastructure built by the federal government, I could see the logic and importance of such an initiative.  The problem is that most of the contracts that I heard about were from international sources.  Therefore, an infrastructure built with public Canadian funds is essentially whoring itself out to anyone with the money.  Not only that, but experimental results which may be of great significance to the country may not be communicated due to contract terms.  For example, I am still not supposed to divulge my experimental results, or my working group could be sued.

When the NRC's latest president, appointed by the Rt. Hon. Stephen Harper and a product of the Alberta Oil industry came to ICPET, he congratulated us on being so self sufficient, and told us that the NRC's other Institutes needed to become more like us.  In my opinion, this meant that the entirety of the NRC should be rendered a money pit for the federal government, rather than a smart investment of public funds.  This fits with the political ideology of the Tories [Conservatives], that government should be small and funding should be cut.  By this point in my post [if you got this far], I hope you share in my frustration.

I will half-heartedly apologize for a ranting post, but I feel the issue is important, and I am not entirely sure what to do about it.  My co-workers told me to try not to think too much about it, to be happy and silent that I was still getting paid.  If you have suggestions, please comment.  Should you feel the urge to write angry letters to your local newspaper and read up on the subject, please do so.  Hopefully the truth will liveth and conquereth, as stated above.


P.S.  This post was originally written on 2011/11/06.  I refrained from hitting the publish button, as I was not sure that it was worth being in the public sphere (particularly the likening of the NRC to a lady of the evening).  If you are reading this, I changed my mind.

P.P.S. 2014-01-11  A couple years and no change later, I hit publish.  It also appears I've changed how I write dates in that time, too.