Pierre Coulombe's efforts to strengthen NRC research capacity and business assistance

- Ottawa, Ontario

Pierre Coulombe

The enduring success of the National Research Council of Canada (NRC) is grounded in its aspirations to both conduct excellent research and to generate knowledge with industry relevance. The presidency of Dr. Pierre Coulombe was no exception in pursuing these goals. During his 5-year tenure, Coulombe led efforts to assemble research excellence from across the organization, give businesses a greater say in research and development (R&D) priorities and increase the NRC's permanent budget.

As a successful Quebec-based scientist, businessperson and bureaucrat, Coulombe possessed high-level management skills and a wealth of experience in science and technology development and commercialization that proved to be valuable during his time as NRC president. Key skillsets were acquired during his leadership at two Quebec-based organizations where his roles roughly mirrored those he filled at the NRC. From 1988 to 1991, he was President and Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of the Computer Research Institute of Montréal, followed by a 5-year term as President and CEO of the Centre de recherche industrielle du Québec (CRIQ).

Coulombe arrived in Ottawa in early 2005 following a competitive process. Contacted by Research Money on December 9, 2004—the day his appointment was announced—Coulombe shared his view of the NRC and how his background aligned with attaining its long-held objectives. "I believe the NRC is a strategic asset to Canada with nation-wide capabilities in knowledge and discovery and is transferring that to the Canadian economy. I am very proud of that," said Coulombe. "In a way this is a follow-through to what I have been doing during my career in terms of public administration, policy, running research institutes, and running companies."

Coulombe succeeded interim leader Dr. Michael Raymont, the NRC's Vice-President Industry Support and Technology, who was appointed to the position a year earlier following Dr. Arthur Carty's departure to become Canada's National Science Advisor. More importantly, he followed the tenure of Carty who served two influential 5-year terms at the helm of the NRC (1993-2003). The renowned chemist and former Dean of Research at the University of Waterloo doggedly pursued the complex yet critical task of boosting the NRC's capacity and expertise as a vital component of the innovation ecosystem. Ultimately, Carty would be widely recognized for his success in securing sun-setting or B-base funding to establish NRC technology clusters across Canada, supporting spin-offs and strengthening basic research, industrial support, and skills training, as well as extending the organization's international outreach.

Carty also invigorated the NRC's nascent institute model – an institutional structure that would continue to evolve as Coulombe worked to overlay a portfolio approach to ensure that major projects and programs were undertaken in priority areas with the full spectrum of expertise resident within the NRC.

"The NRC has always been a tier one research performer in Canada as well as abroad (and that) was the case during my time and continued during my 5 years there," said Coulombe. "I quickly realized that increasing the ongoing or A-base budget was a difficult undertaking particularly for the research activities at the NRC."

Structural challenges and budget limitations

One of the early tasks for an incoming president is to understand the organization and then work with the executive and governing councils to develop new strategies and priorities. But before Coulombe implemented any changes he first had to deal with the limitations of the NRC's existing structure, not to mention a $40 million budget deficit.

It would prove to be a difficult challenge. Initial inaction on addressing these challenges by the new government complicated his goal of making the NRC the go-to' national resource for science and technology (S&T)-based innovation in Canada".

"At that time the NRC was solidly in an institute model that had been strongly promoted and strengthened under Arthur Carty. Every time a new president comes along, they often have a good few years of work to do to shift the culture of a previous strong president," said Dr. Roman Szumski, the NRC's Vice-President Life Sciences who was hired by Coulombe early in his tenure. "The nature of the organization at that time was independent institutes … The day-to-day operations and short-term operational plans and goals of the institutes were really led by the directors general who were quite autonomous."

He added: "Coulombe definitely started with the theme of 'one NRC' and because of the multidisciplinary nature of science and technology, we needed to be working together. There were softer processes put in place to cajole and interest the institutes to work together to address a particular client or industry in a multidisciplinary way."

This included boosting the number of council members from about a dozen to 20, inviting high-profile NRC scientists to present their research before council and requiring each institute to create business-led advisory committees.

To outline his priorities in the lead-up to the 2007 federal Budget, Coulombe drew on the NRC's new 5-year strategy, Science at Work for Canada (2006-11). Those priorities included reclassifying the NRC's B-base cluster funding as permanent, creating a single gateway model to help firms navigate the organization's technology expertise, and developing new horizontal programs in areas such as energy.

"We have to make a sound case to show government that the programs we are proposing make sense and will be translated into concrete results for Canadian industry, for the Government of Canada and by collaborating universities and creating highly qualified people," Coulombe told Research Money in an August 21, 2006 interview. "Three years down the line, I would like the NRC to be seen as the public research organization in Canada that you can count on if you have a problem … To be valued as the world's best national organization for research and innovation."

