ARCHIVED - Evaluation of Central and Western Cluster Initiatives - National Institute of Nanotechnology (NRC-NINT)

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Executive Summary

Introduction

This is the final report on the evaluation of the National Institute of Nanotechnology (NINT). Given the early stages of the Institute, this evaluation focuses on the effectiveness of implementation to date. It examines the extent to which NINT is on track to meet its objectives; and it assesses early stage results and outcomes. The evaluation covers the period 2002-2003 to 2005-2006.

The National Institute of Nanotechnology

Announced in August 2001, NINT is a $120 million joint initiative between NRC, the University of Alberta (U of A), and the province of Alberta. NINT's initial five-year mandate is to build a new facility in Edmonton on the campus of the U of A, populate it with outstanding personnel, and equip it with state-of-the-art equipment, in order to launch leading edge research and development (R&D) and contribute to developing a nanotechnology cluster in Edmonton.

Methodologies

Methodologies used to conduct the evaluation included: data and document review as well as interviews with NINT officials and staff (including researchers seconded between NRC and the U of A), supporting organizations, private sector stakeholders, other nanotechnology research organizations within Alberta and nationally, and government organizations with nanotechnology interests.

Summary of Findings

The establishment and operation of NINT is a legitimate role for government, because of government's ability to address long-term strategic needs, including those related to innovation. NINT's specific mission and objectives are consistent with the policies and priorities of the partners as they relate to innovation. NINT and NRC's cluster initiatives are also consistent with federal policies, as well as with NRC's priorities, both at the time of the launch of NINT, and as of the conduct of this evaluation.

The establishment of NINT was complex, challenging, and time-consuming to create, certainly more so than anticipated. Key factors that contributed to this were slower than planned construction of the institute's new facility and the time required for negotiation of complex joint agreements between the partners. This has led to slower than expected progress in the level of research activity, in articulation of NINT's vision and strategic plan, and in outreach to industry.

The joint initiative, while still new and experimental, is providing synergistic benefits to the partners:

  • All three partners make it clear that the additional resources put into NINT through the joint initiative have allowed a higher quality of individuals to be hired as Principal Investigators (PIs) than would normally be possible;
  • For NRC, the benefits include access to a wide range of scientific disciplines within the university relevant to nanotechnology, reduced costs through use of graduate students and postdoctoral fellows, increased impetus (and ability) to remain cutting-edge, and the ability to leverage many other sources of research support available to university faculty members (e.g., from the granting councils);
  • For the university, there is access to a state-of-the-art research facility that enjoys relatively 'stable' funding (in university terms), expert operators and technicians, and support for adequate operations and maintenance; and
  • For Alberta, there is a stronger opportunity to address strategic provincial priorities, especially in information and communications technologies (ICT), life sciences (especially health), and energy (including environmental impacts).

It is unlikely that these benefits could have been created by any of the partners acting alone, even with similar (or greater) resources at their disposal.

Virtually all stakeholders are optimistic about NINT's potential, but many are reserving final judgment until the new facility is complete, fully staffed and fully operational. That there will be important discoveries in nanotechnology is not doubted given the propensity of high quality researchers, with access to sufficient resources and state-of-the-art facilities, to conduct excellent research. This ability will be bolstered by the joint support of two quite different kinds of institutions, NRC and the University of Alberta. Many innovations of considerable commercial and social significance are expected of nanotechnology in general, although it remains to be seen exactly which disciplines and sectors NINT will focus on, and the exact mechanisms through which NINT will achieve socio-economic benefits remain to be articulated.

NINT has established a number of management mechanisms, but these are still evolving, and in some cases need further attention, such as in areas of human resources, governance, administration and communication.

In light of the findings from the evaluation, a number of recommendations are proposed in support of NINT's future activities.

Recommendations

Recommendation 1: Articulate NINT's strategic vision and the specific mechanisms by which it will be achieved. NINT must articulate its strategic vision and the specific mechanisms by which it will be achieved, especially as related to: research excellence; ties to Alberta's nanotechnology strategy; innovation and commercialization; cluster development; the balance of benefits and risks for each party in the joint initiative; ties to NRC's Renewal strategy, and any future national strategy; leveraging of resources from the three organizations and other possible sources; and nanotechnology-related environmental, ethical, economic, legal and social (NE3LS) issues.

The evaluation found that there is a lack of clarity and concrete information as to exactly what NINT's goals are, and exactly how it intends to achieve them. This is true within its research agenda (e.g., what themes will be focused upon), but especially within the innovation realm. The document review and interviews with NINT management and Board of Trustees revealed that an explicit strategic plan has yet to be drafted.

