What’s going on at the National Research Council? Earlier this month, Postmedia reports indicated it would forge ahead with genetically modified wheat, and focus funding on three other research areas chosen by new president, John McDougall. Both reports were quickly pulled from their websites. Now, a further report, pulled on some sites, but still available on others, denies it will focus on GMO. To recap an earlier story not yet taken down:
There's radical change at the National Research Council, Canada's biggest science institute, as the new president orders all staff to direct research toward boosting economic development and technology, with less time for pure science.
Starting this spring, 20 per cent of research money… will be removed from existing budgets and directed where the president and vice-presidents choose. Eventually, 80 per cent of research funds will be redirected this way.
One of the yanked, cached reports describes the four ‘Poster child’ NRC initiatives:
• Doubling the productivity of wheat farming, by developing strains of wheat that are highly tolerant to environmental and climate stress;
• Using algae to soak up carbon dioxide from large-scale emitters such as power plants or the Alberta oilsands. In theory, the algae could then be converted to fuel on an industrial scale, and still reduce overall carbon dioxide emissions;
* Bio-composite materials, to enable Canadian manufacturers to make and sell high-value composite materials from plant resins and fibres.
* Printable electronics, a method of spraying electronic circuits onto plastic or paper to create "smart" labels or hard-to-forge bank notes.
This prompted a bit of “curiosity research” into Mr. McDougall, who may have been surprised himself to be picked for the NRC presidency. Unlike his predecessors, McDougall has no PhD, nor even a Master’ Degree, and no history of scientific research or publication.
A 2005 profile indicates he wasn’t really interested in science, but saw engineering as a way into business. With an undergraduate degree in civil engineering, McDougall worked for Esso for 10 years, and then “left the oil and gas field in the 1970s to join the family business, McDougall and Secord, which specializes in real estate, development, and investment”, remaining “titular head of McDougall and Secord to this day (his wife Irene operates the company with 15 family members as shareholders), he opened his own consulting company, Dalcor Innoventures Ltd., within a few years”.
A listing for “Dalcor Innoventures” on manta.com reads: “Dalcor Innoventures Ltd is a private company categorized under Management Services and located in Edmonton, AB, Canada. Current estimates show this company has an annual revenue of 118,488 and employs a staff of approximately 1”. JR McDougall, “President and board member”.
The U of A profile continues: “…McDougall was approached to take a position… in Management for Engineers at U of A. He continued to operate his business (though management was largely in the hands of others) while serving as Chair from 1991 to 1997… Then along came the opportunity at Alberta Research Council…‘I may have seemed an odd choice as president of a research council,’ he reflects. ‘I wasn’t a researcher, had never been, and I didn’t have a PhD’”.
If it was “odd” in Alberta, it may be even more unusual to be plucked to head the National Research Council.
And with the few research areas he wants to fund, McDougall seems to be molding the NRC in his image - steering its focus towards projects and companies with which he had an intimate connection in Alberta.
Aside from modified (genetically or otherwise) wheat, research into “algae as a way to soak up carbon dioxide from Alberta oilsands” is a major focus of both the NRC and McDougall’s earlier Dalcor Innoventures (now Innoventures Canada - during his tenure in Management at U of A, and later at the Alberta Research Council, McDougall’s Dalcor Innoventures Ltd. morphed into the larger Innoventures Canada – along with substantial government and other funding).
McDougall is also listed in profiles as “chairman of C-FER Technologies Inc.”, a company which apparently merged with the Alberta Research Council, which he led.
In documents from the Office of the Commissioner of Lobbying of Canada, just before his appointment at the NRC, McDougall is listed as principal representative of Innoventures. The company’s address is given as 8915 Saskatchewan Dr. NW, Edmonton. This appears to be an upscale residential neighbourhood, and also the address for McDougall and Secord, the family business, apparently run by McDougall’s wife, Irene. On another website, the Administrative Contact for Dalcor Innoventures is also listed as Irene Makar, and 8915 Saskatchewan Drive is given as her contact address for Dalcor. (Both an Irene Makar and John McDougall turn up in White Pages listings at the same address – 103-11650 79 Ave., another residence a short distance from Saskatchewan Drive and currently for sale). The same 79 Ave address is also listed here and on other sites, as the address of McDougall and Secord. And the same phone number appears for both McDougall and Secord, and Dalcor Innoventures.
McDougall’s Innoventures Canada was apparently lobbying the government for Carbon Algae Recycling, one of its major projects, and coincidentally a project just announced as one of the major research thrusts at the NRC.
Is there anything untoward about the new president of the National Research Council directing funds to projects with which he was so closely associated, for which he lobbied up until just before his appointment, and which concern companies that share an address with his family’s real estate business?
Both the radical shift in direction and the pulled news reports about the NRC’s new direction seem unusual. And given the unprecedented discretion that the new NRC president will exercise, it’s worth asking to what extent the $749 million budget might favour or reflect the kinds of projects he brings with him.
While he may not have a PhD in astrophysics, Mr. McDougall apparently knows a “black hole” when he sees one, and isn’t afraid of a little “roadkill” in achieving his objectives. Here are some excerpts of his views on science and society just prior to taking on the leadership of the NRC - which may illuminate its future direction:
“What prevents us from thinking about greenhouse gases as an untapped resource that is already being produced?”
“Will algae become a tool for capturing carbon and a feedstock for new products such as bio-fuels, food and other products?”
“New drought tolerant crops… will be needed”.
“…gradually our suppliers become capable in their own right and end up eating their parents as we have seen in steel making, chip manufacturing, IT and now biotechnology. Where does this leave us? More particularly, where does it leave the Government?...They need to control spending – in particular the black holes of health, education and social services”.
“To wind up, it really is an exciting time – but there will be some road kill”.