Under Szumski, the NRC's life sciences institutes were encouraged to work with other federal science-based departments and agencies, and as part of cross-cutting initiatives like the Genomics Research and Development Initiative (GRDI). Launched in 1999 and continuing today, GRDI is a collaboration among 7 federal entities that paralleled the work of Genome Canada.

"If you looked more broadly across the organization, you realized there was a very strong degree of siloing and independence and often very little collaborative work done between institutes," said Szumski. "(With GRDI) I saw an incredible amount of interdisciplinary work taking place. It was really exciting – software people working with the bioinformatics people, the medical device people developing products together. I had this sense that I was in quite a magical place where interdisciplinary work was indeed happening and I was quite proud of that."

According to Dr. Danial Wayner, a 33-year veteran of the NRC (1984 to 2016) and currently the NRC's Departmental Science Advisor and Chief Science Officer, Coulombe had a genuine interest in science and was thoughtful in his approach to evolving the organization. Yet his tendency to forego exploratory discussions in his dealings with the federal departments that oversee the NRC's budget, new initiatives, and strategic direction – could prove problematic.

"I'm not sure he understood the importance of communicating downtown the way that you must … You need to consult before you announce a decision. You need to socialize ideas so people aren't caught off guard," said Wayner, former Director General of the Steacie Institute for Molecular Sciences during Coulombe's tenure.

A case in point was Coulombe's decision to assemble a task force to produce a report on The Role of the National Research Council Canada in the Canadian Innovation Ecosystem. Under the direction of Rob James, the blue-ribbon panel of academics and industrialists included Dr. Gilles Patry, former President and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Ottawa, and Don Drummond, former Senior Vice-President and Chief Economist at TD Bank Financial Group.

Despite the high quality of both the task force's members and its advice—released in the immediate wake of the federal S&T Strategy—the report never saw the light of day.

The report provides a fascinating window into the NRC under Coulombe, whose greenlighting of the task force and report displayed an independent streak not often seen in the federal bureaucracy. The task force sought to "offer advice and recommendations on the role that the NRC should play … in order to make its best contribution to meeting the science and technology demands of the public and private sectors of Canada".

Effectively, the report described the NRC as an innovation system within a larger national innovation system, with science, technology, funding, knowledge, linkage and commercialization "arms" that were "extremely valuable for partnerships" across Canada. Despite a strong collection of observations and recommendations – many of which have come to fruition or are still being pursued – the report was neither officially recognized nor acted upon.

"I think Coulombe was spot-on in terms of the timing for that exercise and he was spot-on with the people we got around the table," said Rob James, President of Stoneleigh Strategies Inc. and a former NRC executive who held several positions including Secretary General and Director General Strategy and Development. "The essence of that paper was that the NRC was ideally positioned to help the federal government integrate national innovation systems and to lever assets from across the academic, business, and government R&D functions to the benefit of not just Canada but of the world… We thought that was a great vision moving forward because it really did speak of competitive advantage."

James said there were "a number of bureaucratic reasons" the report was sidelined. Perhaps the biggest contributing factor was that its genesis was with the NRC and not within the corridors of government. As such, the government viewed the NRC's strategic direction and new initiatives as subservient to its own objectives and the report was not acted upon.

"Don Drummond and Gilles Patry were keen to circulate the report and were big supporters for this approach. There was some good traction there but few people saw it," said James.

"Having the authority to make a decision is not the same as getting widespread support for a decision or a change. Sometimes you have to learn the hard way." added Wayner.

A lingering impression was left of Coulombe as an Ottawa outsider with insufficient communications skills. Yet, this was somewhat misleading. According to James, Coulombe could appear detached when scripted. But left to his own devices, his oratorical skills and depth of knowledge came to the fore.

James recalled an evening at the Canadian Embassy in Paris amidst discussions with French officials that were not going well. Coulombe "jumped in and led the conversation", transforming a potentially mundane event into a successful and animated exchange of views.

"Those times, when Pierre talked about something off the cuff, he excelled in communicating his vision with compelling stories and had people in the palm of his hand. It was like night and day," said James.

A change in government

Coulombe's aspirations for the NRC were constrained by a change in government just 1 year into his 5-year term. The innovation-centric policies of the outgoing government were reconfigured towards a more business-focused strategy starting in early 2006 with the election of a new party. The political shift had a significant impact on the NRC and on Coulombe's multifaceted efforts to enhance the organization's ability to gain new resources and capabilities for conducting targeted research and arming companies with the knowledge and technology they needed to become more innovative.