Management Response and Proposed Actions: Accepted. This recommendation will be implemented within the calendar year. NINT did have a plan for the first five years: to build, equip and populate NINT within a particular research framework articulated by Dan Wayner in 2002. Also, the strategic framework for operation was acknowledged by the Board in its first meeting in June 2005. However, in the past, approval of a formal strategic plan was hampered by a lack of understanding among the parties of what the strategic plan should include. It is the intent of management to develop a strategic plan that reflects the joint initiative and that can be approved by the NINT Board on October 3, 2006 as well as the funding partners of NINT. The strategic plan will provide clarity on the research plan and focus.

Recommendation 2: Address outstanding human resource issues and maintain as a priority for management. Some near-term issues to address include: hiring a Director of Research; continuing to develop a more open recruitment process (NINT has begun this process); and providing better communications about NRC hiring policies. Over the longer-term, NINT should address issues such as: finding ways to deal with the differing career paths of university and NRC employees; and developing appropriate mechanisms for individual researcher performance appraisal and promotion.

All stakeholders agree that NINT's ability to undertake cutting-edge research and development and to be a nucleus for innovation rest significantly upon the quality and the interests of the individuals recruited. NRC and university respondents noted that the lack of a Director of Research is limiting the ability to recruit leading HQP, general recruitment is limited by effective communications (particularly around hiring processes), and there are potential problems arising from differing career paths of Principal Investigators employed by NRC versus the university.

Management Response and Proposed Actions: Accepted. The recommendation will be acted on immediately. The Director of Research position is a top priority with management and while the first search was not successful, creative alternatives are being pursued. The open recruitment process may be expanded within the framework of the federal government staffing process, which requires that an Internal Competition be followed by an External Competition.

Other HR issues, such as long term career paths, will be brought forward for discussion between the principals in the two organizations, but it should be recognized that there may not be solutions to all of the career issues.

Recommendation 3: Clarify the role and responsibilities of the Board of Trustees. NINT must determine whether the Board is entrusted with ensuring the three parties' interests are represented at a high level, or whether it provides oversight and approval on operational issues such as hiring, budgets, etc.

The Board itself is uncertain about its role and responsibilities. While it is natural that its responsibilities are still evolving, in the near future these must be clarified to ensure that the Board remains effective.

Management Response and Proposed Actions: Accepted. The role of the Board of Trustees is defined in the Governance Agreement for NINT. As the Board continues to meet regularly and NINT is fully established the responsibilities of the Board will become more definite. To ensure that the Board's role reflects the partners' expectations, one-on-one interviews with partners and Board members will be initiated and results will be reported at the next Board meeting.

Recommendation 4: Refine administrative systems. Continue to refine the financial and administrative systems to make them as seamlessly integrated as possible in the context of the parties' legal frameworks, and ensure researchers understand the reasons for separate systems.

The evaluation found that the administration of NINT is complicated because it must satisfy the legal requirements and policies of both the university and NRC. While accountabilities must be respected, frustrations for researchers and management alike arise from these administrative matters.

Management Response and Proposed Actions: Accepted. This recommendation will be implemented to the extent possible. The NRC personnel at NINT and the University of Alberta personnel are continually working on finding the most effective ways of working together. A number of agreements have been signed, but more need to be implemented. Special communication efforts will be made to make the processes more open and clear for everyone.

Recommendation 5: Finalize the communication protocol and develop a communication plan. Once the protocol is finalized and signed, establish and implement an explicit communications strategy.

The evaluation found that there are differences among the communications policies (and in the case of NRC, legal requirements) of the three organizations (e.g. bilingualism, releases during elections, etc). The absence of a signed Communications Protocol is creating challenges, and in some instances each partner is establishing its own communications materials. NINT's success will be greatly facilitated through strong outreach and communications within the university, and also more broadly to the national and international nanotechnology R&D communities.

Management Response and Proposed Actions: Accepted. This recommendation is critical and attention will be given to getting the communications protocol agreed upon and signed. The major principles are in place and a Protocol has been developed and agreed upon in principle. The communications strategy needs to be developed and is important as NINT moves from a responsive to a proactive phase.

Recommendation 6: Secure sustainable levels of ongoing funding. Sustainable operations funding should be secured from all partners, as has been endorsed by NINT's Board of Trustees.

At the moment, only the NRC has committed to a basic amount for ongoing operational funding. To date the province and the university have not made similar long-term commitments, although they will face additional costs over the long-term as a result of their commitment to the NINT joint initiative (e.g., for the U of A, indirect research costs; for the province, matching funding for CFI grants). However, there is a need for all three parties to contribute directly to NINT going forward and the Board of Trustees has endorsed a letter to this effect.

Management Response and Proposed Actions: Accepted. This recommendation is being acted on immediately. The outcome of the evaluation process is feeding into the business plan for NRC renewal request to the Government of Canada. In parallel, the Government of Alberta is developing a Nanotechnology Strategy that recognizes the critical role of NINT for Alberta.

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