Federal research infusion into city

Critics say NRC's plans seem to be wasteful


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OTTAWA -- Canada's new Factory of the Future program, which will include a National Research Council facility in Winnipeg, will focus on research to help car and plane manufacturers remain globally competitive, the Free Press has learned.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 15/12/2014 (2971 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

OTTAWA — Canada’s new Factory of the Future program, which will include a National Research Council facility in Winnipeg, will focus on research to help car and plane manufacturers remain globally competitive, the Free Press has learned.

The change appears to bring full circle the NRC’s presence in the city but has critics questioning whether millions of dollars keep being wasted as the council continually reinvents itself in Winnipeg.

In an email to National Research Council staff in late November, obtained by the Free Press, NRC president John McDougall gave staff additional details about the NRC Factory of the Future program.

JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS The National Research Council’s buildings on Ellice Avenue downtown. Occupancy in the facilities has fallen steeply.

The program was first announced by Prime Minister Stephen Harper Nov. 24 as part of a $5.8-billion infrastructure announcement. Part of that funding includes $380 million for major repairs and upgrades on federal labs and research facilities, and most of that will go to expanding the NRC facilities in Montreal and London, Ont., and building a new one in Winnipeg.

“The announcement yesterday included funding for a new NRC program called Factory of the Future (FOTF), with investments at our existing facilities in Montreal and London and a new manufacturing-oriented facility in Winnipeg,” McDougall wrote to staff Nov. 25, the day after Harper’s announcement.

“Building on our strategy to address strategic national priorities through mission-oriented research programs, NRC’s planned Factory of the Future program will be designed to help reposition Canada’s manufacturing sector to be a top globally competitive supplier, primarily in automotive and aeronautics products.”

NDP MP Pat Martin said the government needs to explain a lot more about its plans, particularly why a new building is needed when there are two perfectly good NRC buildings in downtown Winnipeg that are mostly empty.

“Even in the kindest light, the saga of the NRC buildings is difficult to understand,” he said. “Is there a business case for divesting, selling off these premium facilities and building something less expensive?”

Winnipeg’s new facility is largely expected to focus on the aeronautics side of the equation, given Winnipeg’s significant presence in the aerospace industry. Regardless, bringing the NRC in Winnipeg to a manufacturing-technology focus puts the agency back where it was when it first started in the city 30 years ago.

In 1983, Lloyd Axworthy, then a cabinet minister in Pierre Trudeau’s Liberal government, announced a new $41-million Science Place Canada at 435 Ellice Ave., with half of it devoted to the NRC Institute for Manufacturing Technology. An NRC source says the building was constructed with special accommodation and equipment for aerospace research.

After Brian Mulroney’s Conservatives took over in 1984, those plans were scaled back, although eventually 20 private sector companies moved into the space, doing research on everything from concert-hall sound systems to aeronautics with Bristol Aerospace. Mulroney’s government invested $6 million more into the space with new equipment.

That institute eventually became known as the Canadian Institute of Industrial Technology. Then, in 1992, those 20 companies were shifted out in favour of moving the Canadian Institute for Biodiagnostics to Winnipeg from Ottawa. Another $7 million in renovations took place to construct operating rooms as Winnipeg became the home of the largest research centre for magnetic resonance imaging.

A second building, at 445 Ellice Ave., was added in 2005 at a cost of $12 million. The bio institute, the NRC source says, resulted in at least 11 private companies and $4 billion worth of revenues in the last 20 years.

‘Even in the kindest light, the saga of the NRC buildings is difficult to understand’

— NDP MP Pat Martin

Fast-forward to 2012, and the Harper government decided to fundamentally change the focus of the NRC away from basic science and toward commercialization research. The Institute for Biodiagnostics was closed and the number of staff cut from 130 to 60. Harper promised the remaining staff would move to a new facility when one became available.

Now he’s planning to build a new one.

The two buildings are being offered for use to other federal departments, and if nobody in the federal government, or at the provincial or city governments, wants them, they will be put up for public sale.

Since 2012, occupancy rates at the two buildings have plummeted, with the 445 Ellice building 90 per cent empty and Manitoba Research as the only tenant. At 435 Ellice, there are a few dozen NRC staff, mostly clerical and non-scientists. The only research being done there is on optical science, with fewer than 12 scientists present.

The MRI that was used for research is now being used by the WRHA to scan patients.


Updated on Monday, December 15, 2014 6:38 AM CST: Replaces photo, fixes pull quote

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