The changing research and innovation priorities of government combined with the perceived lack of an NRC champion within Industry Canada (the department to which NRC reported to directly) contributed to the organization's inability to grow its budget under Coulombe. Industry Canada ultimately took its marching orders from the central agencies (Finance Canada, Treasury Board Secretariat and the Privy Council Office) and authority became far more centralized. Coulombe's relative paucity of federal connections hindered the NRC's pace of change in aligning itself more closely with other players within the innovation ecosystem.

"(A champion is) critical, especially when dealing with the central agencies. The NRC was not well equipped for that so they needed somebody, a point person in the department, to actually go to bat for them or to guide them when dealing with the central agencies. It's not just Finance, it's also the Privy Council Office on Cabinet stuff," said Dr. Andrei Sulzenko, a Senior Assistant Deputy Minister, Policy at Industry Canada from 1996 to 2004. "Although the president may have some prominence in Ottawa as one of the players, the NRC was not looked at as a policy department. So they needed somebody in the department who would be their advocate."

Szumski suggests the problem wasn't Coulombe's ideas, but rather his lack of success in gaining widespread consensus on their worth. "Dr. Coulombe, had the concepts that he felt were important and the industry orientation was part of that. But the style was very much one of persuasion than a specific direction."

That challenge of persuasion applied within his own organization as well within Industry Canada.

"From the late 1990s all the way through to the late 2000s, the institutes were pretty well autonomous across the nation and that made it very difficult for presidents to move things forward," said James. "(Coulombe) brought a nice background of experience from the private sector, academic sector, and the provincial government. It seemed to be an ideal mix. I think he had some pretty good visions moving forward but the systemic issue of change in government really didn't help his cause very much... His hands were tied quite significantly."

In contrast to his predecessor Carty, Coulombe may have been perceived as independent/working independently from the central departments. That scenario, countered Coulombe, doesn't take into account the significant policy shift under the government which was encapsulated in the 2007 Federal Science & Technology Strategy, Mobilizing Science and Technology to Canada's Advantage.

The release of the S&T strategy and Coulombe's new posting coincided with an NRC renewal exercise led by Dr. Sherif Barakat. The findings floated a new concept for renewed A-base funding and served as a key underpinning of the NRC's latest strategic plan. The Barakat document recommended a sharper research focus, coordination with other players in the innovation ecosystem, and the leveraging of university research expertise and infrastructure. It also aimed to convince the central government agencies that recent initiatives supported through sunsetting funding—the National Institute of Nanotechnology and the Canadian Photonics Fabrication Centre—should be considered within an expanded A-base funding.

At the same time, the government's new S&T strategy aimed to bring greater coherence to research and innovation across Canada. Upon its release, the NRC instituted a wide range of administrative and strategic changes to align with both the strategy and the NRC's own 5-year strategic plan.

These changes included a growing reliance on external revenues which rose from 11% of operating and capital expenditures in the early 1990s to more than 24% by 2007-08. External revenue at the Canada Institute for Scientific and Technical Information and the Institute for Aerospace Research increased by 35% and 45% respectively. The Technology Centres (surface transportation, hydraulics) also generated significant amounts of external revenue. The downside was increased vulnerability to an economic downturn such as the 2007-08 recession which, according to the NRC's 2007-08 Annual Report, would "greatly impact NRC's ability to continue operations at current levels".

The art of persuasion

It was becoming clear that Coulombe was facing headwinds with the changes in reporting lines to Industry Canada. When he arrived, he enjoyed direct access to both the Industry Minister and the Deputy Minister. When the new government came into power, that access was downgraded, making it more challenging to communicate the NRC's aspirations and needs.

"In order to be successful in this position—and I understand that now—you need strong political support … If you have a more favorable environment for federal science—and it seems to be the case today—it's a much more interesting challenge," says Coulombe. "If you have good ideas, people listen. If you don't have that … it's irrelevant." He added: "If there's no political champion. Forget it."

Coulombe wasn't alone in this challenge as James recalled during his time at the NRC. He said the biggest challenge facing all previous NRC presidents had been determining how to form relationships with the government's central agencies when it came to budgeting and other decisions.

"Various presidents used various methods that weren't necessarily the best route forward and cornered bureaucrats from time to time," said James. "At first it was the DM (deputy minister) level for sure but over time in the eyes of Industry Canada, the NRC president was considered no more than an ADM (assistant deputy minister) position. Pierre was forced to go through the ADM level … and it really did harm him and his ability to get stuff done."

Reporting lines shifted frequently as senior bureaucratic positions changed hands and the government appointed Gary Goodyear in the new junior Cabinet position of Minister of State for Science and Technology. Despite the two agreeing on the need to increase industry interaction with the NRC, Coulombe's advocacy yielded few victories over his term. For example, in the absence of any increase to the NRC's A-base budget, Coulombe set his sights on B-based funding for industry clusters.

He also devoted himself to making a series of administrative changes that he asserted would bring more efficiencies to the organization, making it more attractive to clients within and external to government.

In the fall of 2007, Coulombe oversaw the development of a new business plan which realigned the NRC's top 9 priority sectors (automotive, construction, bio-products, etc.) and functioned within existing resources and revenues from business and other clients.

"It became clear that fighting to get A-based increases would be difficult. Therefore, obtaining B-based funding was as good as getting A-based funding since it was based on performance," said Coulombe.

However, the NRC's Industrial Research Assistance Program (NRC IRAP) was more successful in securing additional resources, with the government providing $200 million over 2 years in the 2009 Budget. The funding aligned with the government's emphasis on industry support and revenue generation. And it helped companies weather the recession by doubling the number of contributions to firms and supporting 1,000 new post-secondary graduates through the NRC IRAP's Youth Employment Program.

The $200 million was a critical shot in the arm for NRC IRAP. The two previous years has resulted in a loss of $12-million in funding from the regional development agencies and the cancellation of the joint IRAP-Technology Partnerships Canada (TPC) program, to which each organization contributed $15 million annually.

The NRC IRAP's TPC contribution was returned to the NRC's base budget, helping to offset the regional funding which was ending. But Coulombe noted that NRC IRAP was a technology transfer program and that as such, the $15 million contribution to TPC could not be used to boost the NRC's R&D programs, where the greatest need lay.

While NRC IRAP's fortunes improved (at least temporarily as the 2-year funding boost was not renewed), the overall NRC budget declined during Coulombe's tenure from $824 million in 2005-06 to $780 million in 2009-10, with much of that drop attributed to a federal review of programs.

"We had to cut 5%. People lost their jobs. Those were not fun years. They (the government) wanted to privatize the Institute for Scientific and Technical Information as a way to deliver the reductions," recalled Coulombe.

Concerns over federal science capacity status quo

The reasons for a stagnant NRC budget extended beyond the expenditure review or the lack of an innovation champion within government. Between 1996 and 2005, the federal government poured hundreds of millions of dollars into Canada's universities with a suite of new and existing programs, none of which were accessible by government labs. As the largest grouping of government labs, the NRC was increasingly impacted by this university-centric policy as new programs were introduced that targeted university-industry collaboration and moved more academic research closer to the marketplace—a space traditionally served by the NRC.

Cluster funding, while undeniably beneficial, was peripheral to the NRC's weak A-base funding. It was seen by many as a political means to use science-based innovation to stimulate economic development. But it fell short of addressing the fundamental challenge: what was the NRC's role in an ecosystem where universities were better funded and encouraged to work more closely with industry?

The growing overlap between academic and NRC research led to increased competition for research talent, which in turn contributed to a deterioration of the NRC's impressive inventory of capital assets and research infrastructure. Not surprisingly, government researchers began to feel disenfranchised with some moving to academia, attracted by higher salaries and greater freedom to pursue their research.

The plight of federal laboratories was a challenge taken up by Carty in 2004 as he assumed his new position of National Science Advisor to the Prime Minister. Along with Industry Minister Lucienne Robillard and Joe Fontana, Parliamentary Secretary for Science and Small Business, Carty was committed to examining all aspects of the issue. That followed the 2000 report on federal S&T – Building Excellence in Science and Technology (BEST)—by the Council of Science and Technology Advisors (CSTA) (Research Money, April 21, 2000) and a less formal internal initiative by departmental assistant deputy ministers and other senior officials pushing for increased science capacity (Research Money, September 29, 1999).

The BEST Report, while not specific to the NRC, contained observations and at least one recommendation of direct relevance to the organization.

We strongly believe that there is a critical role for the federal government in performing S&T to fulfil the mandates entrusted to it by the Canadian people. We also believe that there is a need for a more horizontal approach to S&T priority setting in government and departments, as well as across the innovation system. The approach should bring together stakeholders for cooperative planning, execution and evaluation.

BEST Report

Driven by the principles of alignment, linkages, and excellence, the BEST Report cited a shortage of human capital and "inflexibility in human resource practices and policies". Perhaps most important for the NRC was the CSTA's examination of the Canadian innovation landscape which found a prevalence of ageing and obsolescent facilities, equipment and research platforms—deficiencies found across government and impeding the NRC from maximizing its utility to industry and Canada as a whole.

In the area of management, the report focused on 4 issues:

  • inadequate S&T management information
  • the need for screening of government-performed and funded S&T against departmental mandates and government priorities
  • the need for more of a "future orientation" in government S&T activities
  • priority setting for S&T

The recommendation most pertinent for the NRC was the call to "implement and fund new models for S&T that move away from a vertical approach to a more horizontal (i.e. across government and the innovation system), competitive, and multi-stakeholder approach".

The failure of this and other initiatives to substantively increase federal S&T funding presented Coulombe with a sobering status quo when he arrived at the NRC, prompting him to pursue more creative approaches to enhance science capacity. Two novel ideas were the cross appointment of Dr. Paul Corkum with the University of Ottawa and the National Ultrahigh Field Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) Facility for Solids – a $15 million NMR facility on the NRC's Ottawa Montreal Road campus, also with the University of Ottawa.

The government-academic collaboration supporting the NMR facility secured investments of $4.4 million from the Canada Foundation for Innovation, $2.8 million from the Ontario Innovation Trust and $900,000 from Recherche Québec, all of which were dedicated to funding academic research infrastructure (Research Money, June 6, 2006). The building that housed the facility was named after past NRC president Dr. William G. Schneider (1967-1980), who officiated at its official opening on the occasion of his 91st birthday.

Despite organizational financial pressures, Coulombe enjoyed some notable successes. One was overseeing the opening of a new NRC institute – the National Institute for Nanotechnology (NINT) which was renamed the Nanotechnology Research Centre in 2017. Greenlit in 2001, NINT's establishment was spearheaded by Wayner who spent two years in Edmonton negotiating with the NRC's partners—the University of Alberta and the Government of Alberta—and developing a research agenda. Wayner's success with NINT was followed by a directive from Coulombe to negotiate Corkum's joint appointment between the NRC and the University of Ottawa.

The NRC's new business plan also set in motion efforts to develop a single gateway approach for companies doing business with the NRC by making the priority sectors entry points for business rather than specific institutes.

"What we would like to do with the new strategy is move a little bit away from the concept of institutes in isolation. We'd like to avoid that and build up larger programs capturing the expertise within our various institutes," Coulombe told Research Money (September 19, 2007). "Industry will be playing a more significant role in our key sectors' plans to make sure that we remain relevant … We may be the only targeted research organization in Canada that can take time, that has the expertise and the infrastructure to conduct long-term programs on behalf of industry. That's why it's important to be connected with industry more and more because if we're not careful in selecting these programs, we're going to be wasting a lot of effort."

Term not renewed

For the remainder of his presidency, Coulombe continued his advocacy for increased funding while working to streamline the organization to make it more accessible by industry. He infused the NRC with a stronger sectoral focus and a beefed-up its corporate office designed to provide both clients and policymakers with a much clearer picture of its capabilities and performance.

With a growing list of small yet impactful changes, Coulombe was anticipating a second 5-year mandate at the NRC's helm, despite hearing rumours that Ottawa was seeking to replace him with a western Canadian-based president. Those rumours turned out to be true.

"I was not expecting to leave ... When I came here I was under the impression it would likely be for 10 years unless I did a very bad job which I believe I did not," said Coulombe.

With Coulombe's departure, the NRC presidency was taken up by John McDougall, an Alberta-based businessman and bureaucrat best known for leading the Alberta Research Council through a major transformation in the 1990s. Under McDougall, the portfolio approach initially fostered by Coulombe was accelerated with the elimination of the institutes and the introduction of a more aggressive business approach that saw a reduction in organization's targeted basic research capacity.

Now semi-retired, Coulombe continues to hold a board position with Gastops Ltd., an Ottawa-based technology company. He said he looks back on his time at the NRC with considerable fondness and an appreciation of its capacity to stimulate innovation and provide a rewarding environment for creativity in research.

"Overall it was a very exciting time. Of course I would have loved to have been there 5 more years … I know about science. I'm a scientist myself but there was quite a bit I didn't know when I joined the NRC," said Coulombe. "It's amazing how much you can learn being the president of the NRC for 5 years. With astronomy, we play a leadership role sometimes. Those people in Penticton (B.C.), big international telescopes— the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), etc.—allowed Canadian companies to be part of big programs. I also learned about ocean sciences. If you open your eyes and listen you can learn quite a bit from these